Hugging the steep slope above the South Yuba River, approximately six miles north of Nevada City off Highway 49, Independence Trail winds through a mature forest on property owned and managed by Bear Yuba Land Trust (BYLT) and California State Parks. A popular hiking destination, the trail with the wooden switchback wheelchair ramp attracts visitors from all over the world to experience one of Nevada County’s many wonders.
For decades, busloads of school children, some in wheelchairs, have come here to learn about the natural world and look for newts in Rush Creek. Today, the wooden ramp that took people of all mobility levels to the creek is barricaded due to the ramp’s safety issues. BYLT is launching a community-supported effort to restore the iconic wooden Rush Creek Ramp and other features on the historic and universally-accessible Independence Trail. Already, local rotary clubs, FREED Center for Independent Living, South Yuba River Citizen’s League (SYRCL) and others are coming forward to do whatever it takes to restore access to Rush Creek and keep the trail open.
“The Independence Trail isn’t worth saving because of one man’s dream conceiving it, or because of a few people’s hard work building it, it’s worth saving for every reason that parks and trails are important at all – public access to the wilds of nature. That a repurposed mining ditch from an unfortunate era of scouring California’s hillsides became a trail for wheelchairs to roll free in the wilderness is just icing on the cake. Save this trail!”
-John Olmsted’s son, Alden
In 1969, Olmsted discovered the overgrown ditch, the perfect solution to a problem his friend with disabilities asked him to solve: help her get out into nature. He had found the ideal place for a rugged wheelchair trail into the wilderness. The 100-year old rock-lined ditches were the perfect width for maneuvering a wheelchair or serving as a safe passage for vision-impaired trail users using walking sticks. The historic integrity of the ditches could be preserved and recycled to serve a new purpose. It wasn’t until a decade later that Olmsted and a group of other interested naturalists had collected enough money to begin converting the trail.
“The historic and natural landscape is worth millions”
-John Olmsted, 2005.
A regular fixture on the trail, John Olmsted considered himself a John Muir disciple with a passion for natural history. It was not uncommon for him to stop mid conversation and call attention to a bird song or drop to the ground to appreciate a wildflower. The tall, thin, bearded naturalist with a crumpled hat was regularly seen clipping dead branches away from the trail or replacing rotted flume planks. He always carried along his repair kit: a pack containing a bow saw, hammer and nails, scrap metal and long handled loppers to keep the trail in check.
The trail known for its dramatic wooden flumes became the nation’s first wheelchair accessible wilderness trail in the 1980s. Independence Trail memorializes the historic Gold Rush-era Excelsior Canal through it’s ditch and berm sections, bridges, wooden flumes, overlook decks, and a long wooden ramp providing wheelchair access to Rush Creek. The trail also serves as a memorial to Olmsted, who died in 2011, at the age of 73, after a long fight with cancer.
“Thanks to the Independence Trail, so many people with disabilities, like my Dad, enjoy the thrill of visiting the beautiful Yuba canyon.”
-Caleb Dardick, Executive Director of SYRCL
In 2012, the non-profit group Sequoya Challenge (founded by Olmsted and his wife, Sally Cates) transferred ownership of 207 acres – including sections of the Independence Trail and the Rush Creek Ramp – to BYLT. In recent years, the ramp has fallen into disrepair and was closed because of safety concerns regarding the structure’s stability. Because of this, outdoor lovers of all ages and mobility levels can no longer access the creek.
Restoring Independence Trail to its original glory, enhancing the accessibility to more people, developing more interpretive panels, and re-opening the ramp at Rush Creek will require phases of engineering and costly construction, supported by an enormous fundraising effort from the entire community.
“This trail is forward-thinking and inclusive. With some fine-tuning and hard work we can attract even more users with limited mobility as well as the general population. I’m sure that other communities already envy what we have and our commitment to John Olmsted’s vision”
-Hank Meals, local Archaeologist who helped build Independence Trail
BYLT has begun working with Linchpin Structural Engineering based out of Truckee to prepare a engineering plan. This plan will include recommendations for construction of the Rush Creek ramp and other flumes, and all other necessary trail improvements leading to the ramp; the cost for completing the engineering study is $15,000.
For the next phase, BYLT will need up to $750,000 for everything from demolition of the existing Ramp structure and replacing it, to improving the entire western side of the Independence Trail. A Request for Proposal (RFP) for the Rush Creek Ramp construction project resulted in three bids from local contractors. Once the engineering plan is complete, BYLT will allow time for the contractors to develop final bids.
The Independence Trail Restoration effort is in need of local support. The initial need is $15,000 to complete the engineering work. Gold Rush ditches and canals originally used for water conveyance to the mines were not designed for recreational purposes, yet today they offer unique outdoor experiences, revealing environmental niches and views seldom seen by conventional trails.
BYLT is a private, non-profit, member-supported group promoting voluntary conservation of the region’s natural, historical and agricultural resources in the Bear and Yuba watersheds of the Sierra Nevada foothills.