Being able to hike into the woods to cut down your own Christmas tree is not only memorable, but turns you into a tree snob. For real, once you have fresh, like super fresh from the woods, you’ll never go back. I venture to speculate that even the tree farm trees aren’t as amazingly hardy and long-lived in your tree stand; they’ve been bred and fed and watered. The wild tree you cut, well its accustomed to drought.
This year we cut ours the Sunday after Thanksgiving, and mid-January the thing still isn’t dropping needles. We don’t have the heart to trash it since it’s still going so strong! Next year I think we will cut it earlier, bring it in, and just wait to decorate until the season arrives.
First, where can you cut these trees? The national forests.
- Up north near the Grand Canyon, the Kaibab National Forest offers permits for $15. These don’t usually sell out. Sales begin mid-November and you can buy both in person at one of three ranger districts or via the mail if you’d like to plan a trip.
- Around Flagstaff, the Coconino National Forest offers permits for $15, and sell out quickly. Sales begin mid-November and must be done in person at one of the three ranger offices.
- Further south in the center of the state, the Prescott National Forest has permits for $20, which also sold out this year. They begin sales mid-November, each district ranger station beginning a different day. They only sell in-person.
- East of Phoenix, the Tonto National Forest has permits for $15. They begin sales mid-October and have five different locations you can visit to purchase one in person. They did not sell out this year, but have in the past.
- In the central East part of the state, in the White Mountains, the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest sells permits for $15. They usually begin sales in October, but irritatingly remove the website details yearly until the first of October. There are five ranger districts in the forest which can each sell permits in person, and via the mail! The ASNF doesn’t sell out.
- Finally, in far South Eastern Arizona near the border with Mexico and New Mexico, the Coronado National Forest typically sells permits for $10. Though they did not sell any this year, its an option to look at. Only the Douglas Ranger district handles sales, in person or via mail, and trees may only be cut in the Chiricahua or Dragoon mountains.
Now, how does it work?
1. WAIT. The Forest Service won’t usually post details on their website until early November.
2. Call the forest ranger district you are most interested in to finalize details after visiting the websites above.
3. Buy your permit, either in person or via the mail (be sure to call and confirm addresses and form needed for mail orders).
4. When you get the permit, you will also get a map showing the region where you can cut the tree. Each ranger district has unique areas for cutting, so choose the district wisely depending on the trip you are going to take. You might also want to download the Avenza Maps app, and the cutting maps; this app will pinpoint your location on the cutting map to make sure you are in boundaries.
We bought our permit from the Apache-Sitgreaves NF through the mail.
5. Find your tree! So, drive out to the forest and pick some dirt roads. Bring cutting equipment – a small chainsaw is nice, but a hand saw will work fine as well, and measuring tape. Bring something to tie the tree to your roof. Also, dress for the weather! you will need to hike into the woods far enough that you are out of sight of the road or a trail.
We made an adventure of our tree finding by seeing The Thing and Morenci mine along the way.
The southern portion of the Apache-Sitgreaves is a little slim pickings when it comes to Christmas trees, but we spotted a nice clump above the road just before the parking area for Old Highway Trail 301. We followed the trail for a nice hike a ways back in the forest.
Once we found a few clumps of fir trees, it was hard to choose the best! We continued to see more just a bit further up the hill, or just past the large pines. After narrowing the selection down to a few, Bryan measured and we all agreed on one growing beside a big tree.
5. Cut your tree! You may only cut one tree up to 10 ft tall with a 5 inch or smaller diameter at the 4.5 ft high mark; some forests also limit the species. Don’t top a tree; you may only leave a max of 6 inches of trunk left on the ground. Be sure to read the permit information carefully before cutting. Be sure you are in the designated tree cutting area.
Once we found the perfect fir tree, Bryan cut it low and clean with the chainsaw and Avi put our tag on a low branch.
The kids carried it all the way back to the car. I carried a big handful of bows to decorate with; the letter indicated this was a fine thing to do, so Bryan cut them from a fallen tree.
Back at the car, we wrapped the tree in a blanket to protect it along the freeway home, then tied it securely to the roof. At home, we immediately put it in the water filled tree stand and waited a day to decorate.
A natural tree has its own perfect beauty! Not a full fat farm variety, but certainly a more traditional look. Plus, it has lasted nearly two months with no needles falling!
- 4th graders with a Kids in Every Park may get a permit for free. You must go in person with your card to do this.
- Only one permit is allowed per household.
- Bring a chainsaw or hand saw for a smooth cut, not an axe.
- Bring measuring tape, tie downs, a blanket to wrap the tree, gloves, and weather appropriate clothes.