In Washington, outdoor enthusiasts are fortunate to have an array of hikes to choose from, with varying terrain and levels of difficulty, in almost every corner of the state. However, if you use a wheelchair or other assistive devices such as a walker, crutches, or cane, finding accessible routes can be frustrating and time-consuming.
“One of the problems with wheelchair hiking is the lack of accessible trails,” says Jenny Schmitz of Seattle, who runs the WheelchairWandering.com blog and founded the Wheelchair Hiking Facebook group. “This problem has historically been compounded with the challenge of finding information about the existing pathways. In the past I had to gather trail information from multiple sources.”
Here is an overview of hiking with physical aids.
Tips for the trail
Accessibility requirements for hikers using assistive devices vary based on experience, equipment used, and comfort level on trails. Trails do not have to be designated ADA Accessible to be wheelchair friendly, but this status helps identify trails that are eligible for assistive devices.
Schmitz said that when choosing a hike, hikers who use assistive devices should consider the following:
- Barrier-free access to the trail (no gates or barriers at the starting point)
- Lane widths of at least 30 inches, including at the entrance
- Paths free of trip hazards and blockages such as roots, rocks, trees, steps and transitions
- Firm, level ground on the trail and in the parking lot
- Minimum slope
In addition, those who use mobility aids to assist with walking should also pay attention to the following:
- Designated accessible parking space near the trailhead
- Accessible toilets
- Benches along the route offer places to rest
Trails with these characteristics are also suitable for parents using strollers.
In 2019, Schmitz organized a meeting of wheelchair hikers and outdoor organizations that led to a collaboration with the Washington Trails Association, which created more wheelchair-friendly trail guides and a wheelchair-friendly terrain filter. (See st.news/WTA.)
Additionally, volunteer hikers using wheelchairs have provided accessibility information in WTA trail descriptions. Travel reports from real hikers who rely on wheels, including Schmitz, can provide updated information.
Resources for wheelchair accessible hikes
Reliable resources related to accessible hikes for hikers with bikes or assistive devices can be difficult to find, but they are slowly becoming more available.
In addition to Schmitz’s Wheelchair Wandering blog, these local resources and organizations may provide helpful information:
Seattle’s Outdoors for All rents a variety of wheelchairs, including all-terrain wheelchairs for those who want to venture out onto rougher terrain.
Schmitz also suggested joining a Facebook group like her Wheelchair Hiking or WA Hikers and Climbers groups for up-to-date information on accessible trails. She wants hikers with wheelchairs or other assistive devices to know they are not alone.
“It’s actually possible to go outside, and people with physical disabilities do it all the time. It’s not as rare as you might think,” Schmitz said. “It’s a challenge, but it’s possible.”
Hikers with bikes can often look out for accessible hikes on rail-to-trails, logging roads, two-track mountain bike roads, and National Wildlife Refuges. These routes and roads are usually flat, hard surfaces that are sufficiently wide. Schmitz said personal recommendations are always best.
The following hiking trails are great options for wheelchair users or those with mobility needs. Not all hiking trails are accessible all year round; Check the conditions before you go.
Artist Point and Picture Lake – Mount Baker
The short, ADA-accessible trail around Picture Lake near Mount Baker is one of the most photographed vistas in the United States. The view of Mount Shuksan is among the most beautiful sights in all of the North Cascades and is worth the drive to see it for yourself. There is a short summer window to visit due to the long snow season. Those using assistive devices should be aware of remaining 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
The Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually Wildlife Refuge is named in honor of the Nisqually tribesman who fought for Native American fishing rights and was instrumental in protecting this wildlife refuge. It offers several miles of accessible hiking trails that consist of gravel paths and boardwalks. Located just off Interstate 5 north of Olympia, the retreat teems with native plants and wildlife, including a variety of fish, birds and marine life.
Discovery Park – Seattle
Seattle’s largest park offers much to explore for hikers with assistive devices. Various viewpoints offer the opportunity to see shorebirds, seals, otters and more. Anyone with children under the age of 5 or with a mobility issue of any kind can stop by the Visitor Center to pick up a permit that allows access to Discovery Park Boulevard, which leads directly to the beach. The North Beach Trail is partially bike-friendly, and depending on fitness level, hikers can walk up Discovery Park Boulevard on a sidewalk. Several paved trails lead from the south parking lot to the Fort Lawton Historic District. On the other side of the park, hikers can start at the north property and take the Texas Way to 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 Find It, Fix It app to report trail hazards.
Gold Creek Pond – Snoqualmie Pass
ADA-accessible outside of the winter months, Gold Creek Pond follows a 1-mile trail around the lake lined with wildflowers before reaching a boardwalk that hovers over a swamp. At the end of the promenade, a paved path leads to the shore of the clear blue pond. Bring a lunch to enjoy at the picnic area near the shore.
Iron Goat Loop – Stevens Pass
Walk along the old Great Northern Railroad that once brought trains into the Cascade Range. The first 3 miles of this trail is ADA accessible on the lower route. The wide gravel trail beginning at Martin Creek includes bridges over creek crossings. Be sure to stop and read the explanatory signs that tell hikers about a devastating avalanche and the people who built the railway, mostly Japanese immigrants.
Padilla Bay Trail – Skagit Valley
This year-round hike follows Padilla Bay, an estuary of Puget Sound on the edge of the Skagit River Delta. The 8,000-acre seagrass meadow is one of the largest in North America and is an important habitat for aquatic life, birds and marine mammals. The flat gravel trail follows the estuary for 2.1 miles and offers 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 bike-friendly trails. The 2.6-mile Perimeter Loop Trail hugs the coast and offers uninterrupted views of Mount Rainier. The Sqebeqsed Trail is a less trafficked 1.2 mile round trip trail that runs among some of the oldest trees in the Seattle area.
Spruce Railroad Trail – Olympic Peninsula
Originally used to haul Sitka spruce out of the forest, the Spruce Railroad begins in an orchard before opening up to dense forest and views of shimmering Crescent Lake. Hikers who can 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 slight incline, so wheeled hikers may need a walker or motorized wheelchair to navigate.