Trails and tribulations in the great outdoors
Small fixes, better information would help more people enjoy resources, advocates for disabled say

- Christopher Heredia, Chronicle Staff Writer
Friday, July 30, 2004

One recent sunny afternoon at Coyote Point Recreation Area in San Mateo, Bonnie Lewkowicz guided her motorized wheelchair down a hard-packed dirt trail.

A Berkeley resident who is helping to write a wheelchair riders' guide for the California Coastal Conservancy, Lewkowicz had her sights set on getting to the park's beach.

She got about 400 feet from the beach, only to find a 3-inch curb with no curb cut. For most people, it would be an easy step. But for Lewkowicz, those 3 inches represented a big disappointment -- and potentially the end of her sojourn.

It so happened that Lewkowicz had two companions to assist her this particular afternoon, but otherwise she would have had to turn back.

"Part of the problem with accessing trails is a lack of universal information," said Lewkowicz, a 47-year-old former recreation therapist. "If you're visiting another state, there's nowhere to go to find out whether a trail or park is accessible.

Even within California, park brochures and kiosks only haphazardly mention disability access to trails, or they ignore the topic, she said.

"Our goal is simply to provide the same opportunity to disabled people everyone else has. Everyone likes to enjoy the outdoors. It's really a quality- of-life issue. Trails offer us physical challenges; a day in the outdoors can be invigorating."

With that she paused to take in the breathtaking 180-degree view from atop Coyote Point in San Mateo, overlooking the southern Bay and the Coyote Point Marina and Yacht Harbor. "It's like being on a cruise ship," she said.

All along the coast, especially during the spring, summer and fall, outdoor opportunities abound for nature lovers -- whether they want to be camping, hiking or going for a day at the beach. Other Peninsula places Lewkowicz plans to visit to include in the wheelchair riders' guide include the Palo Alto Baylands, Point Montara Lighthouse, several San Mateo County beaches and Pigeon Point Lighthouse.

Aņo Nuevo State Reserve in San Mateo County is particularly wheelchair friendly, Lewkowicz said. Docents from Aņo Nuevo offer an "equal access" tour on weekends in which they take visitors in by shuttle to a park where they've built a boardwalk out to the water.

"You can get right up close to the elephant seals,'' she said. "I got almost nose to nose with one. That is great."

At Pillar Point in Half Moon Bay, there is a hard pack dirt trail with sweeping views of the Santa Cruz Mountains and Half Moon Bay. The trail, surrounded by wildflowers and birds, stops at a breakwater about 30 feet from the beach.

Farther south, at Natural Bridges State Beach in Santa Cruz County, wheelchair riders can take a boardwalk to where the monarchs hang out in a wooded area. Beyond the butterfly preserve, there is a wheelchair beach chair people can get to take them down to the water's edge. From there, they can take a trip down a paved coastal trail to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, where there are beach chairs as well.

But for people who use wheelchairs or have other disabilities, the choices are limited not only by a trail's surface, slope or width, but by access to information about trail conditions.

A growing movement of disabled activists is fighting to establish national standards for trail guides. Many parks and governmental agencies that operate them have made great strides in the past several decades to improve access, sometimes after being sued by disabled advocacy groups.

The 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act helped raise awareness around trail access, and subsequent legislation has attempted to codify the definition of accessibility. Still, no universal guidelines exist, and many disabled people show up at parks or campsites with friends or family, only to find a lack of information -- and sometimes they can't continue on.

There are an estimated 49.7 million people with disabilities in the United States, according to the U.S. Census bureau. People are considered disabled if they have a severe vision or hearing impairment or a condition that limits their ability to walk, learn or perform basic tasks.

But activists explain that it's not just those with disabilities who can benefit from better information. "It really affects family in America," said Nevada architect and wheelchair athlete Peter Axelson, who is working to develop national guidelines for trail information, specifically with regard to trail grade, cross slope, width, surface firmness, and the presence of obstacles. His company, Beneficial Designs, is using a National Institutes of Health grant to develop the guidelines and has trained more than 700 people in the trail assessment process.

"Everyone has parents or grandparents who are getting older and still want to go out, or young children in strollers," said Axelson, 48, of Minden, Nev. "We're trying to create a level playing field so that people are able to enjoy the outdoors with their full family. At some point, we're all going to have some mobility impairment."

Although paralyzed from the waist down -- a result of a rock climbing accident in 1975 when he was a cadet at the Air Force Academy -- Axelson loves to participate in sports. His deepest passion, however, is fighting to ensure that disabled people have equal access to outdoor opportunities.

Axelson enjoys cross country skiing and other snow sports. He has been a member of the U.S. Disabled Ski Team and has helped design sit skis, mono skis and other equipment to help disabled athletes.

Axelson said he sees as a major victory that the U.S. Forest Service recently adopted the access guidelines. He is confident it will have a ripple effect, and said that despite barriers such as the one Lewkowicz encountered at Coyote Point, California is one of the states leading the nation in terms of trail and outdoor access.

"I see it as all positive steps," Axelson said. "I see it as similar to making healthful decisions about which foods to eat. We need information on the food facts label so we are able to determine which ones to eat. Why don't we develop a way to measure the trails in a similar fashion? That way a person can determine at the outset how steep the trail is, how narrow, it has these obstructions."

Woodside resident Don Pugh, who founded a group for disabled equestrians, said many disabled people use horses as "wilderness wheelchairs." He is fighting San Mateo County officials to create a trail along the shores of the Crystal Springs Reservoir that would be open to horseback riders.

"For many disabled people, a horse provides legs to get to places not even wheelchairs can get access to," Pugh said. "Some of these places you couldn't pave or otherwise make accessible. A horse can be your legs."

One of his favorite spots on the Peninsula is the Phleger property, part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in the hills above Woodside.

"It's absolutely spectacular," Pugh said. "The redwoods, babbling brooks . .. In the middle of a hot summer day, it's 20 degrees cooler up there. It's one of the many hidden treasures right in our backyard."

Roy Stearns, deputy director for California State Parks, said park officials want to ensure that disabled people are able to enjoy California's natural treasures.

"We have some of the best real estate in the world," Stearns said. "You just don't find a redwood grove in Iowa or a stunning view like Point Lobos in any other part of the country. Quite frankly all the people of this nation and state deserve some equal footing in their ability to appreciate these treasures."

Donald Fox, accessibility coordinator for the National Park Service in the Pacific Western United States, said that in Yosemite, where he is based, 5 percent of new campsites will be accessible to the disabled. Picnic tables will be built to accommodate someone in a wheelchair. Tent sites will be constructed at a height so that somebody can pitch the tent from a wheelchair. Tours will be provided with audio assistance or a sign language interpreter. New trails when possible will be designed with wheelchair traction in mind. Many state and national parks and museums already have many accessible features such as ramps or lifts. Half Moon Bay has beach wheelchairs at Francis State Beach that allow people to get right up to the water.

But for every success, there is a need for improvement.

Avid outdoorswoman Ann Sieck of Berkeley has been out several times to enjoy the scenery in the Marin County Watershed. Sieck has multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair. She said she has seen a lot of improvements to trail access in recent years, but there are still easy fixes that could eliminate hindrances for disabled people.

Simple curbs like the one Lewkowicz encountered at the foot of a bridge or drainage barriers can mean the end of an enjoyable time. One afternoon, Sieck approached a gate with an opening narrow enough to prevent motorcycles from getting through.

From her car, she couldn't tell whether she would be able to navigate her wheelchair through the opening. So she drove on to another spot without a barrier. If entrances that were accessible were always marked with the blue wheelchair sign, it would take the guesswork out of such situations for her and make her life easier, she said.

"It's improving really fast in some places. I've seen fixes and changes for the better in a number of places,'' said Sieck, a retired elementary school teacher. "Sometimes it's just a matter of finding the right person to talk to or make a complaint. I've found that people really do want to help. It's up to us, too. We've got to do our part."

Casey May, superintendent of watershed resources at the Marin Municipal Water District, said in trying to preserve trails from erosion or abuse by motorcyclists, park crews have inadvertently created some obstacles to wheelchair access. In recent years, however, the district has planned irrigation with wheelchair access in mind.

Workers have learned that making gradual slopes to direct water off trails or aligning bridges to include ramps have gone a long way toward ensuring that disabled park users can go farther into the wilderness.

"It's the law, it makes sense and it's the right thing to do," May said.