How Outdoor Spaces in the U.S. Are Becoming More Accessible

A new movement balancing preservation and accessibility empowers people with disabilities to more easily explore national parks and public lands.

Aimee Copeland explores Cumberland Island National Seashore.

All-terrain wheelchairs allow users like Aimee to explore the likes of Cumberland Island National Seashore.

Courtesy of Aimee Copeland

Aimee Copeland was an active 24-year-old grad student when her life changed. She went from days spent rock climbing, backpacking, and trail running in the wilds of her home state of Georgia to finding herself sitting in a wheelchair wondering if she would ever be able to access that part of herself again. A zip-lining accident in 2012 sidelined Copeland with necrotizing fasciitis, a bacterial infection that resulted in the amputation of both of her hands, her right foot, and her entire left leg.

“The longer I laid in this hospital bed watching daytime TV in outpatient rehab, I realized this population is the one that needs the outdoors the most,” Copeland told AFAR, noting that people living with disabilities often feel “the most alienated from the natural world.”

Not only did Copeland learn to explore the outdoors in a wheelchair, she became a licensed clinical social worker and holistic psychotherapist helping others reconnect to nature too. After founding the Aimee Copeland Foundation, a nonprofit that aims to create outdoor experiences for people with physical disabilities, she created All Terrain Georgia, a program that partners with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources to provide free, all-terrain track wheelchairs in 12 state parks. The project is picking up momentum: Three Georgia parks run by the National Park Service—starting with Cumberland Island National Seashore, one of Copeland’s personal favorites —will launch pilot programs in 2023 and 2024.

Copeland’s efforts are part of a growing movement aiming to bring accessibility to the outdoors and the country’s national parks—while considering preservation—with a balance of technology, the right equipment, and awareness.

Bridging the gap between accessibility and the outdoors

For a long time the conversation has been about creating accessible trails by removing natural barriers, says Jeremy Buzzell, who has led the National Park Service’s Accessibility Program since 2014. He’s worked in the accessibility field for more than two decades, starting as a special education teacher. “Now, what is beginning to happen is there is a proliferation of technology that allows people to use trails as is, and we do not need to modify those trails because [park visitors] have equipment that can overcome the barriers.”

The all-terrain chairs are a perfect example. Action Trackchair, the wheelchair model Copeland chose for her program, has caterpillar tracks that can navigate rocky terrain, power through streams and sand, and climb uphill with ease. They’re electric and “leave zero trace—no more than footprints,” she says, explaining they’re battery-powered and not noisy or destructive like four-wheelers. Plus, she adds, “We do a lot of work to identify parts of the parks that are not appropriate for these chairs—so they aren’t going to go anywhere that will mess up the soil and nature.”

Aimee Copeland in an all-terrain wheelchair in a forest beside a park sign

Aimee Copeland’s All Terrain Georgia program is opening up access to several new parks.

Courtesy of Aimee Copeland

Users have to be certified to use the all-terrain wheelchairs, and All Terrain Georgia’s website has all the instructions to make that as easy as possible. The requirement doesn’t seem to have slowed anyone down. Copeland has already heard stories from numerous people with mobility impairments about how All Terrain Georgia has helped them access the outdoors with their loved ones: a woman who walked her own service dog for the first time using an all-terrain wheelchair in Panola State Park; a father who was able to join his wife and son walking around Red Top State Park on one of their daily walks for the first time in 20 years; and even a marriage proposal powered by one of these all-terrain chairs at the top of a mountain in Cloudland Canyon State Park.

Based on the success and demand so far, Copeland aims to grow the initiative to North Carolina, where she’s based now, and in state parks, national parks, and historic and wildlife sites across the nation. “I would love to be able to do a cross-country road trip and join my family and friends on the trail.”

In addition to Georgia’s program, Colorado, Michigan, Minnesota, and South Dakota provide all-terrain wheelchairs on public trails in state and national parks. In 2019, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Michigan became the first NPS area to partner with a disability organization to ensure that all-terrain chairs could be used in a park; the lakeshore also has an accessible canoe and kayak launch and accessible campground nearby.

More progress on accessibility—but an information gap

The NPS isn’t focusing solely on wheelchair access. Over the past several decades, the organization has updated sites and exhibits with audio descriptions of views and natural elements, tactile features, braille, and more. The NPS also offers an Access Pass, a free, lifetime pass, available to U.S. citizens and permanent residents who have been medically determined to have a permanent disability. While not exclusive to the NPS, the Access Pass offers admission to more than 2,000 recreation sites and discounts to campsites and guided tours as well.

“I think people with disabilities would be very surprised by how accessible our national parks are, how many of our campgrounds have accessible sites, and how welcoming our staff is to people with disabilities,” Buzzell says.

While there’s been commendable progress in making the national parks more accessible for visitors with disabilities, there’s still work that needs to be done to make more of that information available.

“The biggest challenge for me when I’m thinking about visiting a national park is finding accessibility information,” says Cory Lee, a wheelchair user who runs the travel blog Curb Free with Cory Lee. While he recognizes that the NPS official website has an accessibility page for each park (and some have PDFs like the Yosemite Accessibility Guide and the Acadia Accessibility Guide), he says that most of the website pages typically contain minimal information. “I usually dive deeper by looking on other blogs and websites for information, but it’s always a timely process to find information.” Lee recommends Candy Harrington’s “Barrier-Free Travel” book series for their detailed information.

Thanks to accessible-travel experts like Lee, there’s more information about exploring the outdoors in a wheelchair. The award-winning blogger shares a few of his favorite parks, such as Acadia National Park due to its many accessible trail options: “Jesup Path is a good option, but Acadia has approximately 45 miles of carriage roads and most of them are easy to roll on with a wheelchair.” Lee also enjoys taking in the sweeping views from Cadillac Mountain Summit. “Most National Parks have one or two accessible trails usually, but Acadia has so much more, and that’s why it’s one of my favorite places in the world.”

Cory Lee in a wheelchair on a boardwalk in Shenandoah NP in Virginia.

Cory Lee has explored a number of national parks including Shenandoah in Virginia.

Courtesy of Cory Lee

Lee, a Georgia native, likes to get off the paved path too. He has tried out the All Terrain Georgia chairs and wishes national parks would have more to use in the future.

“Growing up, I always wanted to enjoy the outdoors with my family and friends, but it was immensely difficult,” he says. “Using all-terrain wheelchairs opened the great outdoors to me for the first time.”

Kate Nelson, of the travel blog Navigating with the Nelsons, visits national parks frequently with her daughter Mary, who has spinal muscular atrophy and uses a wheelchair for mobility. While the NPS might list the accessible trails, Nelson says it’s challenging to find which parks also offer additional accessible travel experiences. For example, when she visited Glacier National Park, she said she had a hard time finding information for the park’s Red Bus Tour.

Yellowstone and Yosemite are a few of the parks that stand out to Nelson for their in-depth accessibility guides. “Yellowstone is super accessible; the boardwalks make it very easy for a wheelchair to navigate the majority of the park. There’s also Yellow Bus Tours and accessible boat rides.” The Nelsons also camp with their RV and recommend Fishing Bridge near the Yellowstone River for accessible RV sites and Yosemite for its accessible paths through the redwoods and up to the Lower Falls area.

Buzzell notes that the national parks are continuing to create more access sites for those with disabilities beyond mobility, such as neurodivergent and autistic visitors, and the Access Pass is offered to them as well. Big Thicket National Preserve in Texas has sensory kits, a sensory story, and a soundscape guide for visitors, while Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania has implemented sensory-friendly hours at the museum and visitor center. This includes reducing loud sounds from audiovisual displays, interactives, and films—or turning them off when possible. New York’s Letchworth State Park has a mile-long Autism Nature Trail, and it is a first-of-its-kind outdoor experience with neurodiversity in mind as well.

“As I head into my 50s and my vision, hearing, and mobility decreases, my desire to enjoy national parks doesn’t change. What might need to change is my approach to enjoying them, ” says Buzzell. “We firmly believe our national parks are for everyone.”

Kathleen Rellihan is a travel journalist and editor covering adventure, culture, climate, and sustainability. Formerly Newsweek‘s travel editor, she contributes to outlets such as AFAR, Outside, TIME, CNN Travel, and more.
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