In 1998 I was paralyzed in a car accident and hospitalized in Salt Lake City, Utah for a month. It was time for new memories of Utah, so a friend and I decided to embark on a grand road trip to explore the five Nation Parks in Southern Utah. Since this part of Utah is desert, we chose to travel during springtime for more mild weather. Summer reaches scorching temperatures and tourist peaks and winter leads to more closed roads and trails. Having your own vehicle or renting one is essential. Driving park to park is a scenic adventure in itself; the varying geography and colors often took my breath away.
The closest park to the California border is Zion National Park and one of my favorites on this trip. At the entrance is the charming town of Springdale with hotels, restaurants, and shops for tourists. A free shuttle with an electric lift and designated wheelchair space takes visitors up and down the main road to the park’s entrance. The parallel sidewalk is relatively level, so some will have no problem wheeling it. Whether you roll in or drive in if you carry a Golden Access Pass you and the immediate people traveling in the same car with you get in free.
Emily and I walked and rolled to the entrance but took the shuttle back to our hotel on the way back as we were both physically tired and needed the rest. The Visitor’s Center is the first landmark upon entrance and is a good place to get a map and ask questions at the lowered accessible desk (if you didn’t at the ranger station), use the restroom, or fuel up with water or food. At this particular park and none other in Southern Utah can you fill up your water bottle with natural spring water from Zion Canyon. The fountain is at the Visitor’s Center outside with a big sign. Of course, do not for any reason fill up your water bottle in any kind of stream. Park food is often more pricy for less quality, but there are a lot of places to get food on that main road before going in. Emily and I were recommended to try Café Soleil by one of the shuttle drivers, which was conveniently not too far from the park’s entrance. It’s a great place for breakfast or lunch, but what won me over was the fact that they prepare boxed lunches, particularly for hikers. Definitely check this place out.
There is a lot of sand due to erosion in Zion Canyon so most trails are not accessible, but two are paved. If you wish, there is no need to drive. A free in-park shuttle takes visitors everywhere a car can go with multiple stations along the way if you want to get out to take pictures. Each shuttle can accommodate two wheelchairs. The closest accessible trail from the Visitor’s Center is the Pa’rus Trail, which is one-way and is 3.5 miles long (5.6 kilometers) long with a couple of moderate hills but overall pretty flat. This trail has very little shade, so prepare accordingly. It is a beautiful trail that meanders back and forth over the river which has caved the towering canyon walls of Zion. The wildflowers in spring added more color to the landscape.
The other way to explore Zion on wheels is the Riverwalk Trail, which follows the same river. It too is a one-way trail but has an accessible vaulted or pit toilets. Even though it is the same river and canyon, this trail is significantly more shaded and thus the ecology reflects this. So instead of plants with needles for leaves, you will see groves of lush vegetation with wide leaves. It was like nothing I had seen in the desert, an oasis. This trail is a reason to come to Zion National Park but it is not easy. Even though it is paved, without electricity or manpower this trail is physically challenging due to the many steep inclines. People should also be cautious of sand on the trail due to erosion because it decreases traction.
Sand on the trail was also common in the parks including my other favorite, Arches National Park. This park displays massive yet delicate rock formations that have been chiseled by ferocious winds for centuries. There is no public transpiration available so you need your own vehicle, and one day may not be enough to visit the many overlooks and trails.
Even if you never get out of the car, there are a lot of geological landmarks to see from the road, and not just arch formations either though plentiful. Each overlook has a different focal point and is littered throughout the park; so many that it may be tiring transferring in and out of the car so you’ll need to be selective. Many of the overlooks have one designated accessible parking spot, the major ones have a couple.
If you see an accessible parking spot it is also a good sign that there will be ramps and occasionally a usable trail or restroom. However, many sites were accessible enough for most to test your limits. One of the accessible must-sees is the Park Avenue Viewpoint which is not far from the entrance and was the perfect backdrop to a famous Hollywood Western. Another favorite stop was the Balanced Rock Viewpoint with a short paved trail to get a closer look (almost lost my hat in the wind here). Even the Window Trail, which was only accessible for the first one-hundred yards, was fulfilling with a few arches or “windows” in sight.
According to Arches National Park, the Devil’s Garden Trail is deemed to be “barrier-free” up to Landscape Arch, which is debatable but you should try for yourself. People with power wheelchairs will favor far better than those with a manual wheechair. The trail is almost entirely made up of packed granite or sand, and some spots are thicker than others. One small section appeared to be in line with water runoff and was paved but erosion had already begun to form small canyons in the walkway. Many inclines were along the trail, varying in size. In some steep areas traction was a concern because of the trail makeup and could be problematic for even power wheelchairs. There is a lot to see on this trail and is worth pushing yourself to see how far you can go.
The three remaining National Parks are the least physically challenging. Bryce Canyon National Park is impressive and is generally colder because high in altitude. The Visitor Center has good accessibility. You can also catch the free shuttle here to a few selected overlooks. The main attraction at this park is the Canyon itself, so there are over a dozen accessible overlooks with different views of the canyon around the perimeter. Some are right off the road while others have a paved trail that leads to them, which vary in length and grade. Handicapped parking is also at the majority of overlooks.
The two parks with the least accessibility are Canyonlands and Capitol Reef National Park. You can drive around both parks for different scenic views and both have accessible Visitor Centers with restrooms. One difference is that you are looking down into the canyon at Canyonlands whereas at Capitol Reef you are looking from the ground up; flash flooding at Capitol Reef occurs during the late summer/fall monsoon season and roads that lead deep into the park close. Other than driving, at Canyonlands, there are just two overlooks to view the “Island in the Sky,” but at Capitol Reef, there are multiple overlooks that are accessible for most, though not specifically designed to be. The petroglyphs along Highway 24 in Capitol Reef National Park can be viewed on a short boardwalk trail. Petroglyphs are common in all the parks. Another set is accessible enough to be viewed at Arches National Park, but I was particularly moved by the ones at Capitol Reef. The Native Americans of this land, who flourished here for hundreds of years explain on-site that these drawings were here well before they were.
When I became paralyzed in 1998 I was with my family on vacation. Our trip included stops at these very same parks but we never made it that far. I am happy that I finally returned. Utah has a whole new meaning for me now.
Canyonlands National Park, Utah