It was originally named the Fresno Grove when it was within a larger 19th-century Fresno County, before Madera County was established.
The grove is a 1,540-acre (6.2 km2) tract containing over 100 mature Giant Sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum) trees. It also contains a number of sequoia stumps, remaining from when the grove's ancient trees were logged in the late 1870s to 1890s, before being protected by its United States Forest Service acquisition in 1928.
A Sierra National Forest campground is located at the Nelder Grove.
Some of the trees and trails found in the grove that are worthy of special note are:
- Bull Buck Tree: this tree reaches a height of 246 feet (75 m) and has a ground-level circumference of 100 feet (30 m) but only a volume of 27,383 cubic feet (775.4 m3), thus not among the top 40 giant sequoias.
- Graveyard of the Giants: an area which contains a number of large sequoias killed by a wildfire, a fate rarely encountered due to the sequoia's protective bark;
- Shadow of the Giants National Recreation Trail: a trail constructed in 1965 which was established as a National Recreation Trail in 1978;
- Remnants of the area's logging days: including two restored cabins and replicas of cross-log and two-pole log chutes.
- Nelder Tree: The largest tree in the grove at 34,993 cubic feet (990.9 m3); it is the 22nd largest giant sequoia in the world.
- Old Grandad Tree: A tremendously rugged tree atop a hill, there is reason to believe this is a very old tree.
The area was logged extensively from 1878 until the mid-1890s by the Madera Flume and Trading Company. They logged mostly sugar pines, ponderosa pines, white firs, and incense-cedars, but they did cut down some of the sequoias as well.
The grove is named for John A. Nelder, who was called by John Muir the "Hermit of the Fresno Forest. Muir wrote about him and the area in 1878, and the description was later included in Chapter 9 of his book Our National Parks:
- " One of the first special things that caught my attention was an extensive landslip. The ground on the side of a stream had given way to a depth of about fifty feet [15 m] and with all its trees had been launched into the bottom of the stream ravine. Most of the trees—pines, firs, incense-cedar, and Sequoia—were still standing erect and uninjured, as if unconscious that anything out of the common had happened. Tracing the ravine alongside the avalanche, I saw many trees whose roots had been laid bare, and in one instance discovered a Sequoia about fifteen feet [5 m] in diameter growing above an old prostrate trunk that seemed to belong to a former generation.
- This slip had occurred seven or eight years ago, and I was glad to find that not only were most of the Big Trees uninjured, but that many companies of hopeful seedlings and saplings were growing confidently on the fresh soil along the broken front of the avalanche. These young trees were already eight or ten feet [3 m] high, and were shooting up vigorously, as if sure of eternal life, though young pines, firs, and libocedrus were running a race with them for the sunshine with an even start.
- Farther down the ravine I counted five hundred and thirty-six promising young Sequoias on a bed of rough bouldery soil not exceeding two acres [0.8 hectares] in extent."
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