Skip to content
Using Trails

Ron Griswell of HBCUs Outside Is Bridging Gaps to the Outdoors

By: Ron Griswell, Amy Kapp
February 1, 2024

Ron Griswell has been connecting people to the outdoors since his days in college. He is now the founding Executive Director of HBCUs Outside. | Photo courtesy Ron Griswell
Ron Griswell has been connecting people to the outdoors since his days in college. He is now the founding Executive Director of HBCUs Outside. | Photo courtesy Ron Griswell

“Outdoor access is critical because it’s a human right.”

—Ron Griswell

What I do

I show up in the world as an explorer on a journey to caring more about myself, my community and the environment. Outside of my duties as a husband and father, I spend my time enriching myself to be the best leader I can be as the executive director of HBCUs Outside, based in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, and as a board member of Boyz N The Wood. In between moments, I practice mindfulness through photography, and chase both sunrises and sunsets. And if I’m not holding a camera, these hands prefer a paddle to explore local North Carolina waterways.

Favorite quote

“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.”

—Neale Donald Walsch

Person I admire

The kind of people I admire are the parents that have found harmony in taking care of their children with disabilities and still find time to show up for themselves and in their profession. As someone still struggling to find that harmony, they are superheroes to me.

Group walking in the woods - Photo courtesy Ron Griswell
Photo courtesy Ron Griswell

Why I started using trails

I started using trails because they reconnect me with the curiosity I had as a child exploring the thicket behind my grandparents’ home.

My favorite rail-trail

My favorite rail-trail is the Dinkytown Greenway in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

How trails impact communities

I believe trails impact communities the most through improving public health and enhancing quality of life. There are clear benefits to wellness, the economy and the environment.

Ron Griswell walking in snow - Photo courtesy Ron Griswell
Photo courtesy Ron Griswell

Why outdoor access is critical

Outdoor access is critical because it’s a human right. The profound physical and mental health benefits, as well as boosts to the local economy, should be shared and experienced by all, especially those impacted by historical inequities.

A meaningful life story

A meaningful story that speaks to my “why” took place when I started leading outings for my peers in college at North Carolina A&T State University. Most of my fellow students were new to outdoor recreation, and they had a desire to try something new—so I bridged the gap. It now fills my heart with joy to see that a lot of the students who joined me on my outings are still getting outside, and some are even sharing their love of nature with others. One of them recently mentioned to me that because of his participation in the experiences, he now makes it a priority to take his friends and family outside. I truly believe that sharing your love of the outdoors has the power to radically transform people and usher them into being stewards of the land.

Why I support RTC

I support RTC because I share their value in believing that everyone has the right to safely walk, bike and be active outside—especially in areas that are accessible to them and their families.

Group walking along water - Photo courtesy Ron Griswell
Photo courtesy Ron Griswell

Another meaningful life story … that reshaped my mentality

Another meaningful life story that I often share is of my time spent on a 15-day whitewater rafting expedition in the Grand Canyon with Mr. Bob (who I’ll introduce in a bit). It was, and still remains, one of the most challenging expeditions I have ever embarked on. It was also the most rewarding, because within it I found a deeper meaning and reason for sharing adventures with others.

It was 2014, and I was a guide with Wilderness Inquiry, a nonprofit in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Grand Canyon expedition was a gift from the organization to Mr. Bob to celebrate his birthday and many years as a participant of their adventures. Mr. Bob has cerebral palsy, he uses a motorized wheelchair, and he communicates via a talk board. This trip was an excursion exclusively for people who had disabilities.

I was personally tasked with being the personal assistant (PA) to Mr. Bob—a role I had never filled before. I didn’t know what would actually be required of me. I just recall being happy to partake in a dream trip to immerse myself within one of the seven natural wonders of the world—220-some-odd miles for 15 days, exploring slot canyons and camping alongside the Colorado River. In my mind, this trip was for me. However, I was in for an awakening.

All my personal time was being swallowed up by helping Mr. Bob. Then, one day I hit my metaphorical brick wall. We were already halfway through the trip, and it was a morning like most others. I woke up Bob to help him get ready for the day. After getting him dressed, I took him to breakfast to eat while I returned to our tent to pack up. After loading the raft with our personal gear, I returned to eat, only to find out that breakfast had been packed away. I was tired, frustrated and, now, overwhelmingly hungry.  As opposed to communicating my frustration, I unfortunately wore disappointment in my facial expressions. Mr. Bob picked up on it, and for the first time since meeting him, he spoke. With tears on his face, he broke down and started apologizing—repeating, “I’m sorry.” His attempt at speech shook my core. It forced me to step outside myself and reshape my mentality. I was too wrapped up in my personal enjoyment and counting the moments that I was missing, rather than appreciating the journey for what it was. The journey was not some grand, self-fulfilling expedition rafting the Colorado River, but instead a journey alongside and for others to serve and support their needs. Needless to say, after that moment, my mentality completely shifted.

The awareness that was born in that moment became an inflection point within my life. I believe that getting outside for myself makes me happy, but getting outside with, for, and in service to others fulfills me. The former is more easily obtained, and thus fleeting. The latter, however, requires sacrifice, struggle, pain even, but the void it fills is vast and everlasting. The solo or personal trips I’ve embarked on are not anything to scoff at as they allow me to recharge and self-reflect, which is important, but that doesn’t compare to when I’m the reason that others are capable of transforming. To this day, I have found no better gift than serving others through the medium of the outdoors—being a catalyst for them to see with new eyes, being a spark that ignites their curiosity, or simply being the vehicle for their enjoyment and participation.

Rails to Trails magazine highlights a member or special partner in our national trail community in each issue. Special thanks to Ron Griswell, executive director of HBCUs Outside, for taking the time to share with us what motivates his love for trails and the outdoors.

Ron Griswell
Ron Griswell

Ron Griswell is the founder and executive director of HBCUs Outside.

Amy Kapp | Photo courtesy Amy Kapp
Amy Kapp

Amy Kapp serves as Editorial Director and Editor-in-Chief of Rails to Trails magazine. Kapp frequently writes about the impact of, and vast historical and cultural connections made by, America's rail-trails, parks and public lands.

Donate today!


Everyone deserves access to safe ways to walk, bike, and be active outdoors.