Planning a trip out west to the National Parks can seem like a daunting task for any family and may feel like an impossibility if your child has significant special needs. But with proper preparation and planning, a can-do attitude and willingness to roll with the punches, it can be done. Many of these famous places are on my personal bucket list that I have for me and my kids and I’m determined to do them. This past summer we spent two weeks out west in Colorado, Utah and Arizona visiting some of the National Parks and other interesting places so I thought I would share some tips for traveling. This is actually our second trip out there in three years. Our list of places visited so far, in that region, includes:
- Grand Canyon-both north and south rim
- Bryce Canyon National Park
- Zion National Park
- Monument Valley (Navajo Nation)
- Best Friends Animal Society (includes Kanab, Utah)
- Page, AZ (includes Antelope Canyons-part of Navajo Nation, Lake Powell-Glen Canyon NRA, Rainbow Bridge)
- Arches National Park (includes Moab, Utah)
Things to do before you head out west to the National Parks
There are a few things that any family or parents should do, but especially special needs families. With limited options for medical care as compared to around here, I suggest you read these tips on planning for a vacation with your special needs child. It has lots of good information as far as your insurance companies and so on.
Next, you need to start your planning. For us east coasters, the sheer size of the west can be overwhelming to us. We’re used to having a zillion options within 45 minutes of us. Out west, you can drive for 6 hours and not see another person. I would look at a map, decide your priorities and pick a home base. Many of the small towns-Page, Kanab, Moab-have plenty of restaurant and lodging options within the town. For my child (with special needs), I know that I would rather spend one week in the same hotel and do several out-and-back trips instead of making a big loop and staying in a different place every night. For example, from Page-the Grand Canyon, Bryce and Zion are all within a 2-hour drive. So you may want to stay in Page and do lots of day trips from there.
Another thing you want to do many weeks ahead of time, is get your free National Parks pass if you qualify. Many people with disabilities qualify for a free lifetime pass but you shouldn’t wait until the last minute. If you do not qualify for a free pass, poke around the website because senior citizens, veterans and a few other groups qualify for greatly reduced rates. The parks out west can be as much as $25 per day so you definitely want to get a free/reduced pass if you can. We visited Best Friends Animal Sanctuary and for some of the tours, reservations are required. For some of the tours, they don’t do every tour or activity every day, so you have to plan your trip according to what you want to see (we planned our trip around my niece wanting to see the horses). I would hate for any of my readers to travel all the way out there and then have to miss out on an important segment of something due to timing. Some of the places like Monument Valley and Antelope Canyon are not National Parks but are part of Navajo Nation, so visit those websites and see what your fees will be and if reservations are required. Plan ahead (but be ready to roll with the punches, of course).
The internet is your best friend for planning a trip like this. Another important note–there is not wifi and 3G/4G service every place you go out there, like what we are used to. If you are looking at something online, either write it down or print it off if necessary. Don’t assume that “I’ll just look at it on my phone when I get out there” because phone service may not be available.
Considerations for traveling to the National Parks with children with special needs-safety!
You can’t talk about traveling out west to this region of the country without talking about the weather. This photo is an actually thermometer reading for one of the days that we were there.
Yes, at about 2:00 in the afternoon it was 106 with 2% humidity! If your child is non-verbal and cannot request things or has temperature regulation issues, you need to be prepared. Of course you don’t have to visit there in June or July like we did, but they have a very dry climate year-round. The problem can be exacerbated by elevation, and some spots like the Grand Canyon can be at 7000 or 8000 feet. My boys do not drink water. I do not like to drink water, I just don’t care for it and prefer flavored water. But now is not the time to play drill sergeant and force them to drink water because it’s healthier overall and better than juice. It’s just not a battle I need to fight when we are in a climate where they could dehydrate very quickly. They drank lots of juice pouches and juice boxes that week. The weather can be a very serious safety factor.
Another really big safety factor is all the high ledges and cliffs and drop offs. Out there, there is a much bigger burden of responsibility on the traveler for making sure that they are safe, compared to what we are used to here on the East Coast. You’re allowed to walk and climb on some pretty precarious ledges. Personally, I am afraid of heights so I enjoyed the beauty of the Grand Canyon from a very safe distance. Even today as I sit here, when I think of the edge of the Grand Canyon, and Kevin and his poor motor planning, general clumsiness and impaired vision….my stomach does flip-flops!
Talk to Park Rangers, talk to seasoned hikers who have been there…and heed the warnings. There are some dangerous hiking trails, so maybe doing Angels Landing is just not in the cards for you. And that’s ok. I feel just as fulfilled for going as those who have hiked it. I’m all for pushing yourself and our kids to do bigger things, but you have to be safe and reasonable. There are plenty of fun, flat trails with wading options too.
The cabins and lodging at Grand Canyon are so cute, I want to go back and stay in one. But, there is NO LIGHT out there at night and it can be very unsafe for wanderers. Make sure you research this ahead of time to prevent any tragedies.
Food and Lodging and DRIVING out west
We know that food and lodging can be tricky with our kids. This is another area where planning is important. Again, I recommend that you stay in one of the small towns so that you have access to a grocery store. Try to stay in a hotel that offers suites or small kitchenettes or at the very least, refrigerators. If you have a padded, insulated cooler or lunch box (like I’m thinking of our 31 tote) that you can pack at the bottom of a suitcase, pack it. You should load up each day before a road trip with drinks and snacks. When you are driving from attraction to attraction or town to town, you sometimes can drive 50 or 100 miles without seeing a store or gas station.
You will be spending quite a bit of time in the car. There are just no ways around it. If your child hates the car, plan accordingly as far as how many miles you can reasonably cover in a day. On the way out and back we did Denver to Page which is 800 miles one way. I know that is my limit! We bought Kevin his own Leap Pad just for the journey so that we had two, and we loaded them up with new apps and videos. Again, don’t rely on smartphones because there may not be service. If you are renting a car, you may want to consider paying extra for one with a DVD player and then get some DVDs cheap at a consignment sale or something.
Other important tidbits to remember for traveling out west
- My smartphone was constantly searching for service and since service was limited, it wore down my battery much faster than at home. Charge your phone every chance you can.
- For each National Park that you are visiting, look online and see if they have a Junior Ranger program. Our kids loved this.
- Due to environmental concerns, most parks out there frown up bottled water (in disposable bottles). Bring or buy a refillable one and they have plenty of ice machines and water-stations to stay refilled.
- Some of the restaurants and lodges get crowded during busy seasons. See if they recommend reservations.
- Set a spending limit on souvenirs. So many cute shops, so many cute things. Have your kids save up and develop a budget for the fun stuff.
- When we did the slot canyons, we left Kevin behind as a “not this time” and I’m glad we did. I think he can do it, but it was better for us to experience it first without him so that we can help him next time. There was a woman with a cane in our group, and she did ok. I honestly don’t know how you’d get a wheelchair or walker down there.
- There are many other things to see (Lee’s Ferry, Horseshoe Bend, Rainbow Bridge, etc.) that I have not mentioned. The hardest part will be choosing!
I like the North Rim better than the South Rim, and I like Bryce more than Zion. But that’s just me…everyone has their favorites!
Have a great trip…after recapping this, I want to go again!