Bear Yuba Land Trust undertakes major effort to save the Independence Trail
Hugging the steep slope above the South Yuba River, Independence Trail winds through a mature forest of madrone, Pacific dogwood, and incense cedar. 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. Today, though, the wooden ramp that took folks to the creek is barricaded and several feet of decking have been removed to keep people out. The ramp was closed last fall due to concerns about its stability. As a result, lovers of the outdoors of all ages and mobility levels can no longer access the creek. That’s why Bear Yuba Land Trust (BYLT) is launching an effort to restore the iconic Rush Creek Ramp and other features of this beloved and universally-accessible trail.
Built and maintained by a passionate crew of volunteers, the trail became the nation’s first wheelchair-accessible wilderness trail in the 1980s. Located about six miles north of Nevada City off Highway 49, the trail meanders through property owned and managed by BYLT and California State Parks. This popular trail with a wooden switchback wheelchair ramp attracts visitors from all over the world.
A Path into the Wilds
The trail was birthed in 1969 when founder John Olmsted discovered an overgrown ditch, the perfect solution to a problem his friend with disabilities asked him to solve: to help her get into nature. He realized that 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 providing 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 that he and a group of other naturalists had scraped together to make the first down payment. 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.
As local archaeologist Hank Meals, who helped build the trail, says: “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 founder John Olmsted’s vision.” And in the words of Olmstead’s son, Alden: “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.”
Like many locals who grew up here, Caleb Dardick, Executive Director of SYRCL, has a personal connection to the Independence Trail. His father, 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.”
Restoring Independence Trail to its original glory and accessibility for more people will require multiple phases of engineering and costly construction – which means an enormous fundraising effort by our entire community. Local Rotary Clubs, FREED Center for Independent Living, South Yuba River Citizens League (SYRCL), and others are coming forward to do whatever it takes to restore access to Rush Creek and keep the trail open. You can help, too! Learn more, donate today, and get involved. Save Independence Trail: www.bylt.org.