Wanderlist – Accessible Outdoors

Wanderlist – Accessible Outdoors

Season 2 Episode 8

Accessibility Outdoors


[SPONSOR] Under the Texas Sky is Brought to you in part by Toyota, a proud supporter of Texas Parks and Wildlife Programs. Toyota, Let’s Go Places.



[NARRATION] Nature… when in the midst of it… the cares of the world fade away. Most of us feel less burdened the moment we set foot in a park to hike a sun-dappled trail…or when we spend an afternoon fishing from the banks of a river or lake …or when sitting quietly in a hunting blind enjoying the dawn chorus at sunrise…or when gathered with friends and family around a campfire telling silly stories well into the night.

Of course, some of us engage nature with more adventurous activities.

It all seems so simple. Yet, for some, the idea of spending extended time outdoors at a Texas State Park or Natural Area can be intimidating because of mobility or sensory limitations.

When dealing with such conditions, it’s easy convince ourselves the outdoors is for someone else, not us.

Don’t even…the outdoors is for everyone, especially at Texas State Parks and Natural Areas. On this edition of Under the Texas Sky’s Wanderlist the topic is accessibility.

Stay with us.


[NARRATION] From Texas Parks and Wildlife, this is Under the Texas Sky’s Wanderlist…a regular feature of the podcast, produced in collaboration with Texas Parks and Wildlife magazine. It’s where we highlight some of the great places to go and things to see in the Lone Star State. I’m Cecilia Nasti.

An article in the March 2019 issue of Texas Parks and Wildlife magazine focused on outdoor accessibility. In that issue readers also found a list of accessible state parks and natural areas.

Magazine editor, Louie Bond joined me in the studio recently to talk about accessibility in the great Texas outdoors.


[LOUIE] We love getting this information out to everyone in Texas, and kind of pique their wanderlust. And this particular Wanderlist we ran last March, and it accompanied a feature about accessibility in the outdoors. There are a lot of folks who have problems accessing the outdoors, so we wanted to research some of that.

A former intern of ours, Kathryn Hunter, was a great athlete; she ran marathons and ran triathlons. She had a medical condition that cropped up suddenly and really changed her outlook on activities and the outdoors. So, we thought she was the perfect person to share this story about overcoming whatever obstacles keep you from getting outdoors.

[CECILIA] What were some of the stories of the people that she wrote about in this article?

[LOUIE] Oh, the people stories were just the best. There was one particular athlete that I just really connected with. She seemed maybe my age, or just a little bit younger. She’s nine-time Iron Man finisher, Laurie Allen.

In 2015 she slipped on some ice getting out of a hot tub and took a terrible fall. And then the next thing you know, this incredible woman who said she had never spent an entire day indoors in her entire life, found herself a quadriplegic. But that indomitable human spirit that we admire so much, kept her from wallowing in any kind of self-pity. And, within two years she had progressed from a hand bike and a motorized wheelchair that she began to work with and had friends help her with, to running—well, running in her own way—events and races again. And she’s quite an inspirational story.

She says that people aren’t really aware of accessibility needs, but she doesn’t really blame them, because we don’t really see a lot of people in wheelchairs in the outdoors. And that’s why we don’t think about it as much as maybe we ought to.

[CECILIA] Well, the American’s With Disabilities Act (ADA) gets us to thinking about it.

[LOUIE] Right. And there’s a legal ramification. We protect people under the law. The ADA defines a disability as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits major life activities. And so, that’s not just mobility. We think of that right off the bat because that’s obvious—that’s something we see when we see a wheelchair or walker. But there’s also other kinds of things that you can’t see; hidden conditions like cancer, diabetes or maybe even blindness.

[CECILIA] You know, Louie, I read somewhere—and this kind of shocked me—more than a quarter of Texas adults have some kind of disability, and that is the second largest of any state. And they say that the highest percentage are mobility impaired.

[LOUIE] Well, I mean, that is certainly kind of a shocking number. But I kind of think maybe there’s a lot more than that. When you think about it, all of us at some time of another have an impairment. Whether we’re feeling sick that day, or we’ve got a baby. Maybe we’re suffering temporarily from some sort of illness that weakens us in some way or impairs our breathing. There’s just a million ways that you can be impaired that probably aren’t even reported.

[CECILIA] Speaking for myself, I injured my ankle awhile ago. You know… you’ve seen me kind of limping around here…

[LOUIE] A little hobbling…

[CECILIA] Yeah, a little bit of that. And, I’ve got to tell you that it’s a little terrifying walking on uneven surfaces. I’m afraid I’m going to do a face plant. And that does keep me from being outdoors as much as I would like.

[LOUIE] Well, I think one way we can all learn more about what it’s like to be impaired outdoors is to accompany someone [who’s impaired]. I recently went on a trip for the magazine to do a travel piece to South Padre Island, which is a great place. I brought one of my best buddies who happens to be a little older than me. But she travels the world by herself; she’s great. She’s strong. Well, she’d been sick for a while and she didn’t really realize how much weakened she was or how bad she still felt. So, as when we visited placed like the South Padres Island Birding and Nature Center that has these incredible, accessible boardwalks, I found myself trying to think about how I could let her rest but still enjoy the experience. It really opened my eyes to the fact that all of us can be impaired at one time or another.

[CECILIA] That’s really a good point, because a lot of times I will decline going out with people because I think I’m going to be holding them up.

[LOUIE] Right. You know, I’ve always been leader of the pack, the first one out the door. I had a bad illness ten years ago where I couldn’t even walk up a hill. And I just stopped going out and doing things. I didn’t even tell anybody, ‘oh, I don’t feel good’, I just stopped doing it because it was hard, and I wasn’t used to holding people back. So, I think we’re all going to go through this at some point in our lives. Or at least someone that we love dearly will.

[CECILIA] We [at TPWD] are being proactive when it comes to accessibility, and maybe you can talk a little bit about that for us.

[LOUIE] I’m really proud of Texas Parks and Wildlife. They’re developing a five-year Accessibility Transition Plan. That’s kind of a mouthful. But they’ve hired Sandra Heath—that was, I think, a year or two ago—as the first ADA coordinator. And she calls this plan ADA and Beyond. For me, I know right away it’s going to be extraordinary. And being a state the size of Texas with all of our forward thinking and al the great work of this agency, a lot of times we’re role models for the rest of the country. So, I have high hopes that we’re going to accomplish things over the next few years that will be modeled elsewhere around the country. You know, we’re here for everybody; we’re not going to overlook a single Texan when we’re thinking about our state parks.

[CECILIA] And what’s really interesting to me, is that I imagine adapting these kinds of facilities is probably good for everyone, and not just people with mobility and sensory challenges.

[LOUIE] You know, at the magazine this month, I’ve been working on an article by Melissa Gaskill about bird blinds. And bird blinds can be technically wheelchair accessible, you know, and have all kinds of accommodations. But for you and I, it’s just a great place to sit and wildlife watch. So, I don’t have to be accessibility impaired to enjoy, but as long as we’re building bird blinds, let’s make them accessible for everyone.


[NARRATION] Want to know what accessibility features you’ll find at some of our Texas State Parks and Natural areas? That’s ahead. But first…

Support from Toyota allows us to bring you stories from Under the Texas Sky. Toyota has been a proud sponsor of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation since 2002, providing generous support to help the department provide outdoor programs for Texans and conserve the wildlife of the Lone Star State.

This is Under the Texas Sky’s Wanderlist from Texas Parks and Wildlife…I’m Cecilia Nasti…Wanderlist is a collaboration with Texas Parks and Wildlife magazine. Editor, Louie Bond, and I have been talking about accessibility in the great Texas outdoors.

We have dozens of accessible parks and natural areas throughout the Lone Star State…


[LOUIE] I think there are 38 state parks with accessibility features. The first one I want to talk about is only 45 minutes from Houston, so there are a lot of folks that can enjoy this park—which I kind of think is the wildest of all worlds close to a big city. And that’s Brazos Bend State Park, and it is filled with wildlife. Especially the American Alligator, which is a pretty exciting animal to go visit. They also have river otters—obviously the cutest animal in Texas. But they have a lot of things that are accessible. They’ve done a lot of great work down there. They have an interpretive trail, visitor’s center, and lots of different exhibits, and amphitheater. They have a fully paved half mile loop—the Creekfield Lake Nature Trail.

[CECILIA] You know, Louie, I’ve been at Parks and Wildlife—it’s getting close to 20 years—and Brazos Bend was actually a leader. I remember them talking about Brazos bend when I was first interviewing here, talking about how it was already becoming accessible.

[LOUIE] It is just really one of the coolest parks that you don’t hear about quite as often if you’re not in the Houston area. And they’re really thinking about making it accessible. So, bring that friend who has special needs, because Brazos Ben is really going to entertain, you.

[CECILIA] Well, what about a place that’s even a little bit more wild than that. A little less manicured.

[LOUIE] Well, you know, we have some places called State Natural Areas, and they’re like state parks but without all of that development. We kind of leave them wild. And there’s a lot to be said for that, because in a really wild area, you’re going to see nature as it really is. Not in kind of a manicured way, but in that wonderful wild way.

And at Government Canyon State Natural Area, it’s outside of San Antonio, just a little bit north—there are all kinds of things that you can see there. And you can camp there. There are even outfitters who will come and will set up your camp for you. So, if you have issues with setting up your campsite, you can just arrive, and it will all be ready for you.

[CECILIA] What are some of the accessibility features there?

[LOUIE] Well, they have a discovery trail; it’s over a mile, it’s mostly level. And it is wheelchair accessible—that’s a long wheelchair accessible trail. Uh, the picnic, the camping, the gallery the restrooms—everything’s wheelchair accessible, which is really unusual for a wild area like this.

[CECILIA] I need to go there; I haven’t been there yet. Someplace I have been, though is Inks Lake State Park. And one of the things I remember that they had when I went on a mentored hunt is an accessible hunting…shack. I don’t even know what they call them.

[LOUIE] Right, like a blind…that’s…

[CECILIA] That’s it…

[[LOUIE] That’s what we call those things…[laughter]

[CECILIA] I’ve been here 20 years and I still don’t know what they’re called.

[LOUIE] We try had, don’t we, Cecilia? And you know, not only do they have this blind, but they have hosts who mentor whitetail deer hunts for mobility impaired folks of all ages. And they provide guides and equipment for this. So, what a unique opportunity for someone who has some impairment and would love to get out and hunt. I mean, it’s challenging enough for able bodied people to figure out how to start hunting. You can imagine if you have an impairment…. They’ve got it all covered for you. You can just go in there and have the whole experience safely and lead by the experts. I just think that’s excellent.

[CECILIA] And they also have fishing piers that are wheelchair accessible?

[LOUIE] They do. And the whole shoreline is fairly accessible for swimming and floating; it’s a beautiful lake as you well know, Cecilia. The park’s playgrounds are wheelchair accessible…there’s campsites and cabins…there’s all kinds of things you can do there. And there are waterfalls. I love waterfalls! [laughter]

[CECILIA] Who doesn’t? Well, you’re not going to find a waterfall at Abilene State Park, but you will find an opportunity to enjoy it accessibly, if that’s what you’re needing.

[LOUIE] One thing I really love about Abilene State Park—which isn’t exactly in Abilene, it’s about 16 miles away on the banks of Elm Creek—there’s so much history there. This is where Comanche and Tonkawa Indians camped. So, when you camp there, you can feel that. And there’s a boardwalk there that’s accessible that leads to a wildlife viewing platform in the day use area. And then from that there’s a mile and a half Eagle Trail that leads to Buffalo Wallow Pond—[laughs]—I like to wallow. And that whole thing is made of hard surface caliche, and some wheelchairs can do pretty well on that hard surface caliche. So, that’s a mile and a half; that’s a great trail for that. There’s a swimming pool—so, and it has ADA entry options. There are yurts, but yurt number two—our favorite—has a concrete pathway and patio that allow wheelchair access to the inside. And what I like about this particular one, too: the picnic table and the fire ring, have both been changed and adapted a little bit so that you can build you own fire from a wheelchair. Isn’t that great?

[CECILIA] Gosh, I love that. I really admire the fact that the state parks group has worked so tirelessly to make these parks accessible for everybody.

[LOUIE] Yeah. I imagine that they had a lot of planning sessions and a lot of outreach to folks to find out what really works. And you can tell when it’s this thoughtful that it’s really going to work for these folks. There’s one more place I’d like to tell you about, Cecilia.

[CECILIA] And I want to hear about it, Louie.

[LOUIE] And this is way out in Athens—of course, not Greece—but way out in East Texas. The Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center. Kind of a mouthful. We call it the TFFC for short. And I love this place. If you want to learn about freshwater fishing, this is the place for you. It’s got a 107-acre site; some of the indoor stuff is pretty amazing. Over three hundred thousand gallons of indoor and outdoor aquariums. Pretty cool. That’s a lot of water. That’s a lot of fish. Of course, there’s alligators, amphibians, waterfowl; there’s a dive show every day. And an opportunity to fish. And that’s what one of the things I want to tell you about the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center: there’s wheelchair access to three stocked fishing ponds. Not only that, you don’t need a license, and the gear and the bait is included.

[CECILIA] Well, this is just a handful of the opportunities that we have here at our Texas state parks. So, what do you think the moral of the story is if somebody’s thinking, I’m not going to be able to do that?

[LOUIE] You can do that. We’ve thought about it. We’ve worked it out. It’s hard to make that first step to go. But once you do, and once you get there and you have that experience, you’ll never regret it. You’ll feel so good, and you’ll know you can do it again and again.


[NARRATION] We’re done wandering for this podcast…but Louie Bond and I—or our colleague, Randall Maxwell—will be back with more fascinating things to see and places to explore in the Lone Star State.

Also, keep an eye on the Texas Parks and Wildlife Instagram account, which is @TexasParksWildlife. We’ll use it to notify you of some of the Wanderlist subjects we plan to cover in the weeks ahead and give you a chance to ask questions, some of which we’ll answer on the podcast.

Under the Texas Sky is a production of Texas Parks and Wildlife. We produce our Wanderlist series in partnership with Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine in the Media Production Studios in Austin, Texas.

Randall Maxwell does our sound design. And we get distribution and web help from Susan Griswold and Benjamin Kailing.

Stream to or download Under the Texas Sky and Under the Texas Sky’s Wanderlist wherever you get your podcasts. And please leave a review while you’re there and let us know how we’re doing and what you’d like to hear.

Until next time…keep on wandering Under the Texas Sky. I’m Cecilia Nasti.