Additions along new All-Sensory Trail stir all five senses

New trail an experience for all the senses

Guide ropes line a path that loops in a gentle circle for one-tenth of a mile. Large rocks punctuate the path. Planting boxes are set high off the ground for pedestrians to smell the herbs and feel the foliage.

Drums stand tall enough to touch. Pipe bells swing musically in the breeze.

The first All-Sensory Trail in Maryland state parks officially opened Oct. 16. Located in the Hilton Area of Patapsco Valley State Park, it is designed for the visually impaired.

Almost a year's worth of effort and consulting with experts went into every detail. Even so, it remains a work in progress.

"The more people who use it, the more ideas we get," said Fred Banks, the program director for the state Department of Natural Resources.

Banks oversaw 114 volunteers, including 74 from the Conservation Youth Corps, who built the trail last July.

The corps recruits youths to work with park managers in state parks.

The trail project took a month, from installing the guide ropes and planting boxes to correcting erosion on the path after summer rainstorms.

Still to come are the replacement of trees along the path with newer, healthier specimens and the creation of a picnic area with furniture made from recycled trees. Banks figures those improvements will be completed by this time next year.

The All-Sensory Trail is a partnership between DNR and the National Park Service. The National Park Foundation's Active Trails Program funded it with a $24,000 grant.

This is not the park service's first partnership in Maryland. That honor goes to Anne Arundel County, whose recreation and parks department built an All-Sensory Trail last year at Lake Waterford Park in Pasadena.

"Anne Arundel County had an adaptive field for children who need wheelchairs or assisted devices," said Cindy Chance, of the NPS Chesapeake Bay office. "It wanted to expand different types of access to people with mobility and/or sensory issues."

As for NPS, Chance said, "We have a big interest in making more places universally accessible for the entire family."

There is no national model for sensory trails. Pam Schirmer, of the Maryland School for the Blind, has visited a few in other states. She has attended a conference given by the American Therapeutic Horticultural Association.

"But it's really case-by-case, depending on the geography," said Schirmer, who months before the path was mapped out and the first plants were ordered, met with Banks and Chassity Seymour, DNR's project lead.

DNR staffers had basic ideas. Schirmer had examples of sensory aspects that the students liked, gleaned from the Maryland School for the Blind's gardening program that she runs.

"We didn't use a model," Banks said. "We met with the Maryland School for the Blind to determine what elements appealed to that population. We got guidance from them."

The Anne Arundel County All-Sensory Trail is shorter than Baltimore County's, laid out in a straight line rather than a circle. The path is paved while Baltimore County's is graded and made of a mixture of clay and soil to facilitate wheelchair movement.

They share common elements, however, from signage in Braille to fragrant herbs, from guide ropes to plants that are soft to the touch.

Baltimore County's trail has more. "We added sound elements," Banks said. "We brought in bright colors and birdhouses."

With a group of Maryland School for the Blind students, Schirmer field-tested the Baltimore County trail last August and again a week before the official opening. On the August visit, some of the park workers were blindfolded and accompanied the students. On her walk-through with the Maryland School for the Blind students, she brought a wheelchair for park workers to sit in and determine if the trail was navigable.

The result?

"The students loved it," Schirmer said. "They loved the smell of the herbs. They loved the musical area with drums set up high and pipe bells in different lengths. They loved the stones and rocks, some big enough to sit on."

"I love the drums. I like to play them like I play in my percussion group," one 15-year-old boy told her.

A 13-year-old boy said he wanted "to sit on the big rocks, and feel the bark on the trees."

"I love the spice smells," another teenager said.

"I love to feel the weeds and the flowers," added a fourth.

"To have the kids outside in a safe area," Schirmer said, "it was phenomenal."

For Banks, the August visit was a learning experience. "We thought that the kids would hold onto the ropes and stay on the trail. But they didn't," he said. "They were all over the place. They also liked the natural surfaces, touching the plants.

"We had to rethink. We had rocks as borders. We thought, 'Let's use some as seats.'" he said.

The All-Sensory Trail was built for year-round use.

Near the trail are the state park's nature center and nature play area, both of which use natural elements such as tree stumps for outdoor play.

"I drive by every day and both are very popular with children and families," Banks said. "They've increased traffic at the park."

He would be delighted if the All-Sensory Trail does the same.

Schirmer has the same hopes. While the trail is designed for the visually impaired, it is, like Anne Arundel County's trail, intended for a broad audience.

Schirmer lists potential users, from people in wheelchairs to children with autism, from the elderly to anyone with gross motor skills challenges and, of course, their families.

"The trail functions far beyond visual impairment. It's a huge benefit for Patapsco Valley State Park," she said. "The more people who use it, the better."

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