Jeanne Allen considers herself an avid hiker. But in a region blessed with so many parks, nature preserves and public open space lands that it’s hard for many hikers to decide which trail to take, Allen’s options are limited.
Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in her early 30s, she now relies on a mobility scooter to get around. And she takes it everywhere possible in her quest to check out accessible travel and recreation options for her website and blog, IncredibleAccessible.com.
“When I was still capable, I used to love to go hiking. I don’t do traditional hikes anymore because it’s too difficult. But when we do go someplace new, I’m always finding out if there are accessible trails,” said Allen, who lives in Sonoma.
She’s often disappointed, arriving in a park only to find that it would be impossible for her to experience it at all.
“When we first moved to Sonoma almost 16 years ago, Sugarloaf Ridge State Park was one of the first places we went. But I quickly realized it wasn’t going to be accessible for me,” she lamented, “so we haven’t been back, which is a shame because I hear such beautiful things about it.”
Soon, however, Allen can put the Kenwood park back on her bucket list.
Young crews with the California Conservation Corps began work in February to make the north side of Sugarloaf’s Creekside Nature Trail accessible to people in wheelchairs.
It’s only a short trek of about a half mile, but it will open up to the disabled the pleasure of being creekside among heavy stands of oaks and bay trees. The trail leads to an acorn woodpecker colony, meanders past some interesting rock formations and offers wildflower spotting in spring.
The $500,000 project calls for re-contouring the trail surface to minimize erosion and reduce water run-off. It also includes retaining walls and a small bridge.
When the trail is completed by next winter, the park will also have an accessible parking space in the east trail head parking area and an accessible crosswalk over Adobe Canyon Road to make it easier to reach the west trail head and the picnic area from the existing accessible day-use parking lot.
Under the terms of a lawsuit settlement reached in 2005, the state has been upgrading and adding facilities and trails for the disabled. A master list was created rating each state facility with a number from one to four, with four being the top priority. The state has been making its way through the list starting with the top rated priorities, said Travis Segebart, the accessible trails coordinator for California State Parks.
Upgrades have already been done at Sonoma Coast State Park and most recently at Armstrong Redwoods State Reserve in Guerneville, where the .8 mile Pioneer Nature Trail winds under a thick canopy of redwoods on a compacted soil surface. It includes interpretive signs and close looks at Fife Creek and the Icicle and Parson Jones trees.
Accessible trail improvements have also been completed at Mount Tamalpais, China Camp and Samuel P. Taylor state parks in Marin County; Sonoma State Historic Park, Salt Point State Park and Fort Ross State Historic Park in Sonoma County; Mackerricher State Park in Mendocinco County; and Clear Lake State Park in Lake County.
At Salt Point, improvements were made to about a half mile of trail from the Gerstle Cove day use parking area. The loop hugs the coast, offering beautiful ocean views. The park also has three accessible campsites, although the toilet stalls don’t meet size requirements. For picnickers, there are three accessible tables overlooking the cove.
Segebart said work also began in February to improve the The Millerton Point Trail in Tomales Bay State Park and make it more accessible to many motorized wheelchairs and scooters.
The project will encompass a one-mile loop through pastureland with views of Tomales Bay, Inverness and Heart’s Desire Beach. It can be reached from a parking lot off Shoreline Highway. And this fall, construction will begin on a project to improve accessibility on an accessible trail in Bothe-Napa Valley State Park.
Very specific guidelines must be met for a trail to be officially designated as accessible.
“Most typically we think of ADA and accessibility for the built environment with ramps,” Segebart said. “The outdoor guidelines are more flexible so it integrates with nature.”
Accessible trails are rarely paved, but they must have a firm and stable surface, such as compacted aggregate or compacted soil. The regulations also cover slope, with different elevations allowed based on conditions.
“We do make some of the trails so they have elevation changes. They’re not all flat,” Segebart said. “The ones at Armstrong and Sugarloaf are flat. Bothe Napa is not. The design is very individual and integral to each site.”
The state currently has 108 miles of accessible trails throughout the parks system.
This spring, Jack London State Historic Park is upgrading the path from The Beauty Ranch parking lot to the old winery ruins, where Transcendence Theatre Company presents its Broadway Under the Stars, to meet Americans With Disabilities Act requirements.
“The new path will be packed and graded with smooth gravel packed into the ground. We hope to have it completed before the theater starts up in mid-June,” said Tjiska Van Wyk, executive director of the Jack London Park Partners, which manages the park under an agreement with the state. They received funding for the path improvements as part of a major grant to stabilize the scenic winery ruins alongside Jack London’s old cottage.
Sonoma County Regional Parks have a number of trails that are navigable to people with mobility problems.
One of Allen’s favorites is the Sonoma Valley Regional Park in Glen Ellen, where a 1.2-mile paved path winds through a thick oak forest and along a seasonal creek with only gentle elevation changes.
Because of the cost and other geographical and environmental limitations, most accessible trails are short. To find a trail that offers a more in-depth outdoor experience is particularly exciting, said Allen.
“It just makes my heart soar when I find an accessible trail that has beautiful scenery,” she said. ‘I feel like I’m welcome in the park. A lot of the time the trails are so short it feels gratuitous, the .3-mile dodge in and out of the forest. When you find a legitimate trail that you can enjoy for more than 10 minutes, it’s such a feeling of inclusion.”
Allen also has recently discovered Spring Lake in Santa Rosa. It has a lot of paved trails, although it can be hilly in spots, requiring a powered chair or a lot of upper body strength.
One of the best nature trails for people in wheelchairs and scooters is Bodega Head. Allen said the trail is a satisfying 2.6 miles of hard-packed gravel, with clear views of the ocean and Bodega Harbor.
“I was afraid it was going to be in bad shape, but it was in great shape,” she said.
Disabled hikers frequently find that even though a trail may be identified as accessible, it may not be navigable by a wheelchair if the trail is not well maintained.
By the same token, there are trails and nature areas that are accessible but not always identified as such on websites and other literature because they don’t meet the legal definition, said Bonnie Lewkowicz. She heads up the nonprofit Access Northern California, which provides information about outdoor recreation opportunities for seniors and the disabled. Her book, “A Wheelchair Rider’s Guide to the San Francisco Bay,” is available online through her website, accessnca.org.
“We have a distinct advantage,” she said. “Because we’re a nonprofit, we can say whatever we want, and I’ve made it a priority instead to identify the accessible features and let people determine if it is going to work for them.”
Source: The Press Democrat