The American Southwest is filled with attractions, most of them natural attractions, so some of these southwest treasures may not be appearing in your algorithm, but are worth your attention and consideration. Not all will suit you but something will catch your eye; accessibility details also included.
The Southern California Soaring Academy allows willing participants to fly a glider plane with hand-controls; no experience required. Also in the Southern California desert, on the outskirts of San Diego, is an oasis turned into the Temecula Wine Country. Wheelchair access is offered at the major wineries and restaurants. Staying in wine country is a pricey option but there are some accessible rooms. About two and half hours from San Diego is a unique, artistic attraction famously known as Salvation Mountain.
Also in Southern California is Joshua Tree National Park, which has a few accessible trails. An array of accessible accommodations can be found in Palm Springs and Palm Desert, which are great desert towns, relatively close to the park, with attractions all their own. To be even closer, try Autocamp which has a fully renovated, glamping bungalow with a roll-in shower. While in the area, get a little wild and weird and visit the Cabazon Dinosaurs—World’s Biggest Dinosaurs. Even if you don’t go inside the museum, enjoy the paved pathway under two of the biggest dinosaurs right in the parking lot.
This wild west state has hidden gems all over, and of course one the biggest in the country that stretches on for miles is the Grand Canyon National Park. A road-trip here alone is worth it, and there are many routes to take. The Grand Canyon is something to be experienced; no photograph or video can encapsulate its immense raw beauty. Besides this obvious attraction, the other is the Hoover Dam, which has a wheelchair accessible guided tour and barrier-free grounds for exploring.
A little more off the main tourist route are the historical ghost towns of Bisbee and Jerome; some accessibility has been created. Get a taste of life in west and stay at a fulling functioning and wheelchair accessible Arizona ranch. Stagecoach Trails Guest Ranch is equipped with ADA bath tubs and roll-in showers, as well as a pool with a lift. A barrier-free trail is located at both Tuzigoot National Monument and Dead Horse Ranch State Park, and these parks are approximately fifteen minutes apart. Another special park in the general region is the Wupatki National Monument. Also in the Sedona, Arizona area, I have visited the Amitabha Stupa in Sedona, and even gone both vortex and UFO hunting.
About two and a half hours from Sedona, or forty-five minutes from Phoenix, is a more unknown attraction called, Superstition Mountain with the Lost Dutchman Museum and Elvis Chapel. A lot is going on at this property because a lot has happened at this property. And yet, a lot is still unknown about the original settlers believed to be known as the Salado or Hohokam people, then later the Pimas and Apaches tribes lived throughout the region. Many legends exist, and subsequently books and movies, of the Lost Dutchman and his lost gold buried somewhere at Superstition Mountain. The gift shop and museum gallery are wheelchair accessible, providing history, legends and lure of the Superstition Mountains and surrounding areas. The Chapel and the Apacheland Barn are original structures from Apacheland, an old western movie set from the area that burned down lastly in 2004. It was renamed the Elvis Chapel for its prominence in the movie Charro, Elvis’s only non-singing role. To get inside, a wheelchair accessible ramp has been created. All five camping cabins at the Lost Dutchman State Park are wheelchair accessible and come with electricity and a heating-cooling system.
Rest stops in New Mexico are often near or right on a significant landmark or point of interest of some kind. Taking your needed break at one of these locations is recommended, not just for access, but also for an experience like at the Rio Salado Sand Dunes that has a ramped platform to shaded viewing areas from the accessible parking spaces. One of the most well-known points of interests in the southwest is the Four Corners Monument, located in New Mexico, where the states of Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico meet. If you are in the area, make a stop here; wheelchair access is great, including smoothly paved walkways and a ramp that leads to where the four corners touch. Around the perimeter, the native people setup tables to sell food and beverages as well as handcrafted art and souvenirs.
Perhaps the most famous attraction in New Mexico, or more like event, is the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, the annual festival of countless hot air balloons. Flat and paved pathways surrounded the viewing space. Deep in New Mexico and separated by endless space is the Chaco Culture National Park; a very long, dusty, and rocky road winds into the desert until arriving on park land. My wheelchair van rattle continuously down this road and at times, I felt like giving up and turning around, but I am glad I didn’t. A nice designated, accessible campsite with an epic view is available inside the park; otherwise, accommodations are hours away. The Aztec Ruins National Monument is at least an hour and a half away and has a smoothly paved pathway around these protected grounds.
Well-known in Utah are the Mighty 5 five national parks located in the southern half of the state; each beautifully unique in their own way. Of these parks, perhaps the most unrated is Capitol Reef National Park. It doesn’t have a majestic river running through it or grand, wind-carved arches. Instead, what draws visitors to Capitol Reef is minuscule in comparison. Petroglyphs from ancient civilizations have been carved into the rocks, and there’s one particular set near the visitor center that’s a bit controversial; follow the short path to a wide wooden viewing platform with a ramp. Unlike other petroglyphs in the area, this particular set features what appears to be a visitor from space wearing a protective suite and helmet.
Another point of interest involving rocks is located right outside a rehabilitation center near Salt Lake City—a full replication of Stonehenge. Yes, there’s a Stonehenge in Utah. Definitely random and makes for a fun photo, and there’s no admission fee. More mysterious is the Summum Pyramid which was founded based on an alien encounter and built in the 1970s in an incredible specific geometric shape. Philosophical classes and religious ceremonies are held inside, but also available online. What’s particularly fascinating is the practice mummification for both humans and animals. A drive-by-type of attraction is Thistle in Southeast Utah, which was mummified in a way after a record-breaking mudslide, transforming a bustling train town into a ghost town.
Finally, as a driver and passenger that enjoys a little speed, I stopped at the world-famous Bonneville Salt Flats. Though generally visible from the main highway, it’s an attraction to be experienced close up, but not for long as there’s no facilities, museum, or anything, just an informational sign at the end of a paved road. A race wasn’t happening, and yet, I still was eager to get out of the vehicle to feel and smell the salty air. The transition from the pavement to the salt flats was uneven, but I found a good enough route to wheel. For the most part, the salt is exceptionally firm on the flats, where I sat and imagined the countless races that have flown across this unique wide open plain.
Pikes Peak is almost a marker for the start of south-central Colorado, and also a world-famous location for racing enthusiasts. Picturing professional drivers in sports cars flying around the corners at ultra-high speeds along the mountain’s borderless edge while in a ramped vehicle gave me a new respect for their skills. Driving at the designated speed alone was physically demanding with basically no room for error. When there’s snow, there’s not much else to do if you use a wheelchair, but when there’s not, there’s much to do, including hiking, rafting, horseback riding, and more.
Just south of Pikes Peak, in Colorado Springs, it’s easy for me to hiked along a smoothly, paved trail between enormous red rocks at the Garden of the Gods. The topography here is much different from the more famously known Rocky Mountain National Park in the most northern part of Colorado. Choose from a number of places to stay in Colorado Springs. Further south in the San Luis Valley of Colorado is the random roadside attraction called the Hooper UFO Watchtower…
Also in the San Luis Valley area, is the spiritual town of Crestone, home to an array of world religions with churches, temples, shrines, etc., as well as a plethora of New Age events. Hiking options in this general area, like at the Baca National Wildlife Refuge and the Penitente Canyon trails. Though not officially accessible, the Rock Garden Trail at Penitente Canyon was accessible for a short distance to see the rocks much closer. The Great Sand Dunes National Park is nearby too, and has an accessible viewing platform along with a short, rubber mat on the sand, to get a little closer. Camping is an option at the national park, or find several hotel choices in Alamosa not far away.
Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad is a historic train ride in the mountains of San Juan National Forest in Southern Colorado. The train ride is incredible scenic and is open throughout the year, even when there is snow on the ground. The summer train travels to Silverton and the winter one to Cascade Canyon. A single diesel car provides wheelchair seating and can accommodate a couple of wheelchairs at the same table. Advance notice is required for an operational lift and removal of extra seats in order to create space for a wheelchair. Also onboard in this ADA car is a wheelchair accessible bathroom if needed.
Nevada is not just Las Vegas, but while there, the Neon Museum is more off the grid, though under bright lights, featuring working signs from old casinos and businesses; the entrance and the display area are barrier-free. The main viewing area is a wide pathway made of crush rock on a firm surface and is accessible to both power and manual wheelchairs. The entrance to the ticket area is paved, and the main door has an automatic-push button; wheelchair accessible parking is available in the Neon Museum Visitor Parking structure. Another interesting, artsy-abstract attraction in the Las Vegas area is called the Seven Magic Mountains. It’s located right off I-15 and it’s free but there’s also no amenities; five miles down the road in Jean is a restroom. The Wetlands Park Nature Preserve Loop has a wheelchair accessible trail, along with a museum, parking, and restrooms; the north half of the trail is paved and the other half is a firm, natural surface.
National Atomic Testing Museum in Southern Nevada. The Goldwell Open Air Museum also in Southern Nevada, on the boarder of Death Valley National Park in California. A little more north in Southern Nevada is the Goldfield Historic Cemetery. Then of course there is the famous Alien Research Center, Area 51, along the Extraterrestrial Highway. I went just to look around, and unexpectedly found a barrier-free trail by a protected lake with exceptional birding opportunities at the Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge and flat camping spots right along the water. An American Bald Eagle few over me and into a tree along the trail, and I scurried to catch up to it for a closer look. It stayed perched on a tree overlooking the lake allowing me to wheel up close to it and admire it grandness. I couldn’t plan for this, it was simply and an uncharted (unmapped) moment, a spontaneous symbol of the freedom felt while on a road trip in the American Southwest.
Southwest Rest Stops + Gas Stations
In real secluded areas access can vary, so road tripping may seem like a daunting way to travel, especially when nature calls. Perhaps the biggest barrier in the Southwest is finding a wheelchair accessible toilet at gas stations on reservation lands in New Mexico* as they are not guaranteed, nor are a few in Arizona. When driving through a reservation in Arizona and New Mexico try rest stops, and fast-food chains, which can sometimes be few and far between, especially in New Mexico; plan and prepare. Otherwise, you can count on national parks, monuments, heritage sites, etc. to have an accessible bathroom at a visitor center as well as likely at a campground. Though spread out, there are many such natural attractions in the Southwest. Perhaps the most vacant stretch is along Highway 40 after Flagstaff on the way to New Mexico; the Petrified Forest National Park is approximately in the middle.
In Southern California, rest areas, gas stations, fast-food restaurants, and chain hotel lobbies very often have wheelchair accessible toilets. For the most part this is true for Southern Nevada and Colorado. Overall, Utah has wheelchair access to toilets at rest areas, but depending on how far off the main highways you go, you may run into an older and more narrow design.
* Highway 86 in Arizona through Tohono O’O’dham Nation Reservation is a very big area in southern Arizona. Fort Apache Reservation is located in the middle of eastern Arizona and also covers a large area, so does the Hualapai Indian Reservation in north-west Arizona as well as the Navajo Nation in the north-east of Arizona and a little north-west New Mexico.