When Santa Clara County resident Sean Simonson explores trails and open spaces in the Santa Cruz Mountains, he faces accessibility challenges that other bikers and hikers take for granted. Trail impediments might be easy to hop over or maneuver around, but not so on a recumbent tricycle or in a wheelchair, he said.
Simonson, 47, an athlete and newly retired emergency services manager, sustained a mountain biking injury in 2006 that caused him to become quadriplegic. The change in his mobility hasn't gotten in the way of enjoying the outdoors, but access to open spaces — even getting through the entrance gate — has proved to be limiting. Most entrances, guarded by stiles or logs to keep vehicles out, aren't wide enough for wheelchairs and other mobility-assisted devices. Trails and roads are narrow or often too steep and surfaces can be slippery or snag a chair's wheels.
The Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, which manages more 65,000 acres in the greater Santa Cruz Mountains region, is working to change that. Over the past three years, district crews have been widening the stiles and gates at trailheads as part of its first steps in an ambitious 15-year plan to upgrade its 26 preserves in compliance with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.
On April 14, staff presented the board of directors with its first progress update since the district approved its federally mandated ADA Self-Evaluation and Transition Plan in May 2019. The ADA's 1990 law requires public agencies to provide equal access to programs, services and activities. Midpen's plan, which identified 1,075 ADA barriers at its facilities, is the district's first update in 28 years.
So far, the district has removed 208 out of 554 barriers identified for upgrades within the first five years of the Transition Plan, Susanna Chan, district ADA coordinator and assistant general manager for project planning and delivery, said during the directors meeting.
In addition to widening trailhead stiles, district crews also have upgraded restrooms at Windy Hill, Russian Ridge and Monte Bello preserves by replacing dilapidated, single-stall restrooms with new double-stall, ADA-compliant restrooms; installing an ADA-accessible parking spot; constructed accessible paths from the parking stalls to the restrooms; and adjusted door pressure at its buildings in high-usage areas. The district also purchased assisted listening devices for access to public meetings. In the coming months, Midpen is prioritizing upgrades to restrooms, parking, signage and path access at Daniels Nature Center, Skyline Ridge and Rancho San Antonio, Chan said.
"This is a significant accomplishment amid COVID, wildland fires and other disruptions," noted an April 14 general manager's report to the board.
The first round of projects are part of the district's five-year barrier-removal work outlined in its Transition Plan. This phase is focused on widening stiles and gates at trailheads, removing logs and upgrading restrooms, drinking fountains, parking lots and trailhead signage to inform users about a trail's distance, gradient and surface.
Smaller capital improvements that cost under $50,000 are set to be completed in one to 10 years; larger projects such as buildings, bridges and major trail building could take up to 15 years.
Since his injury, Simonson has lobbied and worked with Midpen staff to assess and repair impediments to access. He did a "walk and roll" with staff on trails to look at sections that are hazardous to hikers and those using walking aids.
"Of all the challenges, one stands out the most: the entrance and exit to open-space areas. Even to access fire roads and trails, there are gates, bollards and fencing that were put here to prohibit motorized vehicles years ago," Simonson said.
He most frequents the El Corte de Madera Creek Preserve and Sierra Azul's Mt. Umunhum and Lime Kiln/Kennedy trails. The trails had wheelchair-impassable stiles that were 30 inches wide, but the district has replaced them with 36-inch-wide stiles he can now use. Parts of the Kennedy trail were eroded; loose rock atop hard rock made the surface slippery, he said. The district has been responsive to addressing those issues, he said.
Bob Coomber, aka "Four Wheel Bob," an avid outdoorsman and former Livermore city council member, agreed.
Complications from Type 1 diabetes caused him to use a wheelchair, but Coomber, 66, has used his upper-body strength to hike in the wilderness with his wheels.
He says he isn't your average wheelchair hiker. He's made multiple attempts to cross the Inyo Forest's 11,845-foot Kearsarge Pass in the Sierra Nevada and hikes in other seemingly inaccessible places. Facing impediments, he's crawled and dragged his wheelchair across boulder-strewn terrain.
Most preserve and park trails aren't that challenging. "(They're) OK, but they're not for the casual wheelchair user who wants to get out to a place that is accessible but wild," he said.
Many trails are too narrow and uneven. Anyone in a power wheelchair would fall to the side because the chairs are too heavy, he said. Sections of trails are also banked to improve water runoff during rainstorms, but that can make them hazardous or unusable for wheelchairs.
Overgrowth around lakes and waterways also makes it hard to get around, he said. Some entrances are also too steep and rutty. Even usually wide and accessible fire roads can be too narrow. Some roads and trails also have deep gravel that mires wheels.
"It's like going into quicksand," he said.
Coomber powers his way through by maneuvering his chair on two wheels — popping wheelies — but many people can't do that, he said. Wildlands and building an accessible trail are not mutually exclusive, he noted. The Independence Trail outside of Nevada City in the western Sierra Nevada — the first identified wheelchair-accessible wilderness trail in the country — offers hard-packed surfaces, bridges over the Yuba River and a nearly leveled, wide trail, he said.
He acknowledged there's a balance between making some trails accessible and not harming the environment. "Will resolving the issue to make it accessible make a better trail or ruin it for everyone?" he said.
The value of open space access for all should not be underestimated, he said. Open space is "a comforting kind of place" to listen to the wind, enjoy the greenery of majestic trees, colorful wildflower meadows and rushing water — a great asset for people who "spend 99% of the time indoors and the other 1% in the doctor's office," he said.
Midpen currently offers 11 "easy access trails" to accommodate seniors, families with strollers and people using assistive devices such as walkers and wheelchairs. Most easy access trails are at least 4 feet wide, have an incline generally not exceeding 5% and feature fairly uniform surfaces. Several proposed extensions to the trails are being considered. Bear Creek Redwoods and La Honda Creek preserves' master plans call for additional easy access trails, for example.
The district has added to its progress by leveraging capital improvement and maintenance projects to add ADA-access improvements. As part of its 2019 Ravenswood Bay Trail Project, which resurfaced 3,200 feet of trails, the board approved a contract change that resurfaced the entire levee trail surrounding Cooley Marsh as an easy access trail. Plans for the Deer Hollow Farm White Barn Rehabilitation Project currently under construction would add a new ADA-compliant drinking fountain and accessible path, according to the general manager's report.
For Simonson, the updates indicate a recognition that inclusion is no longer an afterthought.
As improvements make the open spaces more welcoming, he hopes they'll attract more people to enjoy the outdoors.
"I would love to see more folks with disabilities using open space areas. It's everything that I do. It is my connection with nature. It is what I did before I got my injury and what I planned to do forever. It's kind of like my religion, my church. I love going out there and exploring plants and animals and the views in the fresh air," he said.