Making Michigan's beaches accessible to everyone

A day at the beach or on the trail has gotten easier this year for people with mobility challenges, with many Michigan state parks adding off-road, electronic track chairs, available at no cost to visitors on a first-come, first-served basis.

The chairs easily handle trails, snow, sand and even shallow water, allowing users to explore areas of the parks that traditional wheelchairs might not reach. 

Although each park sets its own guidelines, users generally must sign a waiver of liability, and users under 18 must generally be accompanied by an adult; park staff and/or volunteers are unable to assist with transfers. 

Service animals or pets are welcome,  but must be under control at all times. Staff caution visitors that leashes, long clothing, blankets or other dangling items are at risk of becoming entangled in the chair.

Early adopters

Muskegon State Park received its track chairs in 2018, thanks to a donation from the nonprofit group Kali’s Cure.

Greg Sherburn, park supervisor of Muskegon State Park, said the chairs have been a big hit. They are used several times a week at the beach in the summer, and on the trails, too, where they are most popular in spring and fall.

“We've had a lot of real positive feedback for being able to provide this type of opportunity to folks that might not otherwise be able to access those features of our parks,” Sherburn says. “It’s been a really great tool.”

Sherburn says users can call the park to reserve chairs up to a month in advance, and they sign them out for the day, at no charge.

“They can have it for the whole day, but generally they're using it for three to four hours at a time,” he says.

Although the chairs can be used to submerge a few inches into shallow water, they are not submersible.
 
“The motors, if they get submerged, they'll short out,” something that is explained during the initial operating instructions and safety cautions users are given at the time of check.

Although some children have used the chairs, they must be accompanied by an adult. The chairs may also be operated through a secondary control by an assistant walking alongside.

Muskegon is one of five Michigan parks to receive a donation from the Kali’s Care organization, founded by Kali Pung after she suffered a paralyzing diving accident in 2006.

 After his experience using a track chair at Muskegon State Park, Ben Miller, 16, a student at Pewamo-Westphalia schools, helped raise $14,500 for a new track chair at Ionia Recreation Area, closer to his home,  

Miller raised close to the first $1,000 selling pickles and popcorn; word of the fundraiser hit the community and donations started rolling in – including $10,000 from an anonymous donor.

That park’s new track chair is available at Ionia Recreation Area and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources is raising funds to purchase an additional 14 new track chairs at other parks. Supporters can choose a specific park or make a general donation here: .https://www.michigan.gov/dnr/about/accessibility/track-chairs

The chairs are ordered one at a time, as the goals at participating parks are met.

Holland State Park

Holland State Park just got two new track chairs this season. They’re available Monday through Friday by calling the park.

“We actually have had some manual push beach chairs with oversized tires that go easily through the sand,” says Sean Mulligan, unit supervisor there. “But these power chairs are a different thing altogether.”

He says the chairs are straightforward and easy to control.

To reserve a chair at Holland State Park, users may call ahead at 616-399-9390 and talk to either Sean or Dana. “We hope to be able to get a reservation system set up,” Mulligan says, and to have staff available to allow the chairs to be taken out weekends as well.

Additional accessibility aides

Many parks that don’t yet have the motorized track chairs do have either a stable surface to allow easier access to the waterfront or a lightweight all-terrain beach-access wheelchair that can also go into the water, or both.

The state also offers a wide variety of accessible recreation opportunities at campgrounds, boating access sites, state game areas, trails, parks  and more.

“It is a priority of the department to make sure that access to nature is provided to all our visitors,” says DNR Fund and Resource Development Coordinator Michelle O’Kelly. “It has been wonderful to hear the stories of families being able to enjoy the beaches and trails together for the first time. The stories go on and on.”

O’Kelly says experiencing nature is great for mental health and these chairs provide access to areas of parks and trails that may have been challenging to access in the past. 

“Also,” she says, “the sense of independence these chairs can bring is just another reason we are working to make them available in as many areas of the state as possible.”

State parks with track chairs

Here’s a list of the other Michigan state parks that have track chairs available, according to the Michigan DNR website. 

Reservations and use may vary from park to park. Click here for more details: https://www.michigan.gov/dnr/about/accessibility/track-chairs

To make a donation to support a track chair for your favorite park click here: 
https://www.michigan.gov/dnr/about/accessibility/track-chairs

Bald Mountain Recreation Area

The park's track chair is available for visitors to borrow at no cost.

Belle Isle Park

Available first-come, first-reserved on weekdays July 1 through Oct. 1. To make a reservation, contact 313-821-9844 (Mon-Fri from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.). Use is limited to 2 hours.

Grand Haven State Park

Online reservations are available May 1-Oct. 31. If you have any questions, contact DNR-PRD-GrandHavenSP@Michigan.gov.

Island Lake Recreation Area

Fishing rod and firearm holders, head light, and attendant control are welcome.
Available first-come, first-reserved year-round 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. To make a reservation, contact 810-229-7067 (Mon-Fri from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.). Use is limited to 3 hours. Additional hours by request during hunting season.
To reserve, send a private message at Facebook.com/IslandLakeRec or call 810-229-7067.

Ludington State Park

Reservations must be made 24 hours in advance. Visit Friends of Ludington State Park to make a reservation.

Maybury State Park

Call the park office at 248-349-8390 (Mon-Fri from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.).

Muskegon State Park

Available first-come, first-reserved year-round Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (May 1-Oct. 31). To make a reservation, call the park at 231-744-3480.

Tahquamenon Falls State Park

Available first-come, first-reserved year-round (reservations must be made 24 hours or more in advance). When the track chair is not reserved in advance, it will be available to borrow first-come, first-served at the Upper Falls Fact Shack from noon to 5 p.m. (June 1-Sept. 5). To make advance reservations, email DNR-TFalls@Michigan.gov, call 906-492-3415 or send a private message at Facebook.com/TQFalls.

Waterloo Recreation Area

Please call the Gerald Eddy Discovery Center at 734-475-3170 to make a reservation, in hour increments, between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m.

This article is a part of the year-long series Disability Inclusion exploring the state of West Michigan’s growing disability community. The series is made possible through a partnership with Centers for Independent Living organizations across West Michigan.