“The wheelchair should not be a symbol of disability. A wheelchair is a vehicle to liberation and freedom; a chariot for independence.” – Rich Hansen
As we talk about the Power of Outside, we love to encourage people to take advantage of the many beautiful hiking trails in our corner of the world. But we also know that families might have children with physical limitations for traditional hiking. We invited former Encompass parent Summer Nowicki to share her story, some of her favorite trails, and helpful tips for getting started.
Ellie has always enjoyed being outdoors and moving fast. She has cerebral palsy and relies on a wheelchair to get around. When she was two, I took her for a very short run. I have never seen her so happy. But after years of being pushed around for our runs, when she was about 14, Ellie started asking to go hiking. She talked about it each morning when she woke up. I decided we needed to figure out how to make this happen. I found a few local trails and she loved it. It fueled her excitement for even more! Something about moving around outside brings her calm and so much joy. I found a Facebook hiking group that gave me many ideas and encouraged us to keep getting out there.
While we love our adventures, there are some challenges in hiking with a wheelchair. Not many trails are accessible and those that are, are often short. Sometimes we must travel a good distance to get to new or longer trails and sometimes we end up hiking the loop twice to make it worth the effort to get there.
Ellie and I have been very fortunate to have acquired several different types of chairs to use on the trails. While there are some trails that accommodate a standard wheelchair, there are some hiking chairs that have really expanded what we can access. They are typically lighter and have more ability to navigate rocks, roots, and uneven terrain.
Our favorite chair is called a Wicycle or Wike. It also converts to a bike trailer which is a fun bonus. It is a little more challenging to get Ellie into the chair, but it handles all the bumps and turns with ease!
We also have a more classic jogger stroller in an extra-large size. It is easier to get her in this chair and it gives her more access to what is around her. It is a little more difficult to turn and maneuver even though it handles the bumps wonderfully.
Our third chair is called a Crosswinds Concepts Freedom Chair. It needs a team of 2-4 people to pull or carry, but it is super light and can get her on even more trails! When Ellie started asking to climb Mount Si, we used this chair, along with about 10 of my strong and determined friends, to get her to the top. We all took turns and sweated a lot, but it was an amazing day and a dream come true for Ellie.
It’s important to note that while these chairs have been a huge blessing, there is still so much that can be done with a standard wheelchair.
No matter what the chair, there is a lot that goes into preparing for a hike. In the hiking world, we talk about always bringing the ten essentials:
- Navigation (I use my phone)
- Sun protection (clothes or sunscreen)
- First Aid
- Fire (matches or lighter)
- Shelter (emergency blanket)
- Extra Food
- Extra Water
- Extra Clothes.
I have put together a bag with all these items, so it is easy for me to just grab and go. These items often look different for a child with special needs. I bring specific snacks for Ellie, diapers and wipes, and emergency medications. While it seems like a lot to put together, most of the items can be found around the house.
Finding the Right Trail
With a good chair and all the essentials, you will be ready to hit the trail. Finding the right trail can be a lot of fun. I love looking through websites and apps to find the right trail. My favorite place to go is the Washington Trails Association (WTA) website. You can search by trail name or by location, and you can now search using a wheelchair-friendly filter. It is often the first place I go to plan a hike.
I also follow several Instagram pages of other wheelchair hikers as well as the Facebook group, Washington Hikers and Climbers. It has been fun to see where others have been, and I have put together lists of places that I want to explore in the future.
The WTA website should explain the type of terrain for each trail so you can decide if it is a good option for the chair that you have. The easiest trails to navigate are paved and often a great place to start. Other trails might have a packed dirt surface. A standard wheelchair can be used for both options. The jogging or hiking chairs will allow you to explore trails that are not always considered wheelchair friendly.
We have had many successes but also some failures where we had to turn around due to difficult terrain, stairs, gates, or the steepness of the trail. I like bringing my mom or a friend along for help and for the company, especially when we are trying new trails. It’s always good to have someone along just in case something goes wrong, or you need some help!
Favorite local hikes and great places to start:
- Gold Creek Pond (Snoqualmie Pass) – fully paved, easy to get to, big parking lot, 1-mile loop
- Camp Brown (Middle Fork Road) – flat packed dirt, ADA accessible, 0.5-mile loop
- Tradition Lake Loop (Tiger Mountain) – flat packed dirt, 1.2-mile loop
Favorite Washington Hikes that are worth the drive
- Iron Goat Trail (near Stevens Pass) – packed dirt, 6 miles round trip, out and back
- Apple Capital Loop (Wenatchee) – paved, 10-mile loop, gentle hills
- Cedar River Trail (Maple Valley) – packed dirt, 17 miles one way
- Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge (Nisqually) – packed gravel and boardwalks, 5 miles round trip, out and back
- Padilla Bay (Mount Vernon) – flat packed dirt, 4.4 miles round trip, out and back
- Alki Beach Trail (West Seattle) – flat paved trail along the water
Washington Trails Association (WTA) – has a special wheelchair search feature and description of accessibility for each of the hikes.
Washington Hikers and Climbers on Facebook
@findingmountains on Instagram – Pictures and names of most of the hikes that Ellie and Summer have explored, plus other mountain adventures.