The Christmas Tree Adventure

A new twist on the annual outing

Ted Mahon
Stuck in the Rockies
Markley Hut under the starry sky of a new moon. (Ted Mahon)

It’s the holiday season! And what could be more fun than heading out into the hills to cut down a Christmas tree? How about combining it with a hut trip?

Our annual Christmas tree-cutting adventure has been one of our favorite holiday traditions for the past 15 years. Each winter, we’ve explored the far reaches of our local forests in search of the perfect tree. We’ve been on foot, snowshoe and ski, from Ruedi Reservoir to McClure Pass to Ashcroft.

We love the annual outing. Romping around in the snowy woods in search of a tree to grace our modest living room makes us feel like kids again. And because we try to pick a different location each year, it’s always memorable and never routine.

Now don’t get me wrong, buying a farm-raised tree from a lot is perfectly OK. There are many reasons why it’s the most sensible option. But when you go that route, you’re bypassing what might be the most remarkable part of the whole tradition. By jumping right to the decorating phase, you miss out on an opportunity to build some fun and adventure into the ritual.

The process is pretty straightforward. The first step is to purchase a permit. You can do that in person at the Sopris Ranger office in Carbondale or online at the website. The cost is $10.

The permit and map received from the WRNF ranger station. (Ted Mahon)

The Forest Service encourages the activity. Noted on the physical tag you get when you buy a permit is the statement, “You are helping neighboring trees to flourish by opening space for extra light and room.”

Maps are available to steer you to the recommended spots. Much of the White River National Forest is open to tree cutting. In addition to the locations mentioned above, you can head to Coal Basin, Huntsman’s Ridge, Hunter Creek, Independence Pass, or Sunlight Mountain, to name a few. Wilderness areas, ski areas, private property, and other select areas are off-limits.

Don’t cut a Blue Spruce. For those that were unaware, it’s the state tree. Instead, stick to Douglas or subalpine firs, lodgepole pine, or Englemann spruce. If you need a quick “know your trees” lesson, the ranger office in Carbondale has a great flyer to help identify them according to their needles and pine cones.

They also ask that you don’t cut any trees taller than 15 feet or 6 inches in diameter at its base. In addition, any tree you cut needs to be at least 100 feet from a road.

For the entrepreneurial tree-flippers looking to make a quick buck, the website explicitly notes: “Trees must be used for personal use and cannot be resold.” Considering the prices of Christmas trees for sale in downtown Aspen, I guess that needs to be said.

Scouting for trees, assessing the type by their needles. (Ted Mahon)

It’s up to you to decide how much of an adventure you want to make out of it. For example, if you have the kiddos with you and need to be quick, you can get something reasonably close to the car. Or you can include the tree cutting as part of a grander adventure, which is what we did this year.

We typically plan our outing as an après-ski adventure the weekend after Thanksgiving. However, this year, our friends had a reservation for the Markley Hut over that same weekend, and they invited us to join them. So we decided to merge the two into one big Christmas tree-cutting hut trip.

From the ghost town of Ashcroft, we made our way up the road for 2 miles to the Markley Hut, taking stock of the tree options along the way. We marked a few locations that warranted further exploration the following morning.

We arrived at the little cabin at 10,500 feet as the sun set behind Green Mountain. Once inside, we got the woodstove going, the appetizer spread on the table, and we whipped up a batch of whiskey slushies using some snow from around the hut. It was a welcome change of scenery for the night.

Stoking the fire at the hut.

Early the next day, our friends packed up and departed. They had to get back to town for work. So we hung around and enjoyed the morning— coffee, reading, writing an entry for the hut logbook, and waiting for it to warm up.

Once we were all packed up, we began making our way down to the trailhead, stopping at a couple of the locations to assess the options. At first, we didn’t find anything suitable. Natural trees are imperfect. They often grow unevenly, they can be crooked and have significant gaps in their branches, and those that grow on sidehills tend to be asymmetrical.

The Charlie Brown tree-lovers out there refer to those imperfections as “character.” But we had high standards, so we took our time and kept searching for just the right one.

Eventually, we found one. And not just any old tree, we actually think it might be the tallest, most full Christmas tree we’ve ever brought home.

It was undoubtedly the heaviest.

Hauling the Christmas tree out from Markley Hut. We optimistically thought we could ski the tree out, but light snow hindered that plan, and we had to hike. (Ted Mahon)

We hauled the tree out from the woods, up to the road, and carried it about a mile down to the trailhead. It might have been easier had there been more snow on the trail, but then again, if we weren’t up to the challenge, we would have just bought a tree in town.

Later that evening, the tree was up and decorated. As I reflected on the day, a thought dawned on me: Our decorated tree, while beautiful, often looks quite similar year-to-year. The lights, the ornaments, they don’t change much. But, on the other hand, the outing to get the tree is different every time. And that’s where the memories are made, and the fun part of the tradition lies.

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