John Plaggmier
John Plaggmier
Project Manager

You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone: Honoring Nevada City's Independence Trail

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The old saying, “you don’t know what you’ve gone 'til it’s gone” perfectly describes my realization of how special the Independence Trail was for our community. Lighting struck repeatedly throughout the night on August 17th, igniting dry fuel in our foothills refuge of Nevada City and across the state of California. The Jones Fire grew throughout the steep, brushy canyon along the Yuba River over the next few days, as did the record high temperatures. When evacuations stabilized and the smoke started to settle, I was finally able to process the significance of losing access to our town’s notoriously accessible trail.

Living up to its name, Independence Trail is the nation’s first ADA accessible wilderness trail. The trail is located several miles outside of downtown Nevada City and spans 2.2 miles on the East Trail and 2.5 miles on the West Trail. It is incredibly popular for its flat and smooth surface, views of the wild and scenic Yuba River, wooden flumes spanning deep gorges, and historical significance as the old Excelsior mining ditch. It’s a family-friendly trail that accommodates all ages and abilities, from stroller to walker and all in between. This quality is particularly unique for our area that consists primarily of steep, narrow, and rocky trails that hug the rugged mountainsides.

The trail has a rich history prior to its latest reincarnation. It began as the Excelsior ditch originally built between 1854 and 1859 by hundreds of Chinese laborers to bring high-pressure water from the Yuba River for hydraulic gold mining. The ditch fell out of use once hydraulic mining was outlawed in the 1880s for its devastating effect on the landscape and rivers. The ditches were repurposed as agricultural irrigation canals until the 1960s when they were largely abandoned for the better part of the decade. John Olmstead rediscovered the ditch and its adjacent path in 1969. The Independence Trail was built in the 1970s by John Olmstead, Sally Cates, and dozens of local volunteers who were passionate about making their love of nature inclusive to all.

It makes perfect sense that the vision and support for this historic trail would come about in late 1960s America when environmentalism was peaking, along with a return of wounded Vietnam veterans experiencing mobility issues. In 1964, The Wilderness Act created the legal definition of wilderness in the United States and protected millions of acres of federal land. This act was administered for the use and enjoyment of the American people with the criteria of minimal human imprint, opportunities for unconfined recreation, and educational, scientific, or historical value. This act served as a blueprint for wilderness conservation across the country. Once The Americans with Disabilities Act was finally passed in 1990 the question of whether use and enjoyment were extended to those who are differently-abled came into stark relief. As most of us compassionate environmentalists would conclude, it was found that wilderness areas could be made accessible without compromising the values of preservation.

The Independence Trail is currently closed due to public safety hazards caused by the Jones Fire, but the Bear Yuba Land Trust, Cal Fire, State Parks, and others are already collaborating to rehabilitate impacted portions. This devastating event has provided an opportunity to rebuild even better with plans to recontour parts of the hillside as a preventative measure to avoid the frequent washouts from heavy rains. As I look back imagining the potential Olmstead and others saw in the historic ditch along the wooded hillside, I look forward with optimism to many more years of inclusivity and enjoyment on the Independence Trail.