Going Beyond Paved Trails

Increasing Disability Access to Outdoor Recreational Opportunities

by Rowan Brady

A defining characteristic of northern Michigan is the natural landscape. From the Lake Michigan beaches to the dense forests, the outdoors and recreational opportunities are not few or far between. Outdoor recreation has countless health and social benefits. Spending time in the outdoors has been proven to lower the risk of chronic illness, reduce obesity, increase immune systems and increase life expectancy. Additionally, outdoor recreation opportunities strengthen the community by promoting land stewardship and build social connections across racial, socioeconomic and age groups. But not everyone has equal access to recreation opportunities. Planning and designing outdoor recreation facilities in coordination with disabled individuals and advocacy groups increases accessibility and removes participation barriers by encouraging design that suits the needs of all user groups. Syren Nagakyrie, founder of Disabled Hikers a community group based in Washington State, outlines several strategies to improve disability access to the outdoors:


Adding information about elevation gain, trail material and a geographic map at access points along the facility allows for people to make their own decisions about the recreational facility. Publishing this information along the trail, online and in guidebooks allows for people to assess the accessibility of the trails as it relates to their personal needs.

Reducing Barriers at Seat Height

Rock walls and other barriers along visual overlooks obscure the view and perspective of those in wheelchairs. Redesigning barriers so those at seat height can see improves visual access to those in wheelchairs.

Trail Entrances

Many trailheads have posts to prevent vehicular traffic, but these can often present challenges for people with wheelchairs and walkers. Ensuring that trail entrances are wide enough for wheelchairs and walkers removes a substantial accessibility barrier at many trailheads.


While many recreational facilities have seating along trails or in parks, adding additional seating and marking the seating on a map provides valuable information about the facility. If users know that there are dedicated rest areas this allows them to segment longer activities.

Audio Panels

Audio panels should be placed at signage locations and points of interest to aid the visually impaired. This allows users to access information that is often written on plaques or signage. Small and effective design interventions like the ones outlined above significantly improve accessibility to the outdoors for disabled individuals. But it is critical to think about these design interventions at the beginning stages of recreational facility development.

Traverse Area Recreation and Transportation Trails and the University of Michigan are currently partnering on a project to explore a potential connection between the Leelanau Trail and the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail. A main component of this project is gathering public feedback on a proposed connection. Because the project is in an early stage it is critical that we gather information from a wide range of stakeholders on the proposed connections. This current project will inform specific trail design in the future and the feedback gathered during this project will influence additional work later. If you would like to provide written feedback on the project, please reach out to Rowan Brady at rowanb@umich.edu.

Learn More | Disability Network's Access For Everyone

Disability Network's Access for Everyone is a campaign led by local individuals to ensure EVERYONE has the ability to actively work, play, and live in our community. This grassroots movement advocates for universal accessibility and provides solutions to break down the barriers that prevent people with disabilities from participating in our community. Click here to learn more!