During a recent visit to Acadia National Park, Shirley Beck, who has multiple sclerosis, said she was “very pleased” to find a paved path that allowed her to reach a viewing platform at the Cadillac Mountain summit with her light three-wheel electric scooter.
“It’s pretty good,” said Beck, a pediatric physical therapist from Arlington, Va., after taking in the sweeping vista of Frenchman Bay, islands and distant summits on the mainland.
Beck said she is grateful to Acadia officials for making the peak of Cadillac accessible and praised them for building the pink-granite path for physically disabled persons. Before reaching the viewing platform, the path loops around steps and directly passes by a plaque of the first National Park Service director, Stephen Mather, who was periodically disabled by manic-depression, and was a contemporary of Acadia founder George B. Dorr, who became blind in his later years.
Beck, who visited Acadia while traveling with her husband, Roy, on a cruise ship, said she was not able to get quite as full of an experience at another key Acadia landmark, Thunder Hole. An accessible ramp leads to the upper viewing area of Thunder Hole for physically disabled persons, but not down to the lower area next to the sea cavern itself.
“The path was easy to use that got me part way down,” she wrote in a follow-up email. “I’m not sure how they could provide a way to get farther than that.”
While Beck only visited Acadia briefly, her experience was similar to that of some other physically disabled persons who travel to the Maine national park.
Acadia National Park has 45 miles of even-surface carriage roads, trails, sites and facilities that are available to wheelchair users but others that are not wheelchair-accessible such as Sand Beach, which is below a high bluff and does not have a ramp for physically disabled persons. Citing the terrain, the park service has determined that it is not feasible to build ramps down next to Thunder Hole itself or to Sand Beach.
But Helen Franke, a retired college administrator from Wellington, Fla., said she believed a gradual ramp at Sand Beach might be possible to accommodate physically disabled persons. “For something like this, I think they could,” she said, after stopping at the top of the stairs with a cane she needs to use.
Across the nation, access for people with disabilities is a key issue in outdoor recreation including the 59 national parks, which are required by the federal Architectural Barriers Act (ABA) to adopt accessibility standards for the design, construction, and alteration of facilities covered by the law.
About a month after he was confirmed by the US Senate in 2017, now-former U.S. Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke said in a release that “it’s time to start thinking about accessibility and infrastructure” and that “we will remain focused on increasing access” for physically disabled persons and other people with disabilities in national parks.
Court settlement, law expanded NPS access for physically disabled
Three years ago, a dispute reached the courts and prompted the National Park Service (NPS) and Disability Rights Advocates, a nonprofit disability rights legal center, to reach a settlement that expands access to the Golden Gate National Recreational Area, including providing wheelchair access to trails, access to popular beaches, beach wheelchairs and mats.
The National Park Service, in a five-year plan on accessibility, acknowledges that it is under-serving people with varying abilities and lays out a strategy to build momentum and advance the effort.
In an interview, John T. Kelly, management assistant at Acadia National Park, said there is “quite a bit of infrastructure” at Acadia to accommodate people with disabilities. He provided a list of recent accessibility projects involving new construction or major improvements in the park.
Those included an accessible ramp from the Thunder Hole parking lot in 2004; the accessible trail on Cadillac Mountain in 2005; accessible bathrooms and ramp to the beach at Echo Lake approximately in 2011; the upgraded Sand Beach stairway in 2011; the nature trail at Jordan Pond and completion of a loop at the Ship Harbor Trail, both in 2015.
Kelly said the park always considers options for accessibility when constructing or altering facilities. “It is built and considered into every facility development plan,” he said.
An access guide to the park lists many facilities, services and opportunities for people with sight, hearing and mobility disabilities such as wheelchair lifts for all the fare-free Island Explorer shuttle buses, a special accessible parking lot and elevator for the Hulls Cove Visitor Center, picnic areas, museums, accessible sites at campgrounds, access to certain hiking trails like Ship Harbor, packed gravel paths at the Wild Gardens of Acadia, and Hemlock Path and Jesup Path, both at the Sieur de Monts Spring area.
Carriage roads, horse-drawn rides accessible to wheelchair users
Also, Acadia’s entire carriage road system, restored and maintained by Friends of Acadia’s Carriage Roads Endowment, provides a way to experience the park’s interior by wheelchair, according to the Friends web site. Motorized wheelchairs are allowed on the carriage roads, and their smooth surface is also appropriate for visitors with visual disabilities, according to the web site.
In 1998, the Friends also donated and endowed the maintenance of two wheelchair-accessible carriages to Acadia National Park for use at Wildwood Stables.
Kelly said all the 94 camp sites at the new Schoodic Woods Campground, which opened on Sept. 1 of 2015, comply with accessibility standards except for nine hike-in sites. The Blackwoods and Seawall campgrounds also have accessible sites.
In an email, Kelly said, park officials “looked very hard at how we could make Sand Beach accessible when we rehabilitated the stairs some years ago, but we determined under the ABA guidelines that complying with the technical requirements for beach access was impracticable. At the same time, we made Echo Lake Beach accessible to the water.”
Kelly said the improved Sand Beach stairway does provide some elements of accessibility that were not in the old stairway such as new railings and a switch to cement stairs from stone.
If the park had built an accessible ramp to Sand Beach, a series of switchbacks and the required grade would have extended it into the high tide line, meaning it would have been exposed to the surf and damage.
A ramp to Sand Beach also would have affected the scenic quality of the beach and involved engineering costs, Kelly said.
At Thunder Hole, the accessible ramp, completed in 2004, does not go down to the hole itself. “It swings around to an overlook with interpretive panel that describes what people can see. You cannot get down in a wheelchair to the actual spot.”
The accessible ramp starts at the parking lot at Thunder Hole and brings people to the upper portion of the stairway at the site. The ramp and overlook are all wheelchair accessible.
In an email, Kelly said the park looked at all options at Thunder Hole but extending the accessible ramp to the bottom viewing platform at the cavern was determined to be impracticable.
Accessible trail on Cadillac available, if you see it
Kelly said the Cadillac Mountain accessible trail “was quite an engineering job to wind it as best we could through the top of the mountain and use as much of the existing path as possible.”
However, there is no sign to designate the Cadillac path as accessible.
On the same day of Beck’s visit to Cadillac, Carlos Kjellander of Pittsburg, Kansas, used a walker to climb stone stairs to the viewing platform on the peak, after he did not see the accessible path, which does not have a sign at the trailhead. Kjellander said he supports more access, but is concerned about affecting the natural beauty.
“It’s so beautiful, I had to come up,” Kjellander, who had knee replacement surgery, said after navigating the stairs to the viewing platform with his walker. “I’m pretty thrilled I got up here.”
In an email, Kelly said park officials try to limit signs of all kinds throughout the park and have not received any suggestions about signing the Cadillac Summit accessible path until a reporter asked about it. He said he will raise the issue with the park’s Sign Committee.
Michael Kelley of Waldo, Maine, a “nature lover” who uses a wheelchair because of a rare chromosomal disorder and has visited Acadia for more than 20 years, said he enjoys the park, especially use of the carriage roads, but the park needs to improve access.
His mother, Carol Kelley, a poultry farmer, said the park, for example, should provide access to Sand Beach for people in wheelchairs, possibly with a ramp. She and her son have used his wheelchair on Ocean Path and the harder packed sand of the low-tide bar between Bar Island and Bar Harbor, but not Sand Beach, where she has instead taken videos for her son.
She said she disagrees with the park assessment that a ramp to Sand Beach would be impracticable. She said it would be unsafe to carry her son down the stairs to the beach and she believes the park could devise some way to get people in wheelchairs to the beach. “There are ways around it,” she said.
The mother added that the park also should be equipped with special bigger-tire wheelchairs for access to beaches. Acadia does not have a beach wheelchair, the park’s John Kelly said, though some state beaches in Maine make them available.
“I would love that,” the mother said. “That would be awesome.”
Wheelchair users can reach Echo Lake beach, but not Sand Beach
At Echo Lake, for example, an accessible boardwalk leads to the water and there were some mats at the end of the walkway, but the sandy beach appears as if it could be difficult for regular wheelchairs.
The Kelleys emphasized that they do enjoy using the carriage roads in Acadia. Carol Kelley said the carriage trails are “the best” and she would recommend them for people in wheelchairs.
Carol Kelley also said the park needs to have more parking that is restricted just for vans, not cars. She said a minimum of 10 feet clearance is needed for the wheelchair to exit the side of their van. She said people with disability placards, regardless of the type of vehicle, often park in van-accessible spaces, at hospitals, supermarkets and other locations, not just Acadia.
The park’s John Kelly said the park has many van accessible parking spaces including two at the Cadillac Summit next to the accessible path. A minimum of one van accessible space is required for each location, but the rest can be a standard space, he said.
During a recent visit to the park, Pam Butler of Rochester, N.Y., who uses a wheelchair and is blind, her daughter, Megan Butler, and a couple of friends said they enjoyed the park including paths near Jordan Pond, the separate access for people with disabilities at the Hulls Cove Visitor Center, the Wild Gardens of Acadia and a CD of audio tour of the park that they purchased at the visitor center.
The daughter did say it was difficult over a busy weekend to access parking for disabled persons. “There’s not enough space,” she said. “We found them to be full most of the time.”
Accessible vistas provide ‘glorious feeling’ for physically disabled
Shirley Beck, the pediatric physical therapist who uses a scooter, wrote that she and her husband don’t expect to have access to every mountain top or every trail, but having at least one, or a small number, of accessible experiences is a world of difference from having none.
The couple used to backpack and hike a lot during their first four years of marriage until she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, which quickly ended her days of vigorous hiking and, eventually, all hiking and walking.
“So, I am fully aware of the glorious feeling of getting off the beaten path that can’t be reached by auto — or perhaps any other vehicle,” wrote Beck. “But for all of us who don’t have the physical ability to do that, we are grateful that the managers and planners of our park systems are imagining how much they would like to experience some of that glorious feeling if they could no longer walk.”