Nelder Grove

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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 year’s 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

A classic beauty - the Bull Buck

The Bull Buck tree is said to be one of the five largest Sequoias in existence, but unlike the more famous General Grant in Kings Canyon National Park and General Sherman 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.

Bull Buck, full view Base of the Bull Buck Tree
Full View Base


A young cedar tree has grown up through the base of this old stump in Nelder Grove

A young cedar tree has grown up through the base of this old stump in Nelder Grove

 

Dead snags in Graveyard of the Giants

Dead snags in Graveyard of the Giants

 

The stump basin when you could see the stumps

The stump basin when you could see the stumps

 

Old Grandad Tree

The Old Granddad Tree

 

Since 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 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.

--DE, 2000

 

The last update was written in 1999 or 2000. 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.”

It had probably been about 20 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 forest 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 up.

It 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), with 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 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.

There 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 forest 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 the view.

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

    
More about Nelder Grove More about redwoods Outdoor Menu Another Nelder link
Shadow of the Giants Trail John Muir's Description of Nelder Sugar Pine Railroad Redwood Photos
Brenda's Nelder Site Nelder Webshots Album Updates & Changes  

 

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Updated November 11, 2011