Pity the Gulf Coast families who gather around the green-plastic hair brush or warm-weather “pine” tree to open gifts.
In Colorado, Christmas means trees. Real trees that look like they faithfully guarded a rugged mountainside before being selected as the chosen few to move into one of millions of living rooms to sport twinkling lights and big glass balls. Guardians of the Presents.
The fact is, most people here like gorgeous, perfect fake trees just like everyone else. And those who drag real, dying trees into their homes usually get them from Christmas tree lots, which get them from farms in places like Oregon.
So how Colorado is that? If you want a real Centennial State holiday high, go get your own tree. For far less than what even the scroungiest bush costs at a tree lot, you could help thin local forests ripe for wildfire, live the yule-tide dream, and bring home the Christmas tree of your dreams.
For years, select national forests — mostly out here in the West — have been encouraging people to come up for an experience most folks only hear about.
Now don’t grab the chain saw and start the car yet. There are rules, but they’re pretty easy ones. You can’t just go anywhere up in the hills and snag a fir. Tree cutting is limited to particular areas in the state. Near Aurora, there are two choices this year: Buffalo Creek, which is fairly close, between Pine Junction on U.S. 285 and Deckers; and Fraser, just down the road from Winter Park.
It really is as romantic and nostalgic as you think it is. It also can be real work. Even for native Aurora residents. The elevation is higher and everything is either up or down a hill. Be prepared. But the scenery is beautiful, and a tree doesn’t get any fresher than cutting it down the same day you put it up.
The rules vary some, but generally, you must use a hand saw or an ax, not a chain or power saw of any kind. Save your energy and digits for the ride home; don’t use an ax or hatchet.
The Forest Service does this to get people to clear out younger trees that can fuel a forest fire. You’re not coming home with the Rockefeller Center tree. All of the areas require permits, and some dates sell out in October. Others are available only on site or nearby. Read the rules, check the dates and save yourself serious disappointment.
Be prepared for anything. Balmy weather and short pants, or something like a blizzard and deep snow. No one recalls anyone getting into serious trouble during these Christmas tree hunts, and you don’t want to be the first. Each site has a list of suggestions about tires, clothing and food that are wise to
• Take water, it can be hard work.
• Go uphill to hunt for a tree. Dragging your kill downhill is eminently easier than dragging it uphill. If you want a very large tree, carry a strong, lightweight, slick, plastic tarp with you to help make it easier to drag back and limit damage.
• Dress right. There is often deep snow in Elk Creek. On warm days, Buffalo Creek can be downright slushy.
• Trees look much smaller in the forest than they are when you get them home. Don’t be fooled.
• The trees are fresh, which means they can be sticky with sap, but they don’t lose their needles or feel like they might spontaneously combust. They smell extravagant in your home when they warm up, and they may be thirsty.
• They are often filled with dirt and dust, either from the mountain or from the road trip home on top of your car. Spraying them briefly at the manual car wash does the trick to get them clean. Just shake them good before bringing them inside.
If You Go
The U.S. Forest Service has a host of tree-cutting areas across the state. Closest to Aurora are Buffalo Creek and Elk Creek cutting areas, about an hour’s drive or so. Either call the Forest Service or go online (URLs are below) to get details and instructions. Permits are only $10, and for Buffalo Creek, must be purchased in advance, in most cases. Tree cutting is permitted there through Dec. 14.
By far, the Buffalo Creek area is the busiest, and often sells out of permits. Trees there are mostly Douglas Fir and Ponderosa Pine, but there are a few other varieties. At Elk Creek, there are occasional blue spruces and a fuller, sturdier fir. The Elk Creek site requires 4-wheel drive or chains. No exceptions. The road to the tree cutting area is steep, narrow and usually snow-packed in many places. The Buffalo Creek road is paved and easily accessible. Tree cutting is permitted there through Dec. 13. On weekends, there are lots of people, and plenty of Forest Service workers to help.
The downside of Elk Creek is having to crest Berthoud Pass, which is no big deal on a clear day, and sometimes impossible on snowy days. Call ahead for conditions.
Elk Creek Tree Cutting: http://1.usa.gov/1yZkEjw 303-275-5610
Buffalo Creek Tree Cutting: http://1.usa.gov/1p47kdy 970-887-4100