Charting New Trails: Reimagining Accessibility in Outdoor Adventures

As told by Wes Hall, Co-founder of NC Adaptive Sports

Wes Hall is a pioneer in adaptive sports in the Great Trails State and beyond. Born right here in North Carolina, he was diagnosed with Osteosarcoma at age 15, leading to the amputation of his right leg. Wes has been pushing the envelope of what is possible by turning limitations into opportunities. Read along to learn how he has overcome challenges to help others along the path to adventure.

The journey isn’t always about taking the easy route. Sometimes, it’s about pushing boundaries, overcoming obstacles, and rewriting the rules. Tony Luparello, Wes’ co-conspirator in the quest for inclusivity in outdoor sports, and Wes embody this philosophy. They’re passionate about active lifestyles and understand the profound impact physical activity has on the human psyche, physique, and spirit. As adapted cyclists, they yearned to break free from the confines of traditional greenways and embrace the raw thrill of off-road trails. Furthermore, they know the positive effects that being active can have on the mind, body, and soul.

Wes navigating a bridge at Harris LakePark
Wes navigating a bridge at Harris Lake Park

Wes and Tony weren’t just looking for a new cycling route; they were seeking an experience – the challenge of a technical trail that tested their physical strength and mental agility. With technological advancements expanding the boundaries of adapted cycles – whether handcycles or recumbent trikes – they saw the untapped potential for thrilling adventures for individuals with physical disabilities.

Thus, North Carolina Adapted Sports (NCAS) was born. The company was underpinned by the duo’s vision to revolutionize expectations about equity and inclusivity for people with physical disabilities. At NCAS, they strive to craft a community where disability isn’t a barrier to enjoying an active lifestyle; instead, it’s a source of shared inspiration and respect and a community where people with and without a physical disability can enjoy an active lifestyle together.

Wes and Tony’s inaugural trail ride took place in Brumley Forest, a challenging trail for novices. On their less-than-ideal cycles, they had to hop off occasionally to traverse certain features. Still, it was this spark of adversity that fueled the determination to explore the possibilities that lay ahead. Next up was Lake Crabtree Park in Wake County. This trail was kinder to their cycles but not without its own share of hurdles, notably the bridges and pinch points too narrow for the adapted cycles they were riding at the time.

Navigating these obstacles was an adventure in itself. Imagine a bridge barely wider than your cycle, with only a couple of inches to spare on either side – riding, according to Wes, was like tiptoeing on a tightrope with wheels. Some bridges were entirely impassable, and they had to carry our cycles across. As an amputee, Wes could manage this, but we knew it wasn’t feasible for all riders. Clearly, the trail systems needed some help to become accessible.

Adapted Cyclist Aubrey, helping volunteer James fasten the decking to bridge crossing a swale.

Adapted Cyclist Aubrey, helping volunteer James fasten the decking to bridge crossing a swale.

Undeterred by the challenges, Wes and Tony sought to drive change by partnering with Wake County Parks & Recreation’s dedicated staff – Drew Cade, Christina Sorensen, and Sam Trogdon. They brainstormed ideas for pioneering accessible trail design across the state, envisioning widening bridges and creating alternative routes around trail features that posed barriers to adapted cycles. This gave birth to the idea of ‘universal design’ – modifications beneficial for all cyclists, regardless of their physical abilities. The focus was not to simplify but to provide a platform that nurtured skill growth rather than adopting a one-size-fits-all approach.

Fueled by a generous grant from Dominion Energy, NCAS set out to rebuild the bridges at Lake Crabtree Park, first focusing on Loop 4 – the section with the highest bridge count. The goal was ambitious – complete the Lake Crabtree renovations by June end and commence work on the Harris Lake Trail system as soon as funds permitted. However, they knew that without universally accessible trails, even an impressive fleet of adapted off-road cycles would be pointless.

Connector A Bridge: 25 foot x 6 foot wide - accessible to adaptive riders.

Connector A Bridge: 25 foot x 6 foot wide – accessible to adaptive riders.

How can others get involved in making trails more accessible? It begins with taking stock of the trails we have. Wes states that this initiative is not just about NCAS; it’s about creating a lasting impact across the entire state of North Carolina. Think about it: when you hike or ride in your area, do you ever consider the trail’s width? Is it wide enough for a wheelchair or an adapted cycle? Or, do you notice the challenges that might exclude certain users, such as gradient, loose substrate, or narrow points? Most importantly, enlisting adapted hikers and cyclists in your community to be part of the trail planning and design process is critical.

Wes correctly says that the user groups your trail system needs to attract will determine the paths you take as well. Hiking trails need to consider powered and manual wheelchair users, as well as other mobility devices that may be used to enjoy the trail. The material trails are built out of is important too. Whether you’re designing a hiking or mountain biking trail, it’s essential to consider users of all abilities. It’s not a good experience for wheels to sink into the ground.

On the other hand, mountain biking trails need wider bridges, bypasses around challenging features, and a minimum cross slope to cater to adapted cyclists. The essence is not to dilute the thrill but to make it accessible to everyone. Many green/beginner trails are a good starting point for adapted cyclists, while trails with a greater array of features, steeper gradients, longer distances, ruts, large roots, and other factors will increase the trail’s difficulty.

Build Day Crew for Loop 4 Bridges 1 & 3

Build Day Crew for Loop 4, Bridges 1 & 3

As for the question, “Where are the accessible trails?” The answer is that many are yet to be created. It takes research and exploration to find trails that are truly accessible. To start, NCAS is on a mission to identify and improve these trails in the Triangle Area, catering to beginners and advanced riders alike. NCAS is constantly working to determine the best trails for beginners and trails that will challenge more advanced riders as well.

As for Wes and Tony’s next steps at NCAS, they are raising funds to purchase a small fleet of adapted off-road cycles, adding adapted categories in off-road races, and forming a team of adapted off-road cyclists. They are also consulting with various entities on creating universally accessible trail systems – right now, they’re working with Wake County and the Town of Cary on their current and future trail systems. 

Join NCAS and others in creating a legacy of inclusivity and equity in our communities. Let’s make it a point to create trails where everyone, regardless of their physical abilities, can enjoy an active outdoor lifestyle.