Michigan's Sleeping Bear Dunes Lakeshore: The national park that works hard to be accessible for people with disabilities
A motorized track chair help visitors who need assistance to experience the Michigan park's trails.
Located along the northwest coast of the state was named the most beautiful place in America by Good Morning America. It contains forests, beaches, sand dunes, the South Manitou Island Lighthouse, and a rural historic farm district.
The paths through this exquisite national park are beautiful, but they can be steep and/or sandy, which for people who require help in hiking mobility, makes them inaccessible. Or at least they were, until now. People who need assistance getting around the park can now reserve a motorized chair that has threaded tracks instead of wheels that allows it to be used in rougher terrain.
The Friends of Sleeping Bear Dunes volunteer group that is dedicated to protecting the resources of the park and heightening visitors experiences saw that not all visitors were able to fully experience the park. That's why they decided to provide the first-of-its-kind track chair program in a US national park for people who need them.
"Here at Sleeping Bear Dunes, about half the park is designated wilderness so in those areas we can't do a lot of maintenance or changes [to increase accessibility] ... so the better option is to have a vehicle that can take the person into these areas so they can experience the trail as it is without having to make major modifications," Kerry Kelly, chairman of the Friends of Sleeping Bear board, told CNN.
The program opened in June 2019 and is currently operated on the almost 1.5-mile (2.41-kilometer) loop of the Bay View trail that goes through a meadow, past historic farms, and up the bluff to a scenic overlook of Lake Michigan.
"Hopefully we'll have the track chair available on more trails in the future," Kelly said.
At this time, there is only one chair available because they come with a hefty price tag of more than $13,000. There is no charge for using the track chair, but it must be reserved at least three days in advance, according to the organization's website. Visitors are required to have a National Park pass that can be obtained on site.
The chair – which can hold 350 lbs. or 158 kilograms – has already been used by over a dozen people and Kelly told CNN that the volunteers try to do one reservation in the morning and one in the afternoon so that the chair can be recharged in-between the sessions.
This is just one of the projects that Friends of Sleeping Bear Dunes has been working on with the National Park Service to make the park more accessible. There are hard decks on beaches for people who use wheelchairs or strollers, an accessible kayak launch, and a 20-mile (32-kilometer) multi-use trail is currently under construction.
Opening the beauty of Sleeping Bear Dunes park to people who need help with mobility is something that all of the US national parks should undertake. After all, the national parks belong to everyone and should be accessible to all.