Accessible Wilderness Hikes for Everyone To Love
Inclusive Colorado nature trails and programs that stand out.
There’s been a big push in recent years to make the outdoors inclusive. And with good reason: Many of us live in Colorado for the 300-plus days of sunshine and unlimited access to outdoor recreation. “Spending time outdoors provides enormous benefits to our wellbeing, and connecting people to nature inspires them to become lifelong stewards of the environment,” says Shalana Gray, ADA accessibility coordinator for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the organization that manages Colorado’s 42 state parks, 350-plus wildlife areas and all our wildlife.
Gray believes that “every single person should have opportunities to experience nature.” And she’s not just talking about paved trails on local greenbelts connecting Front Range communities. Here are a few accessible, authentic Colorado nature trails and programs that really stand out.
Staunton State Park’s Track Chair Program
Staunton State Park launched its Track Chair Program in 2017 to help hikers with mobility differences experience the site’s super scenic trails.
An avid hiker, Mark Madsen, inspired the program. After a car accident left him paralyzed, Madsen and his friend, Ted Hammond, borrowed a track chair so Madsen could once again experience Staunton’s trail system.
When Madsen passed away in 2015, his family, with some help from the Friends of Staunton State Park, established the Mark Madsen Accessibility Fund. And the rest is history. The fundraising program morphed into Staunton’s Track Chair Program.
Track chairs are wheelchairs with tank tracks on them that allow users to hike rugged terrain that a typical wheelchair can’t interface with. Staunton owns five track chairs (though one’s currently on loan at Barr Lake State Park, which is in the process of procuring its own track chair).
“We can fit any size child in our track chairs because we have special adaptive car seats with five point harnesses,” says program manager Natalie Burnside-Bostow. All of the park’s chairs have attendant joysticks on the back, so somebody can drive the chair from behind it. “Even if your child can’t control the chair themselves, they can still use it,” Burnside-Bostow adds.
What’s more, Staunton can accommodate the transfer of users into the track chairs. “We have a Hoyer lift with side rails to help,” says Burnside-Bostow. Once in the chair, visitors have access to three of the park’s adaptive trails: the Davis Ponds Trail, Mason Creek Trail, and a portion of Staunton Ranch Trail. (Staunton Ranch, FYI, is the park’s most difficult trail.)
Staunton is adding a new parking lot this year, and “we’re hoping that will allow us to help everyone get even deeper into nature,” Burnside-Bostow says. For now, visitors on track chairs can hike past aspen groves, building ruins, giant boulders, and fishing ponds. Two adaptive fishing poles are available at the visitor center near the park entrance.
To make a track chair reservation, fill out the form on Staunton State Park’s website, and you’ll get a reply within a few days. On June 12 and 13, Staunton is hosting a special event showcasing all of the accessible recreation Colorado has to offer. More details will be available online soon.
Wilderness on Wheels
While many families already know about Wilderness on Wheels and its high-altitude hiking trail, we couldn’t resist mentioning this iconic Colorado program.
Located near Kenosha Pass, the site’s main event is a mile-long, eight-foot-wide boardwalk meandering through wetland tundra and a stunning alpine forest bordered by pines, thick strands of aspens and rocky outcroppings colored with moss and lichens. Following the landscape’s natural contours, the boardwalk gradually curves over a deep gulch. The scenery is gorgeous, and there are plenty of pretty places to pull off along the way. Although the boardwalk is an accessible route, it can be a difficult climb.
Wilderness on Wheels includes accessible camping opportunities, too, with tent sites and huts (both free) and cabins (fee-based). The site reopens for the summer 2021 hiking season on July 1. For more information, or to make a reservation, email email@example.com or call 303-403-1110.
Boulder OSMP’s Ute Sensory Trail
From handcycles to sensory nature programs, Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks (OSMP) has some awesome accessibility resources for its visitors. “We work to ensure that visitors experiencing disabilities are afforded experiences and opportunities commensurate with other visitors to the greatest extent possible,” explains Phillip Yates, spokesperson for the City of Boulder’s OSMP department.
Nestled deep inside Boulder’s beloved Chautauqua Park is the Ute Sensory Trail, designed in 1995 with input from local groups such as the Center for People with Disabilities and the Disabilities Task Force, as well as individuals with visual impairments.
This short loop trail gives hikers a low vision experience in the outdoors with a series of stations designed to focus on sensations other than sight. Signs are written in Braille for low vision hikers. While the path starts at an eight percent grade and five percent cross slope for about a hundred feet, it eventually flattens out to less than five percent grade, making it accessible for hikers using chairs.
Early summer is a great time for wildlife viewing. In addition to mule deer, foxes are also commonly seen alongside the trail, along with plenty of birds. You don’t have to go far past the parking lot to experience wildlife and authentic mountain scenery.
To reach the Ute Sensory Trail from the base of Chautauqua Park, head up Flagstaff Summit Road, all the way to the Nature Center. There aren’t any designated parking spaces in the lot, but there are ample regular spaces available over a zero to two percent slope. The lot leads to picnic sites and scenic overlooks, as well as the nature center, which meets ADA structural standards and features educational exhibits on local wildlife and the environment. The nature center is open most weekends; call 303-441-3440 for hours of operation.
Rocky Mountain National Park’s Coyote Valley Trail
Although Rocky Mountain National Park is famous for its steep terrain, accessible trails have been constructed in many areas noted for their incredible scenery. Just north of the Kawuneeche Visitor Center, for example, near the park’s (less crowded) west entrance, Coyote Valley Trail is a mile-long, level-grade packed gravel trail crossing the Colorado River into a meadow.
Flat terrain doesn’t render this route any less scenic than the rest. At 8,840 feet above sea level, visitors pass through a pristine, high-altitude environment on the way into the Kawuneeche Valley.
“Kawuneeche” is the native Arapahoe word for coyote, hence the trail’s name. But hikers are just as likely to spy elk, moose and antelope in the meadow, especially if visiting in the early morning or early evening. Bring along binoculars.
At the trailhead, you’ll find ADA parking spaces, accessible picnic tables and accessible restrooms (vault toilets only). When this story went to print, the parking area had not been plowed, and there was still snow in the lot and on the trail. The park’s public affairs officer, Kyle Patterson, advises that people park at the top of the parking lot when there are snowy conditions.
To reach the Coyote Valley Trail, take Trail Ridge Road from Grand Lake about five miles north into the park. Watch for signs that point to the trailhead parking lot. If you reach Timber Creek Campground, you’ve gone too far.
To deal with a major uptick in visitation, the park has moved to a timed-entry system. Reservations are required May 28 through October 11. More information is available online.
Accessibility Resources for Families
- Available online, CPW’s 31-page digital park brochure outlines accommodations available at Colorado’s 42 state parks. At the end of the brochure, look for an accessibility guide, with notes on parks with accessible trails, fishing piers, campsites, picnic sites, visitor centers and restrooms.
- Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks has an excellent guidebook highlighting wheelchair, walker and scooter-accessible trails. The free publication, Boulder OSMP Accessible Trails and Site, is written by Topher Downham, a quadriplegic who regained his strength, and sanity, on Boulder trails. It lists and ranks 30 trails and sites within the OSMP system.
- Created by the Department of Natural Resources, the Colorado Trail Explorer App—known as COTREX—is a free collection of Colorado trails submitted by all trail managers within the state. App users can limit their search criteria to wheelchair friendly trails.
- Another resource to check out is exploryst.com, a work-in-progress founded by Angela Wilson to make it easier for all families to plan bona fide adventures. CPW gave Wilson a free State Parks Pass so that she can add more Colorado trails to her growing website.