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Wheelchair Accessible California Road Trip

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The Redwood national park in California

Am I the only one who’s tried to plan a wheelchair accessible California road trip? I legitimately thought we would take our ten day vacation to loop around the state and experience all the highlights. While planning, I stalked Tatiana’s California travel blog at Family Road Trip Guru. I quickly discovered that the state is more than a few quick highlights.

We didn’t get our wheelchair accessible California road trip this summer; but, thanks to Tatiana I’ll have much better plans for when we get to go! Tatiana has put together the following wheelchair accessible California road trip itinerary. I hope it can help you as much as it’s helped me! (Comments in parenthesis are my own. I’ve also added links to further accessibility notes.)

From the Family Road Trip Guru…

When people ask me for advice on the best itinerary to see California (Ha! She’s talking about me…), I am usually at a loss because it is impossible to see all of California in one trip, even in 2 or 3 trips. I have been a California based travel blogger for 5 years and even I have not seen it all… What you can do realistically is choose a part of the state and explore it as best as you can in the amount of time you have. Concentrate on Northern, Southern or Central California and start from there.

This 10 day summer loop itinerary departing from San Francisco covers some of the best parts of Northern California. This itinerary is not doable in winter and might have some restrictions in early spring and late fall due to snowfall and heavy rains. To be in tune with this proposed schedule, plan to start your first full day of the trip in the morning, no later than 9 am.

Day 1:

Leave San Francisco by way of a scenic drive over Golden Gate Bridge and continue the scenic route north via HW-1, better known as Pacific Coast Highway, which is considered one of the most amazing drives in the entire United States. It winds along the rugged coastal cliffs with unparalleled views of the ocean.

Drive all the way up to the Russian River and give yourself plenty of time to stop at scenic coves and beaches to take in the fabulous views.

At the intersection with Russian River (which is a very beautiful landmark in itself) I strongly suggest taking a detour to visit at least one of the famous Sonoma wineries located in the Russian River valley, even if you are not much of a wine drinker. Wineries are an essential part of what makes California special. Some of them will have interesting educational tours, others – educational gardens, etc. My personal favorite is Korbel Champagne Cellars, which has both, the tour of the winery and the gardens (tours are accessible).

After the detour continue north on HW-1 until Fort Ross State Historic Park. This is another “not to miss” stop in Northern California, unique to this state. This part of California used to be Russian territory and the Fort was its stronghold. Take a guided historic tour to learn about life in California 200 years ago, Russian culture and traditions. (Surprisingly accessible for a fort! There is a ramp to the second floor. The trail to the fort is wheelchair accessible, but if it’s too far or steep there is also one handicap space by the south entrance to the fort. Wheelchair accessibility info here.)

Even if you miss the tour there is a lot to explore at Fort Ross: a museum, a cool wooden fort with many structures, and a beautiful beach with tide pools (All wheelchair accessible. A beach wheelchair is available for loan.)

You can end your 1st day at a small but pretty coastal town of Gualala which has several lodging options.

Day 2:

Continue driving further North on HW-1 and enjoy the scenery. A couple of famous California lighthouses are located en route: Point Arena (While the lighthouse is not accessible, the museum, gift shop, gardens, picnic area, and restrooms are.) and Point Cabrillo (there is a paved access road and parking for disabled persons in front of and behind the 1st Assistant Lightkeeper’s House {the first residence} at the bottom of the hill). You can choose whichever one you would like to visit or stop at both.

After the town of Rockport, HW-1 will turn away from the coast and soon join HW-101. Now you are approaching the Redwoods kingdom. Near the town of Phillipsville, take a scenic drive along the Avenue of the Giants, still continuing north. Be prepared to be humbled and to be in awe at the same time. You may have seen tall trees in your life but you can’t even imagine how trees that are 30 stories high look like.

Ideally I would suggest at least 3-5 days to explore Redwoods National and State Parks but on this itinerary you will have 1.5 days to spend in the company of the tallest trees on Earth that thrive only in this very small part of California. On this day you will have time to visit Humboldt Redwoods State Park (Visitor center and restrooms are accessible. There are also plenty of accessible trail options). Stop at the Visitor Center to pick up a trails map and learn more about this amazing park.

You will end Day 2 at the town of Arcata which is a great base for exploration of Redwoods National Park.

Day 3:

Dedicate the whole Day 3 to Redwoods National Park. There is so much to see there that it is hard to recommend something without knowing your particular interests and level of hiking ability. That said I have some ideas for Redwoods National Park itinerary. (There are loads of wheelchair accessible trails in Redwoods National Park. Don’t forget, this one is free with your National Park Access Pass.)

If you are able to attend one of their ranger led free guided walks, it will be fantastic. You will learn so many interesting things about the majestic redwoods! (The tours vary – ask ahead of time about accessibility options for your tour time.)

Day 4:

In the morning you will proceed East on HW 299 to Mt. Shasta. It is a 4 hours’ drive but keep your eyes open – this is Bigfoot territory, i.e. most of the reported sightings of Bigfoot took place along this corridor in the woods. Isn’t that exciting? There is a small Bigfoot museum (completely wheelchair accessible!) in the town Willow Creek that you will be passing by.

Mt. Shasta is a small town at the foot of the magnificent mountain called Mt. Shasta. It is a beautiful high peak that is covered in snow even in summer. You have 3 options for activities here: hike Mt. Shasta, swim in the lakes nearby such as Lake Siskiyou, for example, or visit 3 beautiful waterfalls on McCloud River – no hiking required for waterfalls viewing, all three of them can be seen right next to the parking lost or within 5 minutes’ walk from the parking lots. (There are some other accessible trails, but the waterfalls look like your best bet, with a trail connecting them!)

Day 5:

Devote the entire day for exploration of Lassen Volcanic National Park. At the heart of the Park is a scenic drive on the slopes of an active volcano with about a dozen stops. Each stop on my detailed Lassen Volcanic National Park itinerary gives you an opportunity for either a scenic view, a hike or checking out cool educational exhibits. (This is another one included with your ACCESS Pass, and it has plenty of accessible trails and options.)

At the end of the day you will have a 3 hours’ drive to Lake Tahoe so plan your time accordingly. I suggest Truckee or small towns along the Northern part of Lake Tahoe, such as Tahoe City, to be your base for exploration of this area.

Day 6:

Lake Tahoe is the most famous lake in California. It is a gorgeous deep blue colored alpine lake that never freezes, even in winter. It is located in in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Lake Tahoe area spans 2 states and it is way too big to explore in 1 day.

However, to hit some of its best highlights I suggest the following attractions and activities: gondola ride and Olympic museum in Squaw Valley, hiking and scenic views in Emerald Bay State Park and kayaking on the Lake Tahoe itself (there are several kayak rentals available in Tahoe City). With the above mentioned itinerary you will be able to see the best spots on the Western shore of Lake Tahoe, they are located relatively close to each other so you won’t waste time driving all around the lake.

Day 7:

On this day you will be heading towards San Francisco with a stop at California’s capital – Sacramento. I strongly suggest visiting Old Town Sacramento which will take you on a time travel expedition of sorts. You will be able to learn about and experience life in California during the gold rush days. (Don’t let the name scare you, all of the streets, boardwalks, restaurants, and museums of Old Town are ADA compliant.)

Definitely don’t miss California State Railroad Museum (fully accessible) and a scenic train ride along the Sacramento River (The train is not wheelchair accessible, you would need to transfer, leave your chair at the station, and be able to make it up the steps into the train.)

Days 8 and 9:

I suggest spending the last 2 days of your itinerary in San Francisco. The possibilities are endless here: museums, gardens, zoos, boat rides, Chinatown, Japantown – you need a lifetime to see it all. My personal favorites are: Exploratorium museumSan Francisco Botanical Garden in Golden Gate Park (free with your ACCESS card), Oakland Zoo that has a sprawling California specific exhibit accessible by a thrilling gondola ride, Chinatown and sailing in San Francisco Bay.

Please, note that you will need to consider the weather when choosing your San Francisco activities. Summers can be very cold (50s F) and foggy in the city.

Day 10:

The end of a trip is always a sad occasion but you will be taking home the most beautiful memories of California lakes, rivers, mountains, forests, waterfalls, beaches, volcanos and so much more. I hope you will come back again soon!

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