State Parks Trails for All: Measuring Accessibility

For people with differing levels of physical ability, it can be difficult to know in advance whether a hiking trail might be too steep, too narrow, too soft, or otherwise not suitable.

Here at State Parks, we are working to help address that through something called the Universal Trail Assessment Process (UTAP). Developed in the 1990s by a Nevada-based company specializing in aiding differently abled people to engage in recreation, UTAP is a system of objective measurements taken at specific intervals along an unpaved trail to form an accurate picture of its difficulty, in terms of grade, width, surface firmness and cover.

UTAP is the creation of Beneficial Designs, whose founder Peter Axelson suffered a spinal injury in the mid-1970s. Axelson later went on to become a championship alpine adaptive skier and founded his company to design and fabricate adaptive recreational equipment for people with mobility impairments. The company also develops accessibility standards for ski areas, amusement parks, playgrounds and other outdoor recreation environments.

Parks is entering our third year of the UTAP program, having measured more than 19 miles of trails at 17 different State Parks in 2019 and 2020. It is a time consuming process done on foot with several hand tools, with measurements taken at least every 100 feet. That has meant nearly 1,200 individual measurement points have been recorded so far!

So if any hikers encounter Parks staff carrying a clinometer (a protractor-like device used to measure grade), a hand-held roller wheel (used to measure distance), a level, and a hand-held GPS unit (used to record locations), they have seen the UTAP process in action.

The trail measuring tools under the Universal Trail Assessment Program. (Photo credit – Beneficial Design)
Student Conservation Association member Tyler Stempsey measures trail accessibility at the Olana State Historic Site. (Photo credit – NYS Parks)

This year, a new wheeled “buggy” is being acquired by State Parks that will carry a laptop computer to make measurement recording faster. With the buggy, an entire mile of trail can be measured in about an hour, a big improvement over doing everything manually.

This work is being supported by a Recreational Trail Program (RTP) grant from 2019, with the project currently scheduled to run through 2022.

These thousands of measurements are meant to identify which Parks trails meet what is called Recreational Trail Accessibility Standards (RTAS), which State Parks adopted from the United States Access Board standards and United States Forest Service standards Trail Accessibility Guidelines. These standards set requirements for maximum trail steepness, width, surfaces, passing space, resting areas, trailheads, gates, and signage.

With such measurements, Parks will be able to publicize trails that already comply with RTAS and prioritize trail improvement projects that would increase trail compliance with RTAS.

A sample is shown here of how measurements and surface conditions developed through UTAP can be represented visually. This shows a steep pitch across a trail, called a cross slope, that results in a soft, damp trail surface with mud, a situation which would render that trail out of compliance with the RTAS requirements.

So far, trails identified as meeting these standards include the Upper Falls Lookout Trail at Letchworth State Park and the Awosting Falls Connector Trail at Minnewaska State Park Preserve.

There are also several trails that are close to meeting RTAS with minor modifications including: the Bog Trail at Chenango Valley State Park, the Beacon Hill Trail at Minnewaska State Park, the Bike Path at Schodack Island State Park, and the Green Lakes and Round Lakes Trail at Green Lakes State Park.

This map shows trails in State Park showing where UTAP measurements have been made. (Photo Credit – NYS Parks)

Work is currently under way to improve the Green Lakes trails (park is #3 on the map above) so it meets standards.

More information on the UTAP assessment process and standards specific to State Parks and the trails examined so far, as well as an interactive version the above map, can be found here.

Once the measurement data is compiled and finalized, Parks will be able to provide a listing of accessible trails, as well as focus future improvement efforts on trails close to meeting accessibility standards.

The data we are collecting will also allow Parks to create detailed trail access information signs, which would provide visitors at trailheads with vital information such as slope, surface cover, distance, clearance, and elevation gains.

An example of a trail sign based on measurements of grade and cross slope taken under the UTAP system. (Photo Credit – Beneficial Designs)

The goal of the UTAP program is to make Parks trails more inclusive to all, regardless of ability. If you have a favorite trail that could be assessed for accessibility, let us know in the comments!


Cover Shot – Parks staffer Sean Heaton assesses trails at Minekill State Park in Schoharie County. (Photo Credit – NYS Parks)

Post by Victoria Roberts, GIS/Accessible Trails Technician, NYS Parks

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