Thursday, July 1, 2010

Yellowstone National Park

We just got back from Yellowstone National Park (June 13 – June 18). Wow, what a trip! Laura likened it to nothing so much as going on safari in the United States.

Since we visited the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon and Zion national parks a few years ago Laura has wanted to visit Yellowstone. This was heightened by our viewing of all 15 hours of The National Parks: America's Best Idea television series on PBS. Yellowstone was the world's first National Park, and sometime within the next 100,000 years it will probably erupt (it is atop a caldera—a super volcano taking a third of the country with it -- we didn't want to wait. After visiting Yellowstone, it is quite obvious that the area deserves to be a national park three times over—once for the scenic beauty, once for the wildlife, and once for the geothermal features.

Several months ago I decided to book an in the park tour package. Hospitality (hotels, stores, tours, etc.) in many of our national parks is run under contract to Xanterra Corp. I went to their Yellowstone reservations web site, navigated to the packages page and booked an all-inclusive tour for Laura and me. It was probably a mistake for me to assume that this direct approach would work for a gimpy traveler like me --scratch that, it was definitely a mistake. Around a week later we received a questionnaire in the mail asking us each for a detailed description of our physical abilities and stamina. I filled this out, and sent it back, without doing the sane thing, which would have been to call them back directly. It was obvious at this point that there were a lot of activities scheduled for this package in which I would not be able to fully participate. A few days later Luann from Yellowstone reservations called to sensitively and apologetically explore with me whether perhaps there was an alternative that would better suit my needs. After getting more details on my special-needs, she promised to do some research and call me back. When Luann called the back, she had spoken directly with tour coordinators and was well versed in the day-to-day details of the exertions that would be required on different tours. We booked the Total Yellowstone package, and couldn't have been more pleased. When we got back I sent an e-mail to Xanterra thanking them for a lovely trip, and praising Luann for the sensitive and professional job she did getting us into the right tour package. You'd think no one had ever said thank you before. If I brought a smile to a few faces, it was no bigger than the smiles Laura and I had when we returned from our trip.

The trip started with an orientation meeting on Sunday night. We flew into West Yellowstone Sunday afternoon, rented a car, and took a quick trip into the park. We get into the park for free because I have the "America the Beautiful" access pass You should definitely have one! It is for citizens or permanent residents of the United States, regardless of age, who have been medically determined to have a permanent disability. It provides free access to, and use of, any Federal recreation site that charges an Entrance or Standard Amenity Fee.

Within 15 minutes of entering the park we had already seen and photographed ravens, a nesting pair of Bald Eagles hunting on the river, and a bison stalking toward the car through a parking area -- Laura was in heaven! Since this blog is not strictly a travelogue I will not regale you with the details of four days in Yellowstone and one day in Grand Teton National Park. Suffice it to say and we almost had our fill of black bear, grizzly bear, elk, prong horns, sheep, snakes, foxes, eagles, ospreys, other birds of all kinds, lakes, forests, waterfalls, rivers, geysers, Hot Springs, fumaroles and bubbling mud pits. Instead, let me give you a brief rundown on accessibility.

Transportation: We traveled through the park on a fairly typical tour bus. I had a great seat, as the other participants graciously ceded the front seat to Laura and me. The bus had comfort facilities for emergencies, but we stopped often enough so that I don't think anyone ever used it. A newer model bus with kneeling capability was in the shop the week we were there. My personal transportation consisted of my walker, and a Pride Go-Go Elite Traveller three wheel travel scooter. This machine breaks down into four pieces in less than 90 seconds, and was easily stored under the bus. The three wheel model is slightly lighter, but also less stable than the four-wheel model. I only tipped it over three times, but Laura and I will fight over getting the four-wheel model when it's time to replace this scooter.

ADA compliant rooms: We had reservations and all three hotels the group stayed in over the course of the week. We stayed in the Old Faithful Snow Lodge, Canyon Lodge (cabins) and Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel. All the rooms in dimensions wide enough to accommodate the scooter, either a queen-size bed or a double bed twin bed combination, and a fully equipped roll-in shower. At Canyon Lodge, the roads between the cabins and the Lodge were not in great shape, but there was an on-call shuttle bus with a very accommodating staff.

Boardwalks: Yellowstone has miles of boardwalks. Each of the dozens of thermal features and attractions we visited limit the tourists to the boardwalks for both their own safety, and the preservation of the natural wonder. This means that those of us who roll rather than walk get the same access to view and enjoy these fantastic anomalies of nature. While only 6% of Yellowstone can be enjoyed from the road, only a small percentage of the 3 million yearly Yellowstone visitors ventures too far into the backcountry.

Little slips: Linda (trip leader) and George (bus driver plus) Milliorn lead a great tour, and anticipated almost every mobility impediment that we were to face (another woman on the trip also used a wheelchair due to a foot injury). In many years of leading this tour every other week all summer long, they had little or no experience with mobility challenged participants—they did great. The shame of it is that more of us should be taking advantage of wonderful opportunities like the Total Yellowstone adventure package.

However, during one afternoon optional tour of the Old Faithful Inn, we wove a serpentine path through the Inn to get to the second-floor of the old building. The original Inn building has been kept fairly close to its historical origin, including “wash facilities down the hall” from charming bedrooms that are still in high demand today. More modern accommodations have been added as two new wings on either side of the original Inn. These both have elevators, however one of the wings has two steps to traverse the second-floor between the buildings. Two steps can be invisible to most able-bodied walkers; not so to those of us who roll! We had the opportunity to exercise the elevators in both new wings. Linda was far too apologetic for never having noticed the steps the first way she sent us. On every trip, this should be our worst problem.

Tipping the Scooter: doing my best Arte Johnson impersonation, and managed to tip my scooter three times during the trip. Each time was eminently avoidable by applying a little more care and a little more sense to the situation.
  • At the Old Faithful restrooms I decided to cut across a less well-behaved portion of the sidewalk. I missed a rut that wouldn't have been a problem if I had addressed squarely. 
  • At our campfire on the last night, I eschewed curb cut (actually I didn’t notice it) farther down the parking lot, and decided that with a little extra speed I could jump a small gap in the sidewalk -- wrong again. 
  • While Laura was visiting a scenic waterfall in the rain at a location where we had stopped to eat our box breakfast. I was tooling around a small store, and stopped to refill a water bottle at a spigot provided for that purpose. I dropped the bottle cap. Leaning to my left I tipped over into the display of reusable water bottles. Nothing breakable, and the only injury was to my pride.

There was never a shortage of hands to right the scooter and help me up.

Citizens of the United States, you have a tremendous resource and the opportunity to learn and enjoy nature in your National Park System. Gimpy travelers, these are your parks too, and every accommodation has been made to help you enjoy them as well. While all travel has its vagaries, touring our national parks should be no more daunting than any other travel. Please take advantage and enjoy the great beauty that men and women of foresight fought to preserve for our benefit. Thank you Teddy Roosevelt!

Aaron Cohen
July 1, 2010