Honest Trail Reviews for Hikers with Disabilities: Travel For Good

Serene Nagakiri is a passionate hiker. They also have multiple disabilities and chronic illnesses, and say they have felt excluded from outdoor recreation their entire lives. Often, they note, a path marked as ‘easy’ is impassable for a person with limited mobility – whether they use a wheelchair or have a cognitive impairment that can make navigating the path difficult.

Nagakyrie told KUOW that trail developers seem to overlook how people with disabilities interact with the outdoors.

“Maybe they have their own guidelines and checklists to follow, and they check and think they’re all good. But really, they leave a lot of accessible information and features that need to be included for people to get into this space,” Nagakyrie said.

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So, in 2018, Nagakyrie set out to document natural trails and landmarks that they say are truly accessible to people with a variety of conditions — physical, psychological, developmental, and intellectual.

He founded Nagakyrie Disabled Hikers, a nonprofit organization and guide that reviews dozens of accessible trails across the Pacific Northwest, California, and even parts of the Midwest.

Nagakyrie told KUOW that they have visited and evaluated hundreds of other trails in those areas and are working on adding them all to their online directory.

Nagakyrie’s “Spoon Theory” classification method is used to help hikers determine if a trail is right for them. The “spoon theory” was created by Christine Miserandino, a writer with Lupus who created the term to represent the amount of mental and physical energy a person needs in daily activities. Nagakyrie uses theory in the trail rating system to help hikers understand how much energy they might need to complete the trek.

Caption: Logo for Disabled Hikers, which features three hikers using different types of mobility.

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Trail assessments for disabled hikers include details such as trek length, elevation change, and terrain type, as well as things like how much planning you might need to do to get to the site or whether the trail is wheelchair accessible.

“I need to know the entire length of the driveway: surface, how wide the driveway is, if there are any steep slopes, elevation, grade, cross slope,” said Nagakyrie, referring to their typical list of things to consider. “Will there be any awkward intersections or where I might need to navigate something? Will there be benches along the way?”

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Passage classification system by Syren Nagakyrie / Disabled hikers

Nagakyrie also includes clear directions for access to the trail, amenities available en route, and whether visitors have to navigate the trail breaks. They said this information is rarely found online, but that they and many hikers with disabilities require it to pre-plan their hiking trips.

Washington State Parks spokeswoman Amanda McCarthy said the natural terrain in many of the parks means there aren’t many trails that comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. In an email to KUOW, McCarthy acknowledged that parks could do better.

“We are always looking for ways we can improve, and feedback from our visitors is a great starting point,” McCarthy wrote. “We have a long way to go to make our spaces more accessible and we value the feedback we receive.”

Accessibility can vary greatly from location to location, even between lanes that are relatively close to each other. To illustrate the point, KUOW visited a pair of hiking trails on the Olympic Peninsula — one that leads to Ruby Beach on the Pacific Ocean and one in Madison Falls near Port Angeles.

Caption: Easy access to Ruby Beach is blocked by thick piles of washed-up trees and driftwood.

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Ruby Beach is rated “Easy” by multiple trail guides, including AllTrails.com and HikingProject.com, however visitors must navigate a steep dirt path that ends with a pile of driftwood that blocks access to the sand. For someone who uses a wheelchair, there is no simple way to get around the tangle of branches and on the beach. Nagakyrie gives this track a rating of four spoons out of five, making it one of the toughest tracks they rate on the internet.

Caption: The trail to Madison Falls near Port Angeles is paved and includes benches along the way to accommodate hikers of all levels and ability.

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Conversely, the Madison Falls Trail is fully paved, with benches along the way. It ends with an unobstructed view of the falls. Even the railing blocking the path from the descent point to the river is a little lower right in front of the falls, ensuring that someone who is shorter or seated can clearly see the waterfall.

Caption: Madison Falls near Port Angeles

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“The really little details along that path make a big difference,” Nagakiri said.

And they’re what earns the Madison Falls Trail its one spoon rating, letting hikers of all levels and abilities know they can enjoy the view, too.

Hikers looking for all-encompassing group adventures can connect with Nagakyrie or find upcoming events hosted by Disabled Hikers online and on Facebook and Instagram. Nagakyrie will also publish a comprehensive guidebook “The Disabled Hiker Guide to Western Washington and Oregon” in September.

This piece from the eight-part Travel For Good series highlights tourism insights across the state that teach about our fragile wonders and how we can help protect them. Check out more stories from the series here.

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