Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Road Trip with a Wheelchair: Wyoming (Yellowstone National Park)

Yellowstone National Park

The main lesson from Yellowstone was a reminder to “never say never.”
  For me, Yellowstone had always conjured up images of crowds of people jockeying for position around an itinerant geyser — images exacerbated by some members of that crowd doing stupid things during encounters with wildlife (often resulting in them being gored or mauled or otherwise taught a lesson of their own).  Of all the national parks, Yellowstone was the one I felt no interest in visiting.  

And, yet, Yellowstone was on the route.  Even with the northern access road still closed from flooding, our route took us through the park, and we had a few extra free days, so we went to Yellowstone for a few days.  

Yellowstone parking lot

Granted, some parts of the visit confirmed my earlier hesitations: the park and its facilities were swarming with people, cars, and buses in the sections around Old Faithful and Hayden Valley.   Park lodging was ridiculously expensive, and there were no back-country options for those of us who can’t walk.  And yet…. I enjoyed my three days in the park and could even have spent a couple more.  


Front-country attractions are accessed
by a series of well-maintained

Parking lots boast disabled spots and
accessible vault toilets

And ramps of varying condition from
the parking lot to the sidewalk

Yellowstone’s front-country is extremely accessible.  In order to protect the park’s geological wonders and the people who visit them, many of the park’s famous geothermal attractions are hiked and viewed by everyone on accessible boardwalks.  They are accessed by gently-sloping ramps from paved parking lots, which usuoffer disabled parking spots and accessible vault toilets. smaller viewpoints are generally accessed from paved turn-outs with parking —  often with disabled spots, ramps from the parking lot to the sidewalk/trailhead, accessible vault toilets, and boardwalks or paved paths to the viewpoints.  In addition, the park boasts the nicest day-use sites I've ever seen.  There were numerous locations all over the park -- often with water views, picnic tables, and accessible vault toilets. 

By changing the my mindset and the way we explored the park, we were able to avoid the worst of the crowds and the parking and traffic stress.  We never went to Old Faithful or the Visitor Center, instead concentrating on less-trafficked areas, where we were rewarded with mostly-empty parking lots, accessible parking spaces, and stunning manifestations of the park’s underground super-volcano — geysers, hot springs, mud pots, fumaroles, and a rainbow of colors. We had our most spectacular wildlife encounters not in Hayden Valley, but rather by being at the right pace at the right time (far away from any human crowds).  The lodging in adjacent West Yellowstone was still expensive, but less so than that inside the park.  We’d have done even better if we’d brought Candy Harrington’s well-documented and photographed guide book, Barrier-Free Travel: Glacier, Yellowstone, and Grand Teton National Parks for Wheelers and Slow Walkers 

Font cover of
Accessibility Guide
For Yellowstone NP

The second lesson was another potentially trite truism: “you don’t know what you don’t know.”  It turns out that someone in the Yellowstone park service has created a detailed and invaluable guide, showing all of the accessible features in the different sections of the park.  This guide is neither publicized nor offered nor even displayed.  I’m not sure even why I did it, but when entering the park (park entrance is free with an Access pass, by the way), I asked if there was an accessibility guide. I was rewarded with a multi-page guide, which I used frequently and returned to the park ranger upon leaving the park, as requested.  I now will ask for an “accessibility guide” every time I enter a national park.  They might not have one, but —who knows? — they might.  It turns out that this Accessibility Guide is also available on the park’s webpage.

Fumaroles (steam vents)
alongside the road in Yellowstone

Sapphire geothermal pool

We entered the park from the East Entrance from Cody, and red rock cliffs above the road turned into a fire damaged- forest and then to forest around a large lake. It was all magnificent mountain country.  And then we started to see evidence of the underground super-volcano —  wisps of steam rising from the ground in various locations.   As we approached the center of the park, those fumaroles became larger and stronger, and we eventually passed geysers and pools.

Biscuit Basin

Biscuit Basin 

In order to avoid crowds and crowd-behavior, the only attraction we stopped and saw in the Old Faithful area was Biscuit Basin. The paved parking lot boasts the usual accessible features: disabled parking spots, a ramp to the sidewalk, accessible vault toilets. The basin features a long, well-maintained boardwalk that loops past a series of geysers and springs. A boardwalk spur leads to a sandy trail to the waterfalls, but the threshold is high, and the trail is steep with rocks, roots, and loose sand, so wheelchair hikers may want to stick to the basin boardwalk.  

Dragon’s Breath Spring

Mud Volcano and Dragon’s Breath Spring

At this attraction, you can travel a boardwalk to see the mud volcano, the Dragon's Breath spring, and some sulfur springs in between. The paved parking lot had several disabled spots a couple of ramps up to the sidewalk, and several accessible vault toilets.  The site was encircled by a boardwalk, which has a minimal transition.  The slope is fine for a power chair, but it would be hard for a manual chair, and the cross slope is scary in the sections without a guard rail on one or both sides.  It's probably best to start at left trailhead and go clockwise since it’s less steep.  Don’t go on the paved trail to the left of the mud volcano, since it’s steep and broken up.

Beryl Spring

Beryl Spring

There is a boardwalk leading to and in front of Yellowstone’s hottest spring, which has steam coming from a hole in the rock and bubbling water in bright blue pool (notice that the wooden posts have turned blue).  The paved parking lot turn-out has one disabled spot and a curb cut to the sidewalk, with no threshold to the boardwalk.

Artist’s Paint Pots

Trail to Artists Paint Pots

Artist’s Paint Pots

The trail begins with a short boardwalk, turning into a path with a sand and small-pebbles surface, which is mostly hard packed. Power chairs would probably be fine, while manual chairs would probably want a third wheel. The slope up is noticeable but doable with hard work for manual chairs.  There are several roots in the trail, and they are a bit hard to dodge, because the trail presents a series of bumps and gullies. This uneven surface means that you are always looking down at the trail, but don’t forget to look up and see and smell the lodgepole pines.  The trail ends at a boardwalk around the pots. The thresholds to and from the boardwalk seem fine for manual chairs, but they might be too high for some power chairs. At the far boardwalk, you can see some of the pots and steam. You won’t want to go left and off of the boardwalk, because there is a high threshold, so just enjoy the view. If you go right for a short way to see the different colors of the pots, you will have to turn around before the dirt path and then boardwalk with steps going up the hill for a view.  The paved parking lot has one disabled spot, a ramp up to the sidewalk, and an accessible vault toilet.

Mammoth Hot Springs overlook

Mammoth Hot Springs Boardwalk Network

Mammoth Hot Springs

Perhaps my favorite area was Mammoth Hot Springs in the north of the park.  Unlike the rest of the park (which geologists will know sits upon rhyolite), this area lays atop sedimentary rocks, such as limestone.  As hot water rises to the surface, it dissolves the calcium carbonate of the limestone and deposits it at the surface in the form of travertine, forming the terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs.  Colorful heat-loving micro-organisms called thermophiles live in the terrace pools, creating an ever-changing panorama.  This beauty is compounded by location (the area is far from the center).  Since the northern entrance was still closed, there were very few people there when we visited.

Upper Terraces Accessible Parking Area

Orange Spring Mound

Upper Terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs (Access to Main Terrace, Orange Spring Mound, White Elephant Back)

The Upper Terraces are not well signed, but lead to spectacular sights.  An additional bonus for those of us in cars is that the road to the UpperTerraces is windy and prohibits trailers, buses, and motor homes.  The one-way paved loop road will take you past parking for Highland Terrace and the main terraces, the colorful Orange Spring Mound, and the White Elephant Back Terrace.  Even where there are short boardwalks around the mounds the  mounds can be seen from inside the car (and, in fact, that may be the best viewpoint).  

Canary Spring

Canary Spring

Main Terrace of Mammoth Hot Springs

Main Terrace of Mammoth Hot Springs (also Canary Spring, Overlook)

This was my favorite hike in the park, due to the surreal and beautiful landscapes.  The boardwalk for this terrace should be accessed from the first Upper Terrace parking area. (The terrace can also be accessed via boardwalk on the second Upper Terrace parking area or by climbing up from the Lower Terraces, but both of these routes have steps, so …).   The boardwalk takes you over and through the other-worldly landscape of the main terrace, complete with snow-like white fields, dead trees, and pools of water.  The second right turn leads to Canary Spring — a wall of colorful travertine pools with running water and thermophiles.  The view and the pictures just keep getting better, so enjoy the journey, and go as far as you can before reaching steps.  In the opposite direction, the view is in opposition to the bright colors. Keep to your left to head to the Overlook, bringing into view the entire moonscape of the main terrace.

Liberty Cap = Entrance to lower terraces

Boardwalk to Palette Spring

Palette Spring

Lower Terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs (featuring Palette Spring)

At the parking lot by the phallic Liberty Cap, one can get on the accessible boardwalk to Palette Spring on the Lower Terrace.  This colorful wall of travertine pools rivals the spectacular Canary Spring on the Main Terrace, and the interplay of the setting sun and the rock’s colors, prompted lots of photographs.


Bison Herd in Hayden Valley

Along with geo-thermal phenomena, he other thing that Yellowstone is famous for is the wildlife -- especially the bison. Luckily, it is easy to spot herds of elk and bison from a car on the road.  In fact, wildlife viewing is a perfect wheelchair activity, in that you don't need or even want to be outside of the car when these large animals are close by you.  There are regularly stories of careless tourists being gored by bison — enough to keep you in the car with the window rolled up. One popular place to see bison and elk grazing is Hayden Valley.  If you can deal with the crowds and traffic there, you will probably be rewarded with sights of both from within your car.

Our most significant bison encounter was completely unexpected and perhaps too close for comfort.  After our visit to Mammoth Hot Springs, we decided to take a safari through a large swath of the park on our way back to our hotel. 

Sunset on the Blacktail Plateau

From the hot springs in the north, we took the secondary Blacktail Plateau Drive east to Tower-Roosevelt, and then looped back south and west to West Yellowstone on the main park road through Mt Washburn and Madison.  Just after sunset, we descended from the grassy Blacktail Plateau to the wooded valley that ran into the main park road just before Tower-Roosevelt, and we finally saw herds of bison in the field next to the road.  As we hit the valley, we noticed groups of bison in the ditch lining the road, and then we noticed bison on the road directly in front of us.  We found ourselves surrounded by a herd of these large animals. 

Bison getting too close for comfort

 Proceeding with caution and rolling up the window when these prehistoric beasts wandered too close, we crawled along slowly, finally taking advantage of a break in the herd to squeeze by and continue on our way home. On the way back, we took a side-trip up Mt Washburn to gaze at the star-filled skies.


In Yellowstone National Park, all lodging is extremely expensive.  The nearby town of West Yellowstone (adjacent to the park, but actually in MT) is full of lodging options (as well as souvenir shops, restaurants, and tourists), and the rooms there are cheaper than those in the park, but they are still pricey in summer.  I couldn’t even fit into the bathroom at the cheapest motels, and I couldn’t find an ADA room available for less than a couple hundred dollars per night.  I ended up staying at the Day’s Inn in West Yellowstone in a non-ADA room (they did have an ADA room, but it cost about $100 more each night.  The ground floor regular room had a level surface, a roll-under sink, wide doors and lots of room, so I accepted the lack of grab bars and the non-ideal but workable toilet and shower in return for a significant financial savings).

Next stop = Grand Teton National Park…

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