Usually, I am a firm believer in not putting up a single Christmas decoration or warming up the “Charlie Brown Christmas” soundtrack until you have Thanksgiving leftovers in the fridge, but with the way 2020 was going, I couldn’t wait. I enjoyed my small family Thanksgiving dinner with an accompaniment of twinkly lights, and counted the festive cheer as one more thing to be grateful for this year.
Like many others, our family spent a lot of time this year staying socially distant by retreating into the wilderness, so why not get our tree there?
While it does require getting off the beaten path, finding your own Christmas tree in the forest can be a pretty simple process if you follow a few basic steps. Friends of the Dillon Ranger District recently shared a pretty excellent blog on five steps for cutting a Christmas tree in Summit County, but I do have a few thoughts of my own to share.
Before you cut down a tree, you need to get a permit, which can be purchased online at Recreation.gov, at the Dillon Ranger District Visitor Center if you call ahead, at Sanders True Value Hardware in Silverthorne or at the Breckenridge Welcome Center. Permits are $10 per tree, and you need to have the permit before you cut your tree.
Aside from having the permit, you also need to understand the space that you’re planning on putting your tree in. Take out a tape measure and figure out the height and width of your space, so you know what to look for when you’re out in the forest, said Sam Massman, the acting deputy district ranger for the Dillon District of the White River National Forest, which covers Summit County.
Preparation also should include packing some essentials for harvesting your tree including your tree permit, a saw (a simple hand saw or pruning saw will do fine), measuring tape, a small shovel, a tarp, rope or straps to secure your tree to your vehicle and clothing that will keep you warm in the snow, which can be expected to be fairly deep in spots.
Personally, this was the most daunting and rewarding part of getting my tree, though admittedly part of what added to our challenge was having an almost-2-year-old along who was feeling mixed about the experience.
When hunting for a tree, keep in mind that wilderness areas, recreation areas, campgrounds and ski areas are all off-limits, and you aren’t allowed to cut any trees within 100 feet of main roads.
With that said, Massman said there are plenty of excellent places to go hunting for trees across the county including Rock Creek north of Silverthorne, Frey Gulch by Keystone, Peru Creek outside Montezuma, Miner’s Creek by Frisco and the Boreas Pass area outside Breckenridge.
U.S. Forest Service roads are currently closed to vehicle traffic, but most of these areas have parking lots that you can hike, ski or snowshoe in from, and some areas also allow snowmobiling.
From here, basically any pine tree that has a trunk diameter of less than 6 inches and is shorter than 15 feet tall is fair game, though it is asked that any Colorado blue spruce trees are left alone. You’re most likely to encounter lodgepole pine, Englemann spruce and subalpine fir trees around Summit County.
Ideally you want to find a tree that you can thin out from a group, Massman said.
Be mindful that finding the right tree may take some time and require going to a few different locations.
Before you get to cutting, it’s always a good idea to check and make sure your tree is the correct size. Trunk diameter should be measured near the base, which may mean shoveling some snow away from the bottom of the tree.
Once you’re sure the tree is up to specifications, cut the tree as low to the ground as you can, leaving a stump no taller than 6 inches high. A hand saw is a great tool for the job. I used a branch saw and cut through my tree’s 4-inch base in a minute or two.
When bringing it back to the vehicle, it’s a good idea to either carry it out off the ground or else place it on a tarp to avoid rubbing off needles by dragging them along the ground. That tarp is also great to help protect your tree if it’s getting strapped to the top of a vehicle on its way home.
Decorate and enjoy
Once the tree is home, cut off the bottom inch of the trunk and get it in some water. From there, it’s ready to get looking fancy.
Natural trees can be a fire hazard, so keeping the tree hydrated is a must. For the first week, it’s recommended to check the water levels daily. My tree has needed about a liter added every day for the first week and has gotten a little less thirsty since then.
I’m personally a big fan of natural trees, which have excellent character and provide one more excuse to get out in nature.
Steven Josephson is the arts and entertainment editor for the Summit Daily News.