Out of doors Recreation Alternatives for Everybody


Ben Schwartz in Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in Colorado

Ben Schwartz doesn’t let Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD) stop him from enjoying the great outdoors. This 9-year-old from Des Moines, Iowa, has been climbing giant sand dunes in Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, strolling paved trails in West Texas’ Guadalupe Mountains National Park and riding down a snowy hillside at leisure in Boone Park, Iowa .

Wonderful places like these are part of the growing number of parks, playgrounds, and recreation areas that answer people like Ben who seek adventure and fun with accessibility.

While the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that new and renovated parks include features such as accessible parking, accessible facility access, and accessible bathrooms, many parks go beyond the minimum requirements and create outdoor recreation opportunities for all levels of physical ability.

Explore nature

Ben and his family — mom Jen, dad Brian, and siblings Annabelle, 13, and Nate, 6 — went on a 10-day, 3,000-mile RV road trip in 2021 that included visits to the Great Sand Dunes and Guadalupe Mountains, as well as Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico.

At Carlsbad Caverns, Ben, who can walk but often uses an adaptable stroller, could have taken the elevator down to the caves. Instead, he walked most of the paved, 1.25-mile Natural Entrance Trail, which descends 750 feet in switchbacks. His parents gave him a piggyback ride on the steepest parts.

In the Guadalupe Mountains, Ben hiked a fair amount of the paved trails and rode his stroller when he was tired. Great Sand Dunes was a highlight of the trip for Ben, who looked forward to using one of the park’s loaner sand wheelchairs. Their wide, inflatable tires allowed him to explore the sandy hills. “We took him very high,” says Jen. “He wouldn’t have gotten very far without the wheelchair.”

Brain, Jen, Annabelle, Nate and Ben Schwartz at Great Sand Dunes

“We did everything we could to match Ben’s energy level and ability, but generally he was able to do anything that we did,” says Jen of her journey.

Recreation close to home

Many local park systems also have accessible recreation options, such as B. Virginia State Parks, which are known for their commitment to accessibility. At Mason Neck State Park in Northern Virginia, the wheelchair-accessible, paved, 1,000-foot Beach Trail leads to an elevated platform with sweeping views of Belmont Bay. First Landing State Park’s 8-foot (2.5 m) boardwalk trail, complete with handrails and edge barriers, takes nature lovers to the Chesapeake Bay, where mats for wheelchairs and strollers stretch across the sandy shore to the water. At Sky Meadows State Park, just west of Washington, DC, the Sensory Explorers’ Trail, designed for those with visual and hearing disabilities, features gravel trails and wide boardwalks that are also accessible to those with limited mobility.

Nancy Heltman, Visitor Services Director at Virginia State Parks, explains that the park system is committed to helping everyone experience what nature has to offer. “Virginia State Parks, as our trail guides say, are a mind, body, and spirit tonic,” she says. “Being outside in nature can reduce stress and improve your overall mental and physical health. When you experience the wilderness of nature, you can also connect to how the natural world is a part of your daily life.”

As cities and communities update playgrounds, many are choosing to make them accessible. Cynthia Burkhour, owner of Access Recreation Group, helps recreation providers include people with disabilities in their recreation offerings. She says the most important accessibility feature for playgrounds is the ground surface. “It should be a rubber composite or something flat and secure that’s not made out of wood chips, sand, or fine gravel,” she says.

Some playground designs go beyond accessibility. “Side-by-side jungle gyms at different heights, one for wheelchair users, let people of different abilities play together,” she says. “Inclusivity is just as important as accessibility.”

find rest

When John and Denise Szymczak of Racine, Wisconsin, with their children Joshua, 17, and Holly, 14, who live with Limb-Girdle Muscular Dystrophy (LGMD), want to visit an outdoor destination, they do their research first. Then Denise emails the park to ask what’s working with their limitations: Both children, with the help of their parents, can walk short distances and stairs that are neither steep nor narrow. For longer distances they use wheelchairs.

John, Denise, Holly and Joshua in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

“Once we’re in the park, the rangers are great at pointing us to specific accessible trails, picnic tables, and which areas have accessible restrooms nearby,” she says.

The Szymczaks have visited the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina three times. “We love the paved nature trails there. And you can borrow a sand wheelchair and push it down a ramp to the sandy riverbank,” says Denise. Because of patchy cell phone service in the Smokies, she and John carry walkie-talkies with a range of up to 35 miles in case of an emergency. They also carry a handheld GPS device to mark favorite spots on trails so they’re easier to find next time.

Outdoor fun can also be found at privately owned recreation parks and resorts, like Seven Oaks Recreation in Boone, Iowa, where Ben stayed last winter. Adaptive Adventures, a mobile adaptive sports program, met him on the ski slopes. Strapped into a chair with skis instead of wheels, and with the help of an experienced skier, Ben kept gliding down the hill.

“It’s great that Ben can have the same outdoor experiences as his siblings,” says Jen. “He can do anything; we just have to make adjustments.”


National Parks: Learn about accessible features in the National Park Service’s more than 400 natural and historic areas. Get free entry with the Access Pass.

State Parks: A list of state parks can be found on the National Association of State Park Directors website by clicking on locate a park.

Hiking trails: Find trails based on activity or accessibility at AllTrails.

Playgrounds: Search the playground directory for an accessible playground near you.