Mason Neck State Park aims to become more accessible
At first glance, many of the facilities, amenities and trails at Mason Neck State Park in Lorton may seem accessible to all users.
There’s a playground that is compliant with the Americans with Disability Act. One of the picnic tables accommodates wheelchairs. The Beach Trail along Belmont Bay — which currently is being renamed the Osprey Trail — is made of asphalt.
But that’s only part of the story. At present, there are no accessible paths leading from the parking lot to the play structure or picnic table. Sections of the asphalt trail have buckled from roots growing underneath, and the path’s incline and decline can be challenging for wheelchair users to navigate.
Mason Neck Park Manager Lance Elzie is on a mission to change that.
Shortly after assuming his position at the park last April, Elzie asked the Friends of Mason Neck Park — a nonprofit that helps park staff implement programs and activities — to support increased accessibility. According to Elzie, improving accessibility isn’t just required by law, it’s the right thing to do.
“We have beautiful trails and areas of the park that aren’t accessible to a fair number of people, and that’s just not okay,” he said. “We want to provide opportunities for everyone to come out and be able to enjoy the park.”
Making programmatic and structural changes to improve accessibility is familiar territory for Elzie who did it while managing parks in North Carolina.
“I partnered with a local university offering occupational and recreational therapy programs to create the first universally accessible program in North Carolina and possibly on the East Coast,” he said. “We looked at what people needed and what we could offer to enable them to participate in programs like hikes and paddling excursions.”
With the financial support of the Friends organization, Mason Neck State Park acquired packed gravel last year to replace some of the grass at the picnic area and make it easier for people in wheelchairs to access the picnic benches. A team of young people from the Virginia State Parks Youth Conservation Corps built the paths last summer.
Elzie hopes to build momentum with more small, low-cost accessibility projects and eventually tackle bigger ones that require more planning and funding — like building an accessible path behind the visitor’s center and a platform that enables wheelchair users to have a clear view across Belmont Bay. And potentially relocating and resurfacing parts of the Osprey Trail. Many of the opportunities for improvement at the park have been identified by Kris Gulden, a former City of Alexandria police officer who has used a wheelchair since a bicycle accident 25 years ago. Gulden, an advisor to the Friends board, has been testing out the accessibility of the park’s facilities and trails, making recommendations to improve restrooms, water views, and trail navigation.
Park officials and supporters hope to make Mason Neck easier to navigate for other individuals as well. At the interpretative center, Elzie aims to provide audio tours for people who are visually impaired. For the hearing impaired, he would like to provide visual alerts, as well as closed captioning on presentations and videos. Non-English speakers could benefit from interpretative signs with QR codes that enable them to pull up information in different languages, said Elzie.
This coming year, Mason Neck will be offering more sensory-rich experiences, as well as ones that are adapted for people with sensory issues.
“We’re trying to meet people as best as possible where they’re at,” said Elzie.
Mason Neck State Park is located at 7301 High Point Road in Lorton.