A Christmas Tree Adventure

The Johnsons venture into US National Forests every year to find the perfect Christmas tree.

By Courtney Johnson
Explore Ambassador

For my family, the quest for the perfect family Christmas tree begins a few weeks before we actually cut our tree down. We begin our hunt by researching the location where we want to cut down our tree with a visit to Recreation.gov. Part of our family discussion includes whether we want to make it a one-day adventure or a weekend adventure. We’ve had some years where we head to a permitted spot and cut down the tree and head home. Some years, we’ve made a weekend out of it. Deciding it was a good time to catch up with old friends, we decided to book a trip to Winter Park, Colo., for some tree cutting and some skiing.

Tree permits typically go on sale between October and November, depending on the location. Some permits are available on-site or at a national forest office. The most convenient way, we have discovered, is to purchase a permit online via . If you do happen to purchase your permit online, be sure to print it out. It makes it a lot easier when you get to the designated tree-cutting area, as you need to show it to the rangers on-site. Note that in Colorado, fourth and fifth graders can get a free tree permit that can be picked up at any U.S. Forest Service district office. Check with your state to see if your student can get a free tree where you live.

In late October, I booked a hotel room in Winter Park and began checking the Recreation.gov page specific to the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests every few days to see if permits had opened up yet. The morning of Nov. 9, I saw that permits had opened up. I logged into my account, selected the location and date we wanted, paid the $20 fee and printed the permit. We were all set for a weekend of fun!

Finally, the first weekend of December was upon us. Our house has been decorated for Christmas since right before Thanksgiving, but it was missing that one thing to bring it all together: the Johnson family Christmas tree.

We packed up my husband’s truck and headed up to Winter Park on Saturday morning. As we pulled out of the driveway, I couldn’t help shouting out in my best Clark Griswold voice, “We’re kicking off our fun, old-fashioned family Christmas by heading out into the country in the old front-wheel drive sleigh to embrace the frosty majesty of the winter landscape and select that most important of Christmas symbols.”

Since we picked one of the most popular areas in the state to cut down our Christmas tree this year, we wanted to give ourselves a time buffer. Combine that with small parking lots in each designated cutting area and directional traffic, and we knew we needed to plan to have some extra time to make sure we were out of the cutting area by the 4 p.m. deadline.

We arrived at the station around 11:45. Streams of cars were ahead of us, and streams of cars were behind us. There are seven cutting spots within the Elk Creek cutting area, named appropriately with Christmas-themed names from Holly to Frosty and Prancer to Evergreen. While we showed our permit, the ranger gave us a heads-up that the cutting area was packed and parking was extremely limited at each parking lot. I looked at the map as we made our way down the now one-way road. My daughter mentioned she really wanted to cut at the Holly lot. Seeing lines of cars, we decided as a family that the best plan was to just go to the first lot where we could find parking.

An SUV with a tree on top were pulling out of the parking lot as we arrived.
(Photos: Courtney Johnson)

We put the four-wheel drive and traction to the test almost from the get-go as we made our way down the road. The road was snow covered and slick in spots, especially on the downhills. About 15 minutes down the road, we arrived at the first cutting area, appropriately named North Pole. A truck with a tree in its bed and an SUV with a tree on top were pulling out of the parking lot as we arrived — a signal that there would be a parking spot open. We pulled into the lot, found a parking spot and began to get our layers on for our tree adventure.

Finding the right tree can be quick in a national forest or sometimes it can take longer. The main key to remember, as we have learned from experience, is to find the tree that is right for your family. It is important to give up that perfect tree farm vision. We’ve had plenty of “tuck that side against the wall because it is bare on that side of the tree” Christmas trees and plenty that could only hold a small amount of ornaments.

With a new couch and living room design, we needed to find a skinnier tree this year, and that wasn’t a problem. As my daughter says, there is a tree for everyone in the national forest. Whether you need or prefer a tall tree, a plump tree, a short tree or skinny tree, you can find them all.

Some locations definitely have a wider selection than others. Up in Buffalo Creek, the search often takes longer as the forest continues to recover from a large forest fire. Other locations where we have cut down a tree, including Arapaho Forest and Rampart Range closer to Colorado Springs, offer a wider variety of tree types.

One of the greatest parts of cutting down your own tree in the national forest is the people you meet along the way. We’ve met the friendliest people, and even friendlier dogs, when we have headed into the forest. Yes, leashed pups are able to enjoy the tree-cutting experience. In fact, our pup joined us last year when we cut our tree down in Buffalo Creek.

My super social daughter instantly made friends with some other kids, and they were off playing on a snow mound.

This trip was no exception, as we met cheerful groups of tree hunters. The instant we got out of the truck at the North Pole lot, two friendly dogs came to greet us. As we gathered our gloves, hats and the saw, we exchanged hellos with a few groups who had gathered to find trees. My super social daughter instantly made friends with some other kids, and they were off playing on a snow mound.

Heading out on the trail to find a tree.

Pretty soon after, we headed out on the designated trail (a fire road in the nonwinter months). We stopped to check out some snowshoe hare tracks and even found some elk scat while on the trail. Families and friends could be seen traipsing through the snow in both directions, with greetings of hello or positive comments about the trees that had been found.

A sled is great for younger children and the year snow boots were forgotten
it was a trip-saver.

Recreation.gov’s theme for this year is “Bring Home a Story.” I couldn’t think of a more perfect theme. For our family, every tree-cutting experience has come with so many memories, with lots of laughs, lots of merriment and even tears. At 5 months and 17 months, Emma cried the first two years as we cut down our tree, being both cold and tired. One year, I forgot Emma’s snow boots. Thankfully, we had brought a sled that year, and an extra pair of gloves went over her ski socks. A few years ago, we found a good tree but wanted to keep looking. Spending an hour or so turning and circling our way through the forest, we ended up back at the very same tree we liked the first time.

The memories are a big part of the tree-cutting experience for our family.

Our stories are just a few of the many being created in the forest each year. Making our way through the snow this particular year, we met a large group of about 25 people ranging in age from 2 to mid-30s. We chatted with one of the men in the group, who explained that while growing up in Minnesota he would cut down his tree in the national forest every year with his family. When he came to Colorado, his tree-cutting group was just three people and has grown from year to year. Just as he was rejoining his group, a cracking sound echoed through the forest with a shout of “Merry Christmas” that followed. Someone had just found the perfect Christmas tree. A few whoops from other groups in the forest followed. 

We continued our hunt by heading a bit away from the groups of people so we could have our own family experience. While one side of the mountain had no snow, we were treated to layers of fluffy, crystal-like snow called surface hoar that shone in the sun and made a unique jingling sound. Now was a perfect time to belt out some Christmas tunes, I thought to myself. “Jingle Bells” felt appropriately fitting.

As we sang holiday hits, from “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree”to “Deck The Halls,” we continued our quest to find the most cherished of Christmas symbols. Emma spotted a tree clumped together with some others as we headed up the side of a hill back toward the fire road. “That’s the one,” she called out. Knowing there was a lot more territory to cover, my husband AJ marked the snow near the tree with two large sticks. “This is a good one, but I think we should keep looking,” he said as he placed the sticks near the base of the tree.

“I guess that was our tree after all!”

After some grumbling from my daughter, we headed back down the fire road. We noticed a few families heading the opposite way on the fire road, back toward the parking lot, with no trees. “No luck?” I asked one family. “Nope, there is definitely a better selection where you just were,” the father told me while pointing to where we had just come from.

My husband turned around and said, “I guess that was our tree after all!” “Hooray,” my daughter shouted. I began to sing one of my holiday favorites, the Andy Williams’ version of “The Christmas Song”accompanied by my husband and daughter. From memory, and our boot tracks, we quickly found the tree that Emma picked earlier. 

A few years back, we started letting Emma do some of the sawing. She began with the guiding hand of AJ, but this year she had already mentioned on the drive up that she really wanted to use the saw on her own. “Where should I start?” she asked. AJ crouched down with her on the snow and pointed to a spot close to the ground. One of the cutting rules is that you cut the stumps close to the ground — within 6 inches. She began sawing back and forth on the trunk close to the ground. Several grunts later, she looked up at us and said, “This is really hard!”

Emma sawing on her own.

For as many years as Emma has been helping with the saw, my husband has also mentioned that we need to upgrade our saw. “It is hard,” he said. As he turned to me, all I could think was, “Here we go again.” “We need a new saw!” Maybe I should put a reminder in my phone so we won’t forget for another year.

A few more saws back and forth, and AJ took over. Another 30 seconds, and AJ was yelling, “Timber.” He handed the saw to me and picked up the tree, slugging it up against his back similar to Santa with the “bundle of toys he had flung on his back” from “A Visit from St. Nicholas.

One of our traditions is giving our Christmas tree a name. We’ve had a range of names, from Holly B Jolly and Pickles to Lemon and Bernard. Our ritual is to name our tree before the first ornament is hung —something the guy we chatted with from the large group also said was a family custom for his family.

AJ carried the tree up the hillside and gently placed it back down on the ground. “Grab an end,” he told Emma. Saw still in my hand, along with a smaller branch that we cut off from the bottom, they followed behind me carrying the tree together. “Looks like you got a good one,” someone commented as we made our way back to the parking lot.

Back at the parking lot, AJ placed the tree in a snowbank near the truck. We noticed a few trucks and SUVs going the wrong way on the one-way road as we began to enjoy a picnic lunch. A Subaru was leaving the lot when a ranger stopped them and told them to head back the opposite way as there was an accident up ahead. We decided to take a bit longer to enjoy our lunch in hopes that the accident might be cleared up.

We were lucky enough that the accident was cleaned up when we were ready to head to the hotel. We chatted about tree names as we left the national forest area. We decided that Mistletoe was the perfect name for this year’s tree. After skiing some runs at Winter Park on Sunday with friends, we headed back home to decorate Mistletoe.

While munching on pizza, and watching A Charlie Brown Christmas as we annually do, we hung lights and ornaments on Mistletoe. Sending photos to my family, and posting a few online, we had friends and family mention that they thought Mistletoe was our best tree yet. The extra branch we cut off the bottom even turned into a special tree for our pup, Roxy. We put it in a corner and hung dog-themed and other special ornaments on it. Its name happens to be Roxaroo.

(Photo: Courtney Johnson)

Throughout the season, we have enjoyed the pine scent our tree fills the family room with. Mistletoe’s glow reminds us of the wonders of the season as we reflect on family, friends and adventures we have had and adventures to come.

If you have questions or want more info on cutting down your own tree in the national forest, check out my Simple 7 article. To download an ornament you can color at home courtesy of Recreation.gov, click here.

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