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There’s no such thing as a perfect Christmas tree. But somewhere between a scruffy Charlie Brown twig and the majesty of Rockefeller Center is the right Christmas tree—and Bruce Ward knows how to find it. As president of Choose Outdoors, a Denver-based national nonprofit that works with public lands partners to create outdoor education, volunteer, and recreation opportunities, for more than a decade Ward and his organization have helped the U.S. Forest Service get the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree to Washington, D.C. (The beauties always come from national forests.) So, who better than Ward to provide advice for cutting down your own holiday centerpiece this month? Here’s what to know about making the chop, plus, local national forest areas where you can do so.
Cutting down trees is permissible in most national forests during the holidays (more on that below), and each district is responsible for uploading maps that indicate where you are allowed to harvest. That means you have to navigate a bunch of websites that—being operated by the federal government—are clunky to start with. It’s much easier to visit recreation.gov/tree-permits to find maps and details on when cutting is allowed (generally from late November to late December). Don’t leave the site without purchasing a permit, which can range from $5 to $20 depending on the area—or else risk a $100 fine ($50 for each additional tree). Closer-to-Denver options included Arapaho National Forest’s Elk Creek, less than a mile southwest of Fraser, and the Vasquez and Little Vasquez areas south of Winter Park.
What to Bring
Bring a sturdy handsaw. The Forest Service doesn’t allow chainsaws, and, honestly, the last thing rangers need to add to their to-do lists is finding your finger. You’ll need rope to secure the tree to your four-wheel-drive vehicle (these are mostly dirt roads) and a tape measure, too, as your trunk can’t be more than six inches in diameter at its base, which is where you should cut it. Taking only the top is forbidden. A tarp is useful for lugging the tree back to your vehicle and wrapping around the needles so they don’t scratch your paint job. Finally, this is Colorado: Dress in layers that leave you ready for a sunny day in Denver and a frigid winterscape once in the mountains. As a precaution, pack a tote with snacks, water, extra clothes, and sun protection.
The Perfect Tree
You may be tempted to trek deeper and deeper into the forest in search of an immaculate, Griswoldian specimen. It doesn’t exist. A tree from the forest has been buffeted and windblown, sheltered animals, and otherwise earned its gnarls and bald spots. Although what you cut down isn’t going to be flawless, it’s going to be yours. So, curate that Christmas playlist, fill a thermos with cocoa, pull on a Santa Claus hat, and gather your favorite people for a jaunt into the woods.
Where to Cut Down a Christmas Tree
Pike and San Isabel National Forest
Where: South Platte Ranger District: Buffalo Creek, Sugar Creek, and Camp Fickes
When: November 28 to December 11
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. Park rangers also recommend 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 16 to December 31
Cost: $10 each, with a limit of five trees per household
Tips: To experience fewer crowds—and help with forest management in this area—travel to Dillon Ranger District. Park rangers warn to only 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 10 to January 7
Cost: $20 each, with a limit of five trees per household
Tips: The Sulphur Ranger District will also have the staffed Elk Creek cutting area open from December 3 to 11. Be sure to purchase your permit online prior to arriving at the cutting area, as permits are not available onsite.
Roosevelt National Forest
Where: Canyon Lakes District in Larimer County
When: November 25 to January 7
Cost: $20 each, with a limit of five trees per household
Tips: Park rangers suggest looking in Joe Wright Reservoir, off Highway 14 near Cameron Pass and the Manhattan Road (CR 69), south of Red Feather Lakes
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.
- 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.
Additional reporting by Angelina Dinsmore and Hannah Farrow