Original 1970 Essay
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 us.
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.
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 it fell.
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 its predecessor.
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
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.
A young cedar tree has grown up through the base of this old stump in Nelder Grove
Dead snags in Graveyard of the Giants
The stump basin when you could see the stumps
The Old Granddad Tree
Two dead snags flank a young sequoia
A mature sequoia stands beyond this dead snag
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
What we could see of the Old Granddad in 2008
Brenda Negley, Number One Friend of Nelder Grove, with Rambler Carolyn Amicone
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.
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 2000 or 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 truck incident.
The Old 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
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
This 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 ago.
--DE, May 2009
The changes at Nelder Grove have continued, although this section will include some that happened even before my updates of 2000 and 2008.
By 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, cleared the viewing path at the Bull Buck, built the 3-D topographical map, and in general did much to preserve and protect the area.
Their 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.
Meanwhile, 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.
Two 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.
The 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.
Despite all these changes, Nelder Grove remains a very special place, and I will continue to visit there as long as I am able.
--DE, November 2006
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Updated November 21, 2016