By considering the full range of potential trails and users, more people can begin to enjoy more natural trails regardless of their mobility challenge
We reference Universal Access (UA) standards across this site when describing all paths and trails used for walking and hiking. These are based on the summary provided in Trails for All People (see right), with specific page references. These guidelines review issues related to accessibility on Universal Access Trails as well as Shared Use Paths. This is especially useful for those responsible for designing paths, because of the different regulations that apply under different circumstances.
The summaries offered below are intended to orient users to general principles: those seeking to build universal access trails MUST rely on an experienced designer.
One size does not fit all: Think of accessibility as a spectrum
Categorizing trails as either meeting or not meeting UA standards does not help those with mobility challenges who want to plan outings to build their capacity for a greater range of trails. Instead, we advocate for thinking of trails on a spectrum of accessibility or usability:
Those that meet all UA standards as a Universal Access Trail along their entire length get a trail grade of A.
Remaining trails do not meet UA standards and vary widely in the level of effort and stress involved. These get a trail grade from C to E.
For example, instead of simply labelling the Penndell Trail in White Clay Creek Preserve (pictured here) as entirely inaccessible, we identify the isolated sections with specific features (like the rocks and roots seen here) that barely exceed UA standards. These might be stressful for people with certain types of disability without barring them completely from enjoying the trail.
Instead of just identifying people as having or not having a disability, think of a spectrum of ability. Consider how Margot (then 12 years old) and her grandmother (then 86 years old) enjoyed the spectacular High Line trail in New York on Christmas in 2012. This particular section is most easily reached using stairs
Margot's disabilities include some Cerebral Palsy but she does not use a wheelchair and so she can manage stairs with help.
Her grandmother does not have a disability per se but at her age would be uncomfortable on a rocky natural trail. And she especially appreciates a UA path with Margot leaning on her arm for support
So this section of the High Line meets their needs individually, and especially when walking together.
When are features barriers and when are they stressors?
Federal laws have focused on defining the barriers experienced by people with disabilities: a trail either is accessible or is not accessible. Our ratings allow someone with a disability to avoid trails they know they cannot complete (e.g., the rating identifies trails that includes a section with running grades that are a barrier preventing them from completing the trail)
Our Progressive Access framework recognizes that disability is a spectrum, and so we reframe these as stressors they might experience. This gives people with disabilities the opportunity to make a choice, and perhaps try something that might be just beyond their limits. or to choose trails that might offer just the right amount of challenge (e.g., the rating identifies when running grades represent a stress they might just be able to tolerate).
Create accessible experiences
Start to look beyond the trail itself to the overall experience.
How does it connect everyone with nature?
Is it long enough to offer real exercise?
Is it a destination worth an hour's drive?
Can it be used in all seasons and conditions?
Does it offer a range of challenges matching each user's needs and interests?
Does it include all the other amenities that keep everyone comfortable?
Could it support a group visit?
What checks all of these boxes? Imagine a wooded trail meeting UA standards 1 to 2 miles long that overlooks a creek or lake or offers a beautiful view, with resting places along the trail, and a trailhead that offers a gathering place, accessible restrooms, and more challenging trail options. We recommend that County and State planners prioritize projects that create these kinds of options.
Connecting users with nature - A UA trail around a field gets users outside but offers little else. What about trails that immerse you in the sights, sounds, or smells of nature. A babbling brook in pine forest made fragrant by the summer sun is a special place. Margot loves to walk trails by quiet streams, like this section of the White Clay Creek Preserve
Offers real exercise - Some planners might feel that they can check the accessibility box with a 1/4 or 1/2 mile UA trail around a field. But more experienced users looking for real exercise will need more. We recommend aiming for a trail that is at least 1 to 2 miles long. The 1.25 mile Oversee Farm Trail pictured here, Margot's go to trail for regular exercise because its steep grades takes her about an hour to complete.
Worth the trip - Some trails are destinations worth driving an hour and then walking. BHHT's Peter Clapp Trail was designed around this spectacular view.
Use year round - We love wooded trails! While the right clothing allows you to hike in all but the coldest months, nothing can protect you from the sun and heat of a mid-summer day better than a wooded trail. Wooded trails like this one in Harmony Hill Nature Preserve offer their own unique magic in the fall.
A range of challenges - Having a range of trails leaving from a single trailhead or branching off of a UA trail gives hikers options for a more challenging experience, or groups of hikers with different interests and abilities. For example, Harmony Hill Nature Area (pictured here) has different trails branching off of the East Branch Brandywine Trail, a shared use path that itself includes sections with different difficulty levels.
Include all other basic amenities - Accessible parking and bathrooms at the trailhead can make a big difference, especially for destinations drawing hikers from long distances.
Useable by groups - Planning a meaningful outing for a group of users with different needs (like a special education class or adult day program) is challenging! Trails that connect people with nature and offer real exercise, with trailheads that include basic amenities and link to a range of trails can sometimes meet the needs of groups like these. Even better? A trailhead with a gathering place like a picnic pavilion and parking that can accommodate a school bus - like the Yorklyn Trail pictured here.