Wilderness Vacations: They’re for People Who Roll, Too!

by Amy Saffell
While I certainly can’t claim to be a world traveler, family vacations are an important part of my summer. My parents and I have taken yearly vacations nearly every year for as long as I can remember, often to big cities that offer options in accessibility. Even with beach wheelchairs available, I’ve never really liked the effort that beach vacations require, as well as the feeling of not being able to move easily in the sand. I do, however, enjoy the outdoors in ways that are easier for me to manage. 

At least once a year, my parents and I brainstorm where we’d like to go on our next vacation. When we were thinking through where we wanted to go this year, my mom was the first one to suggest The Grand Tetons and Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. Family friends of ours with a daughter also in a chair went there several years ago, so we knew that though accessibility would take some research, it was possible. I was ready and excited for the adventure.  
Grand Teton sits behind Jenny Lake

The first challenge was getting there from our home in Nashville, Tennessee. RVs and motorcycles seemed to be the vehicle of choice for a lot of visitors, but taking to the air was much more plausible for us. From much of the country, part of traveling there includes a flight layover, never a fun process for someone in a chair. I use a manual chair, and I can imagine that power chair-users might find flying even more challenging, but it is definitely worth the hassle. We flew on Frontier Airlines, and I have to say that I had great experiences (well, three out of the four legs were great; one was just okay, which is a pretty good percentage!). In one leg, the co-pilot actually was the one who helped me board the plane, and because he was there in the next city, he also helped me exit, a practice that I think all airlines should put into place. The process was made much easier by having him help both times since he was already familiar with how I liked to operate, but I also give him a lot of credit because he had worked as an EMT prior to co-piloting and was familiar with working with people with disabilities. He even asked me if I liked to transfer with the aisle chair at a 45-degree angle, and I can assure you that I have never had anyone know that. After a good day of travel, we landed in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. 

We spent our first afternoon in downtown Jackson Hole. While we were here in the summer, the grass-covered ski slopes that run into town made it evident that Jackson Hole is a ski town at heart. We perused the shops and art galleries and took advantage of this early opportunity to pick up some souvenirs. Although it appeared that a few of the shops weren’t accessible since their storefront had a step at the entrance, those were very small in number. My family loves ice cream, so we made sure to check out the local ice cream shop as well. It was my first inkling that huckleberry, something that I’d never tasted before, would be big and something that I’d enjoy throughout the vacation. The huckleberry ice cream was indeed fabulous, which led me to later buy some huckleberry lemonade that I’ve enjoyed back at home.  

Opportunities for new experiences really were at every turn on our trip. In the world we live in, it’s hard to imagine a week without technology, but neither of our rooms had a TV, there was essentially no cell service, and we didn’t bring a laptop. As it turned out, though, the lack of technology became the driving force for the framework of our days. The mosquitoes there were like nothing that I’d ever seen, so bug spray was an essential, in addition the sunscreen, since we were outside most of the day. While we would normally take our showers in the morning while watching TV, we decided that it made more sense to take showers at night to wash everything off, enabling us to just get up and get ready for our day. Since we didn’t have a lot to keep us occupied in the evenings, our strategy worked well. Nature wakes up early (despite dipping below freezing in the early morning hours, even in the summer), and getting to witness the beauty of the early morning without being exhausted was another advantage of winding down early.  
In the canyon, a waterfall leads to
the Yellowstone River

It was quickly apparent that, although Yellowstone may be most talked about when it comes to national parks, The Grand Tetons are an area not to miss. The massive snow-dotted mountains, even in summer, made for a breathtaking landscape that can’t be found many other places. In The Grand Tetons, we stayed at the Jackson Lake Lodge. With its own shops and restaurants, it gave us everything that we needed. The biggest perk of staying at Jackson Lake Lodge was that the view of these gorgeous peaks was out of their back patio. Each morning, we got up to see the sunrise, and we made sure to get back to see the sunset. Particularly in the mornings, rangers would often be around to help guests spot wildlife and to answer any questions. 

From the patio throughout our stay, we saw elk, coyote, and a wolf. Binoculars were an essential for the trip. Seeing wildlife was definitely my favorite part of the trip, so staying in such a wildlife-rich area was perfect. The area is particularly known for elk, and every day we saw them in the field right outside the Lodge. One morning, we spotted probably 100 elk hanging together in a herd. We knew that they were in the field that was actually across the street from us, so we hopped into our cars to get a closer look. While they had moved from where we saw them, we caught up with them as they crossed the creek. It was an amazing sight to see such a large group of elk in the water, living life totally in the wild.
An elk peeks out from behind the trees
As our vacation progressed, we spent a lot of time in the car. A vacation in this part of the country includes a lot of driving, particularly in our case because we were trying to see a little of everything. In the Tetons, we drove to the top of Signal Mountain for a 360-degree view, parallel to the mountains and through the Jenny Lake area, and also to Rendezvous Mountain near Jackson Hole for a tram to the top, while stopping at look-outs all along the way to take in the view of the pristine water, sky, and mountains. Those hiking in the area, which we learned actually was possible for someone in a chair, may do a little less driving, but we went for breadth instead of depth, overall. 

Something important that we learned was that whenever we saw a crowd of people pulled over, particularly if people had binoculars and scopes, they were looking at wildlife and that we should stop, too. That’s how we knew that the elk had moved to the creek, and following the lead of other people served us well throughout our trip. We even spotted two rarely seen mountain goats high up on a cliff after we stopped to ask what a group of people were looking at through their scopes. Every once in a while, like when we spotted three pronghorn in a field, we were the first to stop, and we all felt pretty proud of ourselves! It was really important to always look out the car window!

After spending three wonderful days in The Tetons, we drove to Yellowstone National Park. In recent years, Yellowstone has made significant strides in making the park accessible, particularly by paving or installing boardwalks onto trails. It’s a delicate balance of making things accessible to visitors with disabilities but also not compromising any of the natural beauty that makes the area so beloved. After all, if the natural areas are damaged, there wouldn’t be anything worth looking at, regardless of accessibility. 
My parents and I in front of Jenny Lake and The Tetons

Our first destination in Yellowstone was Old Faithful, but I soon realized that it wasn’t the only feature in the area. Yellowstone is home to geothermal features like geysers, mud pots, and hot springs scarcely found in other areas of the country. Old Faithful erupts approximately every 90 minutes and is a crowd favorite. A large walkway and deck area surrounds the geyser, making room for thousands of spectators. After we watched Old Faithful, we walked on the paved and boardwalk trails to the numerous other geysers and hot springs in the area. Even after learning how they were formed, it’s still amazing that a mix of natural causes creates such stunning phenomena.        

For dinner that night, we went to the Old Faithful Inn. Known for its rustic beauty, we had heard that the Inn was a popular dinner spot, so we made reservations in advance. Our experience at the Inn certainly didn’t disappoint, as we thoroughly enjoyed both dinner and the wood and stone-laced construction of the Inn. While we were there, we met another family that also consisted of a young adult daughter in a chair and asked them how accessibility had been so far. They had just arrived, but they let us know that there was an accessibility guide from any of the visitor’s centers across the park that we hadn’t yet heard about, and throughout the rest of the trip we found it to be really helpful. In each major area of the park, the guide gave the most accessible routes to see the area’s features, as well as bathroom, parking, lodging, and restaurant information. Having accurate information as we planned our daily activities made for a smooth rest of the trip.     

At Yellowstone, we stayed in an accessible cabin in the canyon area, providing convenient driving locations to the rest of the park. The canyon was caused by a volcanic eruption that occurred long ago and resulted in an array of colors on the rock from different mineral deposits. Numerous look-outs provide views of waterfalls and the Yellowstone River. The accessibility guide was really helpful in this area. I didn’t expect to be able to see so much, but the guide told us which path to take, and although there may have been closer views via stairs, I didn’t feel like I missed out on anything. The guide noted pathways that were steep or had rough terrain, which was a helpful warning, but particularly with my parents with me, it wasn’t much trouble getting to the look-outs. Even on my own it would have been possible, but I was definitely appreciative of the extra help at times! From there, it was simply a matter of figuring out my best vantage point. We actually saw other visitors in power chairs (fully charged batteries are a must!) who were also able to maneuver well throughout the pathways. I couldn’t have imagined a more picturesque place, and I’m so glad that I was able experience it. Although we took hundreds of pictures throughout the week, we took the most pictures here as well as at the Beartooth Highway, a gorgeous drive just outside of the park.     

While we saw an array of animals in The Tetons, Yellowstone provided an even greater wildlife experience. In the canyon area, one of the most interesting things we saw was a on a tiny rock ledge, presumably to create difficulty for predators, where an osprey built its nest, and three baby birds were inside. As we were watching, they were in the process of learning to fly. They hovered over the nest and then landed in it again. They’re large birds, so it must take a lot of strength to learn to soar like the adults!
Snow still covers part of the ground in the higher elevations
The larger animals created their own set of interesting sights, particularly in the Lamar and Hayden Valleys. While I’m much more accustomed to cars causing traffic problems, in Yellowstone it’s often the animals that are the biggest cause of traffic problems. One animal that we saw so many of was bison. We must have seen at least 500 bison in Yellowstone! Although we did see one on its own at times, they often are found in large herds. They don’t seem to mind getting close to the road, crossing it, or even standing completely in the middle of it and aren’t easily lured out of the way. I learned that ambulances actually can have an entirely different purpose in Yellowstone. Park rangers slowly drove the flashing ambulance vehicles with a special sound to successfully but unhurriedly move bison from the road.   

The second most numerous animals were our old friends from The Tetons, the elk. The Mammoth Hot Springs area, where the hot springs create landscapes that look like an entirely different planet, has a grassy area once controlled by the US Army. Elk visit this area of the park each day, and we were lucky enough to be there when a herd of mothers and their young decided to stop by. They ate, and ate, and ate until they got hot and decided to seek shade in the shadows of the trees and buildings. One curious elk even decided to walk up the front steps of one of the buildings to look into the front window!

Mammoth is also home to the administrative offices of the park. It was here that I learned that the park spokesman used to work for Quickie wheelchairs! I imagine the spokesman’s history played a big role in recent accessibility advancements. 

For sure, my favorite animal sightings in Yellowstone were the grizzly bears. We saw six in total, an impressive number for the amount of time that we were there. The first of the sightings seemed like something that would come right out of National Geographic. We saw several dozen people out of their cars and looking towards the valley, so we asked what they saw, and they told us that a mother bear and her two cubs were feasting on a bison carcass. It was several hundred feet away, but with binoculars, I could see the scene well. As we continued to watch, we saw two wolves creeping down the hill towards them. As they got closer, presumably to try to steal either the carcass or the cubs, the cubs ran to their mother’s side, and the two groups of animals faced off. We weren’t close enough to hear them, but each side must have said their peace because they parted ways after a few minutes, and the bears stayed near the carcass. 
We saw this guy digging for food as we drove through Yellowstone
Bear sighting number four was also memorable for how close we were. As we were driving, we saw a few cars stopped, and we quickly realized that a bear was in the field right next to the road. At its closest point, we were probably 15 feet from him. Of course we stayed in our car, but it was amazing to watch him walk around searching for food. Despite his long, sharp claws, the gentleness with which he dug through the dirt was mesmerizing to me. He wore an ear tag and collar, which we later found out are given to some bears to track their health and their movement throughout the park. Bears five and six weren’t close or facing off against enemies, but I was equally as grateful to get to see such beautiful animals in their natural habitat.     

As I think back to my trip from my home, I know that there aren’t words or pictures that can truly do justice to the magnificence of The Grand Tetons and Yellowstone. Their splendor is truly something that has to be experienced. I’ve come to strongly believe that everyone should add taking a visit to his or her bucket list. Thanks to the planning that has been done in the area of accessibility, people with disabilities can explore the area with excitement and confidence, and I hope to get the opportunity to do so again some day.

For more information about Grand Teton National Park, visit http://www.grand.teton.national-park.com. To learn more about Yellowstone National Park, visit http://www.nps.gov/yell/index.htm.

Amy lives in Nashville, TN and works in the music industry. She enjoys spending time with friends, concerts, and volunteering for a local youth wheelchair sports and independence group.   

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