About Rush Creek Falls
Rush Creek Falls was one of the more unique waterfalling excursions that we’ve been on.
I say this because the trail leading down to the falls was said to be wheelchair accessible, and that it was the only such wilderness trail in the United States.
The most picturesque waterfall on Rush Creek (pictured above) was probably on the order of 20ft or so.
However, the rest of the waterfall fell mostly unseen behind overgrowth beneath the former hydraulic flume at about 50ft or so.
In addition to Rush Creek Falls, we also witnessed waterfalls on the South Yuba River to further extend our time here.
The Heritage of the South Yuba Independence Trail and Wheelchair Access
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.
After all, throughout our venture, we saw remnants of a bygone era from the California Gold Rush.
In fact, keeping the level enough grade to enable wheelchair access would typically involve quite a bit of work and infrastructure to support.
I believe that infrastructure was already in place in the form of the work to support the transportation of water for hydraulic mining.
This ultimately facilitated the efforts of trail founder John Olmstead to make it wheelchair-accessible when he sought to repurpose the mining infrastructure for all-access outdoor recreational use.
Olmstead’s work was later aided by the Civilian Conservation Corps.
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.
In addition, one of the first things that my mother and I noticed when we did the South Yuba Independence Trail was that the path was often split into two parallel paths – a lower ditch path and an upper path.
Since we happened to do the hike right after a rain storm had stopped, that lower ditch path tended to be flooded.
I wondered if that ditch was just there for heritage reasons since it might have figured into funneling the water towards the wooden flumes further downstream.
Given all the water that was pooling in the ditch path, it seemed to bring out lots of these interesting little red lizards or salamanders or something.
Nevertheless, I’d imagine that wheelchair users would have to wait for the trail to dry before it would be possible for them to go on this excursion without getting stuck-in-the-mud so to speak.
Hiking the South Yuba Independence Trail
From the well-signed pullout parking (see directions below), we immediately had choices to make.
It turned out that the South Yuba Independence Trail went in two different directions – 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).
The East Trail featured sweeping views of the South Yuba River as well as an impressive Rock Arch.
For the purposes of this write-up, we’ll start with the detailed trail description of the Independence West Trail leading us to Rush Creek Falls and the scenic Flume 28.
It turned out that it took my mother and I over 3 hours to hike the entire loop on the West Trail (more on this later) as well as the brief out-and-back East Trail to Arch Rock.
However, we suspect that the trail just to Rush Creek Falls and back could easily be done in less than 90 minutes.
This shorter out-and-back option was why we gave this trail a 2.5 in the difficulty rating (instead of a higher score) even though it wasn’t that strenuous physically given how flat the trail was.
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.
Trail Description – the South Yuba Independence Trail to Flume 28
So heading to the right from the sign boards at the trailhead, the Independence West 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.
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.
Such structures were probably remnants from this place’s past life as a water channel for mining purposes.
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.
Trail Description – Flume 28 and Rush Creek Falls
The Independence Trail West 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.
It was 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.
At the same time, 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 beyond.
While the cascades further downstream were numerous and 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.
Ultimately, this was 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, 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 near the top end of this upstream extension of Flume 28.
This uppermost tier of Rush Creek Falls 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.
Trail Description – optional extension of the South Yube Independence Trail into a loop
When Mom and I did the Independence West Trail, we made the mistake of thinking that this trail would loop all the way around to reveal more waterfalls.
Unfortunately, it turned out to not be the case.
Instead, we wound up expanding the overall hike to nearly 4 miles.
This included 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.
Indeed, the disappointing thing about our elongated hike was that there would be no more waterfalls to see.
However, there was access to the South Yuba River, where a sign suggested that it was possible to panhandle for gold in that river.
Trail Description – the East Trail to a Rock Arch and views of the South Yuba 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 cliff-hugging bridge.
Along this stretch, the scenery 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.
Rush Creek Falls resides in the South Yuba River State Park near Nevada City in Nevada County, California. It is administered by the California Department of Parks and Recreation. For information or inquiries about the area as well as current conditions, visit their website.
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.
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).
However, 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.
It’s 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.
For geographical context, 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.
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