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Yellowstone on wheels

    With over two million acres of untamed wilderness, Yellowstone National Park may not seem like an easy place to visit if you (or a loved one) use a wheelchair to get around. Besides, you might ask yourself, “What can I see from my car window or from my chair if I can’t hike up into the back country?”

    Driving along the park road, arranged in a drunken crazy eight pattern over 150 miles long and dotted with wildlife pull-offs, you could see plenty: a moose tending her young, dazzling white-capped Rocky Mountain peaks, an osprey homing in on a fish or a 300-foot waterfall. The biggest traffic jams are caused by bison loitering on the roads while people from all over the country and world snap photos of the majestic beasts.

The park’s most famous attraction, the Old Faithful geyser, is accessible via boardwalk, which extends for about a three-mile round trip past smaller geysers, and to the Morning Glory Pool. The historic, and accessible, Old Faithful Inn is steps away, with many rooms overlooking the faithful old geyser.

    Landscape architect Lori Gruber is the park’s accessibility coordinator. She says, “Most boardwalks are around thermal areas. There are asphalt trails around the canyon area where the waterfalls are. Some are new around the North Rim.” The grades on some of these walks are steep enough to require a little extra effort if you’re not using a powered wheelchair, but they aren’t frighteningly steep. It’s worth the effort, though, to peer into the otherworldly Prismatic Spring, with its striking aquamarine and orange pigments, or to view the photogenic Upper and Lower Falls that purl down into the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.

    The boardwalks around the paint pot mud geysers are fine, but there are gaps in spots that require going over packed earth, which make going more difficult. The long path from the parking lot to this area is solid, but unpaved as well.

    Gruber says, “One tour I really recommend for people in a wheelchair is the boat tour on Yellowstone Lake. That’s a fantabulous tour, with a park interpreter,”  who tells about the features and wildlife of the area. Hearing impaired travelers can request a sign language interpreter at least two weeks in advance of a visit to receive those services.

Getting In and Getting Around Ranger stations are located at each of the park’s five entrances where visitors can pick up the latest issue of the park newspaper, Yellowstone Today, maps, brochures, and the Visitors Guide to Accessible Features in Yellowstone National Park – all free.

    Fees: A lifetime Senior Pass is available for $10; the Access Pass is free to residents with permanent disabilities; $25 is the charge for a private vehicle.

    Visitor Centers in a handful of locations throughout the park offer exhibits on wildlife, history and geology, and are accessible. Some have bookstores and interactive exhibits. These are good places to request more information and find out about current conditions. It is a good idea to wear layers of clothing, since temperatures can vary greatly throughout the day.

    The three medical clinics in Yellowstone offer wheelchair rental. “People who fly in can rent a wheelchair from our clinics. Other people get here and find out, because of the altitude, they may need a wheelchair,” Gruber explains. Wheelchairs are also available to borrow from most lodging facilities and at the Old Faithful, Canyon and Mammoth Visitor Centers, as long as the person is in that area.

    Gruber also recommends that people do research online before visiting, or write or call Yellowstone for information. Yellowstone is more accessible than it was many years ago and is a beautiful destination no matter what your activity level is.

Accommodations Some lodges, cabins and campgrounds within Yellowstone offer some handicap rooms or sites. Reserved campsites and rooms within the park have to be booked well in advance of your trip. National Park Service campgrounds cannot be reserved but are on a first-come first-served basis. However, more sites and rooms are available outside of the park in Grand Teton National Park (just south of Yellowstone) and in surrounding towns in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho.

Contacts Lodging and Dining within the park: Xanterra Parks and Resorts (866) GEYSERLAND (439-7375); (307) 344-7901; (this includes RV parks, four campgrounds, a marina, interpretive tours and more). Yellowstone National Park Headquarters:; (307) 344-7381. Park Accessibility Coordinator, Yellowstone National Park, WY 82109;; (307) 344-2314. Grand Teton National Park: www.nps.grte; (307) 739-3300. Wyoming:; (307)777-7777. Montana:; (800) 847-4868. Idaho:; (800) 847-4843.

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