An image from A Wild Independence shows John D. Olmsted on Independence Trail, the nation’s first identified handicapped-accessible wilderness trail.

Founded by my father, the late John D. Olmsted (1938 –2011), in the 1970’s and early 1980’s, the Independence Trail transformed a historic gold mining ditch in Nevada City, California, into the nation’s first identified handicapped-accessible wilderness trail. It is now one of the most popular trails in the area, contouring along wooded hillsides, passing live streams, and crossing deep gorges on restored wooden flumes that once transported water for hydraulic mining.  
The trail was Dad’s answer to a friend’s request: “Find me a level trail in the wilderness,” wheelchair activist Gay Blackford told him when the two met in Golden Gate Park in 1965, when my father was the park’s botanist, and Gay was attending college in nearby Oakland. 

It is a “must see” piece of mining history. The Independence Trail utilizes the old Excelsior Ditch, built around 1859 to bring high pressure water for hydraulic mining. The ditch tapped the South Yuba River more than two miles upstream and ran all the way to what is now the dam at Lake Wildwood, then by the China Ditch to the Smartsville mining district, 15 miles west. 
It’s no wonder that the Independence Trail was named “Best Trail” of 2013 by Sacramento Bee readers. And it’s no wonder that the trail has a special fascination for me.  I was born in 1971, and made my first documentary film, ‘My Father, Who Art in Nature,’ about reconnecting with my father, who had been absent most of my childhood, saving pygmy trees and creating nature trails in Northern California 

Now more than 20 years later, I’ve chosen to reconnect again through film, A Wild Independence – this time focusing on his creation of the Trail. The desire to preserve and promote wild lands seems to be something that all of us Olmsteds want to do!   

Alden Olmsted with his father John D. Olmsted at Yosemite.

Editor’s Note:  In recent years, the Trail has hit on hard times. In late August of 2020, a series of lightning-strike fires ignited dry brush near the end of Jones Bar Road, and burned nearly the entire west section of the Trail, including the most visible historic section, Rush Creek Flume. FEMA funds cover only 75% of the rebuilding so Bear Yuba Land Trust, which owns the property,  is asking for donations to make up the final 25%.”   To learn more: 

Alden Olmsted is a California born filmmaker, illustrator, and photographer, and son of naturalist John D. Olmsted.  Born in Sonoma in 1971, Alden attended Biola University in 1989 but dropped out to start his own BMX bike company, Homestead Bicycles. Twenty-seven years later, Alden decided to tell the story of the tiny bike company, tracking down the 30 Bikes he made. The resulting film,  30 Bikes: The Story of Homestead Bicycles is now on Amazon and Apple TV, and a book about the process A Virus Ate My Movie! was completed and published during the recent pandemic. Alden lives in Nashville, TN.