Should National Parks Be More Accessible?

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A week or so ago, I found myself watching the sun rise in Grand Canyon National Park, feet dangling over the edge of a massive slab of sandstone, the Colorado River a few thousand feet below. For two hours we lingered, yet never saw another soul.

The spot is called Toroweap, and some of you know it well, others not at all, but the distinguishing feature of Toroweap, aside from its sublime beauty, is the challenge of getting there and the lack of anything resembling development: Visiting requires driving across 60 miles of washboarded dirt, followed by a few miles of rugged, stairstepped, oil-pan-eating track. It doesn’t require much physical effort, but it does take commitment, and it receives a tiny fraction of the visitation in this rock-star park.

As we were getting ready to leave and I took one last stroll, I saw something in the dust that surprised, almost shocked, me. It was a set of wheelchair tracks traced in the dirt, heading toward the edge of the canyon, disappearing when their route crossed slickrock and reappearing in the sand. There were no footprints within their lines; it appeared as if this person had rolled themselves to the vista. I was impressed.

We got in the van, drove to Zion, and by lunchtime were hiking the Angels Landing trail. It could hardly have been more different – the required shuttle into Zion Canyon was standing room only, and the trail itself had a steady stream of hikers. And where a person could step off the edge of Toroweap anyplace they wanted, with no warning signs, the upper reaches of Angels Landing were lined with well-used chains to lend extra support and security.

These two approaches to public access and safety highlight a long-running tension in national parks between making parklands more easily accessible vs. retaining the natural and wild environment and its concomitant challenges. But today, in addition to this debate, which has ebbed but never really goes away, there are new pressures on parks, primarily in the forms of recreation that weren’t imagined when the NPS was created but also technology (see drones, cell phone towers). In Yellowstone, there’s a fight over access by boaters to the rivers. In Colorado, there’s been a struggle over running a road cycling race through a national monument. In other places, mountain biking has tiptoed into parks, to much controversy.

The Park Service has generally taken a conservative approach. No road race. Few singletracks. And in Yosemite, it is taking steps to return the park to a bit less commercial state, including major changes in the valley and a $36 million project in Mariposa Grove to remove a gift shop, parking lot, and tram route. Each of these steps has had critics.

So, what path should the parks take? There are lots of issues here, each with its own considerations, but we’re tackling them with one broad question: Should the parks be more accessible? Should the parks make more accommodations for people with physical challenges? Should they embrace modern recreation? Will rejecting road races turn them into musty dinosaurs or preserve them as blissful islands of the way things should be?

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adventure journal smith optics serpicoThis week, one poll participant will receive a pair of Smith Optics Serpico sunglasses. We’ll pick the winner via random number generator (and announce it here) – all you have to do to enter is vote and leave a comment so we have your email to contact you. Must have a U.S. or Canadian address. Contest ends Sunday, July 13, at midnight PST.

Congratulations to Colin Wood, who wins the Smiths this week!

Photo by Steve Casimiro

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