Beaches aren’t always the first destinations that wheelchair users consider for holidays. Navigating soft sandy approaches to the shore can be a serious challenge for people with limited mobility.
In a CDC study, roughly 13.7 percent of adults in the United States report a mobility disability, defined as serious difficulty walking or climbing stairs. This functional disability can make vacation planning a challenge and can put some destinations off limits. But change is underway and coastal escapes in both tropical and cooler climates are investing in beach access mats, wheelchairs designed specifically for easier rolling on the sand, and other technology to make sure that their sandy stretches are playgrounds for all.
Here are five of the most accommodating beaches in the U.S. (Visit four of the best wheelchair-accessible trails in U.S. national parks.)
San Diego, California
San Diego tops the charts as one of the most accommodating beach cities on the West Coast. Nine beaches in the city offer free manual or powered beach wheelchairs. To discover which beach has the best options for you, contact the city’s beach wheelchair line prior to visiting. San Diego’s North County Coastal region stretches for miles and includes other beath towns, such as Encinitas. For people who love to soak and swim, manually powered floating beach wheelchairs are available at Moonlight Beach in Encinitas. (Read more about America’s best remaining beach towns.)
Pro tip: San Diego’s Moonlight Beach, Imperial Beach, and Cardiff State Beach all have access mats available for additional accessibility.
Gulf Shores, Alabama
Located on Alabama’s coast, Gulf Shores and its neighboring city, Orange Beach, share 32 miles of coastline. In addition to family-friendly attractions and restaurants, Gulf Shores offers both manual beach wheelchairs and motorized beach chairs, available to rent from Beach Power Rentals. The joystick-operated motorized chairs have large inflatable tires that can roll across the sand. Or stick with your standard chair and reach the beach by access mats, which stretch toward the water on the west and east ends of Gulf Place Public Beach. (Find the ultimate southern adventure in Alabama.)
Pro tip: Book early and look for weeklong specials; motorized beach chair rentals are $100 for one day, but $55 per day when renting for a full week.
Wilmington, North Carolina
This coastal city has plenty of attractions for wheelchair users and three accessible beaches. Head to Carolina Beach, Kure Beach, or Wrightsville Beach, where manual beach wheelchairs are available for free and can be reserved for up to a week at a time. At Kure Beach, the chairs are available from the local fire department; at Carolina Beach and Wrightsville Beach, contact the local parks and recreation department.
Pro tip: A beach access mat for wheelchair users is available near Carolina Beach’s Boardwalk. Multiple hotels are within rolling distance, making this an ideal location to stay.
With one of the longest coastlines in the U.S., Michigan has several accessible beach options. Muskegon's shores stand out thanks to the Action TrackChair—an off-road wheelchair that can roll in the sand, dirt, mud, and even go over rocks. It also has recline and tilt capabilities for a more comfortable ride. To reserve it, contact Muskegon State Park. If the Action TrackChair isn’t available for your travel dates, manual beach wheelchairs are available. (Discover your perfect Michigan spot.)
Pro tip: Before venturing to the beach, tour the Muskegon Museum of Art, a surprisingly spectacular museum established after Muskegon became a lumbering boomtown in the 1870s and 1880s.
Averaging 220 sunny days per year—and with one of the longest piers in the Gulf of Mexico—Pensacola Beach is a prime place for accessible coastal relaxation thanks to Access Mobility of Pensacola’s motorized beach chairs. Sid and Lynn Hargis, owners of the small company, saw a need for greater independence on the sand and offer motorized wheelchairs for rent. If you are traveling with a companion, Scooter Hut Beach Rentals and The Fun Store rent manual beach wheelchairs.
Pro tip: Rolling through Pensacola’s Gulf Islands National Seashore? Be sure to seek out the accessible nature trails in the Perdido Key, Naval Live Oaks, and Davis Bayou areas.
Cory Lee Woodard is a wheelchair user and travel writer. He is author of the award-winning travel blog Curb Free With Cory Lee.