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Jenny Schmitz on a hike at Interlaken Park in Seattle.

A Tool to Help Wheelchair Hikers Find Trails

With the help of hikers who use wheelchairs, WTA has created a new tool to help more hikers find a trail that will work for them. | By Anna Roth

We’re excited to announce that WTA’s Hiking Guide now has a filter for wheelchair-friendly hikes. We’ve also added — and are continuing to add — detailed trail information for hikers who use wheelchairs.  

We’ve received many requests for a filter like this over the years, and it’s taken a lot of work and careful thought to make it possible. As we talked with local hikers who use wheelchairs, two things became apparent: There are a lot of factors that go into determining whether or not a trail is wheelchair friendly, and we needed the help of hikers who use wheelchairs to provide the best information.

Two hikers using wheelchair smile at the camera in front of a large picturesque lake with a snow capped mountain in the background.
Hikers on a boardwalk at Picture Lake near Mount Baker. Knowing details of trail structures can help hikers who use wheelchairs pick what hikes they want to try. 

A broad, starter definition

It’s not easy to discern which trails will work for hikers who use wheelchairs.

“In my mind, the definition ‘wheelchair-accessible’ is a broad, starter definition,” Jenny Schmitz, a local wheelchair hiker and advocate, said. “The first question to answer is, ‘Can you even get a wheelchair on the trail?’ Then, based on an analysis of detailed trail information, you can decide — given who you are and what kind of wheelchair you use — whether or not that trail is accessible to you.”

Crucial beta for a hiker using a wheelchair can be details other hikers may gloss right over, like what material the trail is made of, how steep a trail is and how much cross-slope is present (how slanted the trailbed is). Too much cross-slope can tip over a wheelchair. Jenny says that a lack of information like this can be frustrating. 

“I’ve looked longingly at trails that were almost accessible,” she said. “People think they are because they’re ‘easy’ or hikable with little kids, but there are a lot of other considerations that go into determining trail accessibility. Unfortunately, the information necessary for making this decision has often been missing from trail descriptions, so I’ve often been forced to turn around before finishing the trail.”

And barriers exist before you even get to the trail. The parking lot or trailhead can pose a problem if a car with a liftgate can’t get to it. Obstacles to deter motorized vehicles can often block access for wheelchairs. Accessible bathrooms at the trailhead are relatively rare.

The power to choose for yourself

WTA strives to provide hikers the information they need to get outside safely. But we haven’t historically included the details that matter most to wheelchair hikers. We knew we needed more comprehensive trail information — and the help of experienced wheelchair hikers — to build this new filter properly. We couldn’t just say a trail was wheelchair-friendly; we needed to offer specific information so hikers who use wheelchairs could make the choice for themselves. 

Jenny on a paved section of trail on Mount Rainier, fall colors in the meadows on either side and the mountain in the distance.
WTA’s new Hiking Guide filter highlights trail surfaces in order to help wheelchair hikers select the right trail for them. Photo courtesy Jenny Schmitz.

Jenny writes about her outings on her blog, Wheelchair Wandering, and runs a private Facebook group called Wheelchair Hiking to facilitate the sharing of knowledge about good wheelchair-hiking trails.

So we were fortunate that Jenny was willing to dedicate her time and energy to not only advising on the tool, but also to facilitating the on-the-ground research that would help confirm which hikes were accessible to wheelchairs. In the summer of 2021, Jenny and a cohort of other hikers using wheelchairs set out to get a baseline of trails that are wheelchair friendly and share that information with us. 

“The project was collaborative and emphasized the beneficial impact of sharing information. I learned about a lot of other trails I could try. And it provided connection,” Jenny said. But it also highlighted an access issue. “I confirmed there really aren’t that many trail options out there for hikers with wheelchairs.”

“The project was collaborative and emphasized the beneficial impact of sharing information. I learned about a lot of other trails I could try. And it provided connection,” said Jenny.

During the summer, the team confirmed more than 30 wheelchair-friendly trails and offered detailed notes about them. Then, WTA staff reviewed other trails that had previously been reported as wheelchair friendly, cross-referencing what we had learned from the cohort with information about the trails from the land manager’s website. We reviewed Washington State Parks’ accessibility database and other information from land managers that featured wheelchair-friendly trails in their systems.

These hikes will show up in the Hiking Guide search when the wheelchair-friendly hikes filter is toggled on. Notes giving readers more context on each trail’s wheelchair accessibility can be found in the hike descriptions. These include details like cross-slope, grade and what material the trail is made from, so that readers can decide whether that trail is right for them. 

We’re proud to be launching this tool with more than 120 trails in our Hiking Guide identified as either fully or partially wheelchair accessible. Many more likely fit the definition. Hikers who use wheelchairs will be able to offer updates to any trail they find that works for them, and our volunteer Hiking Guide correspondents will be trained to look for the characteristics that make a trail wheelchair friendly.

A hiker using a wheelchair in front of a large lake, smiling at the camera.
Photo courtesy rock crawler.

Keep checking — and writing — trip reports 

Our wheelchair-friendly hike filter can help get you started, but conditions change from day to day, with even seemingly permanent features of a trail subject to change according to weather and maintenance. 

“I recently tried to use a trail I previously would have described as wheelchair accessible, only to discover that the heavier use the trail has been getting has worn it down and left the tree roots significantly more prominent,” said Marsha Cutting, part of the cohort who did initial research. “I had to turn back.”

Even with the addition of this tool, checking (and writing) trip reports will continue to be important. Be sure to write your own report the next time you return from a hike

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2022 issue of Washington Trails Magazine. Support trails as a member of WTA to get your one-year subscription to the magazine.