In California, you can cut a Christmas Tree from the National Forests. Or, at least most of them, providing you purchase a permit. Then you can find and cut down your own tree from the wild space.
I first heard about this many years ago, shortly after my now-husband and I had moved in together. I envisioned a photo-perfect tree-hunting experience; wandering through a densely wooded forest on lightly worn paths, a light dusting of snow. Hot tea poured from a thermos as the smell of freshly cut fir and sap enveloped me like a warm hug.
With this image dancing in my head like sugar plum fairies (that comparison works, right?), I convinced my partner that we should take advantage of this program, and how fun it would be.
I was epically wrong.
I had not spent much time (or any, for that matter) in National Forests. In my head, it would be like a state park, land designed for the visitor’s pleasure. Established trails and maps with giant arrows: CUT TREES HERE, leading us to groves of picture-perfect Christmas Trees.
Are you starting to realize how naive I was?
I wasn’t there yet.
So we drove two hours to the nearest ranger station, picked up our permit, and was set loose with only the simple guideline of needing to cut a tree 50 feet away from the road. As we drove, and drove, and drove, on the poorly signed roads through the forest, looking for trees that would meet my Christmas goals, I started to realize my error.
National forests are not managed land like a park. They are not developed for the visitor, but for working land, or set aside for conservation. There are not rows and rows of planted and groomed trees like a Christmas Tree Farm. There were no parking lots with meaning trails. There was no hot tea.
Fast forward several hours, almost out of gas, hungry and angry and cold, and still without a tree, we gave up. We choose the saddest Charley Brown tree, right off the side of the side of the road (Sorry National Forest rules, I’m sorry for not obeying you!). It was a miserable, miserable experience, and one that my partner would not let me forget.
But, Christmas Trees are a big deal for me.
I was not raised with religion, so Christmas in my family held a very secular and consumer-driven purpose: cutting a tree, decorating it with family ornaments, the stockings, the gifts, etc. As an adult, and creating my own family and traditions, the consumerism and gift giving gained a lesser importance, but the tree still a crucial entity of the holiday.
Not having a tree was not an option. But, scarred by the National Forest foraging tree experience, we chose the easy route and would go and cut a tree one from a local tree farm.
However, lots have changed since that early epic disaster.
I’ve since spent LOTS of time hiking and camping in National Forests. I now know what they are like and what to expect. I’ve learned how to read the forest service maps and now have a 4-wheel drive Subaru that can handle the dirt backroads. I also now know that the trees that make the best Christmas Trees are Silver Tip firs, and those grow in the forests above 6,000 feet.
I was ready. I really wanted to try it again. So last month, when visiting my parents, I rallied the gang and we all piled into the car and we went and foraged for a tree in the Shasta-Trinity Forest.
It was a much better experience. We found a great tree. There were no hangry breakdowns. There were no tears. It was like it was a Christmas miracle.
Want to forage for your own Christmas tree in the National Forest?
Here are 7 tips that I have learned to have a great experience and find a great tree:
Bring your own stuff: You’ll need a saw. Bonus points if you have a woodcutter for a father and can bring him, too. Bring a rope to tie the tree to the car, and possibly a big sheet to wrap around it if you’re concerned about long travel and broken branches. Bring lots of food and water. There aren’t usually stores or markets nearby. Hangry does not bode well to holiday cheer.
Learn what type of tree you want. Do they grow where you are going?
Talk to the ranger, they are super helpful. Call ahead of time and ask questions. Especially considering how fucked up the view of our “leader” is towards nature, you’d expect them to be miserable working under that regime. Their cheerfulness and willingness to help are almost suspicious. Proof that time working in nature make people happy.
Taking a 4-wheel drive vehicle makes everything so much easier. Forest roads are rarely maintained and you’ll have lots of ruts and rocks and there is a likely chance you’ll encounter snow.
Choose to cut a tree uphill. It’s easier to carry a tree downhill to the car then uphill. This was a handy tip shared by the aforementioned friendly ranger.
If possible, choose a forest that you are familiar with and have gone hiking at. You’ll know where to park, etc.
Look for trees in open spots. Trees growing in clumps or under other trees often are lopsided. Trees in open areas are better formed.
Have you ever gone foraging for a Christmas Tree? Share your story in a comment below!