The Outdoors Are for Everyone

How Accessible Trails Are Changing the Landscape of Outdoor Recreation
By Jillian Manning | Northern Express

Northern Michigan is a golden goose of the great outdoors, with thousands of miles of trails that offer scenic views of lakes, rivers and forests. As our region continues to attract more residents and tourists—and a large segment of our population ages—the need for accessible trails is predicted to grow.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that just over one in four adults in the United States has some kind of disability, amounting to 26 percent of our population or more than 61 million people.  The numbers jump higher after age 65, when two in five adults live with a disability.

The good news is that our community is hard at work building and upgrading trails so that more natural areas can be used by more people. Northern Express connected with some of the leaders in the accessibility space to see what it takes to make a trail accessible, how we’re doing with the trails in our area and what the future holds.

From the Community Community

Many of the local conversations about accessible trails begin with Disability Network Northern Michigan, a nonprofit based in Traverse City that works with individuals, families, businesses and governments to create a more welcoming community.

“We have a motto: ‘Nothing about me without me.’ Don’t make claims about people with disabilities or talk about people with disabilities without including them,” says Jim Moore, the organization’s executive director.

Moore explains that when it comes to building accessible trails, the Americans with Disabilities Act  lays out baseline regulations for a trail’s grade, width, surface and other specifications for planners. For example, accessible trails must have a stable surface like concrete, asphalt, crushed gravel or wood. They must also have a clear-tread width of three feet, though five feet is required for two wheelchairs to pass safely, so planners need to build in wider spots throughout the trail.

A trail that is designed to meet the Americans with Disabilities Act guidelines for people with disabilities is considered ADA accessible. A trail can also be universally accessible, which means it has been designed to be enjoyed by people of all ages and abilities, typically using the Americans with Disabilities Act guidelines as the baseline and then going above and beyond. Things like wayfinding signage, navigation cues, the placement of benches and edge protection all play a role in making a trail easier to use.

While more time, cost and planning goes into building an accessible trail than a footpath through the woods, Moore believes the end result is more enjoyable not just for people with disabilities, but for all users. “Anytime we do things for people with disabilities on access, it makes it easier, safer, more convenient,” he says.

Not every trail can be made accessible, but Moore says northern Michigan has earned a solid B+ grade for the strides that have been made thus far. He gives kudos to forward-thinking partners like TART Trails and the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy and points to the impact of the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund, which falls under the Department of Natural Resources, for freeing up funding grants. But at the end of the day, he says the most important catalysts of change are the individual people who call northern Michigan home.

“The thing I think you can do as a citizen is to really talk about the need for accessibility and why it’s important to be inclusive and welcoming as a community,” Moore says. “It’s really about broadening your thinking as well, in terms of ‘Hey, who should we be thinking about to invite to the table for a conversation?"

To the Trails

TART Trails asked themselves that very question, and it has led to a fruitful partnership with the Disability Network for trail design and redesign. TART has long been dedicated to the concept of making trails that are welcoming to all, but their efforts toward accessible recreation have become a priority in the last decade.

“In the last 10 to 15 years, accessibility has come into focus, the ability for everyone to be able to get outside and utilize and explore these natural areas that we have,” says Julie Clark, executive director of TART Trails.

TART offers roughly 50 miles of ADA-compliant trails in its network, including sections of the Buffalo Ridge Trail, Leelanau Trail, Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail, the TART, Three Mile Trail and the Boardman Lake Loop Trail (set to be completed this summer). More mileage is on the way with projects like the highly anticipated Nakwema Trail from Acme to Charlevoix.

Clark says opportunities for accessibility go into the planning of every new project, though she notes that it’s the hilly topography of northern Michigan and other environmental factors—rather than cost—that sometimes makes meeting the accessibility standards impossible. Furthermore, according to Clark, one of the biggest challenges when it comes to accessible recreation isn’t new trail design, but old trail maintenance. “If there are heaves or bumps, we know that impacts someone’s ability to use the trail, so we work closely with our city and county to change our specs for maintenance,” she says. “That is something that TART has spent a lot of time and resources on, to make sure that as the trails age, they’re kept in great shape.”

Throughout the Region

Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy has also put accessibility at the forefront of their efforts. For an organization that is dedicated to preservation of our natural areas—a challenge in its own right—finding ways to make those spaces accessible requires some creativity.

“Our major focus is protection, but we also want to allow access without degrading what we’re protecting,” says Stephen Lagerquist, a land stewardship specialist at Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy. Lagerquist says that the best candidates for accessible trails are preserves that are relatively flat and have an attraction—like a view or a wetland or a body of water—that is easy to get to. Building a lengthy, complex and costly trail that would disrupt the environment would be a nonstarter.

Thankfully, there are four preserves in the conservancy’s portfolio that fit the bill, most notably Arcadia Marsh, which was designed thanks to feedback from the community. The original plan, Lagerquist says, was to build a  four foot wide boardwalk halfway to the marsh. But after hearing from trail users and getting the green light to “dream big,” the project wound up with a  six foot wide trail with overlooks and fishing platforms that reached all the way across the marsh.

“The feedback we’ve been getting is jaw dropping,” Lagerquist says. He tells the story of a woman who, due to an illness, now uses a wheelchair. She had loved visiting the marsh in her youth, but hadn’t been able to explore it for 20 years until the trail opened. “She got to the overlook on Lake Michigan and she said she sat there for a good ten minutes. She couldn’t see because she was crying so hard. And she said when she finally could see, she was just absolutely blown away.”

Lagerquist says anecdotes from other users at Arcadia Marsh have shown that the trail didn’t just open doors to people with mobility impairments, but also to families with babies in strollers, people recovering from surgeries like knee replacements, individuals using oxygen tanks and so many more. This is why Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy is committed to finding more opportunities to create accessible trails, and Lagerquist notes that they have several in the pipeline. “If you’ve got something that people love and enjoy and you can make it accessible, it’s totally worth doing,” he says.

Across the State

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources  appears to align their goals with Lagerquist’s statement. According to Acting State Trails Coordinator Kristen Bennett, the state has a short-term goal of making 20 percent of parks and trail systems accessible in the next ten years, then another 20 percent, and so on. The work is incremental, and accessibility is taken into account every time someone is replacing an old bridge, resurfacing a pathway, adding signage or breaking ground on a brand-new trail.

Bennett points to the work done at Ocqueoc Falls in the northeastern part of the state as a good example of this incremental change. What started with redoing a stairway led to improving the experience at the falls for everyone. “We put in a very accessible area down at the bottom of the falls, and then we created a road up to the top of the falls and then created another very accessible platform at the top,” she explains. “You have two views—one at the bottom of the falls and one at the top of the falls—so you can experience the whole thing without necessarily having the difficulty of a staircase.”

The Department of Natural Resources works on state parks and trails, but also frequently partners with organizations like TART on projects in communities around Michigan. The state has also developed an Accessibility Advisory Council with more than 20 members in the public and private sectors, including experts in mobility, rehabilitation, civil rights and more. All of these steps lead toward a brighter and more inclusive future. “Accessibility is not something that’s separate,” Bennett says. “It is something that is helpful for all.” Be sure to check out the helpful guide on the Department of Natural Resources' website for accessible recreation opportunities at michigan.gov/dnr/about/accessibility.

Where to Find Accessible Trails

There are dozens of accessible trail options throughout northern Michigan, so we asked the four experts from our story to pick some of their favorites.

Jim Moore | Disability Network Northern Michigan
Timbers Recreation Area
Betsie Valley Trail

Julie Clark | TART Trails
Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail
Boardman Lake Loop Trail

Stephen Lagerquist | Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy
Arcadia Marsh Nature Preserve
Arcadia Dunes: The C.S. Mott Nature Preserve

Kristen Bennett | Department of Natural Resources
Little Traverse Wheelway
North Country Trail

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Northern Express | The Outdoors Are for Everyone