The call to experience the outdoors is a prevalent one—for good reason. Studies from reputable sources, from Nature Journal to Cornell University, indicate as little as 10 minutes in a natural setting helps improve someone’s mood and well-being. But while the pervasive chant to “Get outside!” is encouraging, the mantra can lack nuance and may be limiting.
Wheelchair-inaccessible trails pose a large barrier for Minnesotans with a mobile disability who want to enjoy state parks. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 8% of adults in Minnesota have a mobile disability. Without the proper infrastructure in place, “getting outside” can get challenging.
“Making the outdoors accessible is extremely important to provide recreational opportunities and equal access to everyone—whether they use a mobility device or not,” says Michael Sack, a member of the Minneapolis Advisory Committee on People With Disabilities and founder of the Minneapolis Sidewalk Repair Hunters.
That’s why the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) last summer introduced all-terrain track chairs in a few select state parks. The free-to-use track chairs are similar to traditional wheelchairs but include all-terrain wheels, electrical operation, and a tilt mechanism for climbing and descending hills. While track chairs can’t go over a boulder or a large log, they are built to tackle rugged terrain.
The first round of track chairs was introduced in June 2022 to the Camden, Crow Wing, Lake Bemidji, and Maplewood state parks, as well as Myre-Big Island State Park near Albert Lea. A chair that works well on sand was added for beach access at McCarthy Beach State Park, which is on the Sturgeon Lake chain near Hibbing. One year later, the chairs are seen as a success, and there are plans to introduce chairs at more state parks this year.
Tadina Ikola, a 38-year-old hunter and angler from Deerwood, Minnesota, used a track chair for the first time at Crow Wing State Park in Brainerd in the fall. The track chair enabled Ikola to go hiking with her able-bodied daughter and husband for the first time. “I got to see scenery of the river I never would have gotten to experience before,” Ikola recalled. “It was amazing!”
According to Jamie McBride, project manager at the Minnesota DNR, parkgoers operate the chairs using a joystick mechanism. The chairs have five speeds, ranging from a slow “crawl” to a brisk pace. To reserve a track chair, call the park in advance to select a date and brief orientation time, for learning how to use the chair. Although each participating park has a transfer board, park staff are not trained in transfer, so bring an aid to assist with transfer if needed. Interested in camping overnight? Some parks also offer multiple-day reservations for campers.
For those who feel hesitant, 17-year-old Addison Loerzel has advice for first-timers: “Don’t be scared of the chair. The staff at the parks will help you get used to it. When I got the hang of it, there was no stopping me. This is your chance to get out and explore!”