Topher Downham wants everyone to enjoy the outdoor beauty of Boulder. That includes people with disabilities - like him.
“Just go for it," Downham said. "Get rid of that fear and just go for it.”
Downham is a local expert on trail accessibility in the Boulder area. He is an outreach coordinator for City of Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks , and even wrote a trail guide for visitors with disabilities.
“We’re always trying to listen to what the population is saying, and how to make it better for every user group,” he said.
Downham has personal experience navigating trails in a wheelchair.
“In my last semester at CU, I went for a swim late one night with a buddy, and ended up smacking my head on the bottom,” Downham explained.
The impact broke his neck, and he is now a quadriplegic. It was a difficult adjustment for a man who always loved spending time outdoors.
“I was angry, I didn’t want to be in a wheelchair,” he said. “I found that getting out and pushing the wheelchair really hard really helped me. Sitting there looking and the mountains and seeing the nature go by, I felt amazing. I felt like it really healed me.”
Over the years, his expertise on trail accessibility led to volunteer opportunities for City of Boulder Open Space and Parks, then later – a full-time job. Not only did he write the trail guide, Downham leads nature hikes for people with various disabilities, hand cycle rides through the trails and works to welcome visitors to the parks.
On Thursday, Downham led some colleagues on a hike Thursday for a training session. Most were able-bodied but still used a wheelchair to better understand the experience for visitors.
“I was excited, I’ve been waiting to get out on one of these hikes for a long time,” said Casey Bries, an Education and Outreach Coordinator for Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks.
“It took a little while to get used to going up some of the softer surfaces and some of the hills and just when I thought I had gotten the hang of how I needed to position my body… then a curveball, you got rocks in the way” she said. “Rocks that seem like little pebbles when you’re walking over them, but can make like a huge difference in a wheelchair.”
Downham’s trail guide is designed for any visitor, not just wheelchair users. It describes the level of accessibility for various trails and sites, the challenges a visitor will encounter on those trails, as well as the culture, history, and habitat of the area.