Designing for access in outdoor spaces doesn’t mean paving pathways

A reckoning with assumptions about who wants to spend time in nature.


Chris Clasby poses outside a trail access point 10 minutes from his home. He had used the trail frequently, until rock and a small erosion ditch blocked the already narrow gate; now, he hikes and hunts elsewhere.
Matthew Roberts for High Country News

Chris Clasby is a lifelong Montana resident, former team roper and steer wrestler, and an avid angler and hunter. He also has quadriplegia, but that doesn’t mean he wants to be limited to paved pathways when he heads out into the woods. People without disabilities, he told me, tend to assume that he “wants to hunt from a warm vehicle, shoot at a perfect animal out the window, and be served a warm meal while watching TV as someone else field-dresses the animal.”

“Hunters with disabilities, just like their non-disabled counterparts, have the same expectation — and desire — of strenuous preparation and planning, uncertain success, discomfort, and unfruitful time expended as any other hunter in the most remote backcountry.”

But Clasby isn’t just along for the ride. The experience of the hunt, which in his case includes taking along a companion who can field-dress Clasby’s quarry, is of paramount importance. “Hunters with disabilities, just like their non-disabled counterparts, have the same expectation — and desire — of strenuous preparation and planning, uncertain success, discomfort, and unfruitful time expended as any other hunter in the most remote backcountry,” Clasby said.

Like Clasby, many Westerners form their sense of self around a relationship with the outdoors, whether it’s a weeklong hunting trek into the backcountry or regular walks on a trail winding through urban green spaces. And, of course, having a disability doesn’t prevent a person from seeking the solace or thrill of spending time in nature. That’s why small, everyday design choices in infrastructure and trails that open up the outdoors to a wider variety of users are more important than their apparent simplicity might suggest. Rethinking outdoor access through the lens of disability forces a reckoning with assumptions about who the outdoors is for, while at the same time widening the inclusiveness of Western communities.

One of the biggest difficulties Clasby has encountered while advocating for outdoor access is that some people tend to evaluate a project’s success based on how many people have used it rather than the quality of the experience it creates. For example, some proponents were disappointed in the small number of people who took advantage of a private ranch near Lolo, Montana, after the owner opened it to hunters with disabilities. That’s missing the point, Clasby told me: “It’s not the number of hunters, but the value of the experience to each hunter” that matters. The ranch is within driving distance of Missoula, with good access and plenty of wildlife, factors that make it a good place for a hunting trip that doesn’t require hiking miles into a wilderness area. “We all want to be able to pursue the things that are part of our identity,” Clasby said.

And design features that take into account access for people with disabilities can be surprisingly simple. Julie Tickle, who works with DREAM Adaptive, a non-profit that makes skiing and paddleboarding more accessible for people with disabilities, currently advises on a mountain biking trail network outside Columbia Falls, Montana, called Cedar Flats. Collaborators’ initial response was that making it accessible would be too costly and “special.” But the changes required for a three-wheeled mountain bike are small and mostly inexpensive: minor shifts in choke points on the trail, for example, or easing the tightness of switchbacks. Such projects can increase access in many areas throughout the West. 

Brenden Dalin uses the trail he helped design near Missoula, Montana. Dalin is an avid fisherman, hunter and skier.
Matthew Roberts for High Country News

WHEN YOU VISIT ROCK CREEK CONFLUENCE, a park just east of Missoula, Montana, it’s hard to believe that busy I-90 is right over your shoulder. Rock Creek, a blue-ribbon fishing stream, gurgles down to meet the Clark Fork River, and trails wind through 300 acres of forest. It’s an exceptionally scenic recreational spot, and one that’s intentionally being redesigned for disability access.

Now, thanks to that redesign, which he helped lead, Brenden Dalin can traverse a greater proportion of the property. Dalin is a quintessential Western recreationist: He’s an avid fisherman, hunter and skier who recently graduated from the University of Montana with a degree in recreation management. He has paraplegia, and during an internship last year with Five Valleys Land Trust, which owns Rock Creek, he directed crews extending its wheelchair-accessible gravel trail. He also points to the importance of a redesigned entrance gate: It’s now large enough to allow wheelchairs in, but small enough to keep ATVs out.

The land trust describes Rock Creek as a “living laboratory” — a crucial perspective, Dalin said. Managers there can build and test trails, signs, gates and other features that make it easier for people with disabilities to navigate. Because it’s privately owned, the trust can try out innovative and sometimes experimental designs without going through a lengthy bureaucratic process. Successful changes at Rock Creek can serve as a model, Dalin told me, giving other developers, and perhaps public-land managers, a sense of what’s possible.

I asked Dalin if designing for disability, as he and others at Rock Creek are doing, might represent an emerging trend in outdoor recreation, a growing awareness that something as simple as thoughtful gate and trail design is just as important as, for example, the development of advanced prosthetics. “If it is a trend,” he said, “it’s about time.” 

Antonia Malchik is a freelance writer. She is the author of A Walking Life, a nonfiction book about walking, and lives in Whitefish, Montana. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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