It’s a Great Time to Start Hiking

A person walking on a trail, wearing tennis shoes and using a white cane.

This time of the year is often glorious in Wisconsin. The sun may be shining but there could also be a slight chill in the air to remind us, fall isn’t far away. And when the weather is like this, it could be the perfect time to enjoy the outdoors with an activity like walking or hiking.

Research shows being outside is good for your mental and physical health. A study in the International Journal of Environmental Health Research shows spending just 30 minutes in a green space, like a park, increases your happiness level. The research also indicates when you add in exercise like walking or hiking through the park, you are providing an extra boost to your health.

“I love to hike,” Shannon Columb says. The La Crosse woman has a visual impairment but doesn’t let it get in her way when it comes to spending time outdoors.

“I have hiked with a cane on the easier, accessible trails, and I’ve also hiked with my guide dog, Frasier,” Columb says. “He can lead me around stumps and over rocks on the more difficult hikes. He makes it extra fun, too.”

Start Hiking by Asking about Accessible Trails

Ready to begin? If you are considering any of the state park properties, you’ll find more than 2,700 miles of trails. But not every mile is accessible to people with low vision.

“As a state entity it is not a requirement to make all the trails accessible,” Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Accessibility Coordinator Nick Zouski says. “I use a power wheelchair on the paved trails and will typically look at a map of the state park and note which trails are paved making it easily accessible for any person with a disability.”

Here is a current list of state parks with open, accessible trails:

  • Devil’s Lake State Park, Baraboo
  • Willow River State Park, Hudson
  • Peninsula State Park, Fish Creek
  • High Cliff State Park, Sherwood
  • Copper Falls State Park, Mellen
  • Interstate State Park, St. Croix Falls
  • Rib Mountain State Park, Wausau
  • Governor Dodge State Park, Dodgeville

Zouski suggests calling ahead and talking with park staff about your expectations.

“They know the daily details and changes at the property. An example is the hiking trail at Lake Kegonsa State Park outside of Stoughton. It is buckled right now due to storms, so it isn’t accessible,” Zouski say. “The staff can give you this type of up-to-date information. Ask what’s available for hiking and if the trails are paved or hard-packed gravel. Share your situation with them if you are a person who is visually impaired.”

Writers with Travel Wisconsin recently put together a short list of their top picks for hikers with vision impairment or mobility challenges. Each includes a brief description, so you will know exactly what to expect:

  • Lion’s Den Gorge Nature Preserve, Grafton: Accessible trails and captivating views of Lake Michigan.
  • Big Bay State Park, Madeline Island: An accessible island landscape of geological formations, mystical lagoons and rustic sands.
  • Schmeeckle Reserve, Stevens Point: Large, easy to access boardwalks with extensive birding opportunities.
  • Hartman Creek State Park, Waupaca: Winding, paved trails, spring-fed water with abundant wildlife and wildflowers.

Make the Most of Your Hiking Experience

Hiking can be enjoyed by people with vision loss in a highly sensory way. Smell the pine needles, feel the breeze and listen to the water as you hike the accessible path.

Here are some tips to make your hiking experience a positive one:

  1. Start easy. If you are new to hiking, make sure the trail offers a shorter hike and is paved, making it accessible to people who are blind or visually impaired. You can work your way up to longer, more challenging hikes.
  2. Hike with a friend. A sighted guide can support your navigation efforts if there are obstacles or elevation changes. It is also personally safer to hike with others.
  3. Listen. Fellow hikers can give clues about changing terrain along the trail. Are you going to encounter puddles, loose gravel or sand? Gauging the surface will help you be ready to make any adjustments in your footing as you hike.
  4. Consider walking poles. Similar to a white cane, walking poles can be used to identify upcoming obstacles during your hike. The poles will also assist you with your balance when the trail is a bit uneven.
  5. Be prepared. There’s always a chance you can get lost, hurt or caught in bad weather when you are hiking. Plan for an emergency by packing first-aid supplies, rain gear, snacks, water, sunscreen and a knife or multitool.

Finally, enjoy!

“Hiking helps me relax and enjoy the world around me,” Shannon Columb says. “This is a great way to get some exercise and escape. It will bring so much joy to your life, too!”


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