Ways That Accessibility Is (Slowly) Improving on Public Lands

A park visitor uses an off-road wheelchair in Glacier National Park.

The United States has over 640 million acres of federal land. States and local governments manage another 199 million acres. Most of these public lands are open for recreational use. But how accessible is that land for the 40 million Americans living with disabilities?

As of 2017, around 12.7% of the U.S. population had some type of disability. That includes any condition (physical or mental) that significantly impacts an individual’s life activities. Those with disabilities already face enough challenges—experiencing nature shouldn’t be one of them. These are a few ways that accessibility is expanding on public lands across the country.

Building Accessible Trails, Bridges, and Ramps

The most common type of disability in the U.S. is that which affects an individual’s mobility. In 2017, over 20 million Americans reported serious difficulty walking or climbing stairs. These special mobility needs can make it difficult for people to visit parks and forests.

Luckily, teams like SCA’s Excelsior Corps are working to change that. This past year SCA crews built accessible trails in Moose River Plains and Beaver Brook in the Adirondacks of New York. Two crews of dedicated AmeriCorps members spent a total of 29 days last summer living and working outdoors to improve those trails. 

They hauled, spread, and compacted over 400 tons of crushed stone over the course of the projects. These scenic trails now provide access to hiking, fishing, and wildlife viewing for people with limited mobility. Excelsior is slated to build more accessible trail for New York’s public lands in its upcoming season.

Across the country in Oregon, another SCA crew also built accessible trails. Crater Lake National Park has 183,000 acres, most of which are in the backcountry and generally inaccessible to visitors with mobility impairments. There is one exception. An SCA crew dug and leveled tread, and added gravel to the Godfrey Glen trail. They also replaced a small pedestrian bridge and benches, two structures that will allow more visitors to wind through the old-growth forest.

In Colorado, an SCA crew focused on projects to provide equal access to nature in two main locations, the Alpine Guard Station in Uncompahgre National Forest, and at South Bank in the Taylor Canyon.

At the Alpine Guard Station, the crew installed two ramps with guardrails to provide wheelchair access to the cabin and re-surfaced the paths leading from the parking areas and to the bathrooms. 

At South Bank, the crew widened the trail, controlled for erosion, resurfaced the trail, and constructed a river access point for wheel chairs. The crew responded well to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) trail project; they could see the contrast in access and even knew disabled individuals who could benefit directly from this project. Because of this personal investment, morale, energy, and quality of work all improved.

Interpretive Programs for the Deaf

In 1979, Yosemite National Park pioneered sign language interpretation during the summer. Now, Yosemite and a few other parks offer sign language interpreting and assistive listening devices upon request. These critical services allow deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals to explore America’s natural wonders. Hearing aids, for example, might help someone hear Yosemite’s falls for the first time.

Signing rangers are reaching outside the parks, as well. This past fall, SCA intern Morgan Geelsin led a program about the Manhattan Project National Historical Park to the Knoxville School for the Deaf.  

Nature Signs in Braille

Braille trails help vision-impaired people navigate through parks or forests. Tactile supports (guide ropes, for example) encourage a safe and independent nature experience.

The first of its kind was the Aspen Braille Trail in the Colorado Rockies, built in 1967. A 1968 issue of Trends in Parks & Recreation discussed the importance of these trails.

“What makes this a special trail is that it was designed for the sightless members of society, who up until now have not had an opportunity to go forth unaided into the forest to enjoy and be stimulated to creativity by the very essence of nature,” wrote Janice Collins.

Today, you can find sensory trails that allow both seeing and non-seeing explorers to observe the natural world through touch, sound, and smell.

Tips for Your Next Visit

These last few tips might help make your next adventure even better. 

  • Call ahead of your visit to talk with staff and volunteers about specific accommodations and requests.
  • Ask about current trail conditions that may impact otherwise accessible paths. Just in case a heavy rain or downed tree gets in the way temporarily.
  • Browse wheelchair accessible parks in your state to find places to visit.
  • Find sensory and Braille trails by state.
  • Get a free ($10 processing fee) lifetime pass that provides admittance to more than 2,000 federal recreation sites.
  • Take a look at your local and state park passes. There are often free and discounted passes for those with disabilities.

We are moving toward a more inclusive outdoors, and there’s still room for improvement. New ideas and innovation will hopefully continue to inspire progress. Because every American deserves access to our treasured public lands.


Passionate about an inclusive outdoors? Read our blog about students with autism who spent the summer working on SCA trail crews this summer.