Rush Creek Falls was one of the more unique waterfalling excursions that we've been on. Something very unique about the trail reaching the falls was that it was said to be wheelchair accessible, and that it was the only such wilderness trail in the United States. In addition to scenery that reminded us a lot of the lush kind of scenery we'd typically find in Oregon, there appeared to be a lot of heritage concerning this hike as remnants of the bygone era of the California Gold Rush was still evident here. In fact, keeping the level enough grade to enable wheelchair access would typically involve quite a bit of work and infrastructure to support, but it was because infrastructure was already in place to support the transportation of water for hydraulic mining, efforts (especially by trail founder John Olmstead and later aided by the Civilian Conservation Corps) were made to repurpose the mining infrastructure for all-access outdoor recreational use. We suspect that the name of this trail (the South Yuba Independence Trail) gained the name "independence" as a way to acknowledge the freedom of wheelchair users to enjoy the wilderness that would previously be difficult for them in most other places.
From the well-signed pullout parking (see directions below), we immediately had choices to make. It turned out that there was an Independence Trail West and an Independence Trail East. The West Trail to the right was the one that ultimately reached the desired Rush Creek Falls as well as plenty of mining relics (including a beautiful section known as Flume 28), but we also managed to fit in a brief visit to the East Trail, which featured sweeping views of the South Yuba River as well as an impressive Rock Arch. For the purposes of this write-up, we'll focus on the Independence West Trail.
So heading right from the sign boards, the trail briefly followed the high-speed Highway 49 before reaching a pretty low underpass. We had to bend over (not good if you have a bad back) and walk beneath the underpass before the Independence Trail West began in earnest. One of the first things that my mother and I noticed when we did this trail was that it was often split into two parallel paths - a lower ditch path and an upper path. The lower ditch path apparently was the wheelchair accessible route while the upper path (which often was narrower and more overgrown) tended to be more for walkers, especially if the ditch trail had flooded sections due to rains (which was the case during our visit).
After about a quarter-mile from the underpass, there was a trail junction where the descending path on the right was signposted for the Jones Bar Road. Since we knew this was a flat trail, we kept going straight. At about 0.4 miles from the underpass, we reached a sheltered lookout for the South Yuba River Overook. Here, we were able to get an obstructed view towards part of the South Yuba River. Continuing beyond this mostly overgrown overlook, the trail then meandered for another 0.6 miles through more lush scenery with the odd bridge or shack, which were probably remnants from this place's past life as a water channel for mining purposes. But at roughly a mile beyond the underpass (though I swore it took us an hour to get here suggesting it was longer than a mile), that was when things got real interesting.
The trail then went from the split dirt trails and merged into a wooden flume section. The flume was very extensive as it curved around and traversed the gorge carved out by Rush Creek. There were bars placed horizontally overhead throughout the flume, which added to the heritage effect (almost as if we were in Adventure Land or Frontier Land in Disneyland or something like that). And it was here that we were able to get views upstream towards smaller cascades on Rush Creek flanked by switchbacking wooden paths below while we also got views downstream towards more of Rush Creek's cascades tumbling away from us while the scenery opened up to reveal the lush canyon further downstream. While the cascades further downstream were numerous would be very scenic, our views of them were limited due to the overgrowth beneath the flume and Rush Creek itself.
It turned out that the best part of this Flume 28 section was on a spur wooden path continuing further upstream along Rush Creek where we were able to get a view of the cascade you see pictured at the top of this page, while descending towards the banks of Rush Creek where we could look out through the taller sections of the flume and the brink of some of Rush Creek's cascades further downstream. The part that I'm dubbing the Rush Creek Falls was best viewed from a sheltered lookout at the dead-end of the top end of this upstream extension of Flume 28, and it was probably on the order of 20-30ft tall with more smaller cascades both upstream and downstream from the main drop.
Once we had our fill of this spot, this would be the turnaround point of our hike, which would make the round trip distance a little over 2 miles according to our GPS logs. However, we made the mistake of thinking that this Independence Trail West would loop all the way around to reveal more waterfalls, but it turned out to not be the case while expanding the overall hike to nearly 4 miles with a serious uphill section from the lower bridge over Rush Creek by the end of the unpaved Jones Bar Road back up to the Independence Trail West. That extra hike turned our expected 60- to 90-minute hike into an unexpected 2.5-hour trek. The disappointing thing about our elongated hike was that there would be no more waterfalls to see, but there was access to the South Yuba River, which a sign suggested that it was possible to panhandle for gold in that river.
Back at the trailhead, we then made a brief out-and-back hike on the Independence Trail East to check out what Arch Rock was all about. Like the Independence Trail West, the East Trail also featured parallel sections of track. The scenery really made a turn for the dramatic at about a half-mile from the trailhead where we traversed a bridge that revealed rapids and cascades on the South Yuba River down below as well as the Hwy 49 and the canyon's contours surrounding this scene. About 0.1-mile beyond this scenic stretch was when we finally reached the Arch Rock, whose span was big enough to allow us to walk through without ducking. We wound up spending about 35 minutes on the East Trail before regaining the car.
While it took my mother and I over 3 hours to hike the entire loop on the West Trail as well as the brief out-and-back East Trail to Arch Rock, we suspect that the trail to Rush Creek Falls could easily be done in less than 90 minutes. This longevity and time commitment was why we gave this trail a 2.5 in the difficulty rating even though it wasn't that strenuous physically given how flat the trail was. Since my Mom and I did this hike just when a rain storm had stopped, the trail was indeed muddy and the wheelchair sections tended to have lots of puddles (which seemed to bring out these interesting little red lizards or salamanders or something). I'd imagine that wheelchair users would have to wait for the trail to be dry before it would be possible for them to go on this trail without getting stuck-in-the-mud so to speak.
And even if you're not a wheelchair user, we recognized that this would also be a pretty family-friendly trail. Indeed, you can spend as little or as much time as you'd like on this most memorable of waterfall experiences to be had.
The most scenic part of the Independence Trail West had to have been the Flume 28 section, which featured this really cool bridge around and over Rush Creek
This was the beautiful flume section on the Independence Trail East that offered us a sweeping view of the South Yuba River and the surrounding canyon
The goal of our brief out-and-back hike on the Independence Trail East was this Arch Rock, which was worth the detour as it's not often you get to combine a natural arch with a waterfall in one go
Nearby Rush Creek Falls was the historic town of Grass Valley, where the architecture here seemed to bring us back to the 19th century with a bit of a modern twist
Walking by the handicapped parking spaces for the South Yuba Independence Trail as we were headed to the trailhead
We first headed on the Independence Trail West, which initially followed Hwy 49
We then went underneath this underpass below Hwy 49 to get started on the Independence Trail West
Following the wheelchair-friendly Independence Trail West
The trail frequently split up into an upper foot trail and a lower ditch tail, which was more meant for wheelchair users
The Independence Trail West was surrounded by very lush scenery that kind of reminded me of the kind of conditions Julie and I encountered when hiking in Oregon
Since Mom and I were hiking in the rain, the lower ditch trail tended to be muddy and full of puddles, which I'd imagine would not be a good time for wheelchair users
Approaching the South Yuba River Overlook on the Independence Trail West, which was roughly 0.4 miles from the underpass
This shack or shed appeared to be one of the mining relics from the California Gold Rush era in the mid 19th Century
With all the water on this trail, Mom and I noticed a bunch of these red lizards (or salamanders?) slowly scrambling across the Independence Trail
The Independence Trail West continued to vacillate between single-track sections like this and the split sections all surrounded by lush and green scenery
Another one of the flooded sections we had to get across (while not accidentally stepping on the red lizards) on our way to the Flume 28 section
This was the start of the scenic Flume 28 section, which very much reminded me of the Fushimi Inari Taisha or Shrine in Kyoto, Japan
As you can see from this photo, the Flume 28 section was quite extensive yet very different from anything else we've experienced in all our waterfalling experiences
Looking upstream from the flume over Rush Creek towards smaller cascades and more wooden structures adjacent to them
Looking downstream from the flume over several more drops of Rush Creek's cascades
Looking downstream towards more open scenery from the Flume 28 section
This was probably about as much of the lower cascades on Rush Creek that we could see from the flume, which was a shame because some of those lower cascades promised to be even more scenic than the lone cascade we did get a clean look at
For some reason, they boarded up this access further upstream along Rush Creek, and it turned out that what was behind this board was the best part of the Flume 28
Approaching the sheltered overlook offering us the only part of Rush Creek Falls that we were able to get a clean look at
In addition to the upper cascade of Rush Creek Falls, there were more drops further downstream
Contextual look at just that upper drop of Rush Creek Falls
Mom and I actually kept walking beyond Rush Creek to complete the loop of the Independence Trail West, but little would we realize just how much longer that made this hike
A little further from Flume 28, there was this little picnic area, and in hindsight, this should have probably been our absolute turnaround point
Much of the trail beyond the Flume 28 was pretty featureless unless you're into just getting more immersed in the lush temperate forest scenery
This part of the Independence Trail West seemed a bit too narrow for wheelchair access, and this definitely hinted to us that we made a mistake in extending the hike in a loop
This was the bridge across the lower portions of Rush Creek, and from down here, it was clear that there were no other waterfalls on Rush Creek to be seen
This was the part of the steep uphill climb we had to make in order to regain the Independence Trail West from Jones Bar Road
We then briefly walked on the Independence Trail East after regaining the trailhead
The most memorable part of the Independence Trail East was this flume section where the scenery really opened up
Looking down from the scenic part of Independence Trail East towards rapids and cascades rushing loudly on the South Yuba River
Finally making it to the Rock Arch on the Independence Trail East
Mom heading back to the trailhead across the scenic section again
Closer look at the rushing rapids and cascades on the South Yuba River way down below
Rush Creek Falls and the South Yuba Independence Trail was about a little over 9 miles from the town of Grass Valley and maybe just about 6 miles from the town of Nevada City. Grass Valley was about 32 miles east of Yuba City along Hwy 20 (taking us roughly a little over 30 minutes) and about 24 miles north of Auburn along the Hwy 49 (probably taking around 30 minutes as well). Yuba City was roughly 45 minutes drive (43 miles) north of Sacramento while Auburn was on the order of 35 minutes drive (33 miles) northeast of the state capital. We'll pick up the driving directions from Grass Valley since that seemed to be the nearest hub of touristic developments in this part of Nevada County.
From Grass Valley, we continued driving in the northeast direction for just under 4 miles along Hwy 20 (more like a freeway) to its junction with Hwy 49 in Nevada City. We then headed "north" (more like west) on the two-lane Hwy 49 for the next 6 miles or so. There were signs that gave us the heads up for the South Yuba Independence Trail, but due to the high speed nature of this road, it was really easy to zip on by. We were successfully able to park in the first long pullout area (which had wheelchair accessible spots), but if this part was full, we noticed that there was also another overflow parking area just around the bend further north along Hwy 49. If you make it all the way to the bridge over the South Yuba River, you've gone too far. Overall, this drive was on the order of 30 minutes or less.
One last thing we should mention about this parking area is that when we tried to leave to get back on the Hwy 49, given its high rate of speed and the adjacent blind turn, we were cognizant of the inherent danger of this situation. So, we had to make sure that no one was zooming by before we gunned it back onto the road in the direction of Nevada City and Grass Valley. We did what we could to ensure this by rolling down our windows, turning the car stereo down, and listening for the sound of any oncoming traffic before getting back on the highway.
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