I discovered Nelder Grove in 1969. John Muir
discovered it in 1875, and
John Nelder discovered it a bit before Muir. It’s safe to say that the
Indians of the Sierra saw it hundreds of years before any of the rest of
Muir was hiking in the Sierra Nevada a bit south of what is now
Yosemite National Park and a few miles east of the future California
Highway 41, seeking redwood trees. He spotted the grove from nearby Fresno
Dome, and when he hiked to the trees, he found Nelder, a retired miner,
living in a rough cabin. The grove was first called Fresno Grove, but the
name was later changed to honor the old pioneer.
|The Bull Buck tree is one of the largest Sequoias in
existence, but unlike the more famous
in Kings Canyon National Park and
in Sequoia Park, it is accessible only after a half-mile hike from the end of a dirt road. It is 247 feet tall, 84 feet in circumference at chest height, and is estimated to be 2700 years old.
Nelder is one of eight relatively small
giant sequoia groves north of
the Kings River (there are dozens of groves, some with hundreds of trees,
south of the Kings). The best known is the Mariposa Grove in Yosemite
National Park. Nelder, located about five miles south as the hawk flies,
is probably the least known. Nelder Campground is located about 10 miles
off Highway 41, and the last few miles is a rough dirt forest road.
The first thought that strikes the visitor arriving at Nelder
Campground is "they cut down the trees!" And indeed, dozens of
the huge trees were cut between 1888 and 1892, by the Madera Flume and
Trading Company, which operated three mills in the area.
Cutting one of these forest giants was a week’s work. Because of the
brittleness of the wood, it was necessary first to build a bed of branches
to soften the fall. Then, standing on springboards notched into the thick
bark 15 to 30 feet above the ground, the logger would chop out the
undercut and cut through a thousand years' growth with saws 25 feet or
more in length.
Once the tree was down, it was stripped of its bark, and logs of workable
size were bucked out. Much of the wood above the first hundred feet or so
was left on the ground, where it can still be found, as solid as the day
The Madera Flume & Trading Company fell on hard times, and was
taken over by the Madera Sugar Pine
Company., which became the most successful
and longest lived logging operation in the southern Sierra. Although this
outfit lived up to its name and cut mostly sugar pine, it did produce a
small amount of redwood lumber from some of the logs left on the ground by
Despite the logging operations, which were unfortunately careless and
wasteful, many giant trees, too large to cut and work with, still stand;
and Nelder Grove is also notable for the many young Sequoias which
flourish in the area.
Today most of the signs of this pre-conservation era logging have been
erased by nature and the careful management of the United States Forest
Service. But the huge stumps still stand as a monument to the
determination and ingenuity of man, and as a reminder that nature’s
resources are not given to us in endless supply.
—Dick Estel, 1970
I wrote the above for a book I made of my Nelder Grove photos, the trees
and stumps have remained pretty much unchanged. But there have been many
changes in the grove and in my life. My age has doubled, to 60. The little
girls I photographed next to the trees are grown up and have husbands and one has two sons.
I have grandsons, college age and elementary school age (the older one has been to Nelder many
times; the younger made his first trip in 2001).
When we first started going to Nelder Grove, three roads led in and
out; now it is on a dead-end spur off a rough forest road. The other two
roads are closed and are being reclaimed by the forest. Outside the
campground, the countryside was nearly impassible due to the dense growth
of young trees and fallen wood. It was nearly impossible to see the big
stumps and trees that are nearby. In the 1970’s a project was begun to
clear out a lot of smaller trees (mostly cedar, fir, and pine), restoring the
forest to a more open, natural condition that permits walking and seeing.
On my first visit to the Bull Buck I had to stand within 20 feet of the
tree and tilt my head way back to see the top; now you can stand far
enough away to get the entire tree in the viewfinder of your camera.
Trails have been built from the campground through the woods, although one
is officially closed.
The grove also boasts a 10 foot square relief map of the area and a display of 19th century logging practices.
The area continues to hold its fascination for me, and
I hope you will enjoy this attempt to convey some of its wonder.
The last update was written
in 2001. Now in 2009 another update is due. In
October, 2008, I decided I wanted to make at least one more trip to the
Old Granddad Tree, located in the upper part of the grove, accessible now
only by foot on the old, abandoned dirt road that I first drove on at the
time of the logging
Granddad is one of the most rugged giant redwoods I have ever seen,
located on a gentle slope above the road. After a short walk up an old
roadbed, one could see the entire tree from near the base to its unique
top. It was surrounded by a number of young redwoods, none over 15 feet
tall, and marked by a sign that read “Old
Granddad and the Grandkids.”
probably been 20 or 30 years since I was last there, but I was not
prepared for the changes that had taken place all over the area. Joined by my daughter Jennifer and her husband Rod, we parked near the
campground and started up the old road. After a fairly steep climb, the
road levels off, but until we reached that spot I did not realize
we had gone that far, because several landmark trees along the way were
hidden by new
growth. I am talking about giant redwoods, that were clearly visible from
the road during my early years going to Nelder, that are now almost
impossible to spot. You have to know where to look, then you can see
glimpses of the big red trunk or the top through the trees that have grown
was even worse at the Old Granddad Tree area. When I first drove into that
area I came around a bend and saw a small basin below the road with six
or eight big stumps, a huge dead redwood snag (100 feet tall or so),
and another equally large
snag above the road on the opposite side. Arriving there this time, I
did not recognize anything, until we came to the upper
snag, after we had already passed by the other landmarks. Again I was finally
able to pick out the stumps, the lower snag, and another large snag
through the trees.
was a sign pointing up a new narrow trail to the Old Granddad, but I
walked right past the giant tree at first. Jennifer and Rod were ahead of me and had seen a broken sign that some
other hikers mentioned to them, that read “and.” Looking at it, I
realized it was all that was left of the sign that had been there nearly
40 years earlier, that used to read “Old Granddad and the Grandkids.”
Well, the kids are all grown up, and you can only get a look at the top of
the Old Granddad, and not that good a look. It was very disappointing to
me, but a good lesson in how the
recovers from fire, cutting and other events. The stump basin had been
burned over a number of years before I first saw it, and was full of small trees and brush, so it’s not
surprising that it is now full of trees that are 30 feet tall, and obscure
is still a fascinating area, but I am glad that I took those
photos of the way it was when I first saw it nearly 40 years
--DE, May 2009
changes at Nelder Grove have continued, although this section will include
some that happened even before my updates of 2000 and 2008.
the mid-90s, there was a campground host on duty at the campground during
the peak summer months. The longest serving were John and Marge Hawksworth.
He was instrumental in getting much of the trail construction done, as
well as the viewing path at the Bull Buck, improved the 3-D topographical
map, and in general did much to preserve and protect the area.
granddaughter, Brenda Negley, spent many summers with them, and is now the
camp host and chief advocate for the grove. She started an organization,
Friends of Nelder Grove, supervises a
website, and works to educate people about the history and ecology of
the area. In 2016 she published a book on Nelder Grove. You can contact
her on the website for ordering information. (A second edition was
released in 2018.)
trees grow, trees fall, brush accumulates, and changes, both good and bad,
are unending. Most years fire crews cut small trees and pile up forest
debris for winter burning along the major trails. The logging display area
is kept in good condition, and despite some re-growth, the area around it
is still open enough to offer views of huge stumps and abandoned sequoia
logs that were hidden to visitors in the early 1970s.
trails lead to the Bull Buck, a half mile route through the forest, and
the old road, which is a quick quarter mile walk. The Chimney Tree Trail,
a one-mile loop, starts near the campground and comes out just below the
Bull Buck. Along the way are a number of large trees and stumps. A short
trail leads from the logging exhibit to the Big Ed, which stands just
across California Creek and up the hill from the lower camp area. Brenda
has created a trail guide and placed signs along these trails.
old road to the upper part of the grove is now the Graveyard of the Giants
Trail, and in some places it's hard to realize it was ever drivable.
Sadly, one of the nicest spots in the Grove, Nelder Basin, is pretty much
impossible to get to. A few hundred yards upstream from where Nelder Creek
crosses the Graveyard trail, there is a nice meadow, with a huge sequoia
log leaning out over it like an upward slanting diving board. Beyond this
the creek runs through a nearly level area with four or five magnificent
trees strung along the stream. Back in the day we were able to drive into
this spot. I tried to walk in there with my daughter Jennifer a few years
ago, and despite considerable effort, we could not even get to the meadow,
due to fallen trees and brush. There appears to be little hope that this
will be cleared away.
October of 2014
I photographed my first GREAT grandchild, Colton
Upshaw, at the Bull Buck, and in 2016 we hope to add a picture of his
brother Jack. (Jack
finally made it to Nelder Grove in June 2017.)
all these changes, Nelder Grove remains a very special place, and I will
continue to visit there as long as I am able.
is not a report based on my own observations, but rather a summary of
things I learned from a talk given by the woman I consider the
"guardian of the grove," Brenda Negley. Her grandparents, John
and Marge Hawksworth, were campground hosts for 20 years, and Brenda spent
her summers there as child and teen. More recently she has been the host
herself, and established a non-profit
organization to promote and protect the grove. She spoke at the
September meeting of The
are 277 mature stumps in the grove, many more than I realized. The very
first tree taken down was the Forest King, felled not for lumber, but for
display. It was felled roots and all by undermining it with water. A slice
was taken out and exhibited around the country. A sort of round cabin
created with the bark from this slice was owned for a time by P.T. Barnum.
Eventually it ended up on a farm in New York and its ultimate fate is
are about 102 mature sequoias in the grove, but this number may drop below
100. The Railroad
Fire in 2017 burned into part of the grove, causing extensive damage
in some areas. The Shadow of the Giants Trail is closed and many of the
trees there are badly burned. Some have no green foliage and may not
recover. Even more dismaying on a personal level is the fate of the Old
Granddad. The huge horizontal limb near the top is gone and the top of the
tree is badly damaged. The Bull Buck Tree, the Chimney Tree Trail, and the
area around the campground escaped the fire.
was a fire in Nelder Grove in 1920, which is believed to have killed the
three trees that now stand as big snags at the Graveyard of the Giants.
The stumps in the small basin below the road at that location were
obviously burned but not destroyed. (See photos in the top two rows
Nelder's cabin was located in Nelder Basin, just upstream along Nelder
Creek from the Graveyard of the Giants Trail, which was a drivable road
during my first visits to the area. The Railroad Fire burned into this
area but apparently the damage is minimal.
on the pictures for a larger view (pictures open in new window)
|A young cedar tree has grown up
through the base of this old stump in Nelder Grove
||The stump basin when you could see the stumps
||Two dead snags flank a young sequoia
|Dead snags in Graveyard of the Giants
||The Old Granddad Tree
A mature sequoia stands beyond this
|Visitors in 1969 by the upper portion of a sequoia that was cut in the 1890’s
||In '69 the author was agile enough to
climb this stump after triggering his camera's self-timer
Brenda Negley, Number One Friend of Nelder Grove, with
hiker Carolyn Amicone
||What we could see of the Old Granddad
about Nelder Grove
of Nelder Grove
of the Giants Trail
Hike in Nelder Grove