Everyone has the right to bask in the sun on a beach and to breathe in that salty sea air. However, many people who are mobility challenged may not have access to beaches because they can’t maneuver their wheelchairs or scooters in the sand.
Good news: These days, a growing number of beaches in the United States use Mobi-Mats, portable rollout beach access mats that provide a firm and safe surface over sand or dirt. Some mats may extend to the edge of an ocean or lake (although many do not, because high tides may destroy the materials in the mats). Some beaches provide wide-wheeled beach wheelchairs or, more rarely, wheelchairs with flotational wheels and armrests.
Following is a list of some of the best accessible beaches in the United States that make use of accessible technology.
Pro Tip: Make sure to contact the pertinent website or the visitor’s bureau at your destination to ask about parking lot availability, distance, mode of accessible transport to the beach, rental costs of chairs, and the existence of Mobi or other mats.
1. Siesta Key Beach
Siesta Key, Florida
Siesta Key is located on Florida’s Gulf Coast near Sarasota, and its famous powdery white sand beach often appears on lists of the Best Beaches in the United States. You’ll find a 400-foot Mobi-Mat stretching from the paved parking lot to the shoreline. At Siesta Key and other lifeguarded Sarasota beaches (including Lido Key, Longboat Key, Venice, Casey Key, and Manasota Key), beach wheelchairs can be obtained from the lifeguard towers free of charge every day.
Pro Tip: The beach wheelchairs at Siesta Key beach are manual, meaning that you will need someone to push them.
2. Miami Beach
Miami Beach, Florida
Miami Beach, located on a barrier island between the Atlantic Ocean and Biscayne Bay, is directly across from the city of Miami. It is a great destination for wheelchair-accessible beaches because it offers Mobi-Mat paths and free rentals for both manual beach wheelchairs and motorized beach wheelchairs.
You can swap out your own wheelchair for the beach version at Beach Patrol (1001 Ocean Drive) and South Pointe Park. There are more than 20 entrances to the Miami Beaches with Mobi-Mats or IPE (an exotic hardwood that is naturally resistant to rot and decay and is hard-surfaced) boardwalks.
In 2016, the Sabrina Cohen Foundation launched its free Adaptive Beach Days program in Miami Beach to provide access to the beach and ocean for disabled individuals, veterans, children with special needs, and the elderly.
Also check out Hollywood Beach, about 15 miles farther north along the coast. Hollywood Beach was the first destination in Florida to offer wheelchair-access mats leading to the beach. There are eight access areas to the water for wheelchair users along the famous Broadwalk.
3. Destin Beaches
Destin is a resort town located on the Gulf of Mexico. With Panama City Beach directly to the east and historic Pensacola Beach directly to the west, there are a plethora of accessible beaches from which to choose. Many beaches in and around Destin offer wooden walkways and ramps to the beaches. The city of Destin itself offers free beach wheelchairs, but reservations are recommended.
The Destin Fire Control District provides a no-cost Beach Wheelchair Program to allow residents or visitors access to the beach from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
4. Myrtle Beach
Myrtle Beach, South Carolina
Myrtle Beach in South Carolina has some 60 miles of coastline along the Atlantic Ocean. While the city of Myrtle Beach has 114 public beach access points, only nine of these are fully accessible or have a beach access ramp, so make sure that you find the right one.
5. Virginia Beach
Virginia Beach, Virginia
Virginia Beach, on the Atlantic Ocean at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, has been cited as one of the Top Ten Most Accessible Beach Towns in the world. Grommet Island Park is considered the first place in the United States to have a wheelchair-accessible beach. There are free chairs available there, as well as a completely accessible playground and accessible walkways on the sand. There is also a flat, smooth, and accessible 3-mile-long boardwalk along the shore, with shops, hotels, restaurants, and beautiful views of the Atlantic Ocean.
6. Oxnard Beach Park
Oxnard Beach Park in Oxnard, about an hour northwest of Los Angeles, contains one of the country’s oldest accessible beaches, with a 900-foot-long concrete path weaving among the sand dunes and leading to the beach. Called Rehab Point Path, this path was built more than a quarter of a century ago, thanks to the efforts of disabled World War II veteran Ed Hunt.
7. Newport Beach
Newport Beach, California
On Newport Beach (about 45 minutes south of Los Angeles), beach wheelchairs can be borrowed from the lifeguard stands under Newport Pier and at Corona del Mar State Beach. Employees at both sites will help people in and out of the chairs. There are also several miles of smooth concrete paths on the boardwalks and promenades along Newport Beach and Balboa Island; most are accessible.
Pro Tip: The California Coastal Commission has a map and list of beach wheelchair locations on all of the state’s beaches.
8. Hanauma Bay
Although the beach at Hanauma Bay on Oahu is located at the bottom of a steep cliff (created by the collapse of an ancient volcano), it is still one of the more accessible beaches in Hawaii and a wonderful spot for snorkeling. There is a tram that runs from the rim down to the beach which is included in the price of admission. Beach wheelchairs are available free of charge at the beach kiosk on a first-come, first-served basis. Reservations must be made to enter the Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve (be sure to check open hours and days).
Other accessible beaches on Oahu include Waikiki Beach, Ala Moana Beach Park, Kailua Beach Park, and Fort DeRussy.
There are also a number of accessible beaches on the Big Island, Maui, and Kauai. Lydgate Beach Park and Poipu Beach on Kauai offer all-terrain wheelchairs. Kealia Pond Coastal Boardwalk on Maui is located within a national wildlife refuge. The Big Island has at least 11 accessible beaches. Check the Hawaii Visitors Bureau for additional advice.
Where There’s A Wheel, There’s A Way
Beach lovers can independently find destinations that are accessible. However, travelers might well consider booking travel through a company dedicated to folks who have more mobility needs. One such company is accessibleGO, a travel platform for people with disabilities (which also provides a community forum). Other companies that offer accessible tours or that include certified accessible travel agents include Wheel the World, Sage Traveling, and Planet Abled.
Access to the beaches is vital for those who are mobility challenged, but accessible parking, washrooms, and curb ramps are also necessary for beachgoers. And, while the Americans with Disabilities Act mandates that public beaches be accessible, there are few specific directives.
Tamar Sherman of Northport, New York, found that the mat at her local beach had “a curb in front of it so it was inaccessible to people who used wheelchairs,” and that it was impossible to get into the wheelchair beach buggy on her own. “It takes more than equipment to make beaches fully accessible,” she says, “It also takes workers who are trained in their use.” When beaches provide total accessibility to those who need it, every person can experience the joys of basking in the sun.
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