Find Great Trails for People with Limited Mobility
Following an accident in 2008 that left him paralyzed from the neck down, Ian Mackay searched for new ways to find happiness. He watched movies and played computer games, but the Port Angeles resident soon found himself restless. That’s when he began venturing outside on his power wheelchair to explore accessible hiking trails in his area.
“So often with disability, you don’t think adventure and exploration—and I didn’t either,” the 40-year-old Mackay says. “Realizing that that’s possible, that is what opened my mind up to possibilities and gave me this solace, this happiness, this feeling of ‘the world is my oyster’ and that trails can deliver me to that pearl.”
Mackay has since founded Ian’s Ride, a nonprofit that advocates for outdoor accessibility. A cyclist prior to his injury, Mackay says he likes to partner with the cycling community to create more multi-use trails.
“It’s sometimes easier to unite two communities to make change than to make change on your own,” he says. One thing that becomes a challenge when working in the accessibility space, he says, is defining the term accessible. “Accessible for who?” he asks.
The best way to address this, Mackay says, is to provide detailed information about each trail so users can determine that for themselves. Those details include the trail’s surface, such as soft mud or gravel, and its gradients, including both the side and vertical slope. But other information, such as the trail’s width, whether the trail has downed trees, cattle guards and other obstacles, and the accessibility of parking at the trailhead, are also important details.
Several online resources provide this information. Washington Trails Association, TrailLink and AllTrails have filters that allow hikers to search for accessible trails. Blogs such as Wheelchair Wandering and Rolling Washington are also good resources for finding accessibility information in the Northwest, while Tales of Trails and Accessible Nature provide trail information nationally. Disabled Hikers produces a trail guide that includes the Pacific Northwest. The Outdoors for All Foundation is a Washington organization that has programs and rents gear for people with disabilities for both summer and winter outdoor activities.
Each of these resources sends a clear message: The outdoors is for everyone. And getting outside to enjoy the natural space, Mackay says, is something that people of all abilities can benefit from. “When I get out there on the trail, on my own, I feel free,” he says. “I think the outdoors is simply the best medicine.”
Washington has numerous accessible trails around the state. Here are a few notable ones:
Iron Goat Trail
Located in the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest near Stevens Pass, when traveling clockwise on the trail, the lower first 3 miles of the 6-mile loop are ADA-accessible. The wide trail is a mix of gravel, natural and paved path. The trail goes along the old Great Northern railroad and includes interpretive signs of the history of the railroad, built in 1893 by 800 workers, many of whom were Japanese immigrants. There are designated wheelchair-accessible restrooms at the trailhead.
Rainy Lake Trail
Near Mount Baker, this entire 2-mile path is paved and level, taking hikers of all abilities through the forest to an overlook of the stunning Rainy Lake, an alpine lake surrounded by northern Cascade peaks. The emerald waters of the lake are so clear that you can see fish swimming below the surface. Look for waterfalls along the lake’s edge and bring swimwear on a warm day—the lake is a good swimming hole in the summer. In the fall, the path is known for its fall colors and is popular among birders.
Spokane River Centennial State Park Trail
This 40-mile paved path follows the Spokane River from Lake Spokane to the Idaho border. The trail shows off the area’s high desert forests and basalt canyons. The path also takes you by 40 historically significant sites, including Slaughter Camp Monument where Colonel George Wright killed 800 Indian horses to discourage future uprisings. Several trailheads and access points are found along the path, enabling you to create hikes of various lengths.
Apple Capital Recreation Loop Trail
This 10-mile paved path extends north from Wenatchee along both sides of the Columbia River to Lincoln Rock State Park and back into town where it goes through four waterfront parks. The east side of the trail traverses the bluff and crosses a ravine. It includes some tight turns and short 6% grades. The trail passes by wildlife areas and city parks, as well as restaurants, breweries and other businesses, so there’s ample variety to create an adventure.
Lake Padden Park
The first 2.6 miles of the 7.7-mile loop around Lake Padden in Bellingham is made up of smooth gravel, though it can get muddy following heavy rain. This portion of the trail takes hikers close to the water’s edge, so be on the lookout for mallards, cormorants and buffleheads. The trail also features a park shelter, picnic tables and a boat launch near the trailhead.
Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge
Just outside of Olympia, the wildlife refuge is home to a mile-long roundtrip boardwalk path over an estuary, giving hikers access to exceptional wildlife viewing that is unique on every visit. Situated where the freshwater Nisqually River flows into Puget Sound, the river delta refuge attracts harbor seals, otters and numerous birds including raptors, owls, harriers and kestrels.
Olympic Discovery Trail
This multiuse trail stretches 135 miles from Port Townsend through Port Angeles and Olympic National Park to the Pacific Ocean, though that includes some unfinished portions of the trail that currently go along highways. The east central section of the trail connects Blyn to Port Angeles and is about 27 miles long. Most of that path is paved, though a portion is on-road or gravel in spots. This section of the trail passes over nine bridges, traversing flood plains and turbulent rivers. There are several access points and restrooms along the path.
Salmon Creek Trail
This paved 5-mile path near Vancouver makes it easy to escape the sounds of the city. Though the entry point is short and steep, the rest of the trail remains fairly level. Weaving through wetlands, forest and meadows and past creeks and ponds, the trail takes hikers through habitats of heron, nutria and other creatures. Take note of the trees along the path, as some have wood duck boxes, which are part of wetland preservation and restoration efforts. On a clear day, hikers can glimpse Oregon’s Mount Hood in the distance.
Green Lake Trail
This nearly 3-mile path is a classic Seattle trail circling the iconic Green Lake, which was formed by the Vashon Glacial Ice Sheet 15,000 years ago. The old growth forest that lines the lake’s shores is home to Western red cedar, alder, poplar and madrona. The park is also a preserve for wildlife, so keep an eye out for duck, geese and other waterfowl.
Sacagawea Heritage Trail
This 23-mile paved trail follows the Columbia River through the Tri-Cities, beginning in Richland and passing through the Riverview Natural Preserve, Yakima Delta Wildlife Nature Area and several city parks. This makes the trail great for pairing a hike with birdwatching or fishing. Several access points along the trail allow for walks of various lengths. A short distance from the eastern edge of the trail is the Sacajawea State Park, which houses an informative interpretive center.
– Written by Emily Gillespie, last updated in October 2022.
— Top photo of the Iron Goat Trail. By David Lee/flickr