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Best Bay Area Accessible Hiking Trails Recommended by Disability Advocates

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A woman with light skin is wearing a black jacket and sitting in a wheelchair while looking up into the big redwood trees.
Ashley Olson from wheelchairtraveling.com stares up at the mighty coastal redwoods on the boardwalk section of the accessible loop trail at Muir Woods National Monument. (Courtesy Ashley Olson)

Summer is here, which means it’s the perfect time to explore the many breathtaking trails in the Bay Area. Whether you’re looking to experience views of enchanting mountains, the vastness of our oceans or the tranquility of our redwood forests, this region offers a diverse range of trails.

Fortunately for us living in the Bay Area, this includes many accessible trails to choose from. But finding reliable information about these trails isn’t always easy, say advocates.

Read on to hear firsthand from a number of disabled outdoor enthusiasts working to make nature hikes more accessible, and why access to these trails is so crucial — and get their recommendations on some of the best accessible trails in the Bay Area. This guide is especially for people who use wheelchairs and other folks with mobility considerations, but also may provide ideas for families looking for kid-friendly or stroller-friendly trails this summer.

Advocating for accessible trails for over 40 years

Bonnie Lewkowicz, program manager at Bay Area Outreach and Recreation Program, has enjoyed being outdoors since she was young. An accident at the age of 15 caused Lewkowicz, then a dance student, to be paralyzed from the neck down. But her love for the outdoors remained a big part of who she was. “Being out in nature and being a dancer was still who I was and needed. I was frustrated at not having access to nature,” said Lewkowicz of that period after her accident.

Now, Lewkowicz has worked for more than 40 years advocating for accessibility in sports and outdoor recreation for people with disabilities. She created Access Northern California, a website all about accessible trails in the region, over 20 years ago, and started with BORP seven years ago. She also runs and regularly updates a guide to wheelchair-accessible trails along the California Coast, and is the author of A Wheelchair Rider’s Guide: San Francisco Bay and the Nearby Coast, a resource for wheelchair travelers.

Two women with lighter skin and dark hair using wheelchairs are seen smiling against a backdrop of a foggy day covering up a red bridge also known as the Golden Gate Bridge.
Bonnie Lewkowicz (left) and Ashley Olson from wheelchairtraveling.com pose for a portrait along the promenade at Crissy Field with views of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. (Courtesy Ashley Olson)

Lewkowicz says that one of the biggest challenges in the search for the best accessible hikes is getting accurate information. “We live in the Information Age, but that’s not true for people that need to find accessibility,” she said. Information like parking, accessible bathrooms, distance of trail, elevation gains, available activities like birdwatching or picnicking — and whether there are barriers like steps on the trail — are often the things Lewkowicz feels get left out.

She says that the ADA-accessible trail information needs to be more clearly defined, with more details of all the accessible features. “Which is why I do the work that I do and try and help relieve that burden for people,” she said. Lewkowicz also works with popular hiking app AllTrails in providing information about accessible trails in the Bay Area and beyond, which she says has resulted in the availability of reliable wheelchair-accessible trails on the AllTrails app.

People with disabilities want the same kind of experiences as everyone else, said Lewkowicz, adding, “And we need to have access to more of them.”

With mobility technologies changing so rapidly, city planners need to think about how to broaden their ideas about what’s possible, says Lewkowicz — because new equipment for disabled people means that previously inaccessible spaces can now become more accessible. For example, here in California many state beaches now have beach wheelchairs available for loan. “There are chairs that climb mountains,” said Lewkowicz. Parks in Oregon and Florida also are loaning this type of adaptive equipment.

A woman with lighter skin and gray hair wearing a purple sweater and blue jeans is seen sitting in a wheelchair with a background of trees.
Bonnie Lewkowicz reviews a trail in Live Oak Park in Berkeley. (Courtesy Bonnie Lewkowicz)

Accessibility means different things for different people, Lewkowicz says. For her, she enjoys accessible trails that are more remote and more in the wilderness — longer ones that are more “destination trails” and less urban. For those just starting to explore accessible trails and needing some encouragement, Lewkowicz recommends reaching out to the community and going on a group hike. “BORP does offer some adventures and outings and we have transportation. So that would be one possible way to [start] to get out there. Go with your peers,” she advised.

Adventures from a wheelchair: ‘Being out on a nature trail is close to being home’

In 1996, Bay Area resident Mark Hehir started using a wheelchair and breathing on a ventilator due to a rare form of muscular dystrophy called rigid spine syndrome.

Wanting to share his experiences wheelchair hiking at various parks and trails, Hehir started his Adventures From a Wheelchair blog in 2010. On his site, visitors can read reviews and watch videos of all the wheelchair-accessible places Hehir has visited. He’s also an ADA volunteer for Santa Clara County Parks and has worked with them since 2015 to improve access to their parks and hiking trails. See Hehir’s video of his favorite trails and parks in partnership with Santa Clara Open Space Preserve.

For Hehir, using a wheelchair and being on a ventilator causes his muscles to easily get stressed, which can then affect his breathing — and he says that being in the outdoors is like medicine for him. “When I am outdoors and on a hiking trail, it doesn’t take too long for all the stress to go away,” said Hehir in an email to KQED. “Being out on a nature trail is close to being home.”

Hehir says that accessible trails need to be maintained each year, but notes that not all hiking spots can be accessible, due to the terrain. He wishes to see more accessible trails getting extended, making them longer. “A problem is, many accessible trails are short, less than a mile,” he said. “You spend 40 minutes getting to a trail and it only takes 15 minutes to hike it.”

Hehir advises all levels of hikers to check weather conditions before going out, to always bring water and to stay on the right side of the trail to avoid any accidents with cyclists. Try to arrive at the trailhead early in the day, he recommends.

‘People who use wheelchairs are just like everyone else’

Ashley Lyn Olson was paralyzed at 14 in a car accident that also killed her father. Her father was once a park ranger, and so Ashley and her sisters grew up camping, hiking and vacationing in the outdoors. After she was paralyzed, she felt that she had to get back into nature and began wheelchair hiking.

Two women with lighter skin and dark hair using wheelchairs are next to each other smiling against a backdrop of a fort, and trees. The woman on the left is wearing a red jacket. And the woman on the right is wearing a brown jacket holding a blue bag in her lap.
Ashley Olson from wheelchairtraveling.com (left) and Bonnie Lewkowicz in front of an abandoned fort on the Lands End Trail in San Francisco. (Courtesy Ashley Olson)

She was frustrated with the lack of information on accessible trails and decided to take it into her own hands. “I knew I couldn’t be the only one in a wheelchair who loved nature and hiking,” she said. Thus, wheelchairtraveling.com was born out of the need Olson saw for better information about accessible trails.

What makes a great accessible trail? For Olson, the key elements are:

  • Barrier-free access
  • A sufficiently wide trail
  • A safe cross-slope
  • Accessible parking
  • Accessible bathrooms

Like BORP’s Lewkowicz, Olson feels that the community needs far more detailed information and descriptions to find a great accessible trail. Just because a trail isn’t marked as officially ADA-accessible doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not accessible to everyone, notes Olson — as long as it’s flat enough and wide, people will try.

“People who use wheelchairs are just like everyone else, in that some love being outside in nature to relax, work out, refuel and be inspired,” she said.

Disabled hikers: Justice in the outdoors

Syren Nagakyrie is founder and director of Disabled Hikers, a disabled-led organization celebrating people’s experience in the outdoors while advocating for justice, access and inclusion in the outdoors. And for Nagakyrie, nature gives them a safe space to feel connected to the world.

The author of The Disabled Hiker’s Guide to Western Washington and Oregon and A Disabled Hiker’s Guide to the Redwoods, Nagakyrie says a really good accessible trail is more than just paved. It has to take into consideration a number of factors like a smooth path without any obstacles or unexpected barriers, and things like the availability of benches, beautiful overlooks and other things that make a trail enjoyable.

A person with lighter skin is seen walking with their dog in the forest.
Syren Nagakyrie is founder and director of Disabled Hikers, a disabled-led organization celebrating people’s experience in the outdoors while advocating for justice, access and inclusion in the outdoors.

Nagakyrie also enjoys trails with interesting views and experiences, and feels that accessible trails can sometimes be too short and not particularly interesting. “It’s kind of like the bones that they toss [to disabled hikers] … ‘Here’s your accessible trail, and here’s everything else,’” said Nagakyrie.

Nagakyrie started Disabled Hikers after experiencing the lack of information about accessible trails firsthand. But to make the outdoors more accessible, says Nagakyrie, we also have to talk about how to break down the cultural, systematic and structural barriers that prevent people from engaging in the outdoors. “So that can mean transportation to trailheads and having gear that is designed for your body,” they said.

They’ve also had to do a lot of work confronting misconceptions about what makes a “real hiker.”

“We’re told so much that a real hiker is going out and like going deep into the wilderness and having the most rugged experience you can have and climbing a mountain,” said Nagakyrie. “But that’s not what a hike has to be.”

“Going for a short, easy, accessible hike is a perfectly valid way of being in the outdoors. So I think for me, it really started with challenging that as the first barrier,” they said.

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Great accessible trails around the Bay Area and beyond

These accessible trails around the region are particularly recommended by our experts:

Wild flowers (Sea Figs) bloom along the Pacific Ocean skyline in Half Moon Bay.
Wildflowers (sea figs) bloom along the Pacific Ocean skyline in Half Moon Bay. (Erica Davis/Getty)

Other accessible trails around the Bay Area:

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