Towering mountain ranges, beautiful pine forests, and unusual rock formations make up some of the most famous parts of Colorado. The local outdoor recreation options can often feel limitless. Between hundreds of hiking trails, parks, and recreation areas, there seems to be something for everyone. In reality, there are many limits to some communities. Most of the great outdoors in Colorado is restricted to those with physical disabilities.
Staff and volunteers at Staunton State Park are working to change that. In 2015 the park acquired a number of track chairs. Track chairs are all-terrain wheelchairs that work well on unpaved roads. The park offers a seasonal track chair program for visitors with limited mobility.
Understand the lack of accessible nature in Colorado
Since the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, federal, state, and local government agencies – schools, public restrooms, hospitals, museums, etc. – have had to adhere to standards for physical accessibility. Outdoor recreation areas built or converted after 1990 must meet ADA standards. This includes almost all functions of a park, from barrier-free parking spaces, bathrooms, outdoor seating to hiking trails. In 2010 the ADA was updated to include specifications for park modification and construction.
However, there is some lack of accountability to ensure that recreational opportunities are available. Changing all parking functions to meet accessibility standards is a time-consuming process that some states and counties are not adopting. So while parks can work to ensure accessibility to parking spaces and seating areas, they may not put the effort into making pathways accessible. This leads to people visiting a park without the opportunity to delve deeper into nature. For most outdoor recreation areas in Colorado, participating in recreational activities for people with physical disabilities may not be an option. For many healthy Coloradans, spending time in nature is an important and enriching part of their lives. All of this can feel out of reach for people with limited mobility.
Staunton Track Chair program
Staunton’s track chair program was 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 accident that made him quadriplegic. Now paralyzed from the neck down, Mark no longer had access to the tracks that he valued very much. In 2014, Mark borrowed a track chair from Craig Hospital and started hiking again. He now had the opportunity to explore his favorite places again. After his death in 2015, Mark left his family to set up a fund for Staunton State Park to buy three of their own track chairs. Shortly thereafter, the Staunton Track Chair program began.
Staunton State Park Track Chair Program
The Staunton Track Chair Program is offered every weekend from June to October and 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 nature. With an elevation range of 8,200 to nearly 10,000 ft, the forest at Staunton is no small attraction. Located in Pine, about 30 minutes outside of Denver, the park is part of the Front Range Urban Corridor.
There are several hiking trails to choose from – each one is a few kilometers long. Each chair hike takes 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 supervisors alike describe a positive experience with the Track Chair.
Cassie Jones is the mother of Morgan, a participant in the Track Chair program. Cassie is physically fit and enjoys hiking alone. She wished she could bring Morgan, and with a track chair they could finally enjoy a family hike together. “Morgan saw deer, saw fish jump in Davis Ponds, and we could finally hike together! Her syndrome usually causes her to have behavioral problems, but she had so much fun that there weren’t any 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 wellbeing.
“Not only is nature beautiful, it’s a must for physical health and cognitive function,” says Richard Louv, a journalist and author who specializes in the relationship between outdoor access and health.
So if time in nature remains essential to a person’s continued physical and mental health, it is important to look at the structures that keep millions of people from spending time in nature. Certain social structures also restrict outdoor access for BIPOC people and low-income residents of urban areas. When it comes to people with disabilities and reduced mobility, the barriers to entry are often quite physical, so solutions must address these needs.
Making Colorado Parks more accessible and universal
Staunton’s Track Chair program is an important model for other parks, both local and state, that are considering implementation. Of 41 Colorado State Parks, Staunton State Park is the only one that has a dedicated walking trail program for visitors with reduced mobility. According to the Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) website, the state park system offers an inventory of accessible fishing spots, an ADA accessible hunting program, and a discounted park pass for people with disabilities to encourage use of the state park.
However, CPW and other local parking systems in the state still need to work harder to meet accessible and universal walkway standards. Accessible paths are adapted to the minimum needs of people with physical disabilities. In contrast, universal paths can serve all the needs of a wide variety 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 they can make its functions integrative.
Staunton’s Track Chair program is a step in the right direction. It helps expand outdoor access for the Colorado disabled community. In the future, we may see other parks in the state follow suit. After all, access to nature remains necessary for the well-being of all people.
To learn more about the Track Chair program, visit the Staunton State Park website. Click here to learn more about ADA outdoor standards.