If you’re a nature lover with a disability, you know the frustration of trying to stray from the beaten path. Most wheelchairs just aren’t made for off-pavement adventures.
But in a growing trend, national and state parks and other outdoor recreation areas across the U.S. are looking to help by providing off-road wheelchairs specifically designed for rougher terrain.
This is a boon for people with disabilities, as these rugged wheelchairs are eye-wateringly expensive – up to $15,000 or more. That’s in part because they’re motorized and use tracks (kind of like tank treads) instead of wheels, which enabled them to traverse much tougher trails, as well as snow, water, mud, and sand.
Here are six states with outdoor recreation areas where you can get your hands on an off-road wheelchair right now, whether you want to explore or just stay in shape. I’m sure there are others, so inquire at local parks.
Don’t see anything on this list near you? At the end, I’ll offer some tips for persuading park authorities to provide one.
Great Smoky Mountain National Park
ABC affiliate WATE reports that Great Smoky Mountain National Park is working to make the park more accessible to people with disabilities through a new program that provides adaptive equipment, including off-road wheelchairs and adaptive mountain bikes.
The equipment is available for people with disabilities to use on approved park trials.
The park operates the program in cooperation with Knox County, Catalyst Sports, and Friends of the Smokies.
Georgia State Parks
The Georgia Department of Natural Resources has partnered with the Aimee Copeland Foundation to provide free off-road track wheelchairs at 10 state parks, historic sites, and a wildlife center. The wheelchairs can be used for hiking, hunting, fishing, and other recreational activities, as well as outdoor education.
Off-road wheelchairs are available at:
Cloudland Canyon State Park
Don Carter State Park
Red Top Mountain State Park
Etowah Indian Mounds Historic Site
Fort Yargo State Park
Hard Labor Creek State Park
Panola Mountain State Park
Picketts Mill Battlefield Historic Site
Smithgall Woods State Park
Sweetwater Creek State Park
Charlie Elliott Wildlife Center
Users have to complete a certification process to reserve a track chair, including proof of disability. They also need to bring a friend or caregiver along for safety reasons.
Missouri State Parks
The Missouri Department of Natural Resources recently received three new electric track chairs.
“Everyone should have the opportunity to explore and enjoy our parks and historic sites,” David Kelly, director of Missouri State Parks, says in a press release. “Wheelchairs provide important mobility for their users, but they aren’t always able to navigate our trails. Our all-terrain track chairs can.”
The three track chairs are located at Bryant Creek State Park, Battle of Lexington State Historic Site, and Elephant Rocks State Park. They’re free to use but must be reserved in advance. And like in Georgia, a friend or family member must come along to help if needed.
Point Beach State Forest, Wisconsin
WTAQ in Wisconsin reports that officials at Point Beach State Forest have purchased a track wheelchair for people with disabilities to use there year-around.
“At some point in our lives, everyone will go through some kind of limitation,” Quinn Henseler, Point Beach State Forest park ranger, says in an interview with WTAQ. “As we get older, those challenges increase, especially in the outdoors. Things that we take for granted, or don’t even think about, are… barriers for people who have physical limitations.”
According to Henseler, the track wheelchair can tackle any of the 17 miles of hiking trails in the park, or even the beach along Lake Michigan.
There’s no charge to use the wheelchair, and state forest staff are trained to show people how it operates.
Minnesota State Parks
WCCO, a CBS news affiliate in Minnesota, reports that the state’s Department of Natural Resources has expanded a program to bring off-road wheelchairs to no fewer than 13 state parks.
“The research is clear: spending time in nature provides significant health and wellness benefits for people,” DNR Parks and Trails Director Ann Pierce tells WCCO. “Investing in adaptive equipment like the off-road track chairs helps the DNR connect more Minnesotans with the outdoors.”
The 13 state parks are:
Split Rock Lighthouse
As in other states, off-road wheelchairs are free to use. However, visitors need a state park vehicle permit and must reserve a wheelchair in advance.
Michigan (Multiple Locations)
Michigan has launched its National Park Michigan Mobility Challenge (NPMMC). According to a press release, the goal of the NPMMC is to deploy “advanced mobility and electrification technologies” in and around four of the five national parks within the state’s borders: Keweenaw National Historical Park, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, River Raisin National Battlefield Park and Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.
One of the main goals of the NPMCC is to improve access to these national parks for people with disabilities.
In addition, Michigan’s Department of National Resources offers off-road track wheelchairs on a first-come, first-served basis at the following state parks and recreation areas:
Bald Mountain Recreation Area
Bay City State Park
Grand Haven State Park
Holland State Park
Island Lake Recreation Area
Ludington State Park
Maybury State Park
Muskegon State Park
North Higgins Lake State Park
Tahquamenon Falls State Park
Warren Dunes State Park
Waterloo Recreation Area
Wilderness State Park is scheduled to get a track wheelchair in the near future.
Staunton State Park, Colorado
Finally, Staunton State Park in Colorado offers track wheelchairs from June through October, depending on trail conditions. They’re reservable at no charge on a first-come, first-served basis.
A brief questionnaire will be provided to ensure that the user’s needs can be met for a successful outing. All participants must be accompanied by a caregiver or companion, and a Staunton State Park volunteer will also come along.
Staunton is the first Colorado state park to get a track chair, but more are likely to follow.
Nothing Close? Approach Your State Own Government – the Right Way
If none of these places is near where you live, don’t despair. Chances are your own state’s department of natural resources (it may be called something different) has considered purchasing off-road wheelchairs or other adaptive recreational gear.
However, it may take a little persuasion to get them over the finish line. Many state governments are low on cash, and this equipment isn’t cheap.
So before you approach a government official, keep the following tips in mind (courtesy in part of Disability Rights California):
Identify the right person. You won’t get anywhere if you talk to someone who can’t help you, so be sure to speak to the correct government official(s). You’ll probably have to call your state’s department of natural resources to find out who that is.
Ask for what you want in writing. Before meeting with anyone, write to the appropriate person or people and clearly explain why an off-road wheelchair is important to you and others with disabilities. Also say when you’re available to meet, and set a reasonable deadline for a response.
Prepare. Think about what you want to say beforehand so you don’t waste anyone’s time. Consider rehearsing with a family member or friend, and prepare an outline of your main points. For example, note how inaccessible the state’s recreation areas can be, based on your personal experience.
Make it short and sweet. When you do talk to someone, stick to two or three main points. It also will help to share a personal story of your love of the outdoors, especially a time when you enjoyed using an off-road wheelchair in another state.
Be assertive rather than aggressive. Clearly state what you want, and ask for clarification about what the agency can and can’t do. If you disagree with something that’s said, do so respectfully. Acknowledge that the equipment you’re asking for is expensive, but note that it’s money well spent because it will open up state recreation areas to more people.
Keep records. Keep a folder or notebook with notes from all of your conversations, so you remember who said what.
Remember, these tips are appropriate for any sort of disability advocacy.
Do you know of any other parks or other outdoor recreation areas that have off-road wheelchairs? If so please mention them in the comments. TwP