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Stories from the valley

Travel Back in Time on the Independence Trail

Contributed by Keli Gwyn

Enterprising entrepreneurs during the Gold Rush built ditches—or canals—to bring water down from the mountains to the foothills below. The Excelsior Ditch in Yuba County, built around 1859, supplied water from the South Yuba River to hydraulic mining firms and individual miners, who willingly paid the asking price for the precious commodity.

A portion of this historic ditch has been converted into the Independence Trail, located about six miles northwest of Nevada City on Highway 49. This was the first wilderness trail in the country identified as wheelchair accessible.

The trail is divided into two sections: east and west. My husband and I hiked the Independence Trail East, an easy 2.2 miles (each way) trek beneath a canopy of trees that create welcome shade.

The first mile of the trail offers two paths. The ditch bottom, which is fairly level and smooth, makes it wheelchair and stroller friendly. The bank above the ditch is an alternative path that enables hikers to avoid muddy sections of the trail during wet weather.

At the second mile, although still level, the trail becomes narrower and is lined with shrubs and bushes that can get a bit friendly at times. We kept a lookout for poison oak, which likes to hide among the abundant foliage. Due to the prevalence of this plant, long pants and closed-toe shoes are recommended.

At two miles, the trail crosses Excelsior Ditch Camp Road. Continue along the historic ditch for another 0.2 miles until you reach the end at a steep drop-off. As you walk, you’ll get glimpse of the river below. Look at the left bank, where you’ll spot the Miner’s Tunnel inlet. The tunnel was blasted through 800 feet of bedrock in the late 1870’s, diverting the flow of the South Yuba during summer months so miners could work the main river channel.

Limited parking is provided on the east side of Highway 49. No fee is required. The trailhead is well-marked and offers restrooms. Although there are no other signs, the trail is easy to follow. If you’re interested in exploring the Independence Trail West—with its restored wooden flumes—located just across Highway 49, you’ll find more information here. Happy hiking!