Despite the fact that one in four adults in the United States is living with a physical or mental disability, many outdoor spaces have not been designed with them in mind. Some parks started thinking about inclusive design decades ago, but the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 pushed all parks to consider ways to improve their accessibility. As awareness has grown, some parks have gone above and beyond to create trails that specifically cater to those with disabilities.
To create a truly inclusive park, you need to consider the wide range of physical, sensory, learning and intellectual barriers to individuals spending time outdoors. Updates could include creating trails with wide, paved surfaces, adding interpretive signs with audio and braille elements, creating signs with high-contrast visuals and developing tactile exhibit materials, just to name a few. In addition to these physical changes, it is essential to have staff that are well-trained in working with guests with a variety of needs.
Want to know what kind of accessible parks exist in the Chesapeake region? Read about these eight sites below!
Elizabeth Hartwell Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge (Fairfax, Va.)
Elizabeth Hartwell Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge is a 2,227-acre refuge that offers fantastic wildlife viewing. For visitors with mobility impairments, the Great Marsh Trail is a 0.75-mile paved route that leads to a viewing platform overlooking 250 acres of marsh. From this platform, visitors have the chance to see the wildlife that make the park so special. The 0.65 mile High Point Trail is another ADA compliant paved trail that connects the refuge with Mason Neck State Park, which has four paved multi-use trails.
A 15-minute drive crossing the Occoquan River will lead you to the Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge in Woodbridge, Virginia, and a two-mile loop in which to view wildlife. This trail is for driving only and goes through some of the wetlands that make up 50% of the park. The park is beautiful at all times of the year, but between March and September is an excellent time to see osprey. Both Occoquan and Mason Neck are part of the Potomac River National Wildlife Refuge Complex.
George Washington & Jefferson National Forest (Edinburg, Va.)
The Lion's Tale Accessible Trail for the Visually Impaired is a half-mile interpretive loop bordered by Passage Creek. The trail was created in the 1970s in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service, the local Lion's Club, and the Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind. The trail gets its namesake from the mountain lions that once roamed all of North America, including Virginia.
Written in braille, the trail signs are told from the perspective of its mascot, Lop Ears the Mountain Lion, and tell the story of how mountain lions once lived in the area before development changed the landscape. The signs ask visitors to listen to the water, smell the sassafras and birch that line the trails, touch the tree bark and dip their hands in the stream. In addition to providing an educational experience, the trail signs also help people navigate by telling them how to find the next sign.
Lancaster County Central Park (Lancaster, Pa.)
In Lancaster County Central Park is the Garden of Five Senses, a garden trail designed to engage all visitors' senses. The paved trail is lined with signage written in braille that teaches visitors about the plants and wildlife surrounding them and how to interact with them using all your senses. The landscaping was thoughtfully created to include plants with bright colors and strong scents, and there are mystery stations where visitors can try and match the plant with the smell. The trail also has ample benches and a picnic area with multiple tables for visitors to enjoy a packed lunch. The trail overlooks the Conestoga River, which feeds into the Susquehanna River and eventually the Chesapeake Bay.
Catoctin Creek Park and Nature Center (Frederick, Md.)
The Catoctin Creek Park Multi-Sensory Trail uses 12 interactive stations to encourage visitors to learn about the ecology of the surrounding area. Each station has an object or set of objects hidden in a sleeve above a sign, including items like tree bark, seeds, animal bones and turtle shells. Each accompanying sign has a set of clues written in braille. At the trailhead, a large sign has mounted objects for visitors to touch, hear and smell. The park also offers interpretive hikes and educational programs for elementary school students led by park staff. The trail is level, but unpaved so visitors with mobility impairments should talk to park staff to see if all parts of the trail are safe to visit.
The National Arboretum (Washington, D.C.)
The National Arboretum is a great place to learn about history and wildlife in the nation’s capital. The Arbor House, National Bonsai & Penjing Museum, Visitors Center, National Herb Garden and the National Capitol Columns are all wheelchair accessible. Some of the other trails are made of dirt or gravel, so visitors with mobility impairments should talk to park staff to check on the conditions of the trail. Visitors can drive through the arboretum and multiple parking lots are available.
Pharsalia Woods State Forest (Pharsalia, N.Y.)
Pharsalia Woods State Forest is full of unique species including the carniverous pitcher plant (Sarracenia purpurea). The National Audubon Society listed it as an Important Bird Area due to the unique preserved habitat that serves as a home and migrating territory for rare species like the sandhill crane (Antigone canadensis). Visitors with mobility impairments have the opportunity to see some of these unique species on the accessible boardwalk created in 2018. The boardwalk leads visitors from the parking lot through mature forest to an overlook above the 25-acre Round Pond wetland complex. Two benches are at the end of the boardwalk so visitors can relax and look for wildlife in the wetland.
Trap Pond State Park (Laurel, Del.)
Trap Pond State Park is a 3,653-acre park protecting vital wetlands in Laurel, Delaware.
The park contains a 90-acre pond, picnic spaces and a nature center. Six trails of varying length and difficulty make up 10 miles of multi-use trails. All of the trails provide the opportunity to see some of the unique creatures that call Trap Pond home. The park is known for its bald cypress trees. Most of the trails are made of packed gravel or boardwalks.
Cacapon Resort State Park (Berkeley Springs, W.Va.)
Cacapon Resort State Park is a 6,000-acre park in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle. Outdoor lovers looking for a multiday adventure can use the two accessible cabins at Cacapon Resort State Park. The park also has a lake, beach, spa and restaurant. There are also accessible cabins at the nearby Lost River State Park in Mathias, West Virginia.
More accessible parks in the Chesapeake region
By being thoughtful in our design, we can create parks that benefit all residents and visitors of the Bay watershed. This inclusivity will ultimately lead to more people caring about the Chesapeake Bay and advocating for its protection.
Looking for more resources on accessible trails? Take a look at the list below:
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service - Wheelchair-accessible trails of the Northeast
Accessible Adventures - The most accessible National Parks in the country
Nature for the Blind - Braille Trail Directory
Accessible Nature - Accessible Trails Directory
Find Your Chesapeake - Wheelchair Accessible Adventures