Chelsea Fernandes steered her wheelchair up and down the forest trail, passing a maple grove, zigzagging over water along a narrow boardwalk, and stopping to look at a beaver-built wetland — a view she never thought she'd experience from her wheelchair.
Considered unique by the U.S. Forest Service for offering the disabled unparalleled access to mountain wilderness, the 21/2 miles of trails at Crotched Mountain Rehabilitation Center in southern New Hampshire will open to the public today.
"It allows me to be like everybody else, to experience nature like everybody else," said the 22-year-old, who was born with cerebral palsy. "It allows me to experience life in whole different light, and it allows me to get away from my day-to-day routine. And it kind of helps me relax when times get stressful."
The center's trails offer climbs, twists and turns, and lush views of hillsides and mountains. They were designed with the goal of easy access to people of all abilities, including people in wheelchairs and those who have difficulty walking.
One trail goes through the woods and the other through a meadow; they are the longest of their type in a mountain setting and they combine multiple features — steep terrain, bridges and boardwalks, places to rest — in a consolidated space. Hikers can see blueberry fields, wildflowers and the occasional moose.
"It doesn't scream accessibility, and yet, it is," said Janet Zeller of the Forest Service, which has developed a set of trail accessibility guidelines. The rehabilitation center followed those guidelines in designing and building its trails.
Zeller said she is not aware of any other private organization that has designed such a trail system. She said there are trails in the national forest system that are all-inclusive, but they are not as long, nor do they have the variety in terrain. But there is a growing interest among states to have such trails, she said.