Sugarloaf Ridge State Park embarks on big effort to make its trails more accessible to people with mobility challenges

Sugarloaf Ridge State Park is going the extra mile to remove overlooked barriers and make getting outdoors easier for the disabled.|

Lauren Newman, who has had multiple sclerosis for 33 years, had long accepted she could no longer hike, something she used to love. Until she went to Sugarloaf Ridge State Park.

On a day last week, the Santa Rosa resident was out with friend Margaret McFarlin at the park north of Kenwood, happily taking the wheelchair-accessible trail in her scooter, enjoying the forest of white alder, Douglas fir and California bay trees, meadows of lupine, purple vetch and poppies, and scads of little fence lizards sunning on the rocks along the trail.

“I’ve never been up here,” she said. “To be out here right now is good.”

That reaction is what Sugarloaf’s team of volunteers hoped for in its mission to make the park north of Kenwood more accessible to people with disabilities.

Sugarloaf is known for its high elevation hikes to breathtaking vistas. It also has one of the best maintained wheelchair accessible trails in the county, a nearly 1-mile out-and-back path of packed decomposed granite that winds along Sonoma Creek and offers opportunities for birdwatching, wildflower spotting and experiencing the shade of a cool riparian forest on a warm summer day.

But park boosters don’t want to stop there. They brought in disability access consultants to help identify what turned out to be myriad small changes they could undertake, many at little or no cost, that would make it even easier for people with wheelchairs, walkers, canes and hip and knee problems, to enjoy the facilities.

These are changes that go beyond the design standards mandated under the Americans With Disabilities Act, Park Manager John Roney said.

“A lot of them are little things you wouldn’t necessarily think about,” he said. It meant making a handicapped parking sign more easily seen as you drive into the space rather than being set to the right. Another was setting a portable toilet at a different angle and building a lip of gravel to make it easier for someone in a wheelchair to roll inside.

Team Sugarloaf brought in accessibility consultants Judith Smith and Bonnie Lewkowicz, activists and advocates for outdoor recreation opportunities for the disabled. Lewkowicz wrote an accessible trail guidebook. Smith is an environmentalist, avid hiker and birder who received a California Naturalist Certification through Sonoma Ecology Center.

“We spent most of a day going to every building and every bathroom and every trailhead. I took notes on everything they said and made it into a spreadsheet and now we’re working our way through it to make the park as inviting and welcoming and accessible as possible,” said Daniel Levitis, a biologist and community science coordinator for Suglarloaf who is overseeing the park accessibility project.

Many of the more than 200 volunteers who help maintain the park for the managing Sonoma Ecology Center are busy this season evening out trails, altering picnic benches, filling in pesky cracks and building a new ramp onto a community research building ― among other things ― to eliminate obstructions and impediments.

“There are all sorts of things that seem like totally insignificant details to somebody who is not in wheelchair but that can end up being a major barrier,” said Levitis, who experienced that years ago when he suffered a hip injury that forced him to use a large reclining wheelchair for eight months.

On a recent morning a small group of regulars was at work in the washroom at a handicapped accessible campground near the park entrance, lowering soap dispensers and moving toilet seat cover dispensers from a spot behind the toilet to the side, much easier for someone in a wheelchair to grab.

Among them was Oakmont resident Lynn Pelletier. Every week she rakes the accessible trail to keep it smooth and free of obstacles or holes that may appear.

“There’s always something to do. I think how lucky I am. I have two healthy legs and I can walk. But people in a wheelchair have to have the same advantage. Having a wonderful trail like we have and maintaining it is inspiring to me,” she said.

Nearby, volunteer Tom Gulya was replacing the tops of picnic tables with longer boards to create more space for a wheelchair.

“They have an 8-inch overhang and they need a 19-inch overhang,” said Gulya, a retired botanist.

It is a question of looking at everything through a different perspective, Levitis said.

Consultants noticed a beautiful handmade bench that sat between entries to the washrooms partially blocked the doorway. Someone on foot wouldn’t notice, but it could make it harder to negotiate in a wheelchair.

Turning a corner, a pair of picnic benches set up on a walkway to take advantage of the shade of an overhang was a big obstacle to someone in a wheelchair. They pointed to a patch where asphalt had pushed up where the parking lot meets a trail.

“It was hard for a wheelchair to get over. It never occurred to me,” Levitis said. “So I got a pick ax and removed the asphalt that was sticking up and we poured some gravel in and tamped it down and it was done. It took five minutes. There are all these things all over the park we could easily do to make it better.”

The Sonoma Ecology Center, which manages the park, got a $15,000 grant from the National Environmental Education Foundation to pay for some of the more expensive projects. Those include building a ramp and wider doorway into the Community Science Office, an old ranch bunkhouse where volunteers and science students gather data for projects like The North Bay Bear Collective and monitor the parks many wildlife cameras. When the ramp is done, this summer, it will make it easier for volunteers in wheelchairs to be included.

The park is also expanding its offering of group experiences to include Limited Mobility Nature Walks with different themes. The next one is nature journaling, slated for June 11.

Another volunteer, Judy Armstrong, who is sensitive to the challenges after relying on a walker and scooter due to serious hip and knee issues, has started a series of Slow Journeys that are less structured walks with naturalists available for questions and geared to people with canes, walkers, wheelchairs or baby strollers.

“Making things more accessible is not just a question of physical changes,” Levitis said. “It’s a question of making information available so people can make their own decisions about what trails work for them. We’re hoping to get funding to put a sign at every trailhead that says how wide the trail is, how steep it is, and what the total rise is, so people can make their own decisions.”

In addition to the new accessible Creekside Trail, completed just before the COVID-19 pandemic started, Sugarloaf has the Meadow Trail, extending just beyond it and continuing for another mile.

“It’s not official ADA but it’s flat and gravel. Most wheelchairs can make it. And we’ve added benches along the way,” Roney said.

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at 707-521-5204 or OnTwitter @smallscribe1.

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