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Q&A

In the United States, how steep can a handicap-accessible trail be?

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Once in Yosemite Vally, I saw a sign that one fork of a paved trail was marked as handicap accessible because it was less steep than the other fork that led to the same destination.

How steep/what grade is considered acceptable for a handicapped-accessible trail?

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2 answers

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I did some digging, and found an ADA guidelines document from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation. Look at page 3, which details all the technical requirements. It is from 2007, so take it with a pinch of salt.

Bear in mind always that these are guidelines, not code or law. Basically anyone can label their trail accessible if they think it is, and that's perfectly legal.

  • Trails must be at least 36" wide.
  • Boardwalks or similar must not have gaps wider than ½".
  • Obstacles must not be more than 2" high (3" when slope is <5%; 1" when slope is >5%).
  • Running slope: not greater than 5% for long runs (shorter runs of steeper slope are permitted; see the linked document). Not greater than 14% for any distance.
  • Cross slope: not greater than 2% for long runs (shorter runs of steeper slope are likewise permitted). Not greater than 12% for any distance.
  • Cross slope >5% is not permitted when running slope is >5%, and vice versa.
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The most official document for the US is Forest Service Trail Accessibility Guidelines.

There is no simple single number for maximum grade. Your are allowed steeper grade for shorter lengths, and the firmness of the treadway also factors into it. It gets complicated. You really need to at least skim over that document. Note that the document above also refers to several other documents. It gets complicated.

All that said, page 10 of the linked document gives a good overview:

Image alt text

But, it's still not that simple. Many state, regional, and local government bodies and private groups owning the land have their own restriction. Sometimes they reference the Forest Service guidelines, with modification. Other times they are stand-alone documents. To get a definitive answer, particularly for not US Forest Service land, you need to do some digging.

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