Cutting your own Christmas tree is a great excuse to get some exercise, enjoy the fresh air and spend time together as a family. For many, going to the mountains to cut your own Christmas tree is a family tradition. Hiking to find that perfect tree, the debate of who found the best one, and the teamwork it takes to get it back to the vehicle are all part of the fun.
Cutting your own Christmas tree is something that can be enjoyed by all ages, and the experience is even better if you prepare. Here are some tips and must-knows when cutting a real tree, and where in Colorado you can cut your own Christmas tree in your local national forest.
Follow the rules for Christmas tree cutting so the pastime can be enjoyed by generations to come
Cutting your own Christmas tree is not only fun, it helps forest rejuvenation. Cutting the tree as close to the ground as possible allows other trees around it to thrive. The U.S. Forest Service has these rules in place for cutting your own Christmas tree, many of which are to protect the forest:
- Cut trees with a stump diameter of 6 inches or less.
- Don’t take the top off of a tree. Cut the stump as close to the ground as possible.
- Do not cut trees within 75 feet of any road, trail or body of water.
- Do not trespass on private property. Make sure you’re on National Forest land by downloading the interactive visitor maps to the Avenza mobile app or printing a PDF version. Both links can be found here.
- Take or scatter any unused portion of your tree. (If you take it home, you can make a wreath.)
- Display your permit on the dashboard of your car or another visible location.
- Pack out all trash.
- Follow state and local COVID-19 guidance and requirements.
Consider cutting your tree on weekdays. Weekends can be very busy. Make sure you park off the main roadways and don’t block gates or other entryways.
Before cutting down your tree, check its “freshness” by tugging lightly on the needles. If they don’t fall out, your tree should last through the holiday season.
Tips for creating a wonderful experience while finding your tree:
- Start early. Winter days have limited hours of sunshine. Don’t forget to check the forecast.
- Most roads are not plowed. Have chains and/or 4-wheel drive (which is required in some areas). Stay on roadways except for parking.
- Bring food and warm clothes, an extra blanket, shovel, first aid kit, sunblock and sunglasses. Expect below-freezing temperatures and cold winds.
- Bring a spare key so you don’t get locked out of your vehicle. Cell phones may not work in the mountains.
- Stay with your group and let someone at home know where you are going and when you expect to be back.
- Consider bringing snowshoes. They can be helpful when there is no packed trail and/or deep snow.
- Download Avenza App with Motor Vehicle Use Map before entering the forest.
- Many areas have been affected by the pine beetle epidemic and wildfires. Stay away from dead or burned trees as they can fall at any time.
Kids coming on the tree-cutting adventure?
- Bring appropriate gear for playing in the snow. Pack extra clothes, and an extra pair of gloves, in case clothes get wet.
- Bring a backpack or sled to tote your younger kids around. It’s tough work tracking around in the snow, especially for small children.
- Bring lots of snacks and water. Consider some hot cocoa to warm up when you’re back to your vehicle.
Other important things to bring when cutting your own Christmas tree:
- Hand saw. Chain saws are prohibited.
- Work gloves. Trees have sap. Instead of ruining your favorite ski gloves, consider using a winter work glove when handling your tree both in the wilderness and when you move it inside.
- Rope or straps. You need to secure your tree to your vehicle, but having something to use to drag your tree behind you also is helpful.
- A small tarp can be nice to keep the mess from your truck bed or keep the top of your vehicle from getting scratched by your tree. It also helps with sap.
- Tape measure. You can eye it, but trees always look much smaller in the wilderness. Measuring the tree’s height before you cut to make sure it’s the size you want (and will fit in your home). If girth matters, measure it before cutting.
Caring for your fresh-cut Christmas tree:
- When you get your tree home, keep it in a sheltered, unheated area for a day or two, or until you’re ready to decorate it. A garage or covered porch will keep it away from the wind and sun, making it last longer. Make sure you place it in a bucket full of water right away and refill it as needed.
- Right before you put your tree up, make a fresh cut on the stump about a half-inch from the base so they tree can absorb water properly.
- Don’t let your tree dry out. Within the first 24 hours, your tree may absorb more than a gallon of water, and one or more quarts daily thereafter. A layer of sap will form on the bottom of the cut stump if it isn’t in the water for more than four hours. If this happens, the tree can’t absorb water properly. A dry tree is a fire hazard.
- Don’t place your tree near any heat source. Not only can heat sources, such as a baseboard heat vent or fireplace, dry out your tree faster, it can also contribute to it catching on fire.
Cutting your own Christmas tree on the Front Range
Permits must be bought before harvesting and are available for purchase from Nov. 9, 2021, through Jan. 8, 2022. Cutting dates vary based on the harvest location. Permits must be purchased ahead of time on recreation.gov, or for Grand County, they can be purchased online or in-person (see details below).
Permit cost: $20 per tree. Five-permit per-household limit.
Larimer County – Canyon Lakes Ranger District: Nov. 26, 2021 – Jan. 8, 2022
The historic Christmas tree cutting location off of Boy Scout Road in the Red Feather Lakes area was impacted by the 2020 Cameron Peak Fire. This season, people can cut their own Christmas tree through much of the open portions of the Canyon Lakes Ranger District, instead of cutting in one designated area. Here is the map for cutting boundaries for the Canyon Lakes Ranger District.
Grand County – Sulphur Ranger District: Nov. 9, 2021 – Jan. 6, 2022
Christmas tree cutting is allowed through much of the Sulphur Ranger District except closure areas, wilderness areas and the Fraser Experimental Forest. Here is the map for cutting boundaries for the Sulphur Ranger District.
The Elk Creek cutting area will be staffed from Dec. 4-12. Permits will NOT be available onsite and must be purchased in advance. Entrance gates close at 2 p.m. and people are asked to exit the area before 4 p.m. Pets must be on a leash. Snowmobiles are prohibited during these dates but are allowed in much of the Sulphur Ranger District when the snow level is 6 inches or greater.
Purchase your permit before your trip either online at recreation.gov/tree-permits/arp or in-person at these locations:
- Country Ace Hardware, 627 W. Agate, Granby, CO 80446.
- Fireside Market and Eatery, 78337 U.S. Highway 40, Winter Park, CO 80482.
- Winter Park Chamber of Commerce, 78841 U.S. Highway 40, Winter Park, CO 80482.
- Murdoch’s Ranch and Home Supply, 541 Zerex St., Fraser, CO 80442.
- Grand Lake Visitor’s Center, 14700 U.S. Highway 34, Grand Lake, CO 80447.
Cutting your own tree in other places within Colorado
Pike and San Isabel National Forests
Permits go on sale starting Nov. 26.
Christmas tree cutting is allowed in areas within the South Platte (Buffalo Creek, Sugar Creek and Camp Fikes), South Park (check this website for these areas as there are a few restricted areas), and Pikes Peak districts for $20 per permit with a limit of five permits per household. In the San Carlos, Leadville and Salida districts, permits are $10 per tree with a limit of two permits per household. In most districts, cutting is allowed throughout the district with exception of campgrounds, trailheads, ski areas, wilderness and recreation areas.
White River National Forest
Permits are available starting Nov. 14, 2021, online at recreation.gov or at White River Forest Service offices. Mail-in permits are no longer available.
Cost: $10 per tree with a limit of five permits per person.
Visit this website for specific ranger district cutting areas and details. Districts include Aspen-Sopris, Blanco, Dillon, Eagle-Holy Cross and Rifle ranger districts.
San Juan National Forest
Permits are available starting Nov. 12, 2021, online at recreation.gov or at local vendors (see list below).
Do not cut your tree within 100 feet of any road or developed campground. Cutting is prohibited in national monument areas, research natural areas, wildlife areas, recreation areas.
Permits cost $8 per tree; limit of five permits per person. Trees can be up to 20-feet tall.
In this area, Forest Service officials suggest people cut White or Subalpine Fir or Spruce trees. You may also cut Pinyon or Juniper trees. People are not allowed to harvest Ponderosa Pine or Douglas Fir.