A Family Friendly and Wheelchair Accessible Guide to Yosemite National Park
There are simply no words. There are no pictures that can do it real justice, and even experiencing it in real life feels like make believe. Yosemite National Park holds a grandeur like no other, and will leave you breathless.
National Parks are one of my favorite ways to get outside. Not only are they always full of wonders, but these parks are working to bring them within reach. I’m not going to say that national parks are fully accessible and that you can get away for a barrier-free vacation, but I will say that there is enough made available to make it totally worth it. I’ve never been disappointed by a visit to a national park (even though there are always some things we can’t do).
Getting There and Around
Flying in to Yosemite
While the Fresno-Yosemite Airport is closest, San Francisco (Oakland) and Los Angeles (LAX) run much better deals. It’s a similar distance to either city, so pick the better deal or the city you’d most like to see on your way in!
Renting a Car
If you’re doing a trip through the parks of California, you’re going to want your own vehicle. There are great shuttles and tours within the parks, but they don’t take you everywhere – or cover the distance between parks.
We rented a car from the airport. You can save money by renting in town, but you also lose the convenience of being able to pick up your car straight off the plane. Rental cars are insanely expensive in this world of Covid-recovery. Make that the first reservation you make! I suggest booking through Priceline. I’ve found them consistently lower than anywhere else. If that doesn’t work out, I know a lot of people have been booking through Costco or even using U-haul to get around!
Entering the Park
Don’t forget admission is free with your disability pass. For now, you’ll still need a reservation. There are five entrances to the park – each offering unique scenery along the way. The northernmost entrance, Hetch Hetchy is the least crowded… but that’s probably because it’s out of the way for most visitors. We entered from the south, because that’s the direction we were headed. If we did it again, I would exit through a different end of the park to experience more of the scenery outside the park.
What to See
A google search will turn up the tourist highlights of:
The icon of Yosemite – it looks like a rock dome, sliced in half, rising 5,000 feet above the valley. The best accessible view is from Mirror Lake (using your handicap placard allows you to drive the gravel trail)
The steep rock made even more famous by Free Solo. A stunning view from many drive-through areas, including Tunnel View.
One of the mountain-drop waterfalls, split in two parts to make it’s way down. The Lower Falls Trail is wheelchair accessible. You can also get full views from the road.
I envisioned getting cool pictures from in the tunnel looking out, but there was a lot of traffic. I imagine that’s the norm. There’s a lot just north of the tunnel so you can park and take in the stunning views that feature a little bit of everything, including the most famous rock structures.
I would add Glacier Point and Horsetail Fall to that list. These can also be done as a drive. Glacier Point takes you up in elevation for a stunning view of the park below. All of these highlights can actually be viewed from your vehicle.
What to Do
SO many of the views are available by car. This is one of the things that makes the park so wheelchair accessible. If you never got out of your car (don’t do that – at least go breathe the fresh air), you would still experience most of the breathtaking cliffs, waterfalls, vistas, and other views.
**Typically, there are wheelchair accessible shuttles through the park. These are not running for the 2021 season.**
Take a Tour
This takes my previous suggestion up a notch. The tour buses have open sides and tops (glass, when weather requires) for unobstructed views. You don’t have to worry about driving and staring and you have a knowledgeable guide who can explain the science and history behind all you see. We did the Junior Explorer’s Tour through Tenaya Lodge because it was aimed at kids, so we didn’t have to worry about keeping them engaged with a grown-up tour or about annoying other guests with their interruptions. Most of my photos were taken from inside the bus.
Go on a Hike
Yes, you can do that! Even if you can see all you want from the car, it rejuvenates your soul to get out and explore! We did the Lower Falls Trail at Yosemite Falls. The trail to the right is marked as accessible. The trail to the left is paved, but has a 14% grade for a short portion just before you get to the falls.
The trail along Merced River is also paved. Happy Isles has a paved walking road, but if it’s too long you’re handicap placard will gain you driving access. The same access applies at Mirror Lake (just know that it’s rarely actually a lake… typically more of a meadow). Glacier Point has a short walk on a paved trail for views over the park. More details on accessible hikes here.
Have a Picnic
No, not because food options are few and far between (although, that’s not entirely untrue – especially this year). Do it because you’ll never find a better picnic spot in all the world. All picnic areas have wheelchair accessible tables. I also approve of just parking and eating wherever the view is most captivating.
Soak it In
Yosemite offers a whole new level of awe. When you’re done rushing from site to site to get it all in, just stop and enjoy the scenery. Explore Better highlights more sites and activities; but, whatever you choose, you can’t go wrong!
Where to Stay
Most campsites in the park have level, packed dirt, sites available. Most of these are not labeled as ADA, but should be accessible. Unfortunately, the 2021 season is running on limited capacity and there are very few of these sites available.
In the Park
Most park lodges have re-opened at limited capacity. With the exception of Tuolumne Meadows and White Wolf (both closed for the season, anyway), all lodges have accessible room options. Click here for up to date lodge availability.
Outside of the Park
Per Yosemite’s accessibility guide, the nearest communities with lodging outside of Yosemite are: Fish Camp and Oakhurst to the south on Highway 41; El Portal and Mariposa to the west on Highway 140; Groveland to the
west on Highway 120; and Lee Vining, June Lake, and Mammoth Lakes to the east on Highway
395 when Tioga Road is open.
We spent one night at the Fairfield Inn at Oakhurst and had a lovely stay. It’s 20 minutes from the park entrance, but that feels long since the south gate is still about an hour from most sites and activities.
We also spent a night at Tenaya Lodge, just outside the park. This resort style lodge didn’t have the perk of Bonvoy points, but it had absolutely everything else. This is only the second hotel we’ve stayed in where I felt the entire experience was truly barrier-free. Ever. Of course both the indoor and outdoor pool had a lift; so did the hot tub. The kiddie pool was ramped. The bathroom doors were sliding barn doors with easy access handles (you know what I’m talking about). In addition to the lodge, they also have wheelchair accessible family cabins. I’m sure you know how rare that is!
With four pools, a full-service spa, game room, child and pet sitting services, guided tours, archery, a climbing wall, an on-site adventure course, multiple dining options and shops, and more, this is the type of place that I would typically recommend as a destination on it’s own. Obviously, I would not recommend staying this close to Yosemite and not doing the park, but staying here is like getting two destinations in on one trip! They also have wheelchairs available for rent to take into Yosemite.
What to Eat
This is another category that is a little different this year. When in doubt, click here to see current openings.
In the Park
The Ahwahnee Dining Room is known for its spectacular views. They’re not currently offering table service, but you can still sit at a table to enjoy the views with your carry-out.
Pack a picnic. There are still a decent amount of dining options available, just keep in mind that you’re in a big park and things are fairly spread out. I suggest kicking off the day with breakfast at Ahwahnee on one of your days, and packing a picnic lunch to enjoy at the foot of a waterfall! Oh! There’s also a Starbucks inside the park, for those who appreciate nature best after a good latte…
Outside the Park
About that picnic… don’t forget that you’re in the mountains. There are little markets both in and outside the park, but they charge mountain prices. If you’re able, it may be wise to shop before you leave town.
There are mountain town dining options near any of the park exits. If you’re staying at Tenaya Lodge, the Gold Rush BBQ is a great place to continue your outdoors-day, and maybe even roast some s’mores.
Head about 20 minutes farther, into Oakhurst, and you’ll find a lot more options. If you’re leaving Yosemite from 140, head west to the highway and you can even find some of your favorite chains. Whichever exit you use, the closer you get to 49, the more options you’ll find. If you know which direction you’re heading out, google map it ahead of time and download the map – service is spotty, at best in the mountains!
If you’re looking to build your California road trip itinerary, check out my guide on nearby Sequoia and Kings National Parks! Or head out a little farther with these accessible California road trip suggestions. You can also check out these other accessible National Parks.