(KTXL) — Access to nature and natural spaces is easy for most people in Northern California, but Independence Trail in Nevada County is a trail truly accessible for all.
When it was opened in the 1970s, Independence Trail was the first ADA-approved wheelchair-accessible nature trail in the United States, after naturalist John Olmsted fulfilled the wishes of his wheelchair-bound friend.
Olmsted, a docent at the Oakland Museum, was exploring California to look for a cross-state nature trail that would educate and showcase the ecological zones of the state.
During his explorations, Olmsted rediscovered the Excelsior Ditch in the 1970s, in the South Yuba River Canyon, after it had been abandoned in 1961.
The Excelsior Ditch was built between 1855 and 1863 to provide water for the Excelsior Mining and Canal Company, which operated six hydraulic mining operations in the area.
The ditch stretched along 35 miles of the upper levels of the South Yuba River Canyon and Olmsted found the wooden flumes, rock-lined ditches and relatively flat ground level as the best place to build his nature trail.
After purchasing over 1,000 acres of land, gaining funding from donors and aid from several volunteers, the Independence Trail was completed.
Shortly after the construction of the trail and the reconstruction of many of the wooden flumes, the 49ers Fire would make its way through the river canyon and destroy much of the trail.
The flumes were rebuilt, and in 2012, the Bear Yuba Land Trust took over ownership of the 207-acre Sequoya Challenge Preserve, which included the four-mile-long Independence Trail.
For decades, the iconic wooden flumes across Rush Creek along the western portion of the trail would amaze people as they would walk hundreds of feet over Rush Creek with views of several waterfalls.
In 2020, much of the western portion of the trail was destroyed, as the 705-acre Jones Fire ripped its way through the South Yuba River Canyon and other parts of Nevada County.
The destructive power of the fire has forced the closure of the western portion of the trail until funding can be secured to rebuild the wooden flumes that traversed the major crossing at Rush Creek.
In order to raise awareness about the trail, Olmsted’s youngest son Alden wrote and directed a short documentary titled “A Wild Independence: The Story of Nevada City’s Independence Trail” that aired on PBS in December 2022.
The goal of the Bear Yuba Land Trust is to work in partnership with California State Parks to rebuild the trail and eventually hand off the land to California State Parks to be added to the South Yuba River State Park.