New Nature Trail Offers a Safe, Invigorating Space for Hikers With Special Needs

Visitors at Audubon Greenwich can now test out a more interactive style of exploration.

At the Audubon Center in Greenwich, Connecticut, there’s a strong belief that no person should be excluded from enjoying nature.

For years, parents, seniors, and individuals with disabilities approached Michelle Frankel, the center director, asking her if they’d be able to bring a stroller to go hiking with their small children or if a wheelchair could be maneuvered through the woods. Unfortunately, Frankel had no way of satisfying these requests. So she and the Greenwich staff decided to try something new. With help from the Wheels in the Woods Foundation, staff from the decades-old sanctuary and center built a state-of-the-art, interactive circuit for visitors with physical challenges. Statistics from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that nearly 36 million people in the United States—15 percent of the population—are affected by limited mobility.

On Saturday, June 18, the Nature Play Trail was opened up to the community. Equipped with six activity stations for youth of all ages, it gives kids with a spectrum of disabilities and their families the possibility to explore new horizons. “It’s an amazing thing to see a vision become a reality,” Frankel says. "We are really excited for the opportunity that it’s going to offer.”

Yet there were some obstacles in making this transition. The nature center is at the top of a hill in one of the highest points in Greenwich, and offers great views of a lake, streams, and vernal pools. But the whole forest and trail system is located at the bottom of the hill, resulting in a steep climb that made it difficult for people with physical disabilities to access the grounds.

The new one-mile-long route overcomes this problem, however, by offering a smooth, level landscape made of a wheelchair-friendly mixture of gravel and natural pine resin. The substance looks similar to dirt, and keeps the forest from feeling paved and developed, Frankel says. At no point does the path exceed a 5 percent slope, allowing it to meet the requirements to be an American with Disabilities Act trail. In Connecticut, there are only 16 such trails, according to; local movements to get more wheelchair-accessible areas for recreation are underway. 

The sanctuary was also formerly overrun by non-native plants. Developers made it a priority to design a hiking path that would allow birders with and without special needs to enjoy birds and not destroy their natural habitat in the process. “What we aimed for was to create this accessible trail with high-quality plants that will also serve as a haven for birds and birders,” Frankel says. 

The Nature Play Trail travels through a number of different habitats, including a meadow, the circumference of a pond, hardwood forests, and even a historic apple orchard. It joins the sanctuary’s pre-existing network of routes, which clock in at about seven miles.

From Frankel's perspective, the benefits of interacting with nature are numerous, no matter how that connection is made. For kids with autism, the toys in the first section of the trail provide multi-sensory stimulation—an important therapeutic approach proven to enhance learning in multiple ways. Children get to use their imaginations to identify with animals: They can call through logs like a fox, or collaborate with each other to build forts and dens. 

It's also a great chance for city dwellers to get away and stretch their wings. “It brings a tremendous amount of quiet and peace—it’s a sanctuary for the sensory overload that’s experienced in some more urban settings,” Frankel says. “That’s true for all of us. We all need that.”