Oh Christmas Tree

This year we set out to cut our own Christmas tree, something we have never done before. In earlier years, we purchased from local Christmas tree lots. A few years later, we gave in to the convenience of an artificial tree, and then (gasp) we permanently wired the lights.

But this year we did our research and planned a day trip to high country to harvest a real one.

First thing to know is that most of the land northeast of the Phoenix metro area is in the Tonto National Forest. So you can’t just grab your ax and flannel shirt, and merrily proceed with your Paul Bunyan impression.

I made a quick run down to the Tonto National Forest HQ in Phoenix to pick up a tree permit and maps. TNF offers a few thousand tree permits starting in mid-November (along with, in lesser numbers, Apache-Sitgreaves NF in far eastern AZ, Kaibab NF in far northern AZ, Prescott NF in central-west AZ, and Coconino NF around Flagstaff and much of the Mogollon Rim). The Arizona Republic recently published more details here.

TNF HQ customer service rep Kyle Behrens sold me the $15 tag for the tree, and provided a couple of pages with maps for the cutting area, and tree cutting tips.

While I was there, I picked up a couple of free publications he had on-hand, as well as purchasing a great map of the Tonto National Forest. You know I’m a guy who appreciates a good, printed map!

I also purchased a TNF “Discovery Pass” for access to areas other than developed campgrounds, like shorelines and picnic sites; thinking ahead to some boondocking we are planning for the spring and summer.

Looking at some Christmas tree cutting tips from Chevrolet–the first one being, “measure first”–we determined that in our small house, a Charlie Brown Christmas tree would be just fine. See more tips, below.

We recruited a couple of enthusiastic family members to go along for a fun, multi-generational day in the forest. And we loaded up some gear, based on recommendations from the Tonto National Forest literature that came with the tree tag; like tire chains, a shovel, tarp, cargo net, straps, water, and snacks.

It’s important to emphasize that many areas in the TNF are beyond cell phone service. So be prepared, check weather before you go, etc.

The pinon pine trees around our normal Payson haunts don’t have quite the Christmas tree look we wanted. And the Ponderosa pines farther north don’t lend themselves very well, either. You can find one that will work, but it takes some looking.

With a tip from the friendly folks at the TNF Payson Ranger District, we set out in search of a spruce; one of three more-suitable species that I didn’t know were found in TNF (including Douglas Fir and White Fir).

To get where we were going, we had to pass the 260 Cafe (on Highway 260), where their BLAT (Bacon-Lettuce-Avocado-and-Tomato) sandwiches made a great lunch. We finished off a couple of slices of their famous pie (one cherry, one chocolate cream) before we ambled onward.

From there, the weather and roads were both good, so it didn’t take too long to find a stand of smaller spruce trees. We selected a tree that was crowded up against another one, in an area that was marked for clearing anyway.

It was barely big enough that we needed a limb saw to harvest it, and limb loppers were sufficient for trimming.

Having brought a canvas tarp and a cargo net, we made a token effort to load the tree on the roof. But flipping down one side of the third row seat in the roomy Chevy Traverse allowed us to put the tree and a few trimmed branches inside the vehicle for easy transport.

Here’s a tip not on the list: If you are going to put the tree or trimmings inside the vehicle, it’s helpful to know that the tarp you brought for the roof will also minimize interior cleanup! (Don’t ask how I know:)

As we drove back through Payson, we took a rural side street where we happened to see a magnificent bull elk lounging in the sun on an adjacent trail. That was quite an addition to our day in the woods!

The Payson Ranger District folks told us that surprisingly they have a few tree permits left, in case you’d like to cut your own this year. Permits (as long as they are available) are good through Christmas Eve. Tonto National Forest public affairs officer Carrie Templin says that Tonto National Forest personnel are delighted to help all of us keep up this family tradition; and they want us to enjoy the National Forests responsibly and safely.


  1. Be prepared: Always make sure to measure the space in your home and car so you know exactly what size tree will fit as you pick one out.  Don’t forget to leave enough room for the tree topper!
  2. Stay warm: Bundle up, wear boots and bring a pair of gloves to make sure you stay warm when chopping down your tree. Whether it’s snowing or wet outside, be sure to bring a piece of cardboard to kneel on while you cut your tree down.
  3. Choose Wisely: Most tree farms have a lot of options to choose from, so take your time and inspect the trees before you pick one out. The National Christmas Tree Association recommends testing out the branches to make sure the tree isn’t too dry or unhealthy.
  4. Chop Chop: Cut your tree low to the ground and straight across. Have a buddy pull the tree slightly away from the side you’re cutting to prevent the saw from binding and make it easier to cut all the way through.
  5. Always use Cross-Rails: Cross rails should be properly installed on top of your car to transport the tree home. Creating a hitching post with the roof rails makes it easier to tie the tree down.
  6. Use a sleeve: All trees should be put into netting or a sleeve for easy transport. Make sure the tree isn’t longer than the roof of your car once wrapped up to ensure a safe drive home.
  7. Stump first: Put the stump-end of the tree towards the front of your car. It’s the most aerodynamic (and fuel efficient!) way to transport your tree home.
  8. Tie it down tight: Lay your tree directly overtop the cross rails, loop twine over and around, and repeat to cinch with a “figure-8” motion. This will help protect the tree from moving around while you drive.
  9. Stabilize the tree: You can always use more twine and crisscross across the street for extra support if you need it.
  10. Don’t forget to water your tree: Make sure you put your tree into water immediately when you get home and place it away from heat sources like fireplaces or radiators that can dry it out. The tree will drink up a lot of water the first couple of days so make sure to check on the water level throughout the season. That way you can keep it alive and healthy all holiday season long!


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