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Exploring mountain trails is an experience that always yields pleasant surprises and spectacular beauty, but the effort involved in creating level, wide trails traversing such rough terrain is usually prohibitive. Off Highway 49 just north of Nevada City is a remarkable trail which provides wheelchair access to 1.5 miles of the Yuba River Canyon. The able bodied can go 2.5 miles downstream (west) or upstream (east). The west trail offers a 4.3 mile loop along a swimming trail to Jones Bar Road and then goes back up to Excelsior Canal to the beginning. This trail is made possible by some remarkable engineering from the last century.
When miners had to get water to the mines, it wasn't for drinking (most of them drank stronger stuff), it was for hydraulic mining. When gold fever strikes, it is remarkable how much work you can get out of a man. The miners built hundreds of miles of canals and aquaducts along the ridges and over the gorges of the Sierra Foothills. The ditches led to pipes (called penstocks), and the pipes led to water cannons (called monitors). The water shot from the cannon was aimed at hillsides, that in turn were washed away by the blast. The water carried the soil, sand, and gravel downhill to sluice boxes (wooden water channels) that had riffles across the bottom. The gold, which was heavier than anything else in the mix, settled to the bottom and was stuck in the riffles. It was a very efficient way to get a small amount of gold out of a large amount of dirt.
The legacy of Hydraulic mining, aside from some scarred land and a lot of mud down around Marysville and Yuba City, was the ditches running along the hillsides, with gradual descents and wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair with room to spare. This particular ditch called the Excelsior Canal carried water from the Yuba River 25 miles down to the diggins at Smartsville.
The brainchild of John Olmsted a naturalist who led efforts to preserve Northern California nature areas, open space and trails, it became a joint project of the California Department of Parks and Recreation and Sequoya Challenge (a Nevada County United Way Agency.) The trail was built with the help of numerous individual and group volunteers. The wooden aquaducts (flumes) were rebuilt to accommodate wheelchairs, and the engineering and construction was quite a feat.
The trail features waterfalls, scenic vistas, and a gentle switchback descent to a lovely mountain stream. There are restrooms with full wheelchair access at several points along the trail. It can become muddy and impassable for wheelchairs in winter and spring so call ahead if the weather has been wet.