A Walk in the Woods: Resources of Hiking Trails Designed for the Blind or Visually Impaired

It's a beautiful day: a pleasant breeze is blowing, the air is warm and dry, and the National Weather Service promises that it will be beautiful all day. All in all, it's a perfect day to be outdoors!

Walking outdoors, just for the sake of walking, is a transforming experience. The warmth of the sun on your skin, the breeze blowing through your hair, the sound of the breeze rustling through the trees and the songs of the birds, the scents of the outdoors-- freshly-cut grass, sweet wildflowers, and that musky smell of last year's leaves decaying on the ground-- being surrounded by this wonderful atmosphere puts you in touch with Nature, reminds you that you too are a natural being, reminds you that you are alive and connected to this wild and wonderful planet.

Nothing compares to hiking along a backcountry or forest trail miles and miles from civilization, but it requires lots of time and planning. For those people who can't spare the time and resources necessary to prepare for a trek on a wild trail through rough country, there are plenty of options, including interpretive trails that have been specially designed for the blind or visually impaired person.

One interesting example of this type of trail is the "Lion's Tale Trail" located on Virginia's George Washington and Jefferson National Forest. Originally known as the "Braille Trail" in the 1970's, washed out and destroyed by Hurricane Fran in 1996, the trail was reopened and renamed in 1999. This trail is only a half mile long, but it packs a lot of useful experiences into that space. Each interpretive stop has a sign printed with high contrast lettering and imprinted with Braille and a headset provides audio highlights of each stop along the trail. Sighted visitors are encouraged to wear darkened goggles as they walk the trail, in order to appreciate the sensory experience. The "hands on" interpretive stops include "sniff boxes" that feature samples of local vegetation and an opportunity to plunge one's hands or feet into cold running water of a stream. The audio descriptions about Virginia forest ecology also teach you interesting facts about plant life, what life exists in a rotten log, and why river stones are round. The trail itself is paved with gravel, with wooden treads embedded in the gravel to alert you that a stop is near.

Another example is located at the Plano Outdoor Learning Center, in Plano, Texas. This trail was specifically designed for students; the stops along the trail are called "learning stations" and there is a teacher's guide available to help design lesson plans tailored to this trail. The trail has sixteen of these learning stations which provide opportunities for students to gain an awareness of the variations of size, shape and texture of different types of trees, and to examine various small animal habitats. This trail also has an audio component for additional description. This trail features a low wooden edge on one side to allow students to navigate easily with a cane. Spaces in the edge announce that a stop is coming up.

There are two trails in the United States that came about as a result of young men seeking projects to become Eagle Scouts. Near Tampa, Florida, F. Robert Webb improved a trail at Hillsborough County Community College's Environmental Studies Center at English Creek. This trail uses a guide rope to assist with navigation. Knots in the rope alert you to an upcoming "sensory box." These boxes contain specimens for visitors to touch and smell, adding to the experiences from walking the trail. Hard and pointy pinecones, soft and feathery ferns, and fragrant examples of fennel and wax myrtle are placed in the boxes just before your visit. Call 813-757-2104 to make an appointment to visit this trail.

The other Eagle Scout project came about when Brad Stewart saw a need for a special trail in the town park of Vernon, Connecticut. Brad decided to create a trail that would allow the visually impaired to confidently hike unassisted. Vernon's Braille Trail features an 800-foot path through the woods. This trail also uses a guide rope for navigation, and eight of the rope's support posts have signs in both Braille and large-type print that tell of local history, with references to the local species of plants and animals. This trail uses knots in the rope to signal hikers that they were approaching one of the signs. Since the project's completion, many people-- including special-needs organizations, student groups, and individuals-- have all taken advantage of the trail. An ongoing project will extend the trail through larger sections of the park.

Another example of an interpretive trail is the Button Bush Trail located near Eastham, Massachusetts. This quarter-mile trail is a big loop that starts at the Salt Pond Visitor Center, runs through the forest and over Buttonbush Pond as it circles back to the Visitor Center. Located in the Cape Cod National Seashore Park, the trail's designers incorporated a nautical theme: they attached round floats to the guide rope to act as attention-getters for the information stations.

A different type of design is the "fragrance garden" concept. This is a much more tame and deliberate attraction than a walk in the woods, but is still a pleasant way to spend some time on a nice day. In a fragrance garden, aromatic herbs and textured plants are carefully selected and planted so that they are easy to reach with the nose and the fingers. Usually there will be a railing around the planting beds and braille identification for the various plants. Examples of fragrance gardens are found in the Meining Memorial Park in Sandy, Oregon, The Barnwell Cultural Center in Shreveport, Louisiana, and the Ramat Hanadiv Memorial Gardens in Jerusalem, Israel.

What are you waiting for? It's a beautiful day! Get yourself outside as quickly as you can! Need to know where to go and how to get there? Try the list of websites that follows this article. If what you need isn't there, call your local tourism bureau to get information about trails, parks and gardens in your area. They will either have the information you need or will direct you to the appropriate source. In the United States, each state has a Parks Department or Department of Natural Resources that administers the State Parks. National Parks in the U.S. are taken care of by the Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service. Don't delay! Get out into this wild, wonderful world today!

End of lecture. Here is a list of some useful websites:

LocalHikes at http://www.localhikes.com lets you search by state to find trails near your area. Each review gives basic info (distance, hike time, difficulty, etc.), ranger contact, and trail reviews where available.

USDA Forest Service. The home page of the United States Forest Service gives you access to information about any national park in the US. http://www.fs.fed.us/
Trailweb. This is a good source of information about trails in the US. It also has information about planning, equipment, and packing for extended hiking trips. http://www.trailweb.com/

The American Hiking Society. In addition to helping locate trails, this website has a lot of information about preserving and maintaining trails, hiking clubs, and major hiking events. http://www.americanhik ing.org/

Yahoo directory of websites about hiking: http ://dir.yahoo.com/Recreation/Outdoors/Hiking/

The following organizations assist people with disabilities with outdoor recreation:

National Parks

Most national parks (www.nps.gov) have paved trails that provide a representative sample of natural attractions. The Staple Bend Tunnel Trail near Johnstown, Pennsylvania, part of the Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site, has a 2.5 mile accessible trail with a number of scenic overlooks that leads to the first railroad tunnel built in the United States. A 4.5-mile accessible section of the New Portage Trail on the Altoona side of the historic site is also planned.

Free Disabled National Park Pass

The park pass that is given free, the America the Beautiful National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass, is a lifetime pass to the National Parks. The pass is given in person to the disabled individual at the park they wish to access. The pass is given to all permanent residents of the United States and actual US citizens that have a permanent disability that is able to be documented.

  • A licensed physician statement
  • A Veteran's Administration statement (or by any Federal Agency)
  • A document by the State (like a vocational rehabilitation agency)
  • SSDI statement (Social Security Disability Income)
  • SSI statement (Supplemental Security Income)

The free access National Park pass will let the pass holder into any National Park free and will give a half off discount to the bearer for some of the "Expanded Amenity Fees". These fees can include camping and swimming. There are some cases where other fees may or may not be enforced; the pass holder will have to check with the National Park they would like to access to see what the pass will allow. Click this link to read a PDF document that includes a list of places that have the national pass. The free access National Park pass for the disabled cannot be transferred to another party or be sold to someone. It is specifically designed to be carried and used by the person that was documented to get the access pass. It will also not allow any discount to special recreation permit fees or to concession fees.

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