Where and how to hike in WA with a wheelchair, other assistive devices

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In Washington, able-bodied outdoor enthusiasts are fortunate to have an array of hikes of varying terrain and difficulty to pick from in just about every corner of the state. If you use a wheelchair or other assistive devices, though, like a walker, crutches or a cane, finding accessible trails can be frustrating and time-intensive.

“One of the problems with hiking with wheelchairs is the shortage of accessible trails,” said Seattle resident Jenny Schmitz, who runs the blog WheelchairWandering.com and founded the Facebook group Wheelchair Hiking. “This problem has been compounded historically with the challenge of finding information about the existing trails. In the past, I’ve had to glean information about trails from several sources. ”

Here’s a rundown on hiking with physical assistive devices.

Tips for hitting the trail

Accessibility needs for hikers who use assistive devices vary, depending on experience, equipment used and comfort level on trails. Trails do not need to be designated as ADA-accessible in order to be wheelchair-friendly, but that status does help identify trails that can accommodate assistive equipment.

Schmitz said hikers using assistive devices should look for the following when selecting a hike:

  • Barrier-free access to the trail (no gates or barriers at the trailhead)
  • Trail widths of at least 30 inches, including at the entrance
  • Trails free of tripping hazards and blockages, like roots, rocks, trees, steps and transitions
  • Firm, level surface on the trail and in the parking lot
  • Minimal slope

In addition, those using mobility aids to assist with walking should also look for:

  • Designated accessible parking near the trailhead
  • Accessible restrooms
  • Benches along the route to allow for rest stops

Trails with these features also can accommodate parents who use strollers.

In 2019, Schmitz organized a gathering of wheelchair hikers and outdoor organizations, which led to a collaboration with Washington Trails Association that created more wheelchair-friendly hiking guides and a wheelchair-friendly filter for the site. (See st.news/WTA.)

Additionally, volunteer hikers who use wheelchairs have provided accessibility information on WTA trail descriptions. Trip reports from real hikers who rely on wheeled transportation, including Schmitz, can provide updated information.

Wheel-accessible hike resources

Reliable resources regarding accessible hikes for wheeled or assistive equipment hikers can be challenging to find, but they are slowly becoming more available.

In addition to Schmitz’s Wheelchair Wandering blog, these local resources and organizations can provide helpful information:

Outdoors for All in Seattle rents a variety of wheelchairs, including all-terrain wheelchairs for those who want to venture on more rugged terrain.

Schmitz also suggested joining a Facebook group like her Wheelchair Hiking or the WA Hikers and Climbers group for up-to-date information on accessible trails. She wants hikers with wheelchairs or other assistive equipment to know they are not alone.

“Getting outdoors is indeed possible and people with physical limitations do it all the time. It’s not as rare as they might think, ”Schmitz said. “It’s challenging, but it is possible.”

Recommended hikes

Wheeled hikers can often look to rails-to-trails paths, forest service roads, double-track mountain biking roads and National Wildlife Refuges for accessible hikes. These routes and roads tend to be flat, hard surfaces that are plenty wide. Schmitz said personal recommendations are always best.

The following trails are great options for wheelchair hikers or those using assistive devices. Not all trails are accessible year-round; check conditions before you go.

Artist Point and Picture Lake – Mount Baker

The short, ADA-accessible path around Picture Lake near Mount Baker is one of the most photographed views in the United States. The view of Mount Shuksan is among the most beautiful sights in all the North Cascades and is well worth the drive to see with your own eyes. Due to the long snow season, there is a short summer window to visit. Those using assistive devices should take caution of any lingering ice or other slippery surfaces. Check recent trip reports or call the Mount Baker Ranger Station in Glacier for current conditions.

Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually Wildlife Refuge – Olympia

Named in honor of the Nisqually tribal member who fought for Native American fishing rights and was essential to the protection of this wildlife preserve, the Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually Wildlife Refuge offers several miles of accessible trails consisting of gravel paths and wooden boardwalks. The refuge, located right off Interstate 5 just north of Olympia, is teeming with native plants and wildlife, including a diversity of fish, birds and marine animals.

Discovery Park – Seattle

Seattle’s largest park has plenty to explore for hikers with assistive devices. Various viewpoints offer the chance to see shoreline birds, seals, otters and more. Anyone with children under 5 or a mobility issue of any kind can stop in at the visitor center to pick up a permit that gives access to Discovery Park Boulevard, which leads right to the beach. The North Beach Trail is partially wheel-friendly, and depending on fitness level, hikers can head back up Discovery Park Boulevard on a sidewalk. From the south parking lot, there are multiple paved trails that lead to the Fort Lawton Historic District. On the other side of the park, hikers can start in the north lot and take Texas Way to the Capehart Forest, an accessible gravel trail that leads to one of the best views of Puget Sound in Seattle. Seattle Parks & Recreation staff encourage disabled hikers to ask other hikers about conditions and for all hikers use the app Find It, Fix It to report trail hazards.

Gold Creek Pond – Snoqualmie Pass

ADA-accessible outside of the winter months, Gold Creek Pond follows a 1-mile path around the lake that is lined with wildflowers before reaching a boardwalk that hovers over a marsh. At the end of the boardwalk, a paved path leads to the shores of the clear blue pond. Bring a lunch to enjoy at the picnic area a short distance from the shore.

Iron Goat Loop – Stevens Pass

Hike along the old Great Northern Railroad that once took trains up into the Cascade Range. The first 3 miles of this trail are ADA-accessible on the lower route. The wide gravel trail that starts from Martin Creek includes bridges over stream crossings. Be sure to stop and read the interpretive signs that inform hikers about a devastating avalanche and of the people who built the railway, mainly Japanese immigrants.

Padilla Bay Trail – Skagit Valley

This all-seasons hike follows Padilla Bay, a Puget Sound estuary at the edge of the Skagit River Delta. The 8,000-acre eelgrass meadow is one of the largest in North America and is an important habitat for aquatic life, birds and sea mammals. The flat gravel path follows the estuary for 2.1 miles and features views of Lummi Island and a peekaboo view of Mount Baker.

Sqebeqsed and Perimeter Loop Trail – Seward Park, Seattle

Seward Park offers a number of wheel-friendly trails. The 2.6-mile Perimeter Loop Trail hugs the shoreline and features a direct view of Mount Rainier. The Sqebeqsed Trail is a less-frequented, 1.2-mile out-and-back that travels among some of the oldest trees in the Seattle area.

Spruce Railroad Trail – Olympic Peninsula

Originally used to haul Sitka spruce trees out from the forest, the Spruce Railroad starts in an orchard before opening to a dense forest and views of glimmering Crescent Lake. Hikers who are able to walk with an assistive device can aim for Devil’s Punchbowl, a deep blue pool of still water. The start from the Crescent Lake parking lot has a bit of an incline, so wheeled hikers may need a push assist or motorized wheelchair to navigate.