dahlia in my garden: Rio Fuego in Coleus leaves

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Accessibility at the Grand Canyon

I just returned from the Grand Canyon and I want to share my experience in the hope of encouraging others with disabilities and/or health issues to go there. The focus on this post is for those with mobility limitations or those who use a wheelchair. I used my wheelchair almost 100% of the time in order to prevent me from walking and standing too much, so we took notes about the pros & cons of accessibility during our trip. It is our hope that it helps someone enjoy the wonders of the canyon regardless of their ability. We were not compensated in any way for writing this review, and no one was aware that we were taking notes. I tried to make this post as comprehensive as possible, so it is very long and jumps to another page. It covers the train, rooms, food, tours, and much more. This review is solely based on my perspectives during the trip I took in April 2017.

Our trip to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon was amazing! Traveling by train was definitely the way to go. It proved to be easy, accessible, and simplified getting to and returning from the canyon. The weather was cold but we were blessed to have a chance to stand on the canyon rim and see such stunning views. It really defies description, but must be seen to truly experience the scale of the canyon, the vivid colors, and the dizzying height. We saw so many animals from elk, to javelinas, to condors. It was a wonderful trip after years of wanting to go.
The Grand Canyon Railway offers the choice of just a day trip to the canyon or various packages which combine staying in the park and/or taking tours. We booked a three night / four day package with the Railway, which is based out of Williams, Arizona. Our first night we stayed at the Railway Hotel In Williams in one of their ADA rooms. It was an extremely nice room which had a roll-in shower with grab bars, fold down bench, and a hand-held shower which was mounted so that a standing person could also use it like a normal shower. Plugs for charging electronic devices were available on the bases of the table lamps, making them easily accessible to use. The common areas of the hotel had accommodations for those with mobility limitations in mind as well. A buffet dinner was provided as part of our package. Although it did not the greatest variety of food options, we found the pasta station to be delicious, which offered items to be freshly sauteed while you waited.
On the morning of our second day, we boarded the train at 9:15 after watching a fun wild west cowboy shootout. The train staff was very helpful with the boarding process. They have a special lift to load patrons in wheelchairs plus those who cannot climb up steps to get on board. We were in the “A” coach class car which was a remodeled 1950s era commuter car; it had a spot for wheelchair parking with a bench seat right behind it for companions.  I chose to park my chair and join my husband on the bench seat.
The restroom was fully accessible and adjacent to the wheelchair parking area. However, if you need to side transfer onto a toilet, it was impossible to do so in the narrow space. However, there is room for another person to be inside the bathroom with you if required. One cautionary note: the bathroom door slides sideways to open and close. At one point when the train was on a mile downhill slope, the door slid closed on my arm when I was exiting the bathroom, causing a bruise and the need to apply an icepack. Luckily I suffered no long term effects and we filled out an accident report to be on the safe side. Have your travel buddy hold the door when you enter and exit!
Not every car which was a part of our train was the same type. There were remodelled 1920s Pullman cars which were adorably vintage, but I noticed that the bench seats looked less padded and not as comfortable as the seats in the car to which we were assigned. There were also other classes of train cars (which I did not get to see) including first class, domed, and luxury.  If you have specific needs, be sure to mention them when you make your train reservation so they can put you in the train car which best suits you.
All the aisles in the train cars are wide enough to allow for wheelchair passage. However, the doors between the cars would be hard to open from a seated position, especially when the train is in motion, so ask for assistance.  A trip to the 1950’s dining car is totally worth it just to see. It offers pre-packaged snacks like chips and beverages ranging from hot chocolate to root beer floats.
The wheelchair lift to get me on to the train
The train ride to Grand Canyon National Park takes about 2 ½ hours. Each train car has its own attendant and they serve as a tour guide as well. Our inbound train had Laura and the outbound attendant was Amber. They were both knowledgeable and entertaining. There was also a singer who played guitar and sang for part of the journey. On the return trip, there is even a train robbery! The Marshall (who is also the mayor of Williams) was funny and a real character. The actual robbery could have been even more fun -- as we used to be part of the Silverado Wild West Company and stage bank robberies at the San Jose Historical Museum in CA, we couldn’t help thinking of how we would have added to their script and made it more playful. But we really did enjoy it and were glad it was part of the train trip.
On the issue of luggage: I had been told that we would only be allowed one checked suitcase plus whatever we could hold on our laps. I always have to travel with a separate suitcase full of foam pillows, pads, and other necessary things. I made sure to get a medical exemption from the Railway the day before. After spending the night in the hotel, we took our bags to the lobby where they were tagged for their final destination. This meant that once our train arrived at the canyon, we were immediately able to begin sightseeing. The Railway delivered our luggage to our lodge which was then taken directly to our room. We never had to pick up our bags or move them anywhere. The same was true when we checked out. All we did was attached a new set of tags to each bag and leave them inside our hotel room and the Railway retrieved them and loaded them for the return trip. We were freed from having to worry about our bags while we enjoyed our last day there.
We stayed at the Cliffrose building of Maswik Lodge. The ADA room was comfortable but rather dated, as it was constructed in the 1960s. The bathroom had a roll-in shower with grab bars for both shower and toilet, and a fold down bench in the shower.. The hand-held shower head was not mounted in a way so that it could be used any other way than by being held. The room had a mini fridge but no microwave. It had few usable electrical outlets. We had to unplug things like the coffee maker and the room clock in order to charge our electronic devices, the power wheelchair, and to plug in my husband’s CPAP machine. One big negative is that the outlets were all down near the baseboards...

... If you were traveling alone and have a limiting physical condition which prevents you reaching that low, then there would have been no outlet available -- except for a single one in the bathroom where you’d have to balance the charging device on the edge of the sink. Also, the lighting in the room was rather dim. If you require a brighter environment for managing medical care or because of low vision, it might be a bit of an issue. Overall it was a basic hotel room with no frills but it served its purpose for us. (We did not see any other hotel rooms, so this does not apply to any room but the one we stayed in. There are higher-end accommodations available, and for all we know the other rooms do not have these issues).
When it comes to food, you have quite a few choices. Maswik Lodge has a small food court, with options like sandwiches, burgers, salads, pizza, burritos, and more substantial options. Breakfast fare is pretty standard. Prices in the food court were a bit higher than we expected. There are a few restaurants in the park ranging from average American restaurant fare to very high-end fancy dining. There is a market in the Village but we did not go in, so I cannot speak to how great a variety of grocery products are there. If you have specific dietary needs, you may wish to bring some food with you -- we did that by bringing a small two coolers with us, a lunch bag-sized one in my wheelchair backpack and an insulated flat bag inside my suitcase. It made me feel comfortable to have a few snacks that I like available in case I needed them.
Bathrooms are sparse throughout the park, once you are away from the main Village buildings. This is primarily due to lack of water and infrastructure that is behind the curve when it comes the increasing volume of park visitors.  My husband, who suffers from occasional bouts of IBS, relied on precautionary doses of Imodium in order to mitigate restroom visits. The canyon lookout points have glorified outhouses, so if you are used to “flushers” and running water, plan accordingly. The lodges have standard public restrooms, however they commonly have just 4 to 5 stalls which is at times inadequate and there can be a long wait.
Our train package included a Xanterra-operated private bus tour which we upgraded to the three hour Grand Tour, including a filling buffet lunch. The buses are fully equipped to accommodate up to two wheelchairs. The bus can kneel down close to the ground and has an extendable ramp to drive up on. It does require a some careful steering to get into the bus and properly restrained with a wheelchair. We found the private tour bus to be the most comfortable way to see the park. They have a wide selection of tours and the drivers are extremely knowledgeable. When they stop at the various sites, the driver assists in getting the wheelchairs on and off the bus. One plus for us with taking the tour buses instead of the park’s regular shuttle buses: you don’t have to wait out in the elements for a shuttle to come, which may be full and necessitate a longer wait. Also, it was very cold with gusty winds two days in a row, and when I was ready to move on to the next site because I was freezing, I was able to get into the bus for shelter while waiting for the rest of the tour members to return. The tour bus prices are reasonable and well worth it. There are no restrooms on the buses. 
Note: Wheelchairs larger than 30 inches wide by 48 inches long (76 x 122 cm) cannot be accommodated on buses, and most motorized scooters will not fit either.
In contrast with the Xanterra Buses, the park operates a series of four shuttle bus lines around the Village with similar roll-on features for wheelchair. However, they can often be overcrowded in busy months and the stops are completely exposed to the elements, which could be a health concern for those with certain health conditions. The drivers on occasion could not figure out the best methods to secure or unsecure the wheelchair. One driver in particular could not figure out how the ratchet straps worked. Passengers on the shuttle buses were not always as attentive as they should be around the ADA section, as the bus drivers will pack the aisle full of people with their backpacks and hiking gear. However, we found the shuttles to be helpful to get around the Village when we needed to, as long as we were careful and didn’t allow ourselves get rushed when loading or unloading.

We took several different tours during our time in the park: The Grand Tour, a Sunset Tour, Hermit Rest Tour*, and Desert View Tour**. The Grand Tour and Sunset Tour visit most of the same views, so I would recommend doing one or the other to save a little money. Sunset can be viewed from many locations, and although you can take a shuttle directly to any lookout point along the lines, be aware that shuttle buses are crowded because everyone wants to see the sunset. Factor in substantial extra time before the sunset, and expect that you may need to wait for a second or third shuttle afterward, especially as they run less frequently at that time of day. The best sunset we viewed in the park was at the Geology Museum at Yavapai Point. That day was very cold and gusty, and we sheltered in the museum and checked out the exhibits until just before sunset (when they closed and kicked everyone out). But you can also view sunset from in the center of the village near the historic El Tovar hotel and the Bright Angel Lodge, both of which have restaurants that look out toward the canyon.
*The Hermit’s Rest Tour goes out to special small building, stopping at some lookout points along the way. Note: We were not told that Hermit’s Rest building isn’t accessible to wheelchairs. There is a step down to the patio and then steps into and inside the building. They are not steep, but they are present. **The Desert View tour makes stops at more lookout point along a different part of the South Rim, but ultimately goes to the Watchtower, which is not wheelchair accessible. It has approximately 80 steep steps up to the top of a spiral staircase. But the building itself is interesting to see from the outside, and there is a viewing spot at the base which is accessible. Even if I could not get out of my chair, I would totally do the Desert View Tour again.
There are many educational and historical things to see and do in the Village. However, there are a couple of buildings that are not fully accessible to wheelchairs, such as Kolb Studio and Lookout Studio. Kolb Studio is particularly difficult, with a long staircase inside which leads to a very interesting exhibit. 

There are several ways to enjoy the canyon. The South Rim trail is paved and wheelchair accessible; we took a shuttle bus to the Visitor’s Center and then I rolled from that point all the way to the Geology Museum to watch the sunset. The next section of the rim trail from there to Verkamps has exhibits along the way, and then it extends all the way to Hermit’s Rest. You can rent bikes or bring your own, and we even saw a tandem bike. If you want to ride one of the famous Grand Canyon mules, there is a 13-month waiting list! Other things to do: white water rafting, helicopter/airplane tours over the canyon, and you can also hike into the canyon on a day trip or longer. One of our tour guides said he’d recently met a couple married 75 years that hiked the canyon from rim-to-rim! To be clear, there is no accessible route down to the canyon floor, unless you can ride a mule or raft down the Colorado River.
When you are walking or rolling near the canyon rim it can be dangerous! There are no guard rails or walls along every inch of the rim. It is possible to literally stand on the very edge of the canyon, but you must use good judgment and not get too close. People do fall to their death and all of our tour guides emphasized this point with the aim of making us cautious and keeping us safe. Additionally, the ground along the canyon edge -- even on the paved areas which look very safe -- is not always smooth and level. Two separate times I got into trouble with my wheelchair. Once was at a lookout point where the pavement was not only rough but sloped sharply downward toward a railing. I couldn’t stop my chair from rolling down and pinning me against the railing. I couldn’t gain traction to back it up and had to call my husband to urgently come help. A second time, I was near a low wall and the trail was too steep for my chair. Again I had to rely on my husband to push me away from the edge. So please, be very careful!
For more info on accessibility at the Grand Canyon, visit this web page: https://www.nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/accessibility.htm

I hope this post encourages you to visit the Grand Canyon!


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  2. This is a great post. I could not find all this info in one place when we were planning our trip.

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