Billed as the nation’s first wheelchair-accessible wilderness trail, the Independence Trail traces its origin back to 1969. That’s when naturalist John Olmstead discovered an overgrown ditch on his land, and realized it was the perfect solution to a problem that plagued a disabled friend — she longed for a wheelchair-accessible trail so she could explore and enjoy Mother Nature. So Olmstead set out to improve the old Excelsior Ditch that once brought water from the Yuba River to the Smartsville mining district, and create an accessible wilderness space for her and other wheelchair-users. The trail opened over a decade later in the 1980s, and although parts of it are in need of a facelift today, the Independence Trail is still a nice place to enjoy an accessible slice of nature in California’s historic Gold Country.
The trailhead for the wheelchair-accessible Independence Trail is pretty easy to find. From Nevada City, head north on Highway 49, towards Downieville. About six miles up the road you’ll spot a lone sign that marks the trail, with a small parking lot on the right, just around the corner. There’s one accessible space in the small lot, with ramped access up to the trailhead.
There’s also an overflow dirt parking lot around the curve, however the only way to access the trail from that lot is via several flights of stairs. And although it is possible to park parallel in the overflow lot, you’ll have to wheel along the highway to connect to the accessible trailhead; which is not recommended because of the blind curve and the traffic. Best bet is to just parallel park in the dirt area directly across from the accessible parking space, if that space is already taken. Although you’ll still have to cross the two-lane highway, it’s easier to see oncoming traffic from that vantage point.
There’s a small interpretive sign at the trailhead, along with accessible restrooms. You can go in either direction — the trail to the right is the west section, while the trail to the left is the east section. Both trails are accessible for at least part of their length, and both are a great choice for folks with kids in tow.
Independence Trail West
To the west, the accessible section of the Independence Trail follows the ditch bed, with a parallel path along the bank. From the trailhead, the hard-packed dirt trail winds around under a low overpass, which has a clearance of about 57 inches. It’s perfectly doable for wheelchair-users, but some tall slow walkers may need a bit of assistance.
The shaded path is lined with vegetation, with a decent wildflower show in the spring. There’s a viewpoint with a small shelter just up the trail, and benches to sit and rest along the way. At the half-mile mark you’ll spot a picnic table on the bank, with ramp access up from the trail. This trail is noted for its many flumes — which are now converted to bridges — which are just up ahead.
There’s barrier-free access over Flume 25 and Flume 26, which are located at the the .8 and .9-mile marks, respectively; but Flume 28, which crosses over Rush Creek is the most impressive. From that flume you’ll get a good view of the waterfall that cascades down to the creek below, and a nice river view from just about any point on the bridge. At one time there was also ramp access down to the water, but that section of the trail is now closed due to damaged and missing portions.
The accessible part of the trail ends at the 1.1-mile point, just after you cross the bridge. There are several accessible picnic tables on a level dirt pad, near what was once an accessible camping platform. It’s a nice place to take a break and enjoy the view, or stop for a snack or even a picnic lunch. Bear in mind there are no toilet facilities there, so plan ahead before you hit the trail.
Independence Trail East
The east side of the Independence Trail is also wide and level, which makes it a good choice for wheelchair-users and slow walkers. Like the west side, the accessible part of this hard-packed dirt trail runs along the dirt bed of the ditch. And although there are a few rocks and roots here and there, most are easy to dodge with a bit of assistance. You’ll also notice a lot less traffic on this stretch of the trail
The east section of the trail winds through the forest and crosses over a series of flumes converted to bridges, and offers good canyon and river views. Shortly after the last long flume the trail passes under a rock arch; and after that the access slowly erodes, as the hard-packed dirt surface gives way to a softer gravel surface that may be difficult for some folks to navigate. Slowly the trail becomes more overgrown, and it loses its access at about the one-mile point. Go as far as you can on this two-mile trail, and turn around if it becomes inaccessible to you.
As far as maintenance of the trail is concerned, that’s now in the hands of of the Bear Yuba Land Trust (BYLT), who recently commissioned an engineering study on the best way to replace the damaged ramps on the west side. It’s hoped that BYLT will move forward with the repair in the near future.
For now the Independence Trail offers wheelchair-users and slow walkers an opportunity to hop off the highway and get up-close-and-personal with nature. Keep in mind though, the trail gets pretty muddy in the wet season, so try to visit in the summer or fall for optimal wheelchair access.