The crunch of fresh snow under your boots emits a muffled echo as the tip of your nose turns rosy from the cold winter air. The sound of your boots is overcome by the giggle of your children gleefully running past as they chase the family dog sprinting ahead through the pine grove. A light snowfall surrounds you and coats the shoulders of your jacket as your eyes move from tree to tree, analyzing each for its fullness and height. You pass a few dozen trees, none to your liking. Then a single tree set in a small opening catches your eye. You crunch through the snow towards the tree and the closer you get, the more you see the tree is perfectly full throughout its base and waist. You circle the specimen to find the top comes to a concise cone and a single tip. You picture lights, tinsel, and ornaments adorning the branches and exclaim, “That’s the one!” You call the family to the tree for their approval and they all agree that indeed, this tree is “the one.”
Cutting down your own Christmas tree is a rewarding experience that will quickly become a family tradition. Colorado is filled with dense pine forests that offer an abundance of Christmas trees in all shapes, sizes and species. This year get your family into the holiday spirit early by venturing into the Colorado mountains to find and chop down your own tree! This is your guide to making the most of this exciting activity with your family, complete with everything you will need and directions on where to go for the best trees.
Rules and regulations
While finding the right tree is exciting, it is important to follow all the rules of the forest to ensure that you are removing trees responsibly and under the regulations the Forest Service has created. The last thing you want to happen during your family outing is have a Forest Ranger claim your tree after he identifies it as too small.
First, you’ll need to get a tree cutting permit from the local Forest Ranger’s office. If you are traveling from Denver to Summit County using Interstate 70, you can get your Christmas Tree cutting permit at the Dillon Ranger District Office. If you’re traveling using Highway 285 you can stop at the South Park Ranger District Office in Fairplay. Permits are $10 and are available for sale the day after Thanksgiving. Your permit will come with a list of rules and regulations for cutting a Christmas tree, as well as a tag to attach to your cut tree. The tag can also be used to measure the radius of the tree to ensure you are cutting a tree that is large enough to meet the minimum size and not too big.
What to Bring
Packing for your tree cutting adventure is important. If you have all of the right tools and gear you will ensure a pleasant experience for the whole family. One little addition I bring every year that makes the experience that much more enjoyable is a thermos full of hot chocolate (with a little peppermint schnapps for my adult friends). A piping cup of hot chocolate is sure to keep the kids happy as you do the hard work of cutting the tree down. Below is a list of tools to bring with you to make sure you have everything you need to cut the tree and get it out of the woods.
- Gloves – A good pair of leather work gloves in addition to snow gloves will keep your hands protected from the needles of the tree and keep the sticky sap off your hands. I also recommend wearing long sleeves to save your arms from the needles of the tree while you cut it down.
- Saw or axe – A small saw is plenty for cutting down this sized pine tree. An axe does the job as well though I find a saw will get the job done quicker and with less effort.
- Length of rope – I find using a rope to drag the tree behind you is the easiest way to get the tree out of the woods. When dragging the tree, drag it from the base so you don’t damage the branches. You can use a tarp to drag the tree on top of, though I have found this to be more hassle than help; pine trees slide on snow just fine.
- Christmas tree permit – Don’t forget your tree cutting permit so you can attach it to the tree after you cut it down.
- Snow boots – You’ll want to wear waterproof footwear to keep the snow out and your feet warm and dry. A pair of snow gaiters is never a bad idea, either. I will typically wear cross country skis to cut a tree and a pair of snowshoes may come in handy if you have them, but a pair of snow boots will do just fine as well.
- Warm clothing – No matter how many times I think I’m going to quickly find the right tree, I always spend more time than I think looking for the perfect tree. Plan on spending a few hours in the forest looking for and cutting down the right tree. Be prepared for cold weather and snow!
Where to Go
There are endless places to harvest your Christmas trees in the mountains of Colorado. Some of the best places to find and cut a Christmas tree are in Summit County. The Forest Service does prohibit Christmas tree cutting in certain areas, so check the following maps before you start hiking to make sure you are cutting a Christmas tree from an area where it is permitted. If you plan to cut a Christmas tree from around Breckenridge use this map. If you plan to cut a Christmas tree from areas around Silverthorne and Dillon use this map. My favorite place to cut a Christmas tree around Breckenridge is along Boreas Pass. Once you reach the trailhead for this road you can hike in until you find the right tree. The Boreas Pass hike is an easy hike and a popular one. If you plan to harvest your tree from around Silverthorne and Dillon I recommend finding an area of off Highway 9 or from the Salt Lick Trailhead.
What to Look for
Finding the right tree can seem like a daunting task sometimes but if you know what you are looking for, the task becomes an easy one. My first tip is to know where the tree will be positioned in your house. Measure the height of your ceiling and know if you plan to have the tree against a wall or in a corner. If your tree will be positioned in a corner or against a wall, then you will really only need the tree to be full on two or three sides. Finding a tree that is full on all sides can be difficult, so knowing where you plan to put the tree will help.
The next tip I can offer is cut the tree a little taller than you need. You can always cut more off the bottom of the tree once you get home. You’ll want to trim some branches to make the tree look symmetrical as well so don’t let a tree with some long branches discourage you.
Colorado’s forests offer numerous species of trees, each with their own look and feel. Lodgepole and Ponderosa pine trees tend to have sparse branches and long needles that don’t make great places for hanging ornaments. Spruce trees such as Blue Spruce and Engelman Spruce have shorter needles and many shorter branches growing from its main limbs which provide excellent places to hang ornaments. Fir trees such as Douglas Fir and White Fir trees offer similar characteristics as spruce trees. I recommend looking for Spruce or Fir trees as the tend to grow shorter and rounder than Lodgepole and Ponderosa pines.
Saving the Memory
Now that you have cut down your tree and brought it back to your humble abode, it’s time to trim the tree to make it fit correctly into your house. Trim the base and branches of the tree so it is the correct height and provides room underneath where you can fit presents and a tree skirt. Make sure to keep your tree watered so it doesn’t dry out and drop its needles.
Every year I cut my own tree I always cut a disc from the bottom of the tree so I can create an ornament from it. This is a great way to save the memory with your family! Just cut a piece from the base of the tree about a half inch wide and then use a hand drill to drill a hole through the disc. Use a permanent marker to draw on the disc or write that year’s biggest accomplishments. Maybe you added a new family member or maybe you took a great vacation to Summit County! After you decorate the disc to your liking, run a string through the hole and tie a small loop to hang the new ornament from your freshly cut Christmas tree. Don’t forget to share your experience with your family as they visit for the holidays and brag that you harvested your Christmas tree from the mountains of Colorado!
Got any tree-cutting tips to share? Please leave your suggestions in the “Comments” section below.