Monday was cold and cloudy. Falling snow kept threatening to turn into a snowstorm, then stopping, then threatening again. Clouds obscured the hills and mountains. It was a perfect day, in short, to drive a Ford Taurus with questionable brakes up a forest service road in search the most elusive of quarries—a perfect Christmas tree. Ok, that makes it sound way more epic than it actually was, but Christmas tree hunting makes me feel pretty epic. In reality, we live in Missoula, Montana and you could walk almost any direction from downtown and end up in a National Forest. Even our car, which is faithful, reliable, and well past its prime, can reach prime Christmas tree hunting grounds.
Of my many holiday traditions—like watching White Christmas, eating cookies, and suffering from fudge-induced stomach aches—Christmas tree hunting is my favorite. It has all of the thrills of actual hunting with none of the mess. And you don’t have to be sneaky. It’s like a safari, a picnic, and a hike all rolled into one. Did I mention that permits are only $5.00? What could possibly be a better use of your time than tramping through the snowy forests of Montana in search of a perfect tree? There are some things to remember as you plan your tree safari. First, to get a tree on National Forest or BLM land, you need to purchase a $5.00 permit. Fortunately, you can get a permit at any Ranger District office, and at many local businesses, all of which I have put into a list for your convenience. Once you get your permit you need to drive into the National Forest and wander at least 200 feet from any road, campground, or body of water, only then can you begin your quest. When selecting a tree, the Forest Service has some rules: First, don’t cut a ponderosa pine. Second, the tree must be less than 12 feet tall. Third, the tree must be smaller than you house. Ok that last one isn’t a Forest Service rule, but it is good advice that we learned last year. When you cut your tree, make sure that the stump is less than 5 inches high. Sawing through a less-than-12-foot-tall tree is not an impressive feat, but go ahead a feel tough and cool anyway. I know I do. If you haven’t already, make Christmas tree hunting a tradition this year. You’ll never want to get your tree from the grocery store parking lot again.