Hugging the steep slope above the South Yuba River, Independence Trail winds through a mature forest of madrone (Arbutus menziesii), Pacific dogwood (Cornus nuttallii), and incense cedar (Calocedrus decurrens). 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.
But today, the wooden ramp that took folks of all mobility levels to the creek is barricaded and several feet of decking removed to keep people out. It’s too dangerous to use. Bear Yuba Land Trust (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.
Founded by the late Naturalist John Olmsted and built and maintained by a passionate crew of volunteers, the trail known for its dramaticwooden flumes became the nation’s first wheelchair accessible wilderness trail in the 1980s.
Located approximately six miles north of Nevada City, off Highway 49, the trail meanders through property owned and managed by BYLT and California State Parks. A popular hiking destination, the trail with the wooden switchback wheelchair ramp, which looks more like an art sculpture, attracts visitors from all over the world to experience one of Nevada County’s many wonders.
“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,” said local Archaeologist and trails writer Hank Meals, who helped build the trail.
The trail memorializes the historic Gold Rush-era Excelsior Canal and includes ditch and berm sections, bridges, wooden flumes, overlook decks, and a long wooden ramp providing wheelchair access to Rush Creek. Every year, volunteer work parties, organized by BYLT and South Yuba River Parks Association (SYRPA) Volunteer Warren Wittich, help keep the ditches and wooden flumes free from forest litter but lack the funding for big infrastructure improvements.
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!,” said John Olmsted’s son, Alden, who remembers his dad’s patching the flumes with flattened coffee and bean cans hammered down with big flat head nails.
On a path to wildness
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 sight impaired trail users using walking sticks. The historic integrity of the ditches could be preserved and recycled to serve a new purpose.
A decade later, Olmsted returned with enough money he and a group of other interested naturalists had scraped together to make the first down payment.
“The historic and natural landscape is worth millions,” said Olmsted in 2005. A newer wheelchair accessible trail at Yosemite Falls can’t compete with the weathered, wild state of Independence Trail, which boasts far fewer crowds.
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. Olmsted died in 2011, at the age of 73, after a long fight with cancer.
Like many locals who grew up here, Caleb Dardick, Executive Director of SYRCL, has a personal connection to the Independence Trail. As a kid growing up on the Yuba River, the rail fulfilled a dream of his, of taking his father, who used a wheelchair, to visit river swimming holes. The late Sam Dardick, was a disability rights activist and Nevada County supervisor who worked alongside John Olmsted and other volunteers to build the trail.
“I’ll never forget the first time we rolled down that smooth trail along the river canyon edge, over the new flume and down the remarkable switchback Ramp to the creek.
“Thanks to the Independence Trail, so many people with disabilities, like my Dad, enjoy the thrill of visiting the beautiful Yuba canyon.”
~ Caleb Dardick, SYRCL
We must keep the trail open and well-maintained so that people with disabilities and their families can always enjoy this piece of heaven, visit the creek – and one day make it all the way to the river’s edge for a cool dip in the water,” said Caleb Dardick.
In recent years, the ramp has fallen into disrepair and was closed last fall because of safety concerns regarding the structure’s stability. A great diversity of outdoor lovers of all ages and mobility levels can no longer access the creek.
Community support needed
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.
Restoring Independence Trail to its original glory, enhancing the accessibility to more people, and to meet today’s more stringent standards, 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.
BYLT has begun working with Linchpin Structural Engineering based out of Truckee to prepare a structurally-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.
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.
“People can feel the magic and connect to a different time and place when hiking the Independence Trail. This ramp provides unique access for people of all mobility levels and we need to get it back,” said Land Access Manager Shaun Clarke.
Hank Meals was on the original Independence Trail work crew called the “Tin Woodsman” that in 1983 reclaimed the overgrown ditch and broken, rotten flumes.
“It was challenging work especially with John’s insistence on using 19th century tools and methods and his uncanny habit of appearing out of nowhere for an impromptu critique. But it was worthwhile,” said Meals.
Gold Rush ditches and canals originally used for water conveyance to the mines were not designed for recreational purposes yet today offer unique outdoor experiences, revealing environmental niches and views seldom seen by conventional trails. Easy grades make the trail accessible to a wide spectrum of users.
“John’s vision to convert a ditch to a trail suitable for wheelchair-users was and is profound and his determination and endless hustle made it a reality. We would be small-minded and foolish to drop the ball now,” said Meals.
The Independence Trail Restoration effort is in need of local support: donations of cash, services and materials, or of labor are currently being sought. The initial need is for $15,000 to complete the engineering work. Anyone who wants to help can contact BYLT.
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.