A Wild Independence Gives a Second Life to Nevada County’s Independence Trail 

A conversation with filmmaker Alden Olmsted on his new documentary about the first wheelchair-accessible trail in the country, built by none other than his father, John Olmsted. 

A new documentary that is making appearances at film festivals throughout the West features a hiking destination unlike many others: Nevada County’s Independence Trail. 

A Wild Independence, produced by Alden Olmsted, tells the story of the first identified wheelchair-accessible hiking path in the United States. It was built by Olmsted’s father, John Olmsted, in the 1970s and 80s along Excelsior Ditch, a product of the Gold Rush that diverted water from the South Yuba River for hydraulic mining.

Flume 28 about Rush Creek Waterfall – image: Steve Hills, via The Union

The trail consists of several wooden flumes, but the focal point is Flume 28, which is over 500 feet in length and crosses Rush Creek above a waterfall. A decaying, switchbacking boardwalk leads to the creek for visitors to picnic, cool off, and take photos of the historic flume. At least, all of this was the case up until August of 2020, when the Jones Fire ripped through the Rush Creek area and destroyed every flume on the Independence Trail. 

These are the flames in which the film begins. 

“We first visited the trail about a week or so after the fire,” Alden Olmsted told me over the phone in late January, days after his film debuted at the Wild & Scenic Film Festival. “Maybe less – the embers were still smoking.” 

Talks of making a film first started in the fall of 2020 as a way to raise attention – and funds – for the trail’s rebuild. The restoration project is estimated to cost $6 million, according to Olmsted, and is being spearheaded by the conservation organization Bear Yuba Land Trust. 

“We started shooting the film in May of 2021,” Olmsted said. “We wrapped up filming in July and started the edits; rough cuts that took about six or seven weeks. We then received feedback and, as any filmmaker knows, continued tweaking right up until whichever film festival it was going to be at said hey, we need the film tomorrow.

“That’s when the tweaks stop,” he said.

Those perpetual tweaks didn’t edit out the harsher realities of the trail’s current state and origin. Along with discussion about the destruction caused by the fire, the film also provides historical context for what was lost when the Excelsior Ditch was first built. 

“The Gold Rush brought the complete annihilation of an old and ancient culture that had this amazing relationship with the land,” said Shelly Covert, spokesperson for the Nevada City Rancheria Nisenan Tribe, in the film. As gold was excavated in the Sierra Nevadas, Indigenous people were pushed off their land and watched the scars of mining take hold. Covert’s website discusses the long-lasting effects of the Gold Rush on the local environment and people. 

The Excelsior Ditch is certainly part of that history, as it remained a functioning mining operation on Nisenan land until the late 1960s. 

Only once the ditch and the wooden flumes were reclaimed for use as the Independence Trail did the memories from these Gold Rush-era relics begin to fade. 

“The trail helped turn the negative effects of this mining into something more positive,” said Olmsted.

Wheelchair use on Independence Trail – photo credit: Hank Meals via Bear Yuba Land Trust

 One of the more notable aspects of the trail’s build was its accessibility to wheelchairs while maintaining traditional hiking features like dirt trail and access to wilderness away from roads. The trail meandered through a mixed hardwood and conifer forest and provided glimpses of the South Yuba River Canyon below. It consisted of flat ground and wooden boardwalks that were smooth enough to use a wheelchair on, but avoided the use of asphalt. 

The inspiration for this came from Gay Blackford, friend of John Olmsted (the trail’s founder) and wheelchair user and disability rights activist. In the 1960s, Blackford told Olmsted to find “a level trail in the wilderness” for her to use. This comment stuck with Olmsted who would, a few decades later, bring Blackford’s vision to fruition. 

“Dad really believed in the importance of spending time in nature,” Alden Olmsted told me. “I believe that too, and I think that your health is actually benefited by time in nature. So if that’s true, every person, no matter their ability, needs the opportunity to access nature for their health, whether it’s for your soul, mental, or emotional health.” 

Rush Creek Ramp – image: courtesy of Bear Yuba Land Trust

Though John Olmsted died in 2011, he is still heavily featured in the film, in part due to his fastidious documentation of the building process. Many of the photos and videos he took during the trail’s construction are included in A Wild Independence.

“As scattered as Dad was, he saved the right things,” laughed Alden Olmsted as he recollected his father’s documentation. “The fact that he saved all the film and photos from the building of the trail – it’s just amazing.” 

These glimpses into the construction show the joy and hard work of the creation of Independence Trail, and help articulate the place it continues to hold in the Nevada County community. It also emphasizes just how much was lost with the Jones Fire.

The most complicating factor in the restoration process is that the trail is on two types of land: public and private. It travels through South Yuba River State Park and Bear Yuba Land Trust land, which means that emergency government funding has been tricky to obtain for all the sections of damaged trail. 

“Having two different ownerships on this trail is a very complicated thing,” said Olmsted. “It wouldn’t be that complicated if it was just a section of trail that some local volunteers can clean up once a month or something, but that’s not the case.”

The state park was approved for Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funding after the fire, but Bear Yuba Land Trust was rejected. This means that some sections of the trail have guaranteed funding, while other sections like Flume 28 do not. 

According to Erin Tarr, Executive Director of Bear Yuba Land Trust, the organization is currently in the appeal process to either gain FEMA funding or have the state park take Flume 28 and the winding boardwalk down to the creek into their funding ownership. There is no indication as to when a decision on the appeal will be made.

The release of A Wild Independence is meant to bring more attention to this process, and Olmsted is hopeful that as it is featured at different festivals and on broadcasting services, it will do just that. 

“This is a story of people coming together,” said Olmsted. “And when people come together and sacrifice their sweat and their bodies in pursuit of a wheelchair nature trail, it’s hard to keep a story like that down.”

John (right) and Alden (left) Olmsted – image: courtesy of Olmsted family

For more information on the film and where it can be viewed, visit bylt.org/a-wild-independence.  

Claire Carlson writes about conservation and the environment for Sierra Nevada Ally and for various other publications.  She has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Nevada, Reno in International Affairs and a master’s from the University of Montana in Environmental Studies, where she focused on environmental writing. Support her work for the Sierra Nevada Ally.

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