America the Beautiful: National Parks Access Pass

by: Nerissa Cannon

Version 2

 

One of the original Freedom Chair Trailblazers, Nerissa, now works as GRIT's Community Manager! Her own journey with chronic illness has made her very passionate about helping other people get the most out of life in spite of a disabling condition.


For an outdoor enthusiast like myself, the allure of a National Park is hard to resist. The National Park Service preserves natural, cultural, and historical sites all across the United States. Some of the most breathtaking landscapes are within these park boundaries. 

Thankfully, the National Park Service has taken it upon themselves to offer a FREE lifetime pass for US Citizens that have a permanent disability. It allows you to be admitted for FREE to more than 2,000 federal recreation sites. At sites that charge entrance fees per vehicle, you and your whole car will be admitted with this pass.  At areas that charge per person entrance fees you and up to 3 companions will be admitted with the Access Pass.

In addition to the entrance fee, the Access Pass grants certain benefits for the holder that vary from park to park. However, some of these benefits can include discounts on campsites, guided tours, special use permit fees, and more!

STEP ONE: Getting the Documents

In addition to providing proof of US Citizenship (such as a driver's license, state issued ID card, or a passport) anyone interested in obtaining an Access Pass must provide ONE of the following:

  • A statement signed by a licensed physician attesting that you have a permanent physical, mental, or sensory impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, and stating the nature of the impairment
  • A document issued by a Federal agency, such as the U.S. Department of Veterans Administration, which attests that you have been medically determined to be eligible to receive Federal benefits as a result of blindness or permanent disability. Other acceptable Federal agency documents include proof of receipt of Social Security Disability Income (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI)
  • A document issued by a State agency such as a vocational rehabilitation agency, which attests that you have been medically determined to be eligible to receive vocational rehabilitation agency benefits or services as a result of medically determined blindness or permanent disability. Showing a State motor vehicle department disability sticker, license plate or hang tag is not acceptable documentation

For me, the applicable documentation was going to be a letter from my doctor. Only problem was, I didn't have a current doctor! I'd been managing my health on my own for nearly 2 years, and since my last doctor's visit I'd moved states. So, not only was I needing to find a new primary physician, I was going to be asking for this documentation at my first appointment. While that made me a little uneasy, I pressed on towards my goal.

Luckily, things went smoothly! I brought my most current medical records, talked with my physician, he did a short physical evaluation, and then I asked him if he'd be willing to write me the letter to get the pass. He was willing, he just wanted to read up on it a bit first. I provided him with the website link, and expected to have to wait a week or two before I got a call. Well, my letter was ready for pick up the next day!

STEP TWO: Obtaining the Access Pass

You can obtain your pass in two ways: In-Person or Mail. A mailed in application does require a $10 processing fee. Because I live within a reasonable drive of several National Parks (and I'm always up for a day trip) I elected to get my pass in person.

My boyfriend and I decided to visit the breathtaking Bryce Canyon National Park. We weren't sure how this was going to work exactly. We thought we had to get the pass at the Visitor's Center but that would mean going through the front gate first. Would we have to pay to get in just to get my pass? Turns out it was easier than we could have hoped for!

2018 Access Pass.jpg

We told the ranger what we were there to get. I handed over my letter and my driver's license. He had me read and sign a short statement as a legal release stating I do have a permanent disability. Then, I got my Access Pass card, signed it, and we were good to go. Couldn't believe how smoothly it went, but more than that I couldn't wait to start using it!

 

STEP THREE: Using the Access Pass

HIKING

We couldn't drive all the way to Bryce Canyon without going for at least a short hike! After entering the park we checked out our options. Many National Parks (including Bryce Canyon) have Accessibility Guides. However, those often have an extremely limited list of only paved trails to choose from.

Instead of playing it safe and only going with a designated "wheelchair friendly" trail, we decided to drive to the farthest point (and highest elevation) of the park: Rainbow Point. From there we set about tackling a 1 mile loop trail called Bristlecone Loop. It was quite steep and rutted in some places, but my Freedom Chair performed brilliantly, earning the admiration of many fellow hikers. It was a stunning day to be out and made me even more eager to use my pass to have the most adventurous Summer of my life.

CAMPING

Here is my Service Dog, Cash, thrilled to have our tent set up at our campsite in Colorado National Monument.

While utilizing the Access Pass to get into the park to hike and enjoy the scenery would have been enough for me, this pass also enables me to get discounts on campsites within the park which means my budget goes further. I grabbed an envelope, then went to go pick out our site. I set up camp, filled out the envelope, and posted the slip on the board showing that I've claimed my site. On the envelope there was a spot to write my Access Pass number. Finally, I put my payment in the envelope and dropped the envelope into their secure fee station tube that was back at the kiosk where I got the envelope. It's that simple!

 

STEP FOUR: Planning More Adventures

I've only just begun exploring the world of National Parks. My GRIT Freedom Chair has already opened up a wide array of trail opportunities. However, now that I have my  Access Pass my adventures will be beyond epic. So much to see and do! Luckily, no matter where I travel, there are opportunities for exploring Federal Lands. To start planning a trip of your own, click on a a state or territory below! Happy Trails!


NATIONAL PARKS BY STATE

Other United States of America Federal Territories