The trail is smooth and flat, absent of roots and rocks, its hard-packed dirt only slightly dusty and lined with decaying leaves. You wouldn’t call it manicured, nothing that artificial, just well-maintained and easily navigable.
Is it any wonder, then, why they call this the Independence Trail?
Such a surface in a wild and scenic setting north of Nevada City invites people of all abilities, especially those who navigate via wheelchair, to enjoy traversing the great outdoors free of obstacles and limitations.
Ambulatory or not, nature lovers can breathe in the cedar and ponderosa pine, ogle the twisted madrone and live oak, drink in the views of the South Yuba River, experience history by trekking across the wooden platforms for flumes that, back in the mid-1800s, served as the Excelsior Ditch, which transported water 25 miles to hydraulic monitors in Smartsville.
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The Independence Trail is not the only universally accessible trail in Northern California – in recent years, state parks and trail builders have made that a priority – but it holds the distinction of being one of the first wheelchair-friendly paths, one specifically designed with that intention.
Credit the late John Olmsted. A naturalist in the mold of John Muir (he even sort of resembled him, beard and all), Olmsted bought the land decades ago, put it in a trust and eventually headed the effort to transform it.
The story goes that Olmsted was working as a docent in the Oakland Museum in 1975 when he learned about the abandoned water-carrying ditch for mining operations. He thought it would make a perfect wilderness trail.
“John definitely had a vision,” said Tony Sauer, director of the California Department of Rehabilitation, which advocates for people with disabilities. “His wife, Sally, had a daughter with a disability and wanted access to trails, so John had some passion around this.”
Years of volunteer work by nature lovers and disability rights advocates resulted in a two-pronged trail, running east and west somewhat parallel with Highway 49. It is open to everyone without resorting to the bane of outdoors lovers – asphalt paving.
From the trailhead, a soft-shoulder pullout along 49, users can choose to go left (east) or right (west) on a hard-packed dirt path at about a 1 percent grade with wooden, bridgelike flumes that extend between ridges like catwalks.
Going east is a 4.4-mile out-and-back trek, with all but the last 0.2 miles before the turnaround at Miner’s Tunnel Overlook easily accessible.
But it’s the 3-mile, out-and-back west route that really shines. That branch takes you along a twisting irrigation canal with stone walls covered with lichen, followed by flumes standing on trestles that afford gorgeous views of the river and, closer still, Rush Creek.
“I first did this trail 20 years ago and at the time it was, like, wow, impressive,” said Bonnie Lewkowicz, director of Access Northern California, a Bay Area nonprofit advocacy group for trails friendly to the disabled. “Is there still that switchback ramp that goes down to the waterfall?”
Well, yes and no.
The original wooden ramp that Olmsted and cohorts built years ago still leads down to the stream bed. But rains over the winter washed out the last section of the ramp, meaning wheelchair users now can only get close to the
“I’ve been part of the crew working on that ramp for 12 years, and many of the decking boards were rotting out,” said Warren Wittich, a volunteer who so loves the Independence Trail that he drives from his home in Fair Oaks to do trail maintenance about twice a month.
“We’ve been replacing boards on the deck there, but the creek overflowed and changed channels this year,” he said. “So that section is missing, and we’re trying to work it out with the state parks” to rebuild it.
Portions of the Independence Trail now are part of the South Yuba River State Park, but the bulk is in the hands of the Bear Yuba Land Trust, which took control from Olmsted’s nonprofit, Sequoya Challenge, after Olmsted’s death in 2011.
There’s no timetable on when repairs might be made. But even without the stream access, the trail remains a jewel – especially for those in wheelchairs.
“We like to think of them as ‘universally designed’ trails,” Lewkowicz said, “because they are not just for people with wheelchairs but, say, someone elderly who can’t do hills or someone pushing a stroller. That’s more inclusive.
“Unfortunately, there’s a perception that in order for a trail to be accessible, it has to be paved. That’s just not the case. In fact, there are a lot of people who prefer it not to be paved. It’s kind of a Catch-22, because (paving) enhances it in one way. You don’t have to worry about looking down at where you’re going. You can just look around. But there are others who want a challenge and want exercise and something that gets them going.”
The Independence Trail is almost entirely packed dirt, with decomposed granite used to augment it in spots. In the rainy season, Sauer said, the trail can get muddy and make it hard for the disabled to roll through. Too, those wooden trestles make for slippery going in the winter for all users.
So a firmer surface, such as asphalt, would probably make it easier. But the majority of trail users, Sauer said, would probably balk at paving wilderness areas. That could be one reason why many state and national parks do not have more universal-access trails, he speculated.
“When (it comes to) the wilderness, you’re going to have competing interests,” he said. “You have the interest that wants to leave it wild and rustic vs. the folks like myself who really want to get out there but can’t climb steep grades and need to have it somewhat accessible. You try to balance that.
“You can’t make every national park accessible. But they try to do a good part of balancing what’s available.”
Even such an all-access trail as the Independence has some limitations for disabled or elderly users.
They cannot, for instance, traverse a 4-mile loop along the western branch. The reason: After the trail passes the flumes and an accessible campsite and picnic area about 1.3 miles in, it narrows into single-track and leads downhill to the Jones Bar Road junction.
When you make a right for the 1-mile downhill push on Jones Bar Road to the river, it’s on a somewhat rocky fire road that has eroded in places. Fine for the nimble, but not for trail users with mobility issues. After checking out the swimming holes at Jones Bar, you keep heading right on the fire road across a Rush Creek suspension bridge.
Next comes the hardest part of the loop, even for the fully fit. Follow a sign saying “To Independence Trail” that goes nearly straight up at points. This extreme uphill lasts only 0.6 miles, but seems to last an eternity. Eventually, you reach the junction with the Independence Trail, making a left to return to the trailhead.
Lewkowicz said she knows of fit hikers with “pretty radical off-road wheelchairs” who could possibly do the loop, though the narrowness of the singletrack portion makes it dangerous.
She said users with tricked-out chairs can surprise you with their ability to tackle trails that are not officially universally designed.
“They can do some hairy stuff that most people wouldn’t consider accessible,” she said. “But they can’t get the information about whether they can get out of their car, where to park, if there’s an accessible bathroom to use. State parks, as the result of a lawsuit, have done more work providing that kind of information of their websites, like what kind of slope you'll find on the trails, what kind of surface. But when you go to (outside) websites, the information still can be sketchy.”
None of that is a problem at the Independence Trail. Well-marked and well-maintained, with a ramp and two roomy permanent bathrooms at the trailhead, it is a model for accessibility.
“I’m limited, but I do love the outdoors,” Sauer said. “So when I come upon a trail like this, I’m happy. I can go out and experience things with my family and friends, just like anyone can.”