Hugging the steep slope above the Wild and Scenic South Yuba River, Independence Trail winds through a mature forest of Pacific madrone, mountain dogwood and incense cedar. For decades, busloads of eager school children, some in wheelchairs, have come here to explore Gold Rush era flumes and discover Sierra newts in Rush Creek every spring.
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 located on the Land Trust’s 207-acre Sequoya Challenge Preserve.
Founded by the late Naturalist John Olmsted and built and maintained by a passionate crew of volunteers, the trail known for its dramatic wooden 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,” said local archaeologist and trails writer Hank Meals, who helped build the trail decades ago.
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,” 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.
The South Yuba River corridor provides year-round habitat and migratory routes for many mammals, birds, amphibians and reptiles that make the river canyon their home. In general, riparian habitat accommodates a greater variety of wildlife than any other habitat type in California. Animals who are known to make their home in the area of this Land Trust preserve include deer, mountain lion, coyote, gray fox, bobcat and bear.
On a path to wildness
In 1969, John 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 as a safe passage for people with limited sight who used 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 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 trail 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,” 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 Rush 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, meeting today’s stringent standards to enhance accessibility, developing 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 is in the middle of a trail campaign to raise money and awareness about important projects like Independence Trail. A peer-to-peer on-line crowd funding campaign is available at http://donate-trails.causevox.com/ and will help BYLT reach its goal of raising $15,000 for the initial engineering report.
“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 BYLT’s Land Access Manager Shaun Clarke.
A profound vision
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.
Independence Trail Pioneers – Photo Credit: Hank Meals
Photo Caption: Early visitors of the Independence Trail heading out for an adventure. Today the trail has fallen into disrepair and the wooden ramp to Rush Creek is closed. BYLT is launching a community campaign to save this important California treasure.
Building Independence Trail – Photo Credit: Hank Meals
Photo Caption: In 1983, local Archeologist Hank Meals captured this image while working with the crew “Tin Woodsmen” with Naturalist John Olmsted building the Independence Trail. Crews of volunteers turned a Gold Rush era water conveyance system of ditches and wooden flumes into the nation’s first wheelchair accessible wilderness trail appropriately named Independence Trail.
Rush Creek Ramp – Photo Credit: Laura Petersen
Photo Caption: BYLT closed the iconic wooden ramp to Rush Creek on the Independence Trail last fall, after the structure was deemed unsafe. A community campaign is underway to raise money for an engineering report that will help guide the restoration.