Yosemite National Park is a secluded wilderness with sheer granite cliffs and rapid whitewater. These same features that make it spectacularly beautiful might also make you think it’s an inhospitable place to visit for someone with significant mobility limitations. Well, think again because it’s surprisingly accessible to the traveler with a disability.
I recently returned from my first trip to Yosemite since I was a young boy. While there are many different types of disabilities to adapt travel to, I’ll keep this article focused on what a quadriplegic visiting Yosemite will encounter. First of all, it will keep the article shorter but, more importantly, I can speak from my own experience.
The first night, we stayed at the Yosemite Gateway Inn, some 45 miles outside the park. By any standards, it’s a quaint and comfortable hotel with reasonable fees, so I would recommend it to anyone staying in Oakhurst. But it also offers excellent wheelchair accessible rooms.
The disabled person parking space is adjacent to the room we stayed in. It has a crosshatch area big enough to accommodate a side entry and a ramp to the walkway. The entry to the room has no lip at the threshold and a wide doorway. Inside, there’s plenty of room to maneuver a wheelchair around the beds. The bathroom also has enough space to easily turn a wheelchair around and a large, curbless (or “roll-in”) shower. The sink has no cabinetry beneath it so there is room to roll your knees and lap up underneath. The toilet accommodates a commode wheelchair.
The next morning, we headed to the park. Although most visitors pay a nominal fee for a seven-day permit to access Yosemite, the National Park Service offers an “Access Pass” to visitors with a permanent disability. To qualify, I showed my disabled person parking placard and signed a form affirming my disability. There is no charge for an Access Pass and it permits the holder and a companion unlimited entry to any United States National Park for a lifetime.
Just inside the gate to the park is a parking area where most people who want to visit Mariposa Grove have to park, then they have to hike a couple of miles up a paved service road to get to the grove. But the park service allows vehicles transporting persons with disabilities to drive the road. Upon arriving at the grove, there are parking and restrooms that are all wheelchair accessible. From the parking area, there is an unobstructed view of a grove of Giant Sequoias—the largest species of trees on the planet.
One of the first landmarks you’ll visit after entering Yosemite Valley is Bridalveil Fall. While the trails to the base of the falls are not wheelchair accessible, there is disabled person parking both in the lot near the base of the falls as well as in the lot on Southside Drive. There is an impressive view of the falls from either parking area.
Likewise, there is no wheelchair accessible trail to the base or top of El Capitan. But as the most imposing feature in the Yosemite Valley (and the largest granite face on the planet), there are breathtaking views of it from many accessible locations around the floor of the valley. Park just about anywhere within view of El Capitan and look up…and up and up. Your view of it will be every bit as awesome as that of any able-bodied person in the park.
We stayed at The Ahwahnee Hotel while in the Yosemite Valley. The wheelchair accessibility of the parking and the entry made me feel good about my choice of lodging. Unfortunately, the room immediately dispelled me of that notion. The beds were luxurious—too luxurious. With thick pillow-tops on both sides of the mattresses, they ended up too high to easily transfer into from a wheelchair. The sink in the bathroom was beautiful English porcelain certain to appeal to the classiest able-bodied guest but the ergonomics were all wrong for me. It was not easy to roll my legs underneath and the top of the counter around it was too high and rounded for someone with a manual impairment to deal with easily. The shower was curbless but it was tight with only front access, so a caregiver cannot easily assist. The toilet was taller than normal, so my commode chair could not access it. Lastly, although the hotel is noted for having beautiful views from almost every room, the wheelchair accessible room we used had no view at all from the windows.
In all fairness to The Ahwahnee Hotel, it’s a first-class resort that I would recommend to any able-bodied person visiting Yosemite. Plus, the staff bent over backwards to accommodate me by, for example, bringing a thinner mattress from the lodge up to our room. Nonetheless, I do not recommend the wheelchair accessible rooms at The Ahwahnee Hotel for a quadriplegic.
The next day, we visited Yosemite Falls. The signage made it easy to find the wheelchair accessible trail all the way to the base of the fall. The National Park Service clearly went to great lengths to make the trail accessible while still blending in well with the natural surroundings. The force of the falling water is so strong that it creates a brisk wind and heavy mist in the air at the base of the falls, so bring plenty of layers of clothing with you if you chill easily, even on a warm day.
For a close-up view of Half Dome from its base, visit Mirror Lake. The service road to the lake is closed to most traffic but they permit vehicles transporting persons with disabilities to slowly drive it with the hazard lights blinking. At the end of the service road is wheelchair accessible parking and bathrooms. From there, a paved trail traverses a few hundred yards of the lake’s shoreline. Once the paved trail ended, I continued down the foot trail. I was surprised to find that I was able to continue down the Mirror Lake trail well over a half mile in my wheelchair without any assistance. Had I not discovered that the charge on my battery was running low, there’s no telling how much further I could’ve ventured into the woods.
On our way out of the park, we drove to Glacier Point. The parking area has wheelchair accessible spaces and restrooms. From there, it’s a quarter mile to the viewpoint overlooking the Yosemite Valley. The signage directs you to the paved trail through the woods with switchbacks so that it’s not too steep for a wheelchair. At the end of the trail, you can roll your wheelchair right up to the edge of the cliff and look down over the Yosemite Valley or have a photo taken of you with Half Dome over your shoulder.
Granted, you can’t go everywhere in Yosemite using a wheelchair. Nonetheless, you can access much more of it than you’d expect, so don’t let concerns about wheelchair access stop you from visiting Yosemite National Park. And the National Park Service deserves recognition for the thought, effort, and cost they’ve obviously put into making it as accessible to visitors as possible.