Making the Keweenaw Peninsula accessible to everyone

Forested trails, stunning waterfalls, remnants of copper mines — the Keweenaw Peninsula is rich with natural beauty and history.

But it’s not easy for residents and visitors with mobility issues to enjoy them.

The Accessible Keweenaw Initiative (AKI) is leading a community-wide effort to change that, to enhance access for all mobility levels to the Keweenaw's outdoors, cultural amenities and historical points of interest. 

Outdoor trails, scenic viewing areas, parks, playgrounds, and even historic sites that are open to the public will soon be evaluated to determine what obstacles may prevent full access by people whose mobility is limited.

What’s happening: Determining accessibility to Keweenaw’s points of interest will begin this spring, undertaken by a coalition still being formed to include subject-matter experts and stakeholders, says Brad Barnett, executive director of Visit Keweenaw. “Once the assessments have been conducted, we’ll have a list of accessible sites to share with the community and opportunities to make investments to enhance access to the Keweenaw’s outdoors and places of public recreation.” Armed with information about accessibility, the group can then create site priorities for improvements, Barnett says.

Barnett points out that much of the infrastructure to access recreation and historical sites was developed years ago, before accessibility to those with mobility issues became a widespread priority. The coalition’s effort is aimed at accessibility for both tourists and residents with mobility issues. Many life-long residents are aging in place and officials want to make sure they can access favorite spots as they age.

As an example of where accessibility needs to be improved, he points out Brockway Mountain Drive in Eagle Harbor. The 9.5-mile-long drive is regularly ranked as among the most scenic in the Upper Peninsula. It’s also the highest above sea-level drive between the Rocky Mountains and the Alleghenies. The drive offers panoramic views of Lake Superior, inland lakes and is a prime site on the Keweenaw Peninsula for Northern Lights viewing. Some of the viewing spots are accessible only by foot and that can be challenging for those with mobility issues. 

The solution: AKI intends to bring community members, subject matter experts, and local leaders to identify opportunities for improvement. “Our goal is to identify and assess publicly accessible locations to allow for use by all mobility levels,” Barnett says. AKI seeks to make the Keweenaw a national leader in universally accessible outdoor and cultural recreation and community education focused on barrier-free recreation.

Funding: The Access Keweenaw Initiative was formally launched at the end of January, thanks to a $17,000 grant from the Keweenaw Area Community Foundation, as well as $3,500 from the Herman "Winks" Gundlach fund.

The players: The coalition is still being formed, but so far includes: the Keweenaw Area Community Foundation, Superior Alliance for Independent Living, Western U.P. Planning & Development Region, and Visit Keweenaw.

Why it matters: In 2019, an estimated 233,000 people visited the area; in 2021, it’s estimated that number swelled to more than 300,000 visitors to the Keweenaw Peninsula. Tourism has been a growing economic driver in Keweenaw County and in the entire Upper Peninsula, with more than half of Keweenaw’s employment connected to tourism, according to a report, "Economic Impact of Tourism in MIchigan 2019," prepared for the MIchigan Tourism Office, Department of Community and Economic Development.

In addition, accessibility is important to the people who live in the area and preserving access to special places as community members age is critical to preserving the local way of life for many.

Finally, building an inclusive outdoors is also an underlying tenet of responsible recreation, with the goal to make the outdoors safe and welcoming for all identities and abilities.

Rosemary Parker has worked as a writer and editor for more than 40 years.
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