A Look at Accessibility in National Lands

Our Interview with Lilly Longshore

Lilly Longshore, on Twitter @wheeltraveler, went to graduate school in Texas then moved to the Pacific Northwest to work as an environmental engineer and hike, a passion she shares with her husband. Before she had a chance to spend much time on the trails, she fell while getting up from bed, her two-year old son in her arms, and broke her neck. She is an incomplete C5-C6 quadriplegic. At the time of her fall, she did not know that she had degenerative retina disease, which contributed to her disorientation. She credits both swimming and spiritual practice for the significant mobility she has since regained.

She uses a power chair primarily, and occasionally a manual chair, and spends much time outdoors with her family. She serves on the Governor’s Committee for Disability Issues in Washington State and is the parent representative on the Board of Trustees for the Washington State School for the Blind. You can read more about her travels, her recommendations for wheelchair travelers, and her speaking engagements at www.lillylongshore.com. 

We wanted her take on what is working well in parks for visitors needing ADA access, and how parks can continue to evolve toward increased accessibility.

Parks and Points: Can you tell us a bit more about the nature of your advocacy?

Lilly Longshore: I advocate in many ways, including comprehensive travel. I speak at PTA meetings, public meetings, spiritual centers — wherever I am invited — both to educate people about disabilities and to share accessible possibilities with others that have limited mobility. A big passion of mine is traveling. For me, nature is soothing, delightful, stimulating. It doesn’t matter to me if it is a national park, national forest, wildlife refuge, or a BLM park — if it has good wheelchair access into nature, I’m happy.  

Parks and Points: Are most park sites ADA compliant?

Newberry Volcanic National Monument in Deschutes National Forest, central Oregon.

Newberry Volcanic National Monument in Deschutes National Forest, central Oregon.

Lilly Longshore: There is a lot that is ADA compliant, but there is way more that is not. Mountainous terrain, downed logs and branches, tree roots, soft or too deeply graveled surfaces are all barricades to wheelchair accessibility. I research ahead of time to be sure there are accessible trails — it is some work. But it is well worth it when I find something like the Nisqually Wildlife Refuge in Olympia, with four miles of truly accessible trail!  

Parks and Points: What are  some goals we might aim toward, for ensuring greater accessibility?

Lilly Longshore: Our parks need engineers and planners that are dedicated to reviewing parks, assessing the potential for ADA trails and facilities, then designing and building these facilities. Places like old railway beds, footpaths along creeks and lakes, paths along ridges, and boardwalks all have great potential to be ADA trails! I would like to see this in as many parks and forests as is reasonably feasible. If you can roll in a wheelchair, you can roll with a stroller, so these trails would be for the whole family. Additionally, our population is aging and even if someone is not in a wheelchair, they appreciate easier trails that take them to beautiful places, as their knees hurt more!

Parks and Points: How would you describe your moments of frustration?

Lilly Longshore: I often wish ADA trails could be longer. So many are less than half a mile —barely enough time to enjoy. Sometimes I really want to get to a beautiful vista, but trails that are too steep or too uneven, grown over, rocky, or covered with roots, prevent this. Switchbacks are a solution for this, but they are expensive. It is at times frustrating that everyone else in my family can go to the vista, but not me. I used to try daredevil, and frankly stupid, things to get to a sight. The last time I insisted on going up a steep bank to get to some fantastic place, there was nothing but weeds when I got to the top. On the way down, I was so scared, realizing I could easily slide down to catastrophe. I decided it wasn’t worth literally risking my life. I have to keep things in perspective, play it reasonably safe. And appreciate what I can do.

Parks and Points: What are some examples of parks that have offer great access?  

Along the Ohio-Erie Canal.

Along the Ohio-Erie Canal.

Lilly Longshore: I love Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio, particularly the towpath that goes for 20 miles within the park and over 85 miles total—all accessible! It follows the Ohio-Erie Canal, completed in 1832. The tow path allowed mules to trudge along, pulling the canal boats, so it is mostly level. It was a natural, brilliant choice for conversion to accessible trail. Many rails-to-trails paths are in that category too. I also love North Cascade National Park. It has many breath-taking vistas, beautifully constructed dams that I can wheel across, and it offers a few shorter board walks and trails out into gorgeous old growth forest. Olympic National Park is excellent and has trails (short ones, about half a mile or less) where I can wheel into true temperate rainforest. Redwoods National Park has a great one-mile barrier free trail going out into the giant redwoods, which is incredible. A national forest trail I really like is Newberry Volcanic National Monument near Bend, Oregon. It is a very unusual, very cool trail, as it goes over ancient lava beds. And outside of Las Vegas, the Red Rock Canyon, which is BLM owned, is beautiful. It’s the Mojave Desert and the red cliffs against the bright blue sky is awe-inspiring. Another BLM park that is excellent is Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area in Newport, Oregon. An accessible platform is set behind the lighthouse, and I can whale watch. There is also a true cobble beach that has platforms where I can watch and hear the clatter of the cobbles as waves come in and out. It is truly unique and beautiful. I can’t get down to it, but there is so much sea life to see from the platforms above. Acadia National Park in Maine has almost 50 miles of carriage roads that are wheelchair accessible. They were originally built by Rockefeller and other American gentry, as he preferred riding in horse and carriage, but they are now part of the public park and nicely wheelchair accessible — fun for the whole family and good for bicycles too.

Jordan Lake, Acadia National Park.