Pick Your Own Christmas Tree in a National Forest This Year

The winter holidays are quickly approaching, and the U.S. Forest Service is here to help you get ready. For the second year in a row, the agency is selling Christmas tree permits through Recreation.gov. Permits for participating national forests went live on October 14, but don’t worry—it’s not too late to get one in most locations.

The arrangement is mutually beneficial for all involved. Although prices vary by forest—from free to $20, plus service fees and tax—a permit is almost certainly cheaper than buying a tree off the lot. Harvesting Christmas-tree sized saplings helps to thin the forests, making them healthier and less prone to the destructive fires becoming more common in the western U.S.

Tramping into your local public land to find a tree is a magical experience, as United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service Chief Randy Moore well knows.

Child sitting on the roof of a car with mom standing next to a freshly cut Christmas tree.
Photo courtesy of Recreation.gov

“Every tree that is found, cut, and carried home creates a new story,” said Moore in a press release from the Forest Service. “These stories become the memories and traditions we carry on for generations and further connect families with their local forests.”

In that kid-friendly vein, the Forest Service offers the Every Kid Outdoors Pass. If you have a fourth-grader (or equivalent age, roughly 8- to 10-year-olds) your family is eligible for the pass, which among its other benefits comes with a free holiday tree permit voucher.

A couple tying a fresh cut Christmas tree to the top of their car.
Photo courtesy of Recreation.gov

How to Score a U.S. Forest Service Christmas Tree Permit

We reached out to the Forest Service for some advice on navigating the tree permit system. Janelle Smith, a spokesperson for Recreation.gov, recommended the following steps:

  • Log in to your existing Recreation.gov account, or create a new account (it’s free).
  • Find your local forest through the search tool or on the map and follow the prompts from there.
  • Don’t forget to carefully review and verify the need-to-know information prior to making your purchase.
  • Still confused? Here’s an in-depth how-to that walks you through the process.

Our pro tip? Find and follow your local National Forest’s Facebook page. As Smith pointed out, “Permits will be made available in or after mid-October. Some forests will continue to sell permits at their local offices and through cooperating vendors. Some popular areas offer a set number of permits, while others make permits available to all who apply.” Following along on social media is a great way to snag a permit as soon as they go on sale.

Not all national forests participate in the program, but the largest concentration of participating national forests is in the Pacific Northwest and the states of Colorado, Montana, and Idaho.

Here are some notable national forests with available permits for 2021:

  • Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, Arizona
  • Kaibab National Forest, Arizona
  • Klamath National Forest, California
  • Plumas National Forest, California
  • Six Rivers National Forest, California
  • Tahoe National Forest, California
  • Arapaho & Roosevelt National Forests, Colorado
  • Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre, and Gunnison National Forest, Colorado
  • Pike and San Isabel National Forest, Colorado
  • Rio Grande National Forest, Colorado
  • San Juan National Forest, Colorado
  • White River National Forest, Colorado
  • Ocala National Forest, Florida
  • Boise National Forest, Idaho
  • Idaho Panhandle National Forests, Idaho
  • Salmon-Challis National Forest, Idaho
  • Hiawatha National Forest, Michigan
  • Superior National Forest, Minnesota
  • Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, Montana
  • ​​Bitterroot National Forest, Montana
  • Custer Gallatin National Forest, Montana
  • Flathead National Forest, Montana
  • Nebraska National Forests and Grasslands, Nebraska
  • Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, Nevada
  • Cibola National Forest and Grasslands, New Mexico
  • Gila National Forest, New Mexico
  • Santa Fe National Forest, New Mexico
  • Deschutes National Forest, Oregon
  • Malheur National Forest, Oregon
  • Mt. Hood National Forest, Oregon
  • Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, Oregon
  • Willamette National Forest, Oregon
  • Black Hills National Forest, South Dakota
  • Dixie National Forest, Utah
  • Manti-La Sal National Forest, Utah
  • Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, Washington
  • Gifford Pinchot National Forest, Washington
  • Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, Washington
  • Olympic National Forest, Washington
  • Monongahela National Forest, West Virginia
  • Bighorn National Forest, Wyoming
  • Bridger-Teton National Forest, Wyoming
  • Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest & Thunder Basin National Grassland, Wyoming

Closeup of a man in a Santa hat with saw in hand cutting down a Christmas tree at a tree farm in Washington state.

Once you’ve secured your permit, you have a bit of research to do before setting off into the woods. Follow the standard hiking safety protocols: Let someone know where you are going; include an estimated return time; bring navigational equipment, food, and water; and make sure your vehicle can safely access your target area.

Here are additional tree-cutting tips from Recreation.gov.

  1. Measure the space in your house so you can pick the right size tree once you’re in the forest.
  2. Check road and forest conditions and prepare for adverse weather.
  3. Make sure you’re in a designated cutting area, or follow guidelines for locations where tree cutting is allowed. Avoid venturing onto private property.
  4. Choose a tree in an overcrowded stand to help thin the area.
  5. Cut your tree close to the ground; the stump you leave behind should be about 6 inches.
  6. Bring a rope and tarp to move your tree from the cutting area to your vehicle.
  7. Secure your tree to your vehicle to ensure it remains in place for your trip home.

Now all you have to do is pour the eggnog, throw on some music, and bring out the decorations.