Michigan national park is the first to allow visitors to use a powerful 'track chair' to experience trails

Posted at 12:33 PM, Jul 09, 2019

Trails through Michigan's Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore can be steep or sandy -- but people who require hiking mobility assistance can now rent a motorized chair with treaded tracks to get around.

The fact that the chair has tracks rather than wheels makes rougher terrain much more accessible.

The program is run by volunteer group Friends of Sleeping Bear Dunes , which wants everyone to be able to experience the park's natural beauty. The group says the program is the first of its kind at a national park.

"Here at Sleeping Bear Dunes, about half the park is designated wilderness so in those areas we can't do a lot of maintenance or changes (to increase accessibility) ... so the better option is to have a vehicle that can take the person into these areas so they can experience the trail as it is without having to make major modifications," Kerry Kelly, chairman of the group's board, told CNN.

The track chair program is currently operated on about a 1.5 mile loop on the Bay View Trail, which goes through a meadow, past some historic farms and up a bluff to an overlook of Lake Michigan.

"Hopefully we'll have the track chair available on more trails in the future," Kelly said.

The group currently has one chair that is available through reservations, but it is hoping to buy another one later this summer for children. The chairs are pretty pricey, with the first one costing more than $13,000, Kelly said. However, it's free for visitors to use and can carry up to 350 pounds.

Since the program launched in June, the group has had more than a dozen visitors use it, Kelly said. Volunteers try to do one run in the morning and one in the afternoon, allowing for the chair to be recharged between sessions.

Friends of Sleeping Bear Dunes has been working with the National Park Service to make the park "more accessible to people with all levels of ability," Kelly said.

"This is just one of the programs," he said, pointing to the implementation of hard decks on beaches for people with wheelchairs or mothers with strollers; an accessible kayak launch; and the construction of a 20-mile, multi-use trail that is underway.

In addition, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore now also has beach wheelchairs that can handle the sand. The wheelchairs have large wheels that are designed to help them navigate through the sandy beaches and safely provide wheelchair users access to the beach.

The park has three chairs, two for adults and one for a child and they are free to use for anyone visiting the beach. One adult chair will be available at the Maritime Museum and an adult and a child wheelchair are both available at the cannery at Glen Haven.

Each beach wheelchair user will still need someone to help push them across the sand.