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Unbelievable Utah: exploring Utah's five national parks in a wheelchair is an accessible experience that takes your breath away.

I needed to create new memories of Utah. In 1998, I was paralyzed in a car accident and hospitalized in Salt Lake City for a month. To clear the negative feelings I associated with the state, a girlfriend of mine, Emily, and I decided to embark on a grand road trip to explore the five national 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, tourism 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

Zipping Around Zion

The closest park to the California border, where I'm from, is Zion National Park and one of my favorites on this trip. At the entrance is the charming town of Springdale, Utah, 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 your passengers get in free.

Emily and I walked and rolled to the entrance, but took the shuttle back to our hotel when it was time to leave, as we were both tired and needed the rest.

The visitor's center is the first landmark upon entrance. Here, you can grab a map and ask questions at the lowered accessible desk (if you didn't at the ranger station), use the restroom and fuel up with water and food.

Unique to Zion is the opportunity to fill up your water bottle with natural spring water from Zion Canyon. The fountain is outside the visitor's center marked with a big sign. Although you can drink this spring water, do not, for any reason, fill up your water bottle in any streams in the park.

Park food is often more pricey for less quality, but there are a lot of places to eat on the main road before going in.

One of the shuttle drivers recommended Cafe Soleil, conveniently located near the park's entrance. It's a great place for breakfast or lunch, but what won me over was the fact that the cafe prepares boxed lunches, particularly for hikers.

Most of the trails aren't accessible because of sand from erosion in Zion Canyon, but two are paved.

If you wish, there's 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.

Pa'rus Trail

The closest accessible trail from the visitor's center is the one-way, 3 V4-mile Pa'rus Trail. It has a couple of moderate hills, but overall is pretty flat. Although this trail has very little shade (prepare accordingly), it's a beautiful trail that meanders back and forth over the river which has carved the towering canyon walls of Zion. In the spring, wildflowers add more color to the landscape.

Riverwalk Trail

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 accessible vaulted or pit toilets.

Even though it's the same river and canyon, this trail is significantly more shaded and the ecology reflects it. So instead of plants with needles for leaves, you'll see groves of lush vegetation with wide leaves. It was like nothing I had seen in the desert.

This trail is reason enough to come to Zion National Park, but it's not easy. Even though it's paved, without electric or man power, this trail is physically challenging because of the many steep inclines. People should also be cautious of sand on the trail because of erosion, as it decreases traction.

Admiring Arches

Sand on the trail seemed to be a problem in all 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's no public transportation available so you need your own vehicle. One day may not be enough time to visit the many overlooks and trails.

Accessible Overlooks

Even if you never get out of the car, there are plenty of geological landmarks to see from the road, and not just arch formations. Overlooks dot the park and each one shows off a different focal point; so many that it may be tiring transferring in and out of the car, so 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's also a good sign there will be ramps and occasionally a usable trail or restroom. One of the accessible must-sees is the Park Avenue Viewpoint, which isn't far from the entrance, and is 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 (be careful, I almost lost my hat in the wind here). Even the Window Trail, which was only accessible for the first 100 yards, was fulfilling with a few arches or "windows" in sight.

Devil's Garden Trail

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 one. 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.

The trail has many inclines varying in size. There's a traction concern in some steep areas because of the trail makeup and that could be problematic for even power wheelchairs. There's lots to see on this trail and it's worth pushing yourself to see how far you can go.

Breezing Through Bryce

The three remaining national parks are the least physically challenging. The high altitude Bryce Canyon National Park is impressive, but generally colder.

The visitors center has good accessibility. Catch the free shuttle here to a few selected overlooks. The main attraction at this park is Bryce 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. Accessible parking is also available at the majority of overlooks.

Cruise About Canyonlands & Capitol Reef

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 visitors centers with restrooms.

One difference is that you're looking down into the canyon at Canyonlands whereas at Capitol Reef you're looking from the ground up. Because of this, flash flooding at Capitol Reef occurs during the late summer/fall monsoon season and roads leading 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 has 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, or rock engravings, are common through 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.

New Meaning

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 I finally returned. Utah has a whole new meaning for me now.

All five national parks vary in necessary access information online and onsite.

Ashley Olson is a frequent contributor to PN and founder, CEO and chief editor for, which works to empower people with limited mobility to experience adventure and leisure travel,
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Title Annotation:Explore Your WORLD
Author:Olson, Ashley
Publication:PN - Paraplegia News
Geographic Code:1U8UT
Date:Mar 1, 2015
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