TRAVERSE CITY — There’s never been more outdoor recreation options for those with physical limitations. From wheelchair hiking to adaptive kayaking and cycling to beaching, area organizations offer supportive resources for experiencing the great outdoors.
About 20 percent of Americans have a disability that limits their use of trails or beaches, reports Friends of Sleeping Bear (FOSB), a nonprofit organization supporting expansion of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore’s inclusive recreation infrastructure. Thanks in part to FOSB, the park is ranked among the top 10 most accessible national parks in the country by Condé Nast Traveler magazine.
“Accessibility was ignored for many years,” said FOSB board member Kerry Kelly. “A lot of people were not able to enjoy all the features of the national park. I think we’re trying to catch up.”
Whether experiencing short term or permanent disabilities, the park features a spectrum of friendly, safe means to interact with nature. Options include wheelchair hiking on the hard-surfaced Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail which stretches for more than 20 miles along ancestral land of the Anishinaabe people linking historical, cultural and environmental points of interest.
Park adventures begin June 24 via free personal motorized track chairs. Users accompanied by a trained volunteer explore Bay View Trail historic barns, fields, forests, and Sleeping Bear Bay. Reservations open June 1.
Navigating lakeshore beaches is possible with sand wheelchairs featuring oversized wheels. Chairs are available on a first-come, first-served basis at the Maritime Museum and Cannery Boathouse Museum.
Beach lovers find other options for access to the park’s scenic shoreline thanks to hard decks installed at the Cannery. Installation of a new, similar walkway and deck will be laid this summer at the Maritime Museum beach. FOSB volunteers clear sand from the platforms daily to maintain safety.
Accessible camping at Platte River and DH Day campgrounds provides an inclusive traditional Michigan outdoor experience. At Loon Lake, paddlers find an accessible canoe/kayak launch system and a wheelchair accessible fishing pier. Bass Lake offers an accessible trail and dock.
Agencies, parks and organizations across the region advance all-access to outdoor fun. Michigan Department of Natural Resources and The Lighthouse Neurological Rehabilitation Center present free adaptive kayaking clinics July 19 and August 9 at Interlochen State Park. The park features an ADA kayak launch, an accessible walkway to the waterfront and an adaptive floating wheelchair for taking a dip in the lake.
Cycling fun takes an adaptive twist through Joy 2 Ride Benzie. The nonprofit founded by Carol Kraak offers Michigan’s first duet bike experience. Specially designed wheelchair bikes piloted by trained volunteers offer 30-minute rides along the Betsie Valley Trail.
“It’s for anybody who can’t ride a bike,” Kraak said. “There are no questions asked.”
Kraak’s passion for sharing outdoor experiences reflects the motivation of many involved in helping others enjoy the natural world. “If we can get one person out in nature, it gives them more than they had, and we succeed,” she said.
Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy is one of several entities advocating universal recreation access. GTRLC offers options in Grand Traverse, Benzie, Antrim, Manistee and Kalkaska counties. Complimenting trails are three accessible fishing platforms, two water access points and eight viewing platforms for enjoying shorelines, dunes and wetlands.
“We believe that access to nature shouldn’t be a luxury — it should be available to people of all abilities and backgrounds,” said GTRLC Executive Director Glen Chown. “While the universal access amenities provide access to those who may not have had it before, it also makes a safer and more convenient experience for all visitors.”
Accessible trails unfolds the beauty of forests, lakes, meadows and wildlife via TART’s 50 miles of ADA pathways.
“Providing universally accessible trails is a major priority of ours in order to enable all of our area residents and visitors the chance to get out and get active for optimal mental and physical health,” said TART Brian Beauchamp.
TART’s Boardman Lake Loop Trail encircling Boardman Lake will be unveiled in July. In the works for decades, the 5-mile pathway offers universal access to freshwater views and public art installations.
Michigan Legacy Art Park in Thompsonville also removes barriers to enjoying art by providing golf cart tours through its outdoor woodland gallery. Tours showcase 14 sculptures embedded in the landscape.
Traverse City’s 25-acre Botanic Garden at Historic Barns Park provides golf cart tours highlighting nine gardens.
Momentum continues for creating inclusive outdoor opportunities. Paddle Antrim in partnership with the Village of Elk Rapids plan improvements at Rotary Park featuring a universal kayak launch. When completed in 2023 the Elk Rapids site will link to Milton Township Waterfront Park’s universal access launch to establish the first accessible route along the Chain of Lakes Water Trail, and Michigan’s first accessible water trail route.
“We want people of all ages and ability to experience the water,” said Paddle Antrim Director Deana Jerdee. “When people can connect to nature, they understand why it’s important to protect it.”
Learn more about inclusive recreation options at the free Accessible Recreation Day, June 16 at Grand Traverse County Civic Center.