Makenzie Whittle: Tree hunting makes for a perfect family outing

BEND, Ore. — The woods smell sweeter in the winter. Maybe it’s the cold, the stillness or maybe because one of the quintessential scents of the season waft from every evergreen.

Normally, I avoid cold-weather activities but this time of year, yet I relish in the trip to the forest to select the perfect Christmas tree with my family.

It’s not too late if you want to take the trip to one of Central Oregon’s forests and find your own favorite fir or pine to adorn with decorations and lights. Plus, spending the day walking through the sweet-smelling woods with family or quarantine pod can be a refreshing and quaint way to spend a morning or afternoon.

It’s been a while since we have loaded up in the trusty 4-wheel-drive sled and gone trudging through the snow to cut down a fresh fir from the forest, having opted for the artificial kind for the past several winters. But 2020 has been quite the roller coaster, and bringing back the real thing seemed right.

So, my dad, Mike, and sister, Heather, set out one Saturday morning to the Deschutes National Forest near Camp Sherman to pick out our trees, and we weren’t the only ones. Countless cars had evergreens strapped to their roofs, and several pickups and SUVs lined the U.S. Forest Service roads near the community.


My dad, not one for conforming, drove deeper and deeper into the woods near a spot he used to cut firewood years before near Sheep Springs Campground.

The forest road had no tracks in the snow, and we were the only ones for miles.

Despite the cloud cover and chilly conditions, it felt like the perfect day to find our trees.

Making a day out of Christmas tree hunting with your loved ones is a fun winter activity, no matter your age. My sister and I are firmly in our 30s now, but spending the day with our father is still a welcome adventure. All you need is a permit, a good sense of direction (or a map) and something to cut the tree down — you don’t need much.

Bundle up and be prepared for snowy conditions and bring snacks and hot drinks to sip after the tree is loaded onto your car. Add a nip of an adult libation — for those not driving and of age — for an extra festive kick.

For our cutting site, we were welcomed by boughs of towering firs heavy with fresh snow and the clouded view of Black Butte and Green Ridge over an old burn area. Take in the sights, the sounds and, yes, the smells.

Be ready to walk through snow too — the best trees reside just off the beaten path. Some folks even strap on their cross-country skis or snowshoes to make the day that much more of an adventure.

Hiking through the snow, we came upon several prospects before settling on the two that would come home with us. Most were too tall, had weird gaps in the branches, too scraggly or were bunched with another tree. The hunt is half the fun.


It requires a little more effort to down your own tree , but the experience of getting it is worth the extra elbow grease. And while the forest is big, it doesn’t mean you can just go walking willy-nilly with a chainsaw.

First, you’ll need a permit, which can be purchased this year online through the Deschutes National Forest Service website or several stores throughout Central Oregon; notably, every Bi-Mart location has them, as well as other local stores. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, Forest Service offices are closed to the public, and they are not selling permits.

The $5 tag (or $7.50 if you buy it online) must then be placed on the tree where it is visible as you drive it back home, or the printed online permit must be displayed on your car dashboard. Households are limited to five permits.

The Deschutes and Ochoco national forests are open to tree cutting, but you will need a map to ensure that you are on Forest Service land and not private property. Always check before you go.

Where you end up going can dictate what trees you’ll be able to cut down — whether you want the very Bend ponderosa pine or lodgepole, or the classic Douglas or white fir to take up residence in your living room for the next few weeks (or whenever you decide to take it down). According to the Forest Service website, pines are found on the flatter and lower elevations near Bend and on the south and west oriented hills near Prineville, whereas the firs (and incense cedars if you’re inclined) are in the higher elevations around Bend and Sisters as well as the north and east hills around Prineville.

Once you’re up there, take care to follow the guidelines for cutting: all trees must be under 12 feet tall; within 20 feet of another tree; beyond 150 feet of state highways, campgrounds and developed areas; beyond 300 feet of streams and bodies of water; outside of young, replanted areas (tree plantations); and outside of wilderness areas or Newberry National Volcanic Monument.

Take care when you’re out and about looking for a tree — conditions can change quickly and always go prepared for any kind of weather. Also, know your and your car’s limits. Don’t try and take your sedan up a Forest Service road that has about 12 inches of snow on it.

With Christmas upon us, it’s not too late to spend the day with kith and kin out in the woods finding that perfect conifer to bring home.

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