Friday, April 28, 2017

Exploring and Camping the Grand Canyon with a Wheelchair

When some friends asked us if we wanted to go camping with them in the Grand Canyon last year, we instantly agreed, only to then wonder how it was going to work with a power wheelchair. It went well - Grand Canyon National Park is surprisingly wheelchair accessible. 

Here are our field notes from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon:

Passes:  If you have a National Park Service Access Pass (a lifetime pass available to U.S. citizens or permanent residents with disabilities), you get in free! We didn't have one beforehand, but got one at the gate with a doctor's letter. 

Visitor’s Center: The Visitor’s Center is wheelchair accessible and has ample handicapped parking. The movie at the Visitor’s Center is a great introduction to everything you’ll see at the Grand Canyon. There are some great views of the canyon just outside the Visitor’s Center, but it’s very crowded here, especially at sunset.

Shuttle buses: Once you’re inside the park, you can ride the free air-conditioned shuttle buses. There are bus stops at the Visitor’s Center, as well as numerous other locations. The buses have wheelchair ramps and can “kneel.” However, the buses cannot accommodate wheelchairs larger than 30 inches wide by 48 inches long. For us, this meant that my daughter’s power wheelchair was a no-go on the bus. Motorized scooters won't fit either. 

Scenic Drive Accessibility Permit: Instead of taking the shuttle, we got a Scenic Drive Accessibility Permit and used our personal vehicle on the restricted roads. In the flurry of activity, we neglected to get our permit at the entrance station but that wasn’t a problem because the permits can be obtained at the in-park hotels and visitor’s centers. Permits need to be displayed on your dashboard and aren’t a substitute for a handicap placard when parking.

Having this permit is a boon. The buses, while a nice service, are crowded and they operate on a set schedule. With this permit, you can come and go at your leisure, all while listening to the soundtrack of your choosing.

The Grand Canyon offers what it calls “windshield views,” which are views of the canyon that you can see from your vehicle. Apparently, many, many visitors experience the Grand Canyon this way. They ride the scenic routes, grab a few photos and then call it a day, having come and seen and conquered. But to experience the sheer vastness and power of the canyon, you need to be able to see it up close.  Get out at the different viewpoints and explore!

Hiking:  The Trail of Time is a 1.3-mile trail between the Verkamp’s Visitor Center and the Yavapai Geology Museum. It’s wheelchair accessible, as are many of the exhibits and informational placards along the way. Parts of this hike are in the shade and parts are in full sun, so plan accordingly.

The Greenway Trail is also wheelchair accessible. You can hike from Monument Creek Vista to Pima Point to Hermit’s Rest on paved trail. Monument Creek Vista to Pima Point is 1.7 miles and Pima Point to Hermit’s Rest is 1.1 miles.

Mather Campground: You can reserve a wheelchair accessible campsite, although know that all the spaces in the Grand Canyon fill up quickly, accessible or not. We made our reservations six months in advance and didn’t reserve an accessible site. Our campsite itself was on fairly compact dirt, but the wheelchair did kick up some dust. This wasn’t a problem, until someone was cooking. Even food cooked outdoors shouldn’t be dusty!

The bathrooms were nearby our space and handicap accessible. The road to the bathrooms is gravel, not paved, which may present problems for some wheelchair users.

Camping is a lot of work, but it was work well worth it. For us, it meant smores and corn hole. It also meant some not-so fun things, like ravens who knocked over anything left on the picnic tables and divebombed our Styrofoam coolers, shredding them to bits and feasting on everything inside (they literally ate everything, including raw eggs and grapes). While Mother Nature foiled us in the form of the ravens, it also awed us. We saw mountain lion tracks in the dirt not too far from where we pitched our tent. Because it was so brutally hot, mule deer came into the camp site multiple times a day to drink from the water spigots.

Laundry and Shower Facility: The showers were about a 10-minute walk away. They are located in the same building as the washers and dryers, and it was often busy in there. The first night we walked to the showers, but it was very, very dark trek, even with headlamps and flashlights. The remaining nights we drove because that felt safer than trying to navigate the wheelchair in the pitch black (even if it was beautiful to see the stars). There is handicap parking in front of the building.

The general shower facilities are paid, but there is family room that is wheelchair accessible and, bonus, it’s free. It’s a fairly large single room containing a toilet, sink, and shower. The shower has a fold-down bench inside of it.  The floor is tile and it gets slippery in there. 

You need a key to access the family room, so you’ll need the employee on duty to unlock it for you. The attendant also provided us with a clean bathmat and towels each time we went. We brought our own personal towels for bathing, so we used the provided towels to sop up the water on the floor.

Many people were charging their cell phones in this building (I’m not sure why as the cell phone coverage was spotty), but we used the outlets to charge the wheelchair.

Lodging: Even if you’re not a camper, all of the lodges have wheelchair-accessible rooms. We didn’t stay in the lodges, but we did go to several of them to eat and the dining rooms were also wheelchair accessible.

Wheelchairs can be rented from Bright Angel Bicycles, located next to Grand Canyon Visitor Center; 928-814-8704

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  1. Awesome post, thanks! Sharing with my w/c user friends who can use this to plan their holiday.