By Dakota Parks for Visit Florida
Nestled between the crystal-clear waters of St. Joseph Bay and the sugar-sand beaches of the Gulf of Mexico, the William J ‘Billy Joe’ Rish Recreation Area provides a barrier-free experience to the great outdoors.
Rish Park, encompassing 100 acres, was uniquely designed in the 1970s for individuals with disabilities and their families, and the park was managed by the Florida Agency for Persons with Disabilities from the 1980s until late 2021 when it joined Florida’s network of state parks.
Surrounded by longleaf pines, palm trees and towering sand dunes along the peninsula of Cape San Blas, visitors of Rish Park can immerse themselves in nature through birdwatching, hiking, fishing or swimming. Accessible boardwalks stretch across the entire park, granting access to a mile of white sand beaches along the Gulf, all the way to a tunnel leading to a kayak launch on the serene, smooth waters of the bay.
The park boasts a wide array of mobility devices, including beach wheelchairs, motorized beach wheelchairs and accessible floating wheelchairs for patrons to cruise in style down to the beach or to take a dip in the Olympic-sized swimming pool featuring a wheelchair ramp. In the near future, a concession stand will open with equipment rentals for kayaks, canoes and paddleboards, and eight newly renovated and fully accessible cabins will accommodate up to 100 guests.
When Amanda and Tim Warr recently visited Rish Park, they were moved to tears by this “mecca for those with disabilities.” Amanda is a special education teacher and Tim is a retired mechanic and Special Olympics Coach. They are both Georgia natives who have been married for seven years and love to travel, eat, visit the beach and explore nature together. However, when Tim was diagnosed with a terminal illness that left him wheelchair bound, they struggled to find an accessible outlet to the beach.
“I’m so new to all of this,” Tim said. “I’ve only been in a wheelchair for the past six months. My condition, primary pulmonary hypertension, makes it hard to walk long distances without a wheelchair. It takes all the breath out of my lungs. Discovering Rish Park just meant the world to us. My mother-in-law is also disabled, and she was able to ride down to the beach in a wheelchair and fish with me. Our family sat on the beach and cried from happiness together. It meant so much to feel the sand, water and sun and to spend that time with my family, because it might be the last time that I get to see the ocean with them.”
For J.R. Harding, a well-known ADA advocate, author, FSU faculty member and quadriplegic for over 38 years, Rish Park has been a sentimental location for family vacations, holidays and even the site where he proposed to his wife. As an outdoor enthusiast, Harding views Rish Park as a catalyst to become a national model of outdoor accessibility and a space that reimagines what outdoor access could be for people with disabilities. Harding alongside The Friends of Rish Park and a coalition of advocates, families and individuals with disabilities are working to expand and re-envision Rish Park’s accessible experiences.
“I grew up camping, hiking and playing sports, so it was painful for me to miss those activities after my accident,” Harding explained. “Until I stumbled across Rish Park back in 1998—this inclusive place where I can enjoy the outdoors without having to worry about my adaptive needs and where we can all enjoy this incredible Panhandle experience without barriers. The Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990 did not include outdoor accessibility, so Rish Park has been a leader in inclusive spaces for quite some time. I am really excited about this new partnership with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, and I cannot wait for the renovated cabins to reopen so members of the disabled community can stay in them again. I believe we finally have an organization who wants to love Rish Park the way we do and who wants to maintain its purpose of greater inclusion and expansion of the outdoors for folks with disabilities.”
David Jones, founder of SportsAbility Alliance, a non-profit organization with a mission to enhance lives through accessible, inclusive recreation and active leisure has been a longtime advocate for Rish Park and has used the park over the years as a site for accessible recreation events and strategic planning sessions. After using sports and recreation for his own rehabilitation after a hunting accident which left him with permanent paralyses, Jones became dedicated to helping others improve their lives through a community-based, therapeutic recreation program.
“Rish Park is a hidden treasure that I wish more people knew about,” Jones said. “The park doesn’t attract big crowds like other beaches, so you can really enjoy the serenity of nature. People with disabilities can go there without feeling like a sore thumb while struggling on the beach or using their wheelchair, which can be intimidating and embarrassing to some. When you go to a place like Rish Park, you just belong. At SportsAbility, we host events and create programming [at places like Rish Park] to help people with disabilities build confidence and self-esteem and to show them that they can do anything with a different mindset, technology, tools, or the assistance of other people. Life goes on. And when the general public sees people with disabilities enjoying life and being active, doing things like scuba diving, water skiing, boating, hunting— that supports the whole concept of inclusion and acceptance. So, recreation becomes a very important tool for better living and well-being.”
When You Go…
William J ‘Billy Joe’ Rish Recreation Area 6773 Cape San Blas Road Port St. Joe FL 32456 850-227-1876
Additional Accessible State Parks in Northwest Florida
Tarkiln Bayou Preserve State Park – Pensacola
With over 4,000 acres of Panhandle beauty, the Tarkiln Bayou Preserve is home to four species of endangered pitcher plants as well as other rare and endangered plant species. Located in Pensacola, this preserve offers hiking, wildlife viewing and picnicking along a half-mile ADA accessible trail. The Tarkiln Bayou Trail consists of concrete sidewalk and raised boardwalks which meander through wet prairie, titi and cypress forests along the route allowing visitors to birdwatch and spot carnivorous White Topped Pitcher Plants along the trail. Benches along the trail provide areas for reflection, and when the trail ends, the observation area provides a scenic overlook of Tarkiln Bayou, a brackish water bayou connecting to Perdido Bay. 2401 Bauer Road, Pensacola, 850-492-1595
Falling Waters State Park Campground – Chipley
Tucked off the beaten path in Chipley, Falling Waters Park features Florida's highest waterfall, a 100-foot-deep, 20-foot-wide cylindrical sinkhole with steep limestone walls and cascading spring and rain-fed waters that disappear into a cave at the bottom. Visitors can catch stunning views on the accessible, raised boardwalk that overlooks the bottom of the waterfall and loops around to the fern-covered sinkholes on the Sinkhole Trail. The park also features an accessible trail for guests to picnic by the two-acre freshwater lake or stroll through the paved trail that meanders through the butterfly garden with native plants and migrating butterflies. 1130 State Park Rd., Chipley, 850-492-1595
Topsail Hill Preserve State Park – Santa Rosa Beach
With 22 tent campsites, 156 RV sites and 32 bungalows/cabins to choose from, Topsail Hill Preserve State Park is a glamping and camping paradise surrounded by three miles of white sand beaches, three coastal dune lakes and sprawling coastal forests with 15 miles of hiking trails. The Beach Tram trail and the Campbell Lake Bike trail are both accessible and paved, making them perfect for either a bike ride or casual stroll among the longleaf pine trees. Visitors can enjoy easy access to the beach from the campground using the wheelchair-accessible trams and boardwalk overlooking the water— or take a dip in the pool which features a powerchair lift. Beach wheelchairs are also available for free at the ranger station. 7525 W. County Highway 30A, Santa Rosa Beach, 850-267-8330
St. Andrews State Park – Panama City
With the Gulf of Mexico on one side and St. Andrews Bay on the other, St. Andrews State Park is a nature-lover’s paradise featuring several accessible overlooks over Gator Lake, Buttonbush Marsh and several elevated boardwalks to the beach. For the more adventurous, the wheelchair accessible Shell Island Ferry departs hourly to the 7-mile-long barrier island that is only accessed by boat. Featuring a small board walk, Shell Island is a nature-preserved island, so there are no restrooms, shade, or food available. Beach wheelchairs are available at the ranger station in the main park. 4607 State Park Lane, Panama City, 850-708-6100
Dr. Julian G. Bruce St. George Island State Park – Saint George Island
On a barrier island facing Apalachicola Bay, this park offers visitors a little strip of paradise to immerse themselves in nature. The park features sections of mobility mats along the drive (at pulloffs #1 and #8) and sections of East Slough and Sugar Hill Beach areas. Visitors can spot osprey, bald eagles, American oystercatchers and egret along East Slough trail, a one-mile boardwalk leading to an overlook of the bay. The park also boasts a wide variety of mobility devices including two motorized beach wheelchairs, three standard beach wheelchairs, a floating wheelchair that can be used in the surf with the assistance of a companion and a new motorized wheelchair that is built for off-roading on the park’s nature trails. 1900 E. Gulf Beach Drive, St. George Island, 850-927-2111
*For more information about accessibility within each Florida state park, please call the park ahead of your visit; many parks undergo routine maintenance and redevelopment.