Saturday, April 29, 2023

Palm Springs & Joshua Tree National Park, CA - A Wheelchair Accessibility Travel Guide

 Kellisa and I were in Los Angeles in the summer of 2013 for a couple of days for a speaking engagement. We had a few hours and decided to drive over to Joshua Tree National Park. With our limited time, we visited the park like most people, we stopped at a visitor center, I pushed Kellisa on the short, paved trail behind the visitor center, and we drove through the northern part of the park stopping at scenic views for pictures before heading back to Los Angeles. We knew we'd be back; we just didn't realize it would take almost 10 years to return to the region.

April 2023

We selected the Palm Springs region for Kellisa's first adventure trip after the pandemic because it was a relatively short flight from our home outside Sacramento and the area had an abundance of outdoor activities for Kellisa to enjoy.

After getting our rental SUV from National Car Rental, our first stop was to check in to our accessible room at the Fairfield Inn and Suites in Palm Desert, CA. There was a little confusion at check in and we had a choice of a room with one king bed and an accessible roll in shower or a room with two queen beds and large tub in the bathroom. Since it was only a few nights, we decided to go with the one king because it's getting too hard and dangerous for me to lift Kellisa in and out of a tub, we really need the accessible roll in shower. I was disappointed that the accessible rooms were on the second floor without regard to how you will get down in case the elevators stop, especially in a fire emergency. And yes, that has happened to us before (hotel safety - fire story). 

We found the room clean and meeting our expectations. We could see palm trees and desert with snowcapped peaks in the distance from our hotel room. Before leaving, we spent a few minutes checking out the outdoor pool and hot tub. Kellisa and I were hoping to swim at least once and I imagined relaxing in the hot tub in the evenings after a long, adventure-filled day, but we were always too tired and didn't get a chance to swim. The hot tub and pool both had lifts to make it easier for those with physical disabilities.

Living Desert Zoo and Gardens

Our first adventure would be the Glow in the Dark event at the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens. Our tickets were for an 8pm entry and we arrived a little early since it was our first visit. All the disabled parking spots were taken, but we were able to find an end spot which made lifting Kellisa out and back into the SUV easier than a boxed in regular spot.

Visitors could see the colorful glow in the crisp nighttime air before entering the zoo. There was a noticeable buzz of excitement from children and adults alike. By purchasing our entry tickets in advance, we were able to bypass the ticket windows and proceed directly to the zoo where we were greeted by the first of hundreds of hand-crafted lanterns lighting up the zoo. A large dragonfly garden was the first to grab Kellisa's attention and the bubble machine had children of all ages enthralled. 

We spent the next two hours wandering through the entire zoo watching animals in natural habitat exhibits going about their evening routines. Visiting a zoo at night-time is a completely different experience because animals are often on the move away from the heat of the afternoon. The downside is it's a little more difficult to observe animals in the evening light, but Kellisa had no trouble following the larger mammals. The zoo even has an accessible carousel, but Kellisa was too busy wheeling around to stop and take a spin. Next time!

But the highlight of the visit was the unique lanterns which came in all colors and sizes. They weren't limited to one area as they were consistently placed throughout the entire zoo. Not surprisingly, Kellisa was most attracted to the large snake and chomping alligator lanterns. Even in the darkness, we found the zoo accessible without any obstacles other than an occasional kid running around or aimlessly wandering adults trying to find the best selfie spot. 

Joshua Tree National Park

Because we toured the northern part of the park in 2013, we started our first day with a visit to the Cottonwood Visitor Center near the southern entrance of Joshua Tree National Park. Kellisa and I looked around the bookstore where I needed to purchase a water bottle because I forgot mine back in the hotel room. Thankfully, I had everything Kellisa needed for an enjoyable visit. It was a little weird when the ranger told me that the water fountain doubles as the bathroom sinks. The park did not have water or any other beverage for sale and I didn't want to waste time leaving the park to find a gas station or convenience store, so I reluctantly filled my new bottle and tried to forget its source.

We found a short (0.1 Miles) and unnamed natural surface trail directly behind the visitor center. We completed the loop without seeing any other hikers. Kellisa enjoyed the natural sights along our drive on the park road where we stopped often to observe and photograph wildflowers blooming after recent record rains. 

While not rated as accessible, we found the Cholla Cactus Garden Trail (0.2 Miles) easy to navigate in Kellisa's manual wheelchair despite a few minor barriers: large rocks, a short raised wooden bridge, and the soft natural surface. Any minor struggle was easily offset by the thousands of trailside cacti and endless views across the desert to the surrounding jagged mountains. 

Before leaving the park, we made sure to hike the accessible Bajada Trail (0.3 Miles) near the southern entrance. Again, we had a trail to ourselves, and we took advantage by taking our time to complete the loop. While many in wheelchairs might prefer fully paved trails, Kellisa and I enjoyed the natural surface on her third trail completed for the day in Joshua Tree.


Palm Springs Aerial Tramway 

I made reservations for dinner near the top of a mountain buried in six feet of snow. For those not familiar with the Palm Springs region, San Jacinto Peak rises to almost 11,000ft. above sea level and over 8,000ft from the surrounding desert, making it the sixth most prominent peak in the lower forty-eight states. While you can reach the lofty summit by trail, I decided to take the easy path and booked a ride on the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway

The tram takes riders from the valley to near the top in just 12 1/2 minutes. The station was completely accessible with an elevator to bypass the entrance stairs and the tram attendant had Kellisa board first which always makes it easier for everyone involved. The tram is 1 of only 3 in the world that rotates while ascending and descending the cables giving riders 360-degree views. Kellisa's favorite parts were when the tram passed over the support towers because the tram rocked and bounced more than usual. Everyone enjoyed her infectious giggles.

Once on top, we enjoyed the vast views, and Kellisa loved throwing snowballs at me. It didn't take long to get a little chilled and we went inside the mountain station. Kellisa warmed by the fire while I got our dinner. Our meal was hearty, and the atmosphere of the Pines Caf√© was second to none. 

Before catching the second to last tram down for the night, we took one more look at the now fully lit valley far below. The tram attendant filled our ride back down the mountain with classic rock songs blasting from the speakers. Kellisa and most of the riders enjoyed singing "Sweet Home Alabama" in the darkness.  

Red Jeep Tours

While researching things in the Palm Springs region for Kellisa, the Red Jeep Tours was the one that jumped out at me immediately as a winner and we weren't disappointed. It was hard to tell how accessible the tours are from the website since many involve hiking and I knew we wouldn't have any of Kellisa's hiking chairs on this trip, so I sent an email asking questions. 20 years ago, when Kellisa was just starting to push what's possible for a kid trapped in a wheelchair, I usually didn't ask questions because too often, we would receive a quick, "No" or "You can't do that" or "Wheelchairs aren't allowed." We would just show up and I wouldn't take "No" as an answer and we would figure something out.

I'm happy to report that times have changed for the better, but the disabled community still has a long way to go before total acceptance. A representative quickly returned my email with a few follow-up questions so they could understand what we needed. I took this as a promising sign and summarized our vision of a dream jeep tour. After several more emails and finally a phone call, we decided to hire a private Jeep for the afternoon. We would be pared with the most experienced driver who knew all the remote and rough canyons better than anyone else. Our main ask was for the bumpiest trails possible since that is Kellisa's favorite part of off-road driving. We would not be disappointed.

We met our tour driver as planned and he made the transfer of Kellisa as easy as can be in the middle of a desert. I carried Kellisa from our SUV, and he had a step ladder at the back of the Jeep, and he stood ready to help if I needed a little extra support. He also had a cooler filled with ice cold water and a baggy of snacks for us. For the next three hours, we got the off-road adventure of a lifetime as we navigated narrow canyons while learning about the geology of the area, including the San Andreas Fault. Our driver was also knowledgeable of the local wildlife, including lizards and birds. We were disappointed to learn that we were a few weeks too early to see rattlesnakes on the tour. After getting to know us a little, our driver pointed out several rugged trails that he knew we could do if we ever returned to the area. I'm sure it would have been fun to share the Jeep with other people, but it was worth it to have a fully customized tour with a company that listened to our unique needs and more than exceeded our expectations.


The Good House Spa

While looking over a map, I noticed a town between Palm Springs and Joshua Tree National Park called Desert Hot Springs. It brought back memories of when Kellisa and I stayed at Harrison Hot Springs Resort and Spa in British Columbia, Canada, for a few days. We both enjoyed the relaxation and soaking while the hot springs did temporary miracles for Kellisa's cerebral palsy. I searched online to see if Desert Hot Springs actually had hot springs and it didn't take long to confirm they did. With several options available, I zeroed in on the Good House Spa which offered day passes for the pool and jacuzzi area if you weren't staying overnight in their hotel. When I read, "Adults only," I paused with disappointment for a second before remembering that Kellisa is no longer a child, in fact, she's a 23-year-old adult.

After carefully studying the pictures and reviews I could find online, I decided it looked accessible enough and called to purchase our day passes. I explained our situation and needs and the lady on the phone thought we would be able to navigate around their grounds with little problems.

The one disabled parking spot was taken when we arrived, but one of the end spots was open. It was a little tight, but I was able to get Kellisa out and back in without too much trouble. We were greeted at the gate and shown the grounds. Kellisa and I decided to enjoy a nice lunch before soaking in the pool. Kellisa ordered a gourmet grilled cheese sandwich, and I enjoyed mushroom nachos with fresh fruit.

We let lunch settle a little before getting ready to soak. The changing room was a little small and the attendant opened a massage room for me to change Kellisa into her swimsuit. We made sure we left the room exactly the way we found it and really appreciated the accommodation.

Kellisa pointed to the pool with excitement and two minutes later we were up to our chins in beautiful mineral water. We found the 94F water heavenly and spent the next three hours relaxing and playing. We were careful not to make too much noise since it was an "adults only" resort. I do have to admit that it was nice to enjoy our time without children running, splashing, and making a lot of noise. I would have taken a nap while floating under the blue skies if I weren't solely responsible for Kellisa. I thought we would end with some time spent in the jacuzzi, but we used all our time enjoying the pool. If/when we return, we will consider staying here overnight to enjoy their oasis beyond the limited hours of a day pass.

 Joshua Tree National Park

We had half a day open before our flight home and decided to go back to Joshua Tree National Park for a few hours. Kellisa and I started out at the Oasis Visitor Center and the adjacent, fully paved, and accessible Oasis of Mara Trail (0.5 Miles). 

I recognized the large boulder in front of the "Entering" Joshua Tree National Park sign from our first visit and pulled over so I could help Kellisa pose so we could recreate a picture.

It seemed like the park was crowded for a weekday with many parking lots filled beyond capacity with cars overflowing along the side of the roads. I had good luck finding disabled parking spots and only passed up a couple of stops along our drive. I drove through a campground to check out the one accessible campsite and I must admit that we liked the look of it, a lot! Next time! We found some unpaved roads to explore across the desert and through the Joshua Trees where few of the park's visitors dare to explore. While not extremely bumpy, Kellisa still enjoyed the drive. 

I read that there was a short, paved trail to a viewpoint called, Lower Keys View Overlook, so we had to check it out. The sidewalk was so short (0.1 Miles), I wouldn't consider it a trail, but the views were outstanding as we could see the valley far below set against an impressive mountain backdrop. We drove to the end of the road, called Keys View. I parked in a disabled spot with an unobstructed view similar to the Lower Keys View and noticed another paved trail which circled to the top of the overlook a short distance from the parking lot. I could have pushed Kellisa to the top even though it's not rated accessible due to the steep grade, but we had a flight to catch, and I didn't want to get too dirty and sweaty. Next time!

There was just enough time for one last time stop and Kellisa picked the Tree of Life wayside. We couldn't resist exploring the unmarked trails (0.3 Miles) behind the informative sign where we spent a little too much time. We had to postpone our lunch as we raced back to the airport to catch our flight home. After such a successful trip, I doubt it will be another decade before we return to the Palm Springs region. 

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