First-of-its-kind Wheelchair Finally Gives Visitors With Disabilities Access to Scenic Hiking Trails at National Parks

Track chair program at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
Photo: Copyright 2019 Friends of Sleeping Bear Dunes, Inc.

Travelers who need special assistance traversing steep scenic national park trails can now explore mesmerizing views of Lake Michigan, historic pastoral farm lands, and more thanks to a first-of-its-kind wheelchair at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

Non-profit Friends of Sleeping Bear Dunes introduced the track chair program to the park in May, allowing visitors who require assistance on the hiking trails to reserve the chair, free of charge, for guided hikes at the national park.

The chair utilizes tracks that are able to traverse on sandy terrain to avoid sinking wheels that can often occur with a wheelchair, while maintaining a low pressure to avoid any damage to the trails themselves.

The chair provides less pressure per square inch than the average footstep thanks to the distribution of weight from the tracks, according to Friends of Sleeping Bear Dunes representative Jeanne Esch, helping to both protect the park's natural offerings while allowing all to enjoy its magnificent scenery.

“We wanted to be able to provide a hiking experience for people to get into the quiet areas of the park… you can see things from the road but it’s so different to being able to have that quiet time in the woods and to find a bit of a break from the everyday,” Esch, who is a wheelchair user herself, told Travel + Leisure.

Track chair program at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
Copyright 2019 Friends of Sleeping Bear Dunes, Inc.

It’s the simple details, like being able to hear the birds, feel the breeze, and see the views from a trail rather than a car window that have made the program so rewarding for visitors and volunteers alike already, Esch has found.

Track chair program at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
Copyright 2019 Friends of Sleeping Bear Dunes, Inc.

"We're able to offer that 'off the road experience'...and give people a new opportunity to experience nature with friends and family, and I think by doing so they not only get to share in the adventure, but to also find a moment of peace," Esch told T+L.

The track chair is currently only available for use on the Bay View Trail, which weaves through beech-maple forests, pine plantations, and a bluff overlooking wildflower fields, though it could be opened to additional trails down the line.

Esch has been on the Bay View Trail herself, which offers fantastic views over the water and the park's sand dunes, while the multi-use Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail also provides a lovely rural area to relax in.

"Just seeing the woods and the patchwork of the fields takes your breath away," Esch said. "It's a very pretty and serene area."

Visitors looking to use the chair can make a reservation at least three days in advance, with a host helping users get comfortable on the chair before heading out on the trail. The season for the chair runs from May through Oct. 20 each year, with the program already proving to be a hit since its introduction.

"We've been seeing people from every age range using it," Esch said. "Our volunteers always return to say it's worth the time to see the amount of smiles the program is able to bring."

While Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is the first national park to offer the chair, Colorado's Staunton State Park also offers a track chair program.

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