A Trail Guide for Disabled Hikers

I was well into adulthood when I realized that hiking was an activity that I could participate in. I grew up with multiple disabilities and chronic illnesses and thought being “outdoorsy” was only for able-bodied people. I couldn’t find information about hiking as a disabled person, so I spent a lot of time trying to figure it out for myself.

Accessibility is improving, but there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Different disabilities — and even people with the same disability — have different needs. For instance, I look for trails that don’t have long inclines or obstacles like big rocks and steep stairs, are shady and wide enough to use a cane or trekking poles, and have benches or places to rest (I often bring a collapsible chair).

Wheelchair accessibility, in particular, means different things. A truly wheelchair-accessible trail is flat, wide and has a firm surface with no obstacles. Trails with steeper, more rugged sections may be an option for experienced outdoor-wheelchair users or those using all-terrain chairs. I refer to these trails as wheelchair hikeable.

For many travelers with disabilities, much depends on a trail’s grade or slope. You can often find this information, expressed as a percentage, on park websites or trail apps. A slope over 12 percent may be difficult for people with mobility or cardiopulmonary concerns, and inaccessible for most wheelchair users. Other considerations include tactile signage and maps, which have raised elements for exploration by touch; accessible parking; and excessive or unexpected noises, which can lead to sensory overload for people with sensory-processing disorders.

Access to nature is so important for our well-being. Everyone deserves to experience it — and those with disabilities can on these accessible summer adventures.


California

Northern California’s redwood country is one of my favorite places. Coast redwoods are the world’s tallest trees, and one can’t help but feel humbled by them. Redwood National and State Parks, which are in Yurok and Tolowa ancestral territory, include forests, prairie ecosystems and coastline, much of it accessible.

These trails, designed for people who use wheelchairs and other mobility aids, and for people who are blind or have low vision, combine to create a three-quarter-mile loop that begins at the Prairie Creek Visitors Center in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, part of the Redwood National and State Parks system. The Access trail winds beneath redwoods along Prairie Creek, and there is an overlook with interpretive signage about fish spawning. After a quarter of a mile, you can connect with the Revelation Trail or continue another quarter mile to the Elk Prairie Campground.

This 10-mile-long scenic parkway, lined with towering redwood groves, runs through Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. Visitors can experience it on foot or on wheel on the first Saturday of each month from October to May, when the parkway is closed to vehicles. You may want to use a power wheelchair to travel the entire length of the paved, gently rolling road.

This is a wonderful spot to spend a day or enjoy a picnic. The day-use area, at the end of Enderts Road near Crescent City, has a paved parking lot and accessible vault toilets. A sidewalk with edge guards leads to two accessible picnic tables on the beach with a grill and fire rings. Beach access from the picnic area is fairly level and the sand is usually well-packed. There are interpretive signs about Tolowa villages, but they are not in Braille. Beach push wheelchairs with balloon wheels that make it easier to travel over sand are available to borrow. Stop by the Crescent City Information Center to reserve one.

I first went to North Cascades a few years ago and immediately fell in love with the jagged peaks, alpine lakes and waterfalls. One of the least visited national parks, it is a great option for anyone who wants to experience the mountains without crowds. There are several accessible and low-effort trails, and opportunities to learn about the Sauk-Suiattle and Upper Skagit tribes, who maintain their traditions and rights to this land.

This 0.6-mile loop, appropriate for those using all-terrain wheelchairs, canes or hiking poles, begins at the Newhalem Powerhouse, near the visitor center. It is a delightful trail along the Skagit River in a mossy forest with tall Western red cedars. Interpretive signs, some with tactile elements, provide historical and botanical information. The compact dirt-and-gravel trail is wheelchair hikeable, but there is a 12 to 15 percent incline at the end. (You could go out and back to avoid the incline.) The trail is occasionally muddy or narrower than three feet if plants have grown along the edge. While the small gravel parking area does not have designated accessible parking, you can parallel park alongside a circular area to deploy a ramp.

Just off Highway 20, a 0.3-mile, wheelchair-accessible boardwalk and compact gravel trail loops through an ancient forest and along Happy Creek. The creek lives up to its name — I always feel joyful listening to its gentle babbling. There are several viewing areas with benches, and the paved parking area has two accessible spots; for van access you can park next to the toilet or use the parallel parking area.

Rainy Lake is technically in Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, just beyond the border of North Cascades. This mile-long paved trail, which goes by bogs, meadows and waterfalls, leads to a stunning lake in a cirque surrounded by mountains. It is shaded and there are several benches. It is most accessible for power-wheelchair users: The incline is gentle but long, with a few steep sections of 8 to 10 percent.

The trailhead begins near the parking lot entrance at the Rainy Pass Trailhead, which has several accessible parking spots, vault toilets and water in the summer.


South Dakota

My first visit here was on a cross-country road trip. After days of monochrome interstates, the colorful rock formations and prairies felt like a dream. This fascinating landscape is the result of thousands of years of geological action depositing and eroding rock. The prairies are home to bison, prairie dogs and other wildlife. The land holds cultural and spiritual significance to many Indigenous groups, including the Oglala Lakota Nation, whose Tribal Trust land makes up the park’s South Unit.

Three of the 17 trails are fully or partially wheelchair accessible, and there are many accessible overlooks. Back roads, typically gravel, may be wheelchair hikeable. It can be hot in the summer, so bring water and sun protection.

A wheelchair-accessible boardwalk leads to several tactile exhibits and fossil replicas of ancient animals that once lived there. The interpretive signage includes Braille. The trail, which is a quarter-mile round-trip, begins at a parking area on the Badlands Loop Road east of the White River Valley Overlook, where there is accessible parking and a vault toilet.

Both trails are boardwalks and begin at the same parking lot just beyond the northeast entrance. The quarter-mile, round-trip Window Trail on the south side offers views of a fantastic canyon through a natural window in the Badlands Wall. The Door Trail, which begins on the north side, is a three-quarter-mile, round-trip hike, but only the first quarter mile is wheelchair accessible. This trail leads through the Badlands Wall to a grand view of the canyon and prairie.

The beginning of this trail is wheelchair accessible and leads to an overlook. The boardwalk continues, but there are many stairs; the trail eventually becomes compact dirt and gravel, so it is most accessible to people who can navigate stairs with handrails or use hiking poles.


North Carolina and Tennessee

I lived in the Southern Appalachian Mountains for many years and fell in love with hiking there. This is one of the most biodiverse regions in the United States, home to old-growth hardwood forests and at least 19,000 species of animals and plants. It holds deep cultural connections for Appalachian culture and Cherokee people. Great Smoky Mountains is the most visited national park, but there aren’t many fully accessible trails. Here are three.

This half-mile, wheelchair-accessible paved loop takes you through a lovely forest along the West Prong Little Pigeon River. There may be road noise, but you can still enjoy the sights and sounds of the river from one of many benches. There are remnants of chimneys and rock walls, and tactile interpretive signs. The parking area, just south of the Sugarlands Visitor Center, has five accessible parking spots, but the striped aisles may be too narrow for a van.

This 1.5-mile-long trail, which begins at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, is generally hikeable for people with mobility considerations. It is partially wheelchair accessible and may be wheelchair hikeable for those with all-terrain chairs. There are lots of benches. The first tenth of a mile is paved and takes you to the Mountain Farm Museum, where the trail transitions to gravel with some grass. It continues along the river and is generally level for another half a mile, where there is one steep section over 20 percent. The trail is under three feet wide in some places and may be slightly muddy, with loose gravel and exposed roots. The visitor center has paved accessible parking, restrooms and water fountains.

The Little River Trail, a gravel road that follows the river, is not designated accessible, but many disabled people, myself included, have enjoyed it. It is most suited for people using power wheelchairs, all-terrain manual chairs, walkers or hiking poles. You can have a solitary experience here, complete with wildlife sightings, and the river provides a wonderful visual and auditory background. The trail begins past the Elkmont Campground, with accessible parking nearby. The first 0.2 mile is a little rough, with some broken asphalt and gravel, but it transitions to packed gravel. A mile in, a large boulder serves as a turnaround spot.


New York

At Letchworth State Park, the “Grand Canyon of the East,” the Genesee River flows through a deep gorge surrounded by lush forest. I have not visited this park, but it is home to the mile-long Autism Nature Trail, with eight stations that engage different senses. It is popular and safe for children with autism, and is also accessible to autistic adults and wheelchair users.

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