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.
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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