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The Able Traveler: Accessible Beaches for Everyone

If you are a little unsteady on your feet, beaches can be downright dangerous. But that doesn't mean you have to give up sand and the surf altogether: there's a wide range of accessible beach options out there if you know how find them.

Let's face it, wheelchairs and sand just don't mix. The same could be said of canes, walkers, and other assistive devices. And if you are a little unsteady on your feet or tire easily, beaches can be downright dangerous. But that doesn't mean you have to give up the sun, the sand and the surf altogether. Quite the contrary. Truth be told, there's a wide range of accessible beach options out there -- you just have to know how find them.

Boardwalks & Trails

Accessible beach pathways, including boardwalks and trails, are the most widely available form of beach access. They are a great option for wheelchair-users and slow walkers as they can be accessed independently, and they don't require any special adaptive beach equipment.

Generally speaking, these trails feature level access from a nearby parking area and offer good views of the beach. Depending on the sand conditions, some also offer direct access to the water.

For example, Rehab Point in Oxnard, California boasts a 900-foot paved level path that curves around the dunes, with boardwalk access down to the ocean; while Half Moon Bay State Beach in Northern California has a wheelchair-accessible beach boardwalk which extends into the snowy plover nesting area. And over in Virginia, the Virginia Beach beachfront boardwalk allows visitors to enjoy beach views while avoiding the sand.

So keep an eye out for boardwalks, bike paths and trails along the beach, as most offer excellent wheelchair-access. Additionally, most state beaches and National Parks have at least one accessible beach trail.

Beach Mats

Although not as common as boardwalks and trails, beach mats are slowly gaining in popularity. These hard rubber mats are installed over the sand to create a accessible pathway all the way down to the high-tide line. When properly maintained, beach mats allow wheelchair-users and slow walkers direct access to the water, without any adaptive beach equipment.

Hilton Head, South Carolina was one of the first cities to install beach mats on its beaches at Coligny Beach Park, Alder Lane, Dreissen Beach Park, Folly Field Beach, and Islander's Beach Club. They can also be found on South Padre Island (at beach access points 6 and 16), and in Ala Moana Regional Park in Honolulu, Hawaii. And beach mats aren't just for ocean access -- several of Chicago's Lake Michigan beaches also have them.

Beach Wheelchairs

Beach wheelchairs are also a popular way to access the beach. These specially made wheelchairs have wide plastic tires which are designed to navigate sandy beaches. Plus, if you want to cool off, you can just roll out into the surf. The major drawback is that most manual beach wheelchairs are not self-propelling, so you need somebody to push you.

On the plus side, more and more public beaches have free loaner beach wheelchairs, and even the major cruise lines now supply them on their private islands. Unfortunately there isn't a central beach wheelchair directory, however it never hurts to inquire with beach wheelchair dealers about their corporate clients. It's also a good idea to inquire at lifeguard stations, state beaches and National Parks, as many places don't advertise their availability.

And for totally independent access to the beach, head on down to San Diego, where power beach wheelchairs are available at Imperial Beach, Mission Beach, Coronado City Beach, Silver Strand State Beach, and Oceanside Harbor Beach. There is no charge to use the power beach wheelchairs, but due to a high demand, advance reservations must be made with the appropriate life guard station. For more information about this unique program, contact Accessible San Diego at tel. 619/325-7550.

Candy Harrington is the editor of Emerging Horizons and the author of 101 Accessible Vacations; Travel Ideas for Wheelers and Slow Walkers. She blogs regularly about accessible travel issues at