Grandma Joy’s Guide to the Best National Park Boardwalks
One of the most common questions we receive is: “Which U.S. national parks are the most accessible for older travelers?” As we crisscrossed the United States on our journey to check all the national parks off our list, time and time again we were pleasantly surprised by how accessible our public lands have become for families of all ages. One of the least stressful hikes you can take is along a wooden boardwalk, void of stumbling blocks like roots and rocks, and replete with benches to stop and rest while taking in an inspiring view. In that spirit, we are happy to share with you Grandma Joy’s favorite boardwalk trails. Whether you or someone you love is wheelchair-bound or simply requires frequent breaks to comfortably enjoy the great outdoors, we promise you are never too old to take a boardwalk stroll.
#1 Congaree National Park—Boardwalk Loop Trail, 2.4 miles round trip
When you arrive at South Carolina’s Congaree National Park, head straight to the Harry Hampton Visitor Center and check out the Mosquito Meter. If you’re lucky, you’ll arrive on a day when rangers haven’t deemed it “Ruthless” or a “War Zone.” Regardless, be sure to cover your skin with insect repellent and bring plenty of water before you depart along the wheelchair-accessible Boardwalk Loop Trail. Self-guided brochures are available in the visitor center breezeway, and the trail has numbered educational stops along the way that correspond with the natural and cultural information in your pamphlet.
A lot of people mistakenly refer to Congaree as a swamp, but this park actually preserves the largest remaining tract of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest in North America. The boardwalk is flat and leisurely, with only slight elevation changes along the way. And if you tire easily, there are plenty of benches along the entire length of the trail.
“That park was so quiet and peaceful,” Grandma Joy says. “You can just relax. There are so many interesting things along that path. I never saw such big spiders. It was wonderful to just stare at all the different designs of the webs they made. It was really something.”
Every twist and turn of the Boardwalk Loop Trail offers unique natural beauty you can’t find anywhere else in the U.S. National Park System. The vibrant red color of spotted orb-weaver spiders and the impressive size of fishing spiders are wonders to behold, although you may want to avert your eyes if you suffer from arachnophobia. The spiders aren’t the only living things that grow unusually large in Congaree, though; everywhere you look, there are giant trees to behold. Bald cypress knees (which are actually part of an impressive root system) jut out of the earth vertically like zombie hands reaching toward the dense canopy above. You will also want to stop to marvel at impressive tupelo trees and loblolly pines. Once you get to the Weston Lake overlook, stop and enjoy a beautiful bird’s-eye view of sunfish and yellow-bellied slider turtles swimming below.
#2 Everglades National Park—Anhinga Trail, 0.8 miles round trip
We arrived at the Royal Palm Visitor Center to walk along the Anhinga Trail at the crack of dawn, and take it from us when we tell you the early bird catches the alligator. We visited in September, during the wet season, which makes alligator viewing more challenging, but Grandma Joy expertly spotted these iconic reptiles basking in the morning currents left and right.
“It was amazing to see alligators and egrets so close,” Grandma Joy says. “It’s nice to get out and stretch your legs in such a serene ecosystem. We even got to see some baby alligators on this trail. They were really camouflaged. If the ranger wouldn’t have pointed them out, I doubt we would have seen them. Some of them were as small as pencils. I don’t know if you would call them cute, but I sure enjoyed seeing them.”
The Anhinga Trail is a wheelchair-accessible boardwalk that has an abundance of wildlife far beyond these iconic reptiles of the Everglades. It’s also a bird-watcher’s paradise, where you are sure to observe great egrets, tri-colored herons, white ibises, and not surprisingly, anhingas (also known as “snakebirds,” because of their distinctive curved necks) fishing in the sawgrass marsh. We were impressed by the anhinga’s lightning speed as its head emerged from beneath the water with its sharp beak speared through a tiny fish before gulping it down with equal rapidity.
Like the Boardwalk Loop Trail in Congaree, the Anhinga Trail is a self-guided trail with numerous benches to rest along the way. Don’t wait too late in the day, because the animals hide as the heat and humidity become overwhelming. There is so much beauty to absorb here if you don’t hit the snooze button on your alarm clock.
#3 White Sands National Park—Interdune Boardwalk Trail, 0.4 miles round trip
Our newest national park features the Interdune Boardwalk Trail, an elevated boardwalk that allows visitors of all ages and abilities to appreciate the world’s largest gypsum dune field. As its name implies, this boardwalk bisects two sand dunes where unique desert vegetation like soap yuccas pepper the otherwise stark white landscape.
“When the light shines on the sand, you can see different colors reflected off the sand,” Grandma Joy says. “It’s not like the typical sand you see on the beach. This sand was very fine and reminded you of a winter wonderland.”
It only takes 20 minutes to complete the entire boardwalk, so we recommend that you take your time and enjoy the unique magic surrounding you, including the distant Sierra Blanca Mountains. There are 10 educational signs along the way to help you identify plants and learn about the other native wildlife you probably won’t see.
Please remember that this wheelchair-accessible trail was created so that everyone can appreciate this fragile ecosystem. The vast majority of the park is accessible for everyone to play in the sand, but this is one area where we must obey the rules and stay on the boardwalk. If you see someone breaking the rules, kindly ask them to return to the boardwalk so these rare plants are not harmed.
#4 Yellowstone National Park—Midway Geyser Basin, 0.8 miles round trip
One of the most emblematic geologic features in the entire U.S. National Park System is Grand Prismatic Spring, the largest hot spring in Yellowstone. The Midway Geyser Basin boardwalk trail also features Excelsior Geyser and several other breathtaking hydrothermal features. Grandma Joy was 87-years-young when we hiked this trail together, and we hope more people will consider an intergenerational trip to Yellowstone to follow in our footsteps, although we hope you have better weather.
‘We didn’t get a very clear day,” Grandma Joy recalls. “It was foggy as can be, but the occasional glimpses of Grand Prismatic Spring that we saw when the fog cleared were spectacular. My gosh, these hydrothermal vents are unlike anything else you’ll see in any other park. It’s hard to describe how beautiful they are until you see them for yourself.”
Walking through the magical mist while observing this kaleidoscopic landscape in every shade of red, orange, and brown is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. This land is literally alive as the colors you’ll see have been formed by thermophilic (heat-loving) microorganisms preserved in layers of crust over the millennia.
#5 Sequoia National Park—Big Trees Trail, 1.5 miles round trip
Few experiences in life make you feel as small and young as looking up at a giant sequoia tree. The Big Trees Trail in Sequoia National Park begins across from the Giant Forest Museum and the Sentinel Tree. This wheelchair-accessible trail weaves around the verdant Round Meadow as you pass by thousand-year-old sequoias, some of the largest trees on Earth.
“There were trees of every size and shape,” Grandma Joy says. “It was a pretty walk through the meadow, and my favorite sight was a huge tree I saw that grew around this huge boulder. Surely it must have grown there from the time it was a little sapling. We never saw anything like that again. It just goes to show you that nature will always find a way. I’ll never forget it.”
Seeing the great natural wonders of our country like California’s sequoias is a privilege no matter your age. But when you see the gratitude in the eyes of visitors staring up as far as they can see from a wheelchair, that experience is pure alchemy. Grandma Joy spent most of her life in small town Ohio—she never fathomed nature could offer up trees so humbling and awe-inspiring. The Big Trees Trail is one of the best examples of how our national parks can open up new worlds of possibility to even the most wizened. It’s never too late to explore, and our parks inspire us to continue to live our lives to the fullest.
Header photo: Grandma Joy on the Anhinga Trail/Courtesy of @doctorhellbender
Brad Ryan is the founder of Grandma Joy’s Road Trip. After learning his octogenarian grandmother had never seen a mountain or an ocean, he began traveling with her to all the U.S. national parks. Four years later, Grandma Joy is now 90-years-old, and they’ve made up for lost time having checked 53/62 national parks off their bucket list. They share their journey on social media to promote a dual message of the value of intergenerational travel and environmental stewardship.