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This post was originally posted in 2017 but updated in 2020 to include the Recreation.gov website to help you find a Forest nearby that offers tree permits.
I’ve always loved the idea of walking into the snowy forest in search of the perfect Christmas tree to bring home and can thank the Grizwald’s for putting this dreamy tree hunt in my head as a kid. While we always had a real tree growing up, we generally went to tree lots where searching for the “perfect” Christmas tree was almost too easy.
Picking out our tree the day after Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday activity, and something I look forward to every year. In fact, I could care less about presents under the tree, as long as I have a fresh-cut Christmas tree I can enjoy all season long, I’m happy.
Eric and I have talked about going Christmas tree hunting in the forest for years now, and this was the year we did just that.
Christmas Tree Hunting in the National Forest
There are pros and cons to using a fresh cut tree, vs. an artificial one, so to each their own. I know some people prefer a fake tree because it’s less messy, can be cost-effective, and you can use it for several years, but nothing beats a real tree if you ask me. And in case you’re wondering, picking out a tree from a local tree farm is just as environmentally-friendly as going with a fake one, and often times even more so since they’re 100% biodegradable and recyclable.
Cutting a tree in the national forest can actually benefit the land and help the growth of other trees. This is why National Forests limit the number of permits they sell and have specific rules and regulations in place.
We originally planned to pick up a couple of Christmas tree permits from the Tahoe National Forest, but they sold out before we could head out there. Luckily, the Eldorado National Forest still had some permits available so we headed out to pick them up, along with a map showing where we could cut.
While the prices, rules, and regulations vary from one forest to the next, our permits were $10 each and you could purchase up to 4 permits per family. We’re currently camp hosting and won’t be moving until after the holidays, so we purchased 2 permits. This way we could have a Christmas tree outside our RV, and another one inside. You’re unable to re-sell any trees you cut, but can give them away, something we may want to do next year.
If you plan to cut down your own Christmas tree in the National Forest, here are some things to bring along:
What to Bring Christmas Tree Hunting
- Christmas Tree Cutting Permit(s)
- Hand Saw
- Rope – to tie down the tree
- Tarp (we used an old sheet) – to protect the car or help drag the tree back to your car
- Measurements of tree you can fit and Measuring Tape
- Full tank of gas
- Dress in layers – bring hats and jackets
Don’t forget to check the weather ahead of time, let someone know where you’re headed, and keep an emergency kit in your car, along with extra blankets. You never know what the weather or road conditions will be like up in the mountains, especially during the winter. Not to mention service can be really spotty. If you have snow chains, it’s a good idea to bring those too, just in case.
The area we decided to search first was just past Kyburz, which is near Lake Tahoe. Part of me wanted to head this direction just so I could grab a photo of their welcome sign, it cracks me up every time we pass it.
Once we were in the forest we did a lot more “Christmas tree hunting” from the car, then on foot since we didn’t have a ton of time and were trying to scope out the area before parking and getting out. I want to say we didn’t actually make it into the area we could cut until 3ish or so and we knew it would be dark by 5. That didn’t leave us a ton of time to really explore the area. Whoops.
Tip: Leave EXTRA early!
We really should have left our RV much earlier, but didn’t get out until 10:30 or so, then had to drive 30 minutes to grab a hand saw at Home Depot, then stopped at Starbucks, then stopped for a potty break, then had to stop at the Ranger Station for the map and permits, and then had to drive another hour to get to the forest.
We also realized trees are much taller than you think from a distance, especially when surrounded by MUCH taller trees. We would find one that looked great, only to realize it was 10 feet tall… a tad too big for our RV. And no, you don’t want to be that guy that cuts the top off a tall tree. Not cool, or legal actually.
At one point we found a nearly perfect tree, only to realize it was close to a private property line and we weren’t sure if it was all that legit, so the search continued.
Our time was mostly spent doing lots of driving, followed by several stops to get out and walk/half run for 20 minutes while checking out trees along the way. Then we would go back to the car and repeat.
Just as the sun was beginning to set, we found an awesome tree!
It checked all the regulation boxes including being within 10 feet of other trees, was WAY shorter than 20 feet, and had a diameter under 6 inches. Eric grabbed the saw and in less than a minute we were walking back to the car with our very first Christmas tree in hand, woo-hoo!
Okay so we later realized it was suuuuuppppper crooked and very grinchy looking, but it’s these imperfections that make it so perfect in my eyes.
While there were a few other trees in the area that would work, we were running out of light and decided to come back another day instead of quickly cutting one down. This was mostly because we had such a fun time and were excited to spend another day walking through the forest searching for a second tree.
After spending a couple of hours driving the windy roads back to the RV, we decided to head to a different part of the National Forest the second time around, an area that was only supposed to be an hour away. Only when Eric stopped by the Ranger Station we found out most of the area near the entrance was privately owned by a logging company, and we would have to drive another hour to get to public forest lands. And while the area we thought we would be in had decent road conditions, we found out the area we would need to drive to had snow and icy roads.
Tip: Call your ranger station ahead of time or look over the map online to see where you’ll need to drive. Also, check out the road and weather conditions!
The drive was beautiful and the snow made it even more magical. My idea of Christmas tree hunting involves cold temperatures and lots of snow (again, thanks Grizwalds!) so this was even better than the day before.
Or at least it was until we got about 15 minutes away and discovered the curvy, icy roads were getting worse.
We have 2WD, no chains (well, we didn’t at the time), and Eric was worried we would be coming back when it gets dark and that road would be worse. I was pumped to keep going but Eric made the grown-up decision to turn around and have us come back even earlier the next day when the temperature was supposed to be slightly higher.
We did get out and walk around just to enjoy the area while we were there, but it was bittersweet.
I’m glad Eric was driving and made that decision because it was a smart move, but that didn’t necessarily make it an easy decision. I was just so excited and wanted to go find our tree, but was definitely good with another excuse to come back out to the forest.
Some may see this as a failure, but I see it as an adventure… and a learning experience…
Alright, so we made it back out to the Eldorado National Forest, this time all the way to Loon Lake, where the ranger had told us we could find areas to cut down our Christmas tree. I’ll admit that it was a bit trickier trying to figure out what lands were public vs. private in this area, which is why we wanted to make sure we drove far enough.
It was snowy and pretty, and we had enough time to explore and find our second tree.
And I’m happy to say that on day 3 we found our second tree, a really pretty red fir (silver-tip) that you can see behind us in the photo below.
Lucky for us, the trees we picked out were not super full, heavy, or tall, so Eric was able to cut them down with ease, carry them to the car, and they even fit inside our Jeep so we didn’t have to tie either one down.
One tip we would give anyone looking for Christmas trees in the Eldorado Forest North of HWY 50, is to make a right onto Ice House Road rather than a left towards Loon Lake. As we were leaving the forest we went this direction to avoid the icy roads (it did add time to our drive but was worth it) and saw a ton of Red Fir trees in all sizes this direction.
Overall, we had a blast Christmas tree hunting in the National Forest and absolutely plan to make this a tradition every year. Here are a couple photos of our trees back at the RV.
I flocked the one below, which we originally planned to bring inside the RV, but it was a bit wide. I actually love it more outside anyway, we just have to make sure it doesn’t get wet.
There are pros to going to a local tree farm since it can save you time, they generally have refreshments or activities, and most have a tree shaking machine to help rid the tree of any critters. With that said, we really enjoyed Christmas tree hunting in the National Forest, and highly recommend looking into it! The permits are super affordable but you’ll want to take the cost of gas and anything else you’ll need into consideration. We shook our trees really well to make sure no buggies hitched a ride, but that could be another good reason to have it roped to the top of your vehicle vs. putting it inside.
The best part of searching for our Christmas tree was the experience. We had a blast hiking through the woods with McNally and wouldn’t change a thing.
Besides, what’s better than fresh mountain air and the sweet smell of evergreens? Nothing if you ask me!
If you’ve wandered into the forest to cut down your own Christmas tree, let us know about your experience in the comments below!