Options for disabled adventurers on rise in California

Mari Weaver of Grass Valley, front, and her friend Ellen Williams of Madera Ranchos hike the wheelchair-accessible Independence Trail in South Yuba River State Park.
Mari Weaver of Grass Valley, front, and her friend Ellen Williams of Madera Ranchos hike the wheelchair-accessible Independence Trail in South Yuba River State Park. rpench@sacbee.com

Like most state recreation areas, Nevada County’s South Yuba River Park has plenty of trails to hike on. Unlike most others, though, it also has a path to roll on.

About half of the gently sloped, 2.5-mile Independence Trail on the west side of Highway 49 has been renovated for wheelchairs, part of a statewide move to open up rivers, parks and other outdoor spaces to easier use by people with disabilities.

The accessibility push is also being taken on by private travel outfits who have designed packages for the disabled.

In its 37 years of operation, Sacramento whitewater rafting outfitter W.E.T. River Trips has accommodated people with visual and auditory impairments, as well as those with physical and intellectual disabilities. Other local organizations let disabled adventure-seekers try their hand at rock climbing, rope courses, boating, water-skiing and four-wheel off-roading in the warmer months, as well as skiing and snowboarding in the winter.

In the settlement to the 2005 lawsuit Tucker v. State of California Department of Parks & Recreation, the state promised to improve parks access, including creating wheelchair-accessible trails, signs for the blind and captioned educational videos for those with hearing impairments.

California has allocated more than $90 million to revamp 200 parks by 2022, according to Disability Rights Advocates, whose attorneys represented the plaintiffs in the class action case. Another DRA lawsuit, Gray v. Golden Gate National Recreation Area, ended in a settlement that promised alterations to many of the Bay Area’s natural attractions, as well as a $3 million budget for future improvements.

The two lawsuits, coupled with the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, have opened up options for disabled people. Bonnie Lewkowicz, who founded the outdoor disability advocacy group Access Northern California, said the settlements motivated – if not forced – parks to upgrade the services they offer.

What truly is “wheelchair-accessible,” however, depends on individual preferences, said Lewkowicz, who broke her neck in an all-terrain-vehicle accident at age 15 and uses a motorized wheelchair. She said she enjoys trying slightly rougher terrain such as the Independence Trail from time to time.

South Yuba River Park Association director Warren Wittich called the Independence Trail the first wheelchair-accessible nature trail in the United States, though it is not recognized as such by the Americans with Disabilities Act. In fact, the trail is “wheelchair-friendly” but not designated as wheelchair-accessible because it is unpaved and has slight inclines and declines.

“It all depends on your definition and what your needs are around accessibility, because it doesn’t have to have the international access symbol to be accessible to some people,” Lewkowicz said. “There (are) times when I prefer going off-road and not being on a paved surface.”

She has researched 120 trails throughout California, reviewing their length and difficulty for wheelchair users. One of her favorites, Fern Canyon Trail at Van Damme State Park outside Mendocino, is not classified as wheelchair-accessible by the state.

A total of 75 California public beaches offer specialized beach wheelchairs with thicker tires and powerful motors to move at a reasonable pace across sand.

W.E.T. River Trips uses paddle boats, most commonly used for whitewater rafting, as well as special oar boats featuring wheelchair-accessible decks. Floatation devices that prop its users into a “California lounge chair position” give people a downstream view and let them keep their arms and head above surface level.

President Stephen Liles, a former high school principal, said the company hires several rafting guides every year with backgrounds in education – ranging from special education to outdoor activities. That helps with guiding tours for disabled people, particularly those on the autism spectrum or with other mental disabilities.

“We really take pride in being able to customize our rafting trips for our customers’ needs – that includes assisting clients with disabilities,” Liles said. “It’s a state of mind for our clients with disabilities – if they’re willing to do it, we’re willing to help.”

The south and middle forks of the American River, as well as the Klamath River, provide miles of ideal rapid conditions and easy access to takeoff and landing points along the river banks. Trips accommodating people with disabilities are most often hosted on novice and intermediate rapids – Class Two and Class Three, respectively – abundant along the American River.

“We recommend most of our clients, disabled or not, to go to Class Three areas,” Liles said.

Disabled Sports USA Far West, the founding chapter of a nonprofit group founded in 1967 out of Truckee, differentiates itself by specializing in “high-challenge, harder-to-access” activities, rather than typical community sports leagues such as basketball and softball, said administrative director Cindy Smith.

The nonprofit hosts family water sport weekends featuring water-skiing, sailing, canoeing and kayaking on Donner Lake; an overnight four-wheeling excursion on the Rubicon Trail through the Sierra backcountry; and adaptive skiing and snowboarding.

“The parents of children with disabilities often come to us teary-eyed, expressing how grateful they are that their children are participating in life like other children,” said Smith. “Veterans who are disabled from serving in war are thankful for being able to get back out and be active again, despite possibly losing a limb or suffering a head injury.”

On the Independence Trail, however, few visitors who are disabled embark on the 2.5-mile trek, despite its accessibility, said Wittich, the director. Data compiled by the park shows about six wheelchair-bound people use the trail per week.

In fact, most of South Yuba River Park is not wheelchair-accessible, with many trails and buildings located near the riverbed inside Yuba River Canyon, where terrain is rockier and more sloped.

“South Yuba River State Park is pretty much an area that is not conducive to wheelchair ramps and stuff like that,” Wittich said. “It’d be extremely expensive to try and build wheelchair-accessibility into these areas.”