Although train excursions don’t immediately pop to mind at the mention of national parks, they aren’t exactly out of the question either. In fact, rail excursions are not uncommon in and near a number of US national parks. And the great news is, not only do these excursions offer some gorgeous views of the surrounding countryside, but they also give passengers a good feel for the history of the area. So check out these accessible rail excursions on your next national park adventure.
Grand Canyon Railway
This day-long excursion departs from Williams, and travels through a Ponderosa Pine forest before it crosses open prairie land and climbs back up to the depot on the Grand Canyon’s South Rim. During the two-hour journey, roving musicians entertain passengers with western songs, and on-board attendants are available to field questions about Grand Canyon activities. And on the return trip, keep a lookout for the nefarious Cataract Creek Gang, who have been known to regularly hold-up the train.
Although the railway dates back to 1901, access upgrades have been added over the years, so today everyone can enjoy this scenic ride. There’s level access to the Williams Depot, gift shop, coffee stand and accessible restroom. The Fray Marcos Hotel — which opened to the public in 1908 — once occupied the left portion of the depot. Today most vestiges of this 43-room Harvey House are gone, however there are some vintage photos in the former lobby, which is located next to the gift shop.
Access aboard the train is excellent, with lift access to the Pullman, coach and first class cars. The Pullman cars have bench seats that can be configured to face each another; while the coach cars have front facing bench seats and air conditioning. The first-class cars have comfortable reclining seats, large windows and air conditioning. All of the accessible cars have wheelchair tie-downs, nearby companion seats and an accessible restroom. Power outlets are located near the accessible seats, and the lifts are large enough to accommodate scooters and heavy power wheelchairs.
The train makes two daily round-trips to the South Rim in the summer; and one a day the rest of the year. Most people go up and back on the same day, but you can also purchase a package that includes overnight accommodations. It’s a great way to see the South Rim, especially if you lack accessible transportation.
Yosemite Sugar Pine Railroad
Although this historic railroad bears the name of the national park, the depot is actually located in Fish Camp, which is just outside Yosemite’s South Entrance. That said, this historic narrow gauge railroad is a must-do on any Yosemite visit, as it offers a time-hop back to the early 1900s, when this tiny railroad hauled massive logs out of the pine forests near Yosemite.
Access is good at the station, with accessible parking located in the upper lot next to the ticket office and store. Accessible restrooms, the Thornberry Museum and a book store are located below the store; and although there is a paved pathway to them, manual wheelchair-users will require some assistance because of the grade. And don’t forget to pop in to the store before you hop on the train, as it features a nice collection of vintage photos of the local area.
Wheelers and slow walkers can board the rail cars via a portable roll-up ramp, and once aboard, wheelchair-users can stay in their own wheelchairs. Pulled by a vintage Shay locomotive, the open-air rail cars wind through the forest, while passengers are regaled with stories of the lumberjacks and engineers of yesteryear. About halfway along the journey, the train stops at Lewis Creek to take on water, before it pulls around Horseshoe Bend and climbs back up to the station.
These hour-long excursions operate from April through October, weather permitting. And although walk-in passengers can usually be accommodated, reservations are highly recommended during the peak summer season.
Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad
Last but not least, if you find yourself in Northeastern Ohio, then don’t miss the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad. The railway dates back to the late 1800s, when the Valley Railroading Company transported coal from the Tuscarawas River Valley to Cleveland, Akron and Canton. The line later became part of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, until Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad began their popular national park rail excursions in 1975. And the good news is, not only does this railway go right through Cuyahoga Valley National Park, but it also boasts a purpose-built accessible car.
There’s accessible parking next to the Rockside Station in Independence, level access over to the ticket counter, and an accessible vault toilet nearby. And if you can’t walk far, a loaner wheelchair is available for boarding. There’s lift access to the accessible car, which came from the Central of Georgia Railroad and dates back to the 1940s. After a $250,000 renovation, the car now has 60 seats, all of which can be flipped up to accommodate wheelchair-users. In fact, once they even filled the whole car with a group of disabled veterans, many of who were in wheelchairs. Top it off with a large accessible restroom and you have a very inclusive and accessible car.
The 2.5-hour national park excursion travels south from the Rockside Station, along the scenic Cuyahoga River, and presents numerous opportunities for wildlife viewing. Volunteers are on board to point out sights along the way, but keep your eyes peeled for the bald eagle nest – and the resident eagles — just north of Breckville. The train continues south past the Boston Store Visitor Center and Peninsula Depot, and finally winds its way down to the Akron Northside Station. After that, it turns around and heads back to the Rockside Station. It’s an excellent way to get a good overview of the park, and to make notes of places you may want to return to later. And you just can’t beat the scenery.
The train operates on Tuesday through Sunday from January to October, and on weekends in November. There are no national park excursions in December, when volunteers devote their efforts to the seasonal – and very popular — Polar Express. Tickets for the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad are available online or at the station.
As an added bonus, active military, veterans and first responders ride for free on Thursdays between June and September. They can also bring up to three guests at half-fare during this time. So plan ahead to save some cash, but don’t miss this excellent rail excursion.