Marching through thigh-high snow and sawing down a Rocky Mountain evergreen is a holiday tradition many Colorado families repeat every year—and for good reason. There’s nothing like driving to the mountains, chopping a tree, and heading back to the car for a celebratory IPA and some leftover Thanksgiving fixings to kickstart the holidays.
Started in 1978 in the Arapaho & Roosevelt National Forest, the goal of the U.S. Forest Service’s annual tree-cutting program is not only to get more people onto public lands, but also to clear undergrowth to reduce the risk of fires—something that seems even more important considering the devastating fire season we just experienced. “By taking out smaller trees, it helps to reduce those fuel ladders for potential wildfire activity or lessens fire intensity,” says U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Region’s public affairs specialist Jane Leche, who’s been involved with the tree-cutting program since 1992.
This year, because of the fires north of Denver, the popular Red Feather Lakes site in the Roosevelt National Forest is closed and inaccessible to the public. “They’re already looking to see what they can do for 2021, but parts of their Christmas tree area was affected and parts of it were bared,” Leche says.
Other areas are still open for cutting, though. Leche says Coloradans can purchase a U.S. Forest Service tree-cutting permit at recreation.gov. Just select the location name and follow the steps. Here, you can also download and print maps so you know where to look for your perfect tree. Some permits qualify for one specific day, while others give you a timeframe in which to chop down your tree—it all depends on the popularity of the location.
To help guide your search, here are the local national forest areas where you can fulfill (or create) a holiday tradition:
Pike and San Isabel National Forest
Where: South Platte Ranger District: Buffalo Creek, Sugar Creek, and Camp Fickes
When: November 27 to December 31
Cost: $20 each, with a limit of two to five trees per household, depending on area
Tips: This location is popular due to its proximity to the Denver metro area. Because of this, you must pick a specific cutting day and area when purchasing this permit. Leche also recommends going between 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. to avoid getting stuck in the dark.
White River National Forest
Where: Areas in Dillon, Aspen, Eagle, Blanco, and Rifle
When: November 15 to December 31
Cost: $10 each, with a limit of five trees per household
Tips: While Leche knows people have their favorite spots, she encourages folks to travel to Dillon Ranger District to experience fewer crowds—and to help with forest management in this area. She also says to cut trees with a trunk size of 6 inches or less in diameter, and to never top a large tree.
Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forest
Where: Sulphur Ranger District in Grand County
When: November 23 to January 6
Cost: $20 each, with a limit of five trees per household
Tips: Due to the East Troublesome and Williams Fork fires, the Sulphur Ranger District will offer limited tree-cutting permits in the Arapaho National Forest this year. And because of the devastating Cameron Peak fire, the Canyon Lakes Ranger District will not open forest land this year in the popular Red Feather Lakes area in the Roosevelt National Forest.
Bureau of Land Management’s public regions
Where: Craig, Grand Junction, Silverton, and plenty more
When: Through December 24
Permits: Bureau of Land Management field offices throughout the Northwest, Southwest, Upper Colorado River, and Rocky Mountain regions
Cost: $6–$10 each, depending on region
Tips: When purchasing your permit from BLM offices, ask about specific cutting area guidelines, as restrictions vary by region.
What to Know Before You Go
- Purchase your permit online or at a field office before heading to your location to ensure availability.
- Check road and weather conditions in advance, and make sure you are prepared for the elements: Bring appropriate footwear, layers, food, water, and safety gear.
- Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, maintain social distancing at all times. For fewer crowds, head to the forest during the weekdays.
- Always cut trees with a trunk size of 6 inches or less in diameter, and never top a large tree.
- Cut below the lowest limb and leave a stump of at least 6 inches.
- Make sure to print off your map before venturing out to avoid getting lost or losing GPS service.
- Do not trespass on private land.