Nature lovers who use a wheelchair have long known that access to outdoor recreation areas can be quite limited.
Over the last few years, Ohio and other states have made a commitment to increasing access to state parks and nature preserves for people with disabilities. Park officials are knowledgeable about their responsibilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and they are actively considering accessibility when planning new projects or upgrading existing ones.
Thanks to the ADA, many parks now provide accessible restrooms, picnic and camping areas, and fishing piers. Creating accessible nature trails is a more complicated challenge because they re not easily adapted for wheelchair use. Nevertheless, park officials are finding creative ways to improve trail access, and Ohio has many fine examples.
Progressive thinking about accessibility was apparent to me last summer when my family stayed at Maumee Bay State Park just east of Toledo. We were traveling from Pittsburgh through the Midwest to visit a few colleges that our teenage son had an interest in. Our younger son, age 11, who uses a wheelchair because of cerebral palsy, was also with us.
To our delight, we discovered that Maumee Bay State Park has an extensive system of accessible boardwalks that take visitors over wetlands where birds and other wildlife thrive. The park lodge features wheelchair-friendly accommodations, including an accessible swimming pool and game room. With a coffee shop in the lobby and the legendary Tony Packo s restaurant just down the road, our overnight stay at Maumee Bay was a hit with the entire family.
Ohio s efforts to create accessible recreation go well beyond the lake region. The Ohio Department Natural Resources has a team of professionals who oversee accessibility at parks and nature preserves throughout the state.
The state receives a great deal of positive feedback about its attention to access, said Heidi Hetzel-Evans of the Department of Natural Resources.
We get lots of e-mails from people who say things like they haven t been to a certain site in 20 years because of a disability, but now they can come back. They tell us, Thank you for doing this.
Hetzel-Evans also noted that accessible trails are popular with families with young children in strollers.
Creating access to Ohio s natural gems is not only a complex challenge but an expensive one. At Hocking Hills State Park in southern Ohio one of the most popular recreation areas in the state visitors can take a paved trail to Ash Cave, but not to Old Man s Cave, which is more difficult to reach.
When something is not done, it s not because of lack of desire, but a lack of funding, explained park naturalist Pat Quackenbush. Such a project would cost millions of dollars and the building of several bridges, he said.
Quackenbush and park officials across the state are constantly looking for new ways to make parks accessible for people of all abilities. For example, Hocking Hills recently opened a hands-on, multi-sensory nature trail that incorporates the concept of universal access technology, materials, and design that provide for people of all ages and with any type of disability.
Simply put, creating access to recreation areas is a win-win for everyone, said Hetzel-Evans of the Department of Natural Resources. We open up areas that all visitors can enjoy.
Nature lovers looking for accessible recreation should start with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Web site (www.dnr.ohio.gov), which provides links to accessible features in all parks and nature preserves. Patrons are advised to telephone before visiting sites to make sure that these features are fully operational and not under construction.
The following state parks offer exceptional opportunities for visitors with disabilities:
Maumee Bay State Park in Oregon and Crane Creek State Park in Oak Harbor, 419-836-7758. Both have extensive boardwalk systems through scenic wetlands. Maumee Bay s lodge has an accessible swimming pool.
Hocking Hills, Logan, 740-385-6842. The dramatic caves and other land formations of Hocking Hills have made it Ohio s most popular visitor destination. A half-mile paved trail leads visitors to Ash Cave and Cedar Falls. A new, accessible Expedition Trail offers a variety of hands-on exhibits. Just south of the park, Conkle s Hollow State Nature Preserve offers a half-mile paved trail through a wooded gorge.
Deer Creek State Park, Mount Sterling, 740-869-3124. This park is known as a relaxing getaway. In addition to accessible rooms in the lodge, the park offers three fully accessible cottages with a lake view.
Buck Creek State Park, Springfield, 937-322-5284, and John Bryan State Park, Yellow Springs, 937-767-1274. Buck Creek offers a brand new, fully accessible cottage and an accessible fishing pier on its 2,000-acre lake. The trails in Buck Creek are unpaved and fairly rocky, but the accessible trails of nearby John Bryan State Park are an option. John Bryan, with its limestone gorge and plentiful wildflowers, is considered one of the most scenic parks in Ohio. Portions of its trails about two miles worth are wheelchair accessible, including one that provides views of Clifton Gorge. John Bryan is adjacent to the Glen Helen nature preserve and the village of Yellow Springs, home to Antioch University and Young s Jersey Dairy, recipient of Ohio Magazine s 2006 award for Best Milkshake in Ohio.
Caesar Creek State Park and Little Miami State Park, Waynesville, 513-897-3055. Caesar Creek State Park, with its clear blue water, steep ravines, and gorgeous leaves in the fall, is located about midway on the 50-mile long Little Miami Bikeway. The paved rails-to-trials bikeway extends from Hamilton County in the south to Green County in the north.
Quail Hollow, Hartville, 330-877-1528. This park offers a 2,000-foot paved woodland trail with audio interpretation for the visually impaired. The historic 40-room Manor House (first floor is accessible) is on park grounds and the Amish village of Hartville is nearby.
Michigan also is doing a superb job with park accessibility. Last year, Michigan s Department of Natural Resources (www.michigan.gov/dnr) received a $3 million grant from the Kellogg Foundation to develop a national model of universal access to state and local parks. Here are two destinations worth a trip:
Sterling State Park, Monroe, 734-289-2715. This park, situated on Lake Erie, is just north of Toledo. It has a three-mile paved trail that circles a lagoon.
Ludington State Park, Ludington, 231-843-2423. If you re up for a longer road trip, try Ludington State Park, on the shore of Lake Michigan (about 60 miles northwest of Grand Rapids). Ludington is Michigan s most popular state park with seven miles of lake shoreline and dramatic sand dunes. The park is also known for salmon and trout fishing on the 5,000-acre Hamlin Lake. A cantilevered boardwalk system takes wheelchair-users right down to the stream bed. A combination of paved and packed gravel trails support wheelchair hiking. A modern campground has several accessible sites.
Tina Calabro writes about disability issues. Her column, Breaking Down Barriers, appears in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.