Año Nuevo State Park offers a unique opportunity to witness wild nature as it was meant to be: positioned near fast-paced Bay Area communities, yet a world away into the peaceful great outdoors. It provides visitors the opportunity to disconnect and experience nature, the ocean, and wildlife, with a round-trip hike of three miles, including through sand dunes, to view the northern elephant seals. Unfortunately, for some with mobility limitations, the distance and terrain is too much.
Nina’s idea of having an Equal Access Program met with no budget and very little park support. Following two years speaking and negotiating with owners of neighboring farmland, the farm owners eventually agreed to allow visitors to drive through their private property if accompanied by a trained Park employee.
Never allowing a challenge to deter her, Nina salvaged piles of conveyer belt material destined to be thrown away at a local rock quarry. She and fellow rangers cut it into smaller strips to bring back to the Park. After much manual labor to drill holes and wire together to haul the pieces up to the sandy trail, they eventually fabricated a trail from the road to the beach.
But would this makeshift trail work for people to navigate in wheelchairs? Nina enlisted the assistance of the Berkeley Center for Independent Living and brought some folks down Año Nuevo to try out the trail. She was concerned that people would fall off the trail in heavy electric wheelchairs, however, the trail was safe, and the visitors were just so happy to be out in the sand dunes, exploring a new environment.
As the idea progressed, a lot of creative thinking revealed how to get a program started to bring in more visitors who could not hike out to see the seals; again all without support or budget from the parks. Nina and one of her co-workers Candy Ward began calling up disabled access groups and promoting the program and the trail. As the program and trail grew in popularity, Nina initiated a training program to teach volunteer docents how to work with less-abled visitors in the park.
With continuing momentum for the program, it became apparent that better material was needed for the trail. Nina visited Big Creek, a local lumber company who graciously donated lumber. She also enlisted the assistance of Telephone Pioneers of America an organization dedicated to provide access for the disabled. Their volunteers built a wooden boardwalk to replace the conveyer belt material. In 2013, the original boardwalk was replaced with a newer and more expanded boardwalk by CSPA and volunteers.
The Equal Access program continues to flourish today as a complete success. Nina Gordon received a State Park Directors Award in 2012 for her work in the State Parks. She commented: “I worked for the state for 36 years, most of which for State Parks, and of all the things I did, the one thing I am the most proud of is the Equal Access Trail. It was such a thrill to be able to provide that kind of access.”
With few places to see the magnificent northern elephant seals in the wild, the availability of the Equal Access Program at Año Nuevo and the dedicated docents brings this experience to those visitors with limited mobility, resulting in a true success story.
Please visit the Equal Access Tours webpage for more information on the operating days and hours of the Equal Access program, or contact Reserve California by phone at 1-800-444-4445 to make reservations. We strongly hope to see you at Año Nuevo soon!