In true Griswold family tradition, you can pack your kids into the car, head over the river and through the woods and cut down a Christmas tree in the Shawnee National Forest
Christmas tree permits are free for fourth graders. Even if you don’t have a fourth grader this year, tree permits are very affordable for everyone else — if you’re willing to drive and chop, that is
Too good to be true? This may just make the list for experiences to enjoy as a family during the Christmas season, and we talked to one area family who successfully brought back a tree in 2020.
You can chop down your family’s own Christmas tree for a very modest price as part of a day trip just a few hours away from Champaign-Urbana — to Southern Illinois and the Shawnee National Forest.
And if you have a fourth grader this year, your tree can be FREE; just make sure your student is signed up for the Every Kid Outdoors program (also free).
2020 did a number of things to what may be our, er, norm when it comes to holiday traditions and memories. It’s also brought many of us to enjoy being outside in nature more than ever before.
So when we heard that you can cut down your own tree at many national forests, we dug into how this might work for Champaign-Urbana families. We learned you can get firewood, too! (If you have friends that live near other national forests, spread the word. Many offer this program.)
Why is the National Forest Service allowing people to cut down trees?
It turns out that cutting Christmas trees in National Forests is nothing new – and it happens in national forests across the country. For many families, this is an annual tradition.
Here’s what one USDA website says: “By cutting your own tree, you take an active part in managing your national forest.”
One ranger explained that this program keeps families connected to the forests, and teaches kids (and grownups) about different species of trees.
In 2019, this program was offered at Shawnee National Forest for the first time.
Some important things to consider:
- YOU MUST HAVE A PERMIT.
- There are very specific rules about where in the forests you can cut the trees.
- Each forest has limitations on the size of the tree you can cut and the species of trees that are permitted.
In the Shawnee National Forest:
- Only Eastern red cedar trees may be cut with your permit.
- Maximum tree height is 15 feet.
- You must take the whole tree, and leave very little stump (less than six inches).
How does this work?
This website is where to get your tree permit online beginning Nov. 15, 2021. Reminder: you don’t need to have a fourth grader.
If you have a fourth grader, you’ll want to start by making sure they’re signed up for Every Kid Outdoors. That will get you the voucher to cover the cost.
If you have a paper voucher for your student, you’ll enter it to cover the $5 cost. All tree permits (free or $5) have a $2.50 processing fee.
What next? Time to plan your trip
Once you have your permit, you’re going to want to review the list of tips and guidelines to make this a safe and fun experience for your family. (Click here to read what you need to know about cutting trees or harvesting firewood in nationals forests.)
Important tips include not cutting a tree within 150 feet of a body of water, not choosing a tree more than 15 feet tall, and being sure to chop down the whole tree, not just part of it.
In case you’ve never been, the Shawnee National Forest is HUGE and covers a large portion of Southern Illinois. As you may have guessed, there are specific areas in which you can choose your tree.
Find all the maps here. If you look at the Northeast maps, you’ll find spots about 3 hours and 15 minutes away from Champaign-Urbana. The further south you go, the more driving you’ll be doing.
Gas up the car, bring extra keys, pack lots of snacks and bundle up, kids — it is time to get a Christmas tree!
How do you cut down your tree?
Well, that’s really up to you. But you do have to bring your own tools. These are the helpful cutting tips, directly from the recreation.gov site for Shawnee National Forest’s Christmas tree program.
- Chainsaws can be used in cutting the tree, but trucks, tractors, winches, ATV/UTVs, or other mechanized equipment are not allowed to be used in dragging it out.
- Carry your tree carefully out of the woods. Dragging the tree will rub off needles and bark.
- Make sure there are no critters living inside your tree.
- If the tree is too big to transport inside your vehicle, wrap it in canvas to prevent wind damage.
- Once home, cut ½ to 1 inch off the bottom of the trunk and place the freshly cut trunk in a bucket of water. Replenish water regularly. If storing your tree outside for a few days before putting it in the house, keep it in an area protected from the wind.
- Tools you might want to consider bringing with you include a measuring tape to ensure you select a tree that fits in your home and meets the requirements of this permit; handsaw to cut your tree; gloves to protect your hands; boots to protect your feet; a tarp to sit on or to move your tree once it’s cut; and rope or straps to secure your tree to your vehicle.
- Choose a tree from a densely forested area, which will give the remaining trees more space to grow.
Real-life testimony from a Champaign family’s 2020 adventure
We sat down with Kate Carlson, a Champaign mom, and heard about the experience firsthand. Her family cut down a tree in the Shawnee National Forest in 2020. She says it was a good experience to do with the kids; the tree was light so kids could help carry it. The entire process (not including driving) took about two hours, start to finish. You can picnic in the parking lot or out in the woods while you’re there. They used a bow saw and had a rope. It is a good idea to wear brightly colored clothing because this is typically hunting season in Southern Illinois. Once they got it home, their tree lasted about as long as other live Christmas trees they’ve had in the past.
Kate also mentioned the trees were, er, a little “scraggly” and didn’t smell the absolute best BUT it was a fun experience to do once as a family.
Not up for the drive, but want a live tree?
There are lots of great options right around Champaign-Urbana if you are willing to pay a bit more than $5 (and desire to drive a bit less). We have rounded up the options for live Christmas trees in the Champaign-Urbana area here.
If you do make the trek to Shawnee National Forest to embark on this adventure, we’d love to hear how it goes!