On the Trails: Proximity, accessibility key to increased use

Many people believe that we have an abundance of wonderful trails in the Upper Valley. This is true, when taken as a whole, but quality, proximity and access can be everything. Even the most active and committed trail users tend to use the closest trails. In fact, our use of trails drops significantly with every mile we must travel to use them.

I am not only a passionate hiker and outdoorsman, but my work for the Upper Valley Trails Alliance also literally compels me to support and advocate for all Upper Valley trails and users. However, even as a trail geek, I tend to spend about 90% of my time hiking and volunteering on the wonderful trails in and around my town of Woodstock. Again, proximity and access are critical if trail users and communities are going to receive the myriad benefits of trails, particularly the incredible health benefits.

If proximity and access are so important to those of us who might qualify as obsessive power users, imagine how important it might be to provide better trail access to those who are more reluctant or less able to get some much-needed outdoor exercise. In fact, many of us fit in this group for one reason or another.

Over 25% of Vermont and New Hampshire residents would be considered obese, at least implying that we might be less likely to jump onto a challenging trail on one of many mountains. Vermont and New Hampshire also rank among the very top states in the country in terms of median age. While some of our older residents are among our most active, many might be more challenged by a mountain trail. In fact, about 1 in 5 older adults struggle with mobility.

In addition, about 25% of our citizens have some form of disability, and many of us need to use a wheelchair, walker or some form of mobility support. We also want and need to provide access to young families who may need to use a stroller.

With all of this in mind, relatively flat trails with genuine Americans With Disabilities Act-type access are incredibly important to so many of our Upper Valley friends, relatives and visitors. And yet, thanks to our beautiful and challenging landscape and the bias of many trail builders, most of our trails are simply and sadly inaccessible to a very significant portion of our population.

In the past, we at the Upper Valley Trails Alliance have struggled to be able to recommend a good trail for a wheelchair user or someone recovering from an injury. Thankfully, many community leaders are seeing and hearing the need, and the local options are expanding in impressive ways.

The UVTA is very thankful to have been involved with two great projects that have added to our Upper Valley list of accessible trails. Last year marked the opening of a phenomenal community resource in Lebanon in the form of the Mascoma River Greenway. Thanks to a community partnership, we were able to build a wonderful new access ramp from the parking area donated by Alice Peck Day Hospital, right across the street from the hospital, down to the trail. With this relatively short access ramp, many more people can now use this paved, surprisingly beautiful and relatively flat suburban trail.

In our 20th year of supporting Upper Valley trails, the UVTA also had the opportunity to work with the Vermont Institute of Natural Resources to extend the McKnight Trail and link it to the beautiful new Canopy Walk. Both are accessible, and VINS now provides an incredible trail and nature experience not only down to the edge of the river, but also up into the trees, for virtually any type of trail user.

And the good news is that the list is expanding. The town of Hanover made their River Trail accessible this year, and there is an initiative to create a flat river trail in my hometown of Woodstock in 2020.

Regardless of your level of mobility, we at the UVTA ask that you do everything you can to support more accessibility to trails and all of their benefits.

Written by Randy Richardson and Published in the Valley News on December 20th, 2019.