Accessible Trails

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Hawk Mountain Sanctuary supporters believe that first-hand experience watching for passing migrants is the best way to spark an interest in nature and raptors, and that this is key to its raptor conservation mission.

ARROW From the Fall 2017 issue of American Trails Magazine

Trail provides accessibility for wildlife viewing

From Hawk Mountain Sanctuary Association  

photo of man with wheelchair on trail in woods

The New trail solves accessibility problems for wildlife viewing


The challenges

The jaw-dropping views from scenic overlooks at Hawk Mountain are a major attraction, and each autumn it offers one of the most recognized and best-known raptor observation points in the United States.

However, for more than 80 years, the authentic Appalachian forest experience and rugged terrain that made the sanctuary famous also restricted access, even to the nearby South Lookout.

Located just 100 yards from the parking area, the short walk was up a steep grade and even the wide and graded path to this overlook challenged people with young children and all visitors with limited mobility. That meant that many individuals were left inside the visitor center to wait for others in their party, or simply stayed at home.

photo of people with wheelchairs at viewpoint

South Lookout is now accessible by the improved trail


The solutions

Two years of planning and consultation with professional staff, volunteers, and accessibility and land management experts resulted in a new option, the accessible Silhouette Trail, which leads to the scenic South Lookout. The Sanctuary credits the success of its final product to its broad planning team, including a partnership with the Lehigh Valley Center for Independent Living, which helped evaluate plans and tested accessibility during construction and before public use.

The new trail was built with a slope that averages eight percent. The accessible trail is the first phase of a larger project that will ultimately stretch more than half a mile in length and link all major visitor facilities, including the outdoor amphitheater, native plant garden, and visitor center.

Supporters for the project were many. Cyrus Klingsberg remembered how his wife could no longer accompany him on his visits, even to the South Lookout, which is so close to the parking area. When he heard plans for an accessible trail, he immediately offered his support.

Donations came from a wide variety of sources:

• Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

•Berks County Commissioners through the Community Development Block Grant Program

• Schuylkill County Commissioners

•Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development

•The family of Alfred A. Douglass III

•Cyrus Klingsberg’s gift, which was made in memory of his wife Vera Klingsberg

photo of stroller with child on trail

Parents with strollers and families with young children
are also enthusiastic users of the accessible trails



The resulting trail is now a new option that veers to the left just after passing through the trailhead “gate,” a welcoming area where volunteers greet members and other hikers. The smooth but natural pathway is 900 feet long and six feet wide— enough for two wheelchairs to pass by one another— and meanders in a wide, graceful arc through the forest.

Enhancements include benches for rest located every 100 feet, accessible trail-side restrooms, access to a secluded educational area, and improvements at the South Lookout viewing platform. Benches were designed with a handrail in the middle so people can easily slide on and off and use the rail to pull.

A top priority was to maintain the natural feel that Hawk Mountain is known for. Following the Hawk Mountain Land Management Plan, all native plantings were removed prior to construction, then stored, and replanted later. Invasive species were removed and additional native plantings were added.

All stone used to build short retaining walls as the same stone that was carefully collected during excavation for the trail and then reused on the same site, and all workers on the project were required to complete wildlife sensitivity training. This included a strong focus on reducing the spread of invasive plants.

The entrance itself received a refresher that includes dozens of native plantings and a new timber frame trailhead with wrought-iron raptor silhouettes. This area serves as the welcoming spot for visitors and members, but immediately beyond are two options on the walk to the South Lookout: the longer accessible Silhouette Trail that bends to the west or the original trail that offers a short but steeper climb.

photo of trail with accessible sign

The Silhouette Trail provides changing interpretive exhibits on raptors

Combined, the two create a looped walk that many now enjoy as well. When visitors reach the overlook, the view stretches out across the valley and across toward the Appalachian National Scenic Trail. Those who are able can continue on to more rigorous trails that link to this system. This year, the staff also designed and installed a series of seven metal raptor silhouettes that complement the entrance and add an informal educational component, thus the accessible path is now called the Silhouette Trail.

Last autumn, for example, visitors enjoyed seeing the real-life silhouettes of seven vultures of Africa, and enjoyed a simple yet informative outdoor exhibit that celebrated International Vulture Awareness Day. During the spring, the silhouettes were swapped out to show endangered raptors of Latin America. Each exhibit includes an accompanying brochure to learn more, and offers talking points for educators and volunteers to share with visitors.

Since its opening, the accessible Silhouette Trail has made an enormous difference in visitation to Hawk Mountain. For instance, during a typical autumn, the Sanctuary would once welcome only a handful of individuals who used wheelchairs or walkers. Now, the Sanctuary welcomes someone who uses a wheelchair or walker nearly every day during peak visitation. Other benefits include more families who visit with strollers, and more people who bring a senior family member.

The accessible Silhouette Trail has been well received and widely publicized, first with a standing-room-only grand opening, next with an award from the Partnership for a Disability Friendly Community, and with consistent and positive media coverage across the region and the state.

Quantum, a leading international manufacturer of wheelchairs, power chairs, and other durable medical and mobility devices, donated both a Quantum Power Chair and an ultra-light wheelchair to help increase access even further.

“This project is one of the greatest inclusionary outcomes in our entire region, if not in the entire state,” said Amy Beck, the executive director of the Lehigh Valley Center for Independent Living. Beck, who herself uses a wheelchair, explained that it’s especially difficult to find accessible outdoor spaces simply because the regulations do not yet exist. “Everyone wants to enjoy the same opportunities, but usually if access isn’t required, it doesn’t happen. That wasn’t the case with Hawk Mountain,” she explained.

For more information:

For more information on Hawk Mountain visit

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