Soaring mountain ranges, gorgeous pine forests and unusual rock formations make for some of the most celebrated parts of Colorado. Local outdoor recreation opportunities can often feel limitless. Between hundreds of trails, parks and recreation areas, there seems to be something for everyone to enjoy. In reality, there are many limits for some communities. Most of the great outdoors in Colorado remains limited in access to folks with physical disabilities.
Staff and volunteers at Staunton State Park are working to change that. In 2015, the park acquired a set of Track-Chairs. Track-Chairs are all-terrain wheelchairs that work well on dirt trails. The park runs a seasonal Track-Chair program for visitors with limited mobility.
Understanding The Lack of Accessible Nature In Colorado
Since the passing of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, federal, state and local entities – schools, public restrooms, hospitals, museums, etc. – must comply with physical accessibility standards. Outdoor recreation areas built or altered after 1990 must adhere to ADA standards. This includes most all features of a park, from accessible parking spaces, bathrooms, outdoor seating and even trails. In 2010, the ADA was updated t0 include specifications for park alterations and construction.
However, there’s a certain lack of accountability regarding ensuring recreational opportunities are available. Altering all park features to meet accessibility standards is a time-consuming process, one that some states and counties don’t take on. So while parks may work to ensure parking spaces and seating areas are accessible, they may not put the effort into creating accessible trail use. This results in people visiting a park without the ability to go deeper into nature. For the majority of outdoor recreation areas in Colorado, participating in recreational activities may not be an option for people with physical disabilities. For many able-bodied Coloradans, spending time in nature is an important and enriching part of their life. All of that can feel out of reach for people with limited mobility.
Staunton Track Chair Program
Staunton’s Track-Chair program developed from the legacy of the park’s first avid track-chair hiker. Mark Madsen grew up hiking in the area; in 2001 he suffered a car crash that left him a quadriplegic. Now paralyzed from the neck down, Mark no longer had access to the trails he cherished deeply. In 2014, Mark borrowed a track-chair from Craig Hospital and began hiking again. He now had the ability to explore his favorite places again. After his passing in 2015, Mark left his family inspired to set up a fund for Staunton State Park to purchase three track-chairs of their own. Shortly after, the Staunton Track-Chair Program began.
Staunton State Park Track-Chair Program
Offered every weekend, beginning in June and running through October, the Staunton Track-Chair Program allows visitors with limited mobility to explore designated trails in a Track-Chair. The experience is similar to hiking or mountain biking: Track-Chair users traverse the outdoors. With an elevation range of 8,200 to almost 10,000 ft, the forest at Staunton is no small attraction. Located in Pine, the park is about 30 minutes outside of Denver and is part of the Front Range Urban Corridor.
There are several trails to choose from – each is a few miles long. Every track chair hike lasts about three to five hours. Track-Chair participants can hike with a caregiver or family member. The hikes are led by volunteer guides. Participants and caretakers alike describe having a positive track chair experience.
Cassie Jones is the mother of Morgan, a Track-Chair Program participant. Cassie is able-bodied and enjoys hiking on her own. She wished she could bring Morgan with her, and using a track-chair allowed them to finally enjoy a family hike together. “Morgan saw deer, saw fish jump at Davis Ponds, and we finally got to hike together! Her syndrome normally causes her to have behavioral breakdowns, but she had so much fun there were no meltdowns in our two hours in Staunton” explained Cassie.
Outdoor Accessibility For People With Disabilities
Scientists and researchers are beginning to confirm what many outdoor enthusiasts and indigenous communities have known for generations: Access to nature is necessary for health and well-being.
“Nature is not only nice to have, but it’s a have-to-have for physical health and cognitive function,” said Richard Louv, a journalist and author who specializes in the relationship between outdoor access and health.
So if time in nature remains essential for someone’s steady physical and mental health, it’s important to look at the structures preventing millions of people from spending time in nature. Certain societal structures also limit outdoor access for BIPOC folks and low-income residents of urban areas. Regarding people with disabilities and limited mobility, the barriers to entry are often quite physical, thus, solutions must reflect that need.
Making Colorado Parks Accessible and More Universal
Staunton’s Track Chair program is an important model for more parks, both local and state, to consider implementing. Out of 41 Colorado State Parks, Staunton State Park is the only one to have a dedicated accessible trails program for visitors with limited mobility. According to Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s (CPW) website, the state park system offers an inventory of accessible fishing locations, an ADA accessible hunting program and a discounted parks pass for people with disabilities to encourage state park use.
However, CPW and other local park systems in the state need to put more work into meeting accessible and universal trail standards. Accessible trails are adapted to meet the minimum needs of people with physical disabilities. In contrast, universal trails can serve all needs of the widest range of park visitors . Not every park needs to consider investing in Track-Chairs. Rather, parks need to consider the design of their specific area and how to make its features inclusive.
Staunton’s Track Chair program is one step in the right direction. It helps expand outdoor access for Colorado’s disability community. In the future, we may see other parks in the state follow suit. After all, access to the outdoors remains necessary for the well-being of all people.