When Boulder resident Topher Downham lost the ability to move his legs and hands in a swimming accident nearly three decades ago, nature became his healing instrument.
“Whenever I was mad, the best thing I could do was get outside,” he said.
Giving that opportunity to others became his mission, and he became a volunteer for Boulder’s Open Space and Mountain Parks (OSMP).
As the education outreach program manager of OSMP, he helps other people with disabilities and their families enjoy more than 30 different trails managed by OSMP.
Other communities also are engaged in the effort to increase access to accessible trails. Fort Collins’ AJ Chlebnik, a public engagement specialist for the city’s Natural Areas Department, said many Colorado areas are becoming more user-friendly for people with disabilities and limited mobility.
“This is happening around the state and country,” Chlebnik said. “People are thoughtfully planning good trails with good experiences for people with disabilities to come out into nature for both physical and mental health.”
To help people find accessible trails and natural areas near them, we’re providing a roundup of trails in Colorado, including state and national parks, monuments and wildlife reserves. You can also learn about programs that help people access new types of bikes and other technology that make it easier for everyone to enjoy the outdoors.
You can also learn more about accessible places by downloading an app called Roll Mobility. They’re a UCHealth partner in Ready. Set. CO, an effort to improve the health of all Coloradans.
Fort Collins, Colorado, natural areas
Thirty years ago, Fort Collins voters supported the first of several dedicated city sales taxes for land conservation, trails and educational programs to establish the city’s dedicated natural areas.
There are 52 conserved natural areas in and around Fort Collins, and about 114 miles of trails. As more trails are added, others are being renovated to better meet ADA-accessibility standards, Chlebnik said.
“Accessibility is important because natural areas belong to the entire community,” she said. “Being able to have access, use and benefit from those areas is really important. We highly value equal and equitable access,” she said.
Riverbend Ponds is one of Chlebnik’s favorite accessible areas. It has an accessible boardwalk off the Cherly Street entrance that takes you to a marshy area, a mecca for fireflies from mid-June to July. It’s also a great place for birding. At the Cairns Street entrance, there is an accessible fishing pier on one of the ponds, which is stocked by the Colorado Division of Wildlife.
The Natural Areas Department has created an accessibility trail and facility assessment table for natural areas and trails. This table details the trail type, length, width, and whether there is ADA parking. It also rates each route for wheelchair and motorized mobility devices from easy to very difficult. A map reflects the trail rating on a color scale.
Chlebnik said the department is working to put together a free trail chair program that would allow visitors even more access to the areas. Until then, people can contact the department at [email protected] or call 970-416-2815 to request special accessibility accommodations for services, programs and activities.
Open Space and Mountain Parks – Boulder, Colorado
Boulder’s Open Space and Mountain Parks has developed natural sites and a trail system that is accessible to most wheelchairs, walkers and scooters.
The OSMP trails allow you to explore the outdoors; natural sites provide opportunities such as fishing.
People who have limited mobility can access 30 different trails. OSMP has ranked the trails by difficulty, scenery, shade and miles. Power-driven mobility devices also are allowed on these trails, while E-bikes for any other purpose are only permitted on certain OSMP trails.
A detailed guidebook outlines each trail and provides information about parking, entrance fees and facilities, as well as culture and history along the path and other site notes.
Downham started gathering accessible trail information in 1998 and published the OSMP’s first guidebook in 2000, which was last updated in 2021.
Two of Downham’s favorite trails are the Ute/Sensory trail on Flagstaff Summit and the South Boulder Creek Trail at the Bobolink Trailhead.
The Ute/Sensory trail is a moderately difficult trail that takes you 0.4 miles through a forest to great views of the area’s mountain peaks. Downham said the grade starts at 8%, and there are about 100 feet of 5% cross slope, but the views are worth the trek to the top. The sensory trail aspect offers a low-vision experience where people can enjoy nature through smell, sound and touch.
You can access the northern end of the South Boulder Trail at Bobolink Trailhead. There are no facilities, though there is a picnic table. White-tailed and mule deer are common.
“It is shaded and follows along the stream,” Downham said. “It is a great trail to get back into nature quickly.”
OSMP has an all-terrain power assist hand bike program. An OSMP volunteer or staff member will accompany a hand-bike user on many of the OSMP trails. Email Topher Downham at [email protected] for more information.
OSMP also offers several trail programs for people with disabilities, including a year-round monthly “Roll and Stroll” hike to introduce families to different treks and new areas to explore.
“We go all over the place from Garden of the Gods to Jefferson County’s Big Easy (see Clear Creek Canyon Park section),” he said. “It’s a great way to interact with people in similar situations.”
Peaks to Plains Trail – Clear Creek Canyon Park – Golden, Colorado
Clear Creek Canyon Park offers a 10-foot wide paved surface along Clear Creek that starts in Golden. It includes the Big Easy and Mayhem Gulch trailheads, which have accessible parking and restrooms.
Gateway Segment is a 1.75-mile trail that connects downtown Golden along Clear Creek to Tunnel 1 along U.S. 6. Both trailheads have accessible parking, restrooms and shade structures.
Huntsman Segment is currently under construction and is part of the Peaks to Plains Trail. When completed, this 3-mile segment of ADA-compliant trail will connect the Gateway Trailhead segment to Huntsman Gulch. It will feature seven bridges spanning Clear Creek, multiple creek access points, and two new trailheads with full amenities and parking. It’s expected to open in 2025.
*There are construction closures in parts of Clear Creek Canyon Park. For the most up-to-date information, visit the Jefferson County park’s page.
Eldorado Canyon State Park – south of Boulder, Colorado
There is accessible fishing next to the Eldorado Canyon State Park visitor center.
Fowler trail in Eldorado Canyon State Park is less than a mile (one-way) with only a 280-foot elevation gain.
“It is a nice wide (6-foot) and low-grade trail that looks out over the cliffs on the other side of the canyon,” Downham said. “And it is high up, which is always fun too.”
A brochure outlines a self-guided nature tour that corresponds with signage.
Streamside Trail is short but has the tranquility of babbling South Boulder Creek. It’s a beautiful place to get outdoors if you don’t want to travel far on a trail. The first 300 feet are wheelchair accessible.
Other state and federal lands in Colorado with accessible trails and other opportunities for people with disabilities
Garden of the Gods – Colorado Springs, Colorado
This 480-acre park is a registered National Natural Landmark featuring dramatic sandstone rock formations in the foreground of Pikes Peak. There is no admission fee to enjoy this rarity of nature.
The visitor and nature center is accessible, and visitors can get maps and other information about the park at the center. Three paved trails in the park are accessible: Foothills, Gateway and the most popular one, Perkins Central Garden Trail.
Perkins Central Garden Trail is a 1.5-mile loop trail fully paved path that starts at the main parking area and takes you by many of the park’s tall rock formations. It also has scenic outlooks and restrooms.
Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve – near Alamosa, Colorado
The visitor center building and restrooms are fully accessible and open daily. About a mile north of the visitor center is the closest accessible parking to the dune fields. There is an accessible mat from the parking area to the edge of Medano Creek and the sand.
However, beyond the mat, loose sand and Medano Creek make it nearly impossible for a traditional wheelchair to access the areas. Visitors can reserve (at no charge) a special balloon-tire wheelchair to access the dunes. The chairs require a strong helper to push a visitor through the sand, and there are two styles to choose from.
Rocky Mountain National Park – near Estes Park, Colorado
All visitors to Colorado’s most popular national park, Rocky Mountain National Park, need to be aware that reservations are necessary during the busy summer and fall months. Learn all about the timed entry reservation system in Rocky Mountain National Park, and book your reservations through Recreation.gov.
Coyote Valley Trail, in the valley of the Upper Colorado River, is often the grazing ground for elk and moose, especially in the early morning and late evenings. This 1-mile trail has packed gravel with a level grade.
Sprague Lake was created a century ago by a homesteader who dammed a stream. This area offers impressive views of the Continental Divide. The best views come from hiking the 0.5 miles to the far end of the lake, where there is an accessible backcountry camping site. There are also accessible restrooms and a picnic area at the trailhead. (Please keep in mind that a special reservation for the busy Beark Lake corridor is required to visit Sprague Lake during the peak summer and fall months.)
Lily Lake is a 1-mile long, packed gravel trail through a relatively low elevation. A great place to view wildflowers in the spring and early summer, Lily Lake offers accessible bathrooms and a fishing pier.
*August 2023 update: Part of the Lily Lake trail was affected by weather, so some sections of the trail might be difficult to access by wheelchair.”
Alluvial Fan accessible trail is an accessible trail that travels through a boulder-strewn landscape caused when a dam burst. It is paved but very steep.
Bear Lake is a 0.6-mile loop through a spruce and fir forest that encircles the lake at the base of Hallett Peak and Flattop Mountain. With some steep areas, this hard-packed gravel trail is more challenging than the others listed here. Bear Lake is one of the busiest areas in Rocky Mountain National Park. Please be aware that you’ll need a special reservation in advance to visit this area during the busy summer and fall months. Visitors also will need to take a shuttle bus since there is very little parking at Bear Lake. All shuttle busses are wheelchair accessible.
Holzwarth Historic site: This 1920s dude ranch is in the Kawuneeche Valley, 8 miles north of the Kawuneeche visitor center on Highway 34 on the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park near the town of Grand Lake. Explore a historic homestead cabin on this 1-mile round-trip trail.
Rocky Mountain National Park has an all-terrain wheelchair program that allows visitors to reserve a chair for free. To reserve a chair, call the Estes Park Mountain Shop at 970.586.6548.
Arapaho National Wildlife Refuge – near Walden, Colorado
Between Walden and Granby, Arapaho National Wildlife Refuge is situated at more than 8,000 feet above sea level, making it the highest refuge in the lower 48 states. It is an intermountain glacial basin about 35 miles wide and 45 miles long. Preservation of wildlife and their habitat is the primary mission for this refuge. The area is not accessible in the winter. Prepare for mosquitoes in the spring, summer and fall months.
Access to public facilities, programs and activities is open to everyone, including people with physical and mental disabilities.
The Moose-Goose Natural Trail offers many opportunities to see birds and wildflowers, and visitors often can spot moose at sunset. The trail is a 0.7-mile loop and takes about 15 minutes to complete. It is paved with a 5% grade with flat resting spots as it leads to the boardwalk. The boardwalk, including bridges, was designed to be ADA compliant, but after the boardwalk, the trail turns into a hard-packed dirt trail and mowed vegetation that might be harder to navigate. It has no shade but has little use, so you may have the trail all to yourself.
Mesa Verde National Park – near Cortez, Colorado
At Mesa Verde, you’ll find several facilities, outlooks and trails accessible for people with limited mobility or other disabilities.
The visitor and research center are fully accessible, while the museum is currently being renovated to meet ADA standards. Although most areas of the museum are accessible, there are still some areas that are not. Wheelchairs are available to borrow at these facilities.
The Morefield Campground within Mesa Verde has wheelchair-accessible campsites along the Apache Loop.
Spruce Tree House and the Cliff Palace overlooks provide spectacular views of the park and are accessible with assistance.
Other outlooks are not fully accessible, but some visitors can enjoy them with assistance. Service dogs, under the ADA definition, also are allowed anywhere humans are allowed. However, read the cliff dwelling tour descriptions carefully on recreation.gov to ensure your animal is capable of accompanying you on tours that involve climbing ladders and other obstacles.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park – near Montrose, Colorado
This spectacular canyon has two roads that take you on either side of the canyon: the South Rim and North Rim.
The South Rim visitor center and overlooks – Tomichi Point, Chasm View and Sunset View – are accessible to those with limited mobility.
The South Rim campground has two accessible camping sites and restrooms.
On the North Rim, the restrooms at the ranger station and the Balanced Rock Overlook are accessible.
Service animals, as defined by the ADA, are allowed in the area anywhere human visitors are allowed.
Colorado National Monument – near Grand Junction, Colorado
The visitor center, located 4 miles inside the park from the west entrance, offers accessible restrooms, picnic areas and different programs within the center.
Saddlehorn Campground has two accessible sites available on a first-come, first-served basis. Campground restrooms are accessible, and many other sites are level and negotiable for people who use wheelchairs. The Book Cliffs View overlook along the campground loop is also accessible.
Several overlooks along Rim Rock Drive are accessible, including Independence Monument View, Coke Ovens Overlook and Cold Shivers Point.
Service animals are allowed in the park and on trails.
Alcove Natural Trail: This trail starts at the southeast end of the visitor center parking lot. It is a 5-foot wide hard-packed trail with a 7% grade leading 0.25 miles to an overlook of upper Wedding Canyon.
Dinosaur National Monument – northwest Colorado
Dinosaur National Monument is known for its famous fossil finds, dramatic river canyons and petroglyphs. Harpers Corner Scenic Drive is a 31-mile paved drive offering great views with wheelchair-accessible outlooks over the rivers and canyons.
The Plug Hat Trail is short – 0.25 miles round trip – but is a flat paved trail at the top of a butte that provides panoramic views of the area. It winds through pinyon pine and juniper trees. The trail is wheelchair accessible, but some assistance may be needed. There is an accessible picnic area across the road from the trailhead. Leashed pets are allowed.
Ridgway State Park – near Ridgway, Colorado
All three park areas – Pa-Co-Chu-Puk, Dallas Creek and Dutch Charlie – offer some universally-accessible trails close to picnic areas and restrooms.
Mear’s Bay Trail is a 1-mile concrete trail that winds along the lake’s shoreline. It is a great place to see waterfowl and get a spectacular view of the San Juan Mountains.
Marmot Run Trail is a 1.8-mile trail along the lake and the Uncompahgre River that feeds the lake. This trail connects the park to the town of Ridgway, 4 miles away.
The park has a track-chair program, so people with disabilities can access more of the park. Also part of the program is a 300-foot beach mat that allows all wheelchair users to navigate sand on the Dutch Charlie Designed Swim Beach area of the park to the water. And a floating chair enables users to enter the water safely. In the summer months, the park offers accessible paddleboards.
Two year-round track chairs can be used on four trails: Forest Discovery, The Overlook, Mea’s Bay and Wapiti to the Sunset Ridge Overlook. You can make reservations in advance for two-hour time blocks.
There is a park entrance fee, but the use of the equipment is free.
Other accessible trail opportunities in Colorado
Overlook Trail in Vogel Canyon, south of La Junta, Colorado, is an easy 1-mile loop from the parking area and provides access to a canyon overlook. This canyon has a rich Native American culture that dates back 800 years and is a scenic tributary of the Purgatorie River.
Fish Creek Falls overlook trail near Steamboat Springs, Colorado, is a quarter-mile (one-way) paved wheelchair-accessible trail with a nice view of the 283-foot waterfall.
Look for adaptive sports programs
Downham, of Boulder’s open space programs, said communities are continuing to make outdoor adventures more accessible.
“We’ve come a long way, especially with all the new technologies that allow people to get out more easily,” he said. “Colorado Parks and Wildlife are in the forefront of it, but being aware of what’s needed to provide access to wheelchairs and hand bikes, expressing that need from the beginning, in the design stage, is what still needs to be happening.”
And though more land management organizations are starting to invest in equipment, such as track bikes, people with disabilities should also consider reaching out to adaptive sports programs. For example, he said Telluride Adaptive Sports Program offers guided bike tours using program bikes.
Park and entry passes that make accessible trails an affordable option
For people who are eager to get out and enjoy accessible trails and natural areas, state and federal parks offer free or discounted passes for people with disabilities.
Check out these great passes:
- The America the Beautiful-National Parks Federal Recreational Lands Access Pass is a lifetime pass for U.S. citizens and permanent residents with a permanent disability.
- The Columbine Park Pass offers access to Colorado state parks for Colorado residents who have a total and permanent disability. The pass is $14 per year and is transferable between vehicles as long as the pass holder is present.
- People who qualify for Colorado’s Columbine Park Pass also can qualify for a free lifetime fishing license in Colorado. Approved pass holders are exempt from the Habitat Stamp requirement.
- There also are discounted and free passes for veterans and first responders who have a service-connected disability. For more info, visit the state page.