Steve Graepel worked in partnership with Visit Idaho to create this Travel Tip.

I’m an outdoorsy, woodsy kinda guy. I like my flannel plaid, my coffee black and my mornings crisp. But I gotta share a little secret: I haven’t had a real Christmas tree in my house for over a decade.

BCE (before children enveloped everything), my wife and I lived the simple life. We worked out when we wanted to, we ate out when we wanted to, and we bought an artificial tree. It wasn’t just any tree. No, our tree was the Sequoia of artificial trees. With its perfectly pyramidal limbs structured from rebar and strung with spools of industrial-grade lights … it could suspend a tonnage of unboxed ornaments. The Sequoia also weighed in at just over 50 pounds.

Last year while cursing my yearly unboxing ritual, my wife peaked her head in the garage and gently hinted “maybe it’s time…”

Time indeed. This was the year we were going to start a new tradition. Set to reclaim my pastoral self, I grew a beard, pulled out my Carhartts, and I bought a folding saw. I was going to lead my clan into the wild where we were going to find and cut down our very own evergreen.

family hiking a hill
Heading out to find a tree. Photo Credit: Steve Graepel.

With a lunch packed, truck racked, and saw sharpened, our family made the easy drive into Idaho City where we picked up a permit at the Boise National Forest district office. We were handed a brochure with instructions, a green permit to tag our tree, and a tour of the regional roads with suggestions on where to “find a fine fir.”

10 miles up the road we found a small double track that disappeared into the thickets. Lined with snow and rutted by water, the road-come-trail climbed precariously into the hills. A better option would have been to leave the car down by the highway and hike the mile up the hill. We parked the rig next to a handful of other families jammed at the end of the road.

Engaged in the hunt, the family immediately rolled out of the rig and dispersed across the hill, scattering in pursuit of the perfect tree. When we found a likely candidate, we grouped, hemmed and hawed over the pros and cons of its imperfections. Not quite satisfied, my daughter, with the keen eye of an arborist, pointed across the valley and shouted “look, a stand of perfect trees!”

family hiking
Could the perfect tree be here? Photo Credit: Steve Graepel.

We scampered down the hill, across the gully and over to the small island of trees. Indeed, one of them would be ours. The kids agreed and I drew the saw, measured from the ground, and with a few swift motions of the saw, felled the mighty 12-foot pine.

man next a pine tree
Timber! Photo Credit: Steve Graepel.

With our new tree hoisted over my shoulder, we walked down the hill hooping and hollering, shouting about our victorious find. We spent the afternoon trimming the tree with just the right amount of lights and ornaments to balance its awkward gaps. But for us, it was indeed the perfect tree.

man withree
Time to take home the perfect tree. Photo Credit: Steve Graepel.

We’ve since recycled our old artificial tree. Do I miss it? It was ‘perfect’ in many ways, but what it lacked…was a narrative. It was missing a story. The story about the time we drove to the end of a ridiculously narrow road, the time we picked, cut and hauled our Christmas tree out of the woods and the time my dog came home tuckered from lapping us up and down the hill all morning. Stories that will be recounted and shared for years to come. The experience was … perfectly imperfect.

Things to Know:

  • Permits are available at Payette, Boise, and Sawtooth National Forest stations and partnering vendors.
  • Vendors will provide maps and details about roads and conditions to safely harvest a tree.
  • Permits are valid through December 25.
  • Permits will run you $10 (cash only at the backcountry vendors; though the forest service will take a card).
  • Have a fourth-grader in your family? has an online voucher that you can print out and bring to your Forest Service office for a free tree permit.
  • Bring a saw or other tools of extraction.
  • Only cut trees under 12 feet tall.
  • Cut the tree to within six inches of the ground’s surface.
  • Trees extending four feet beyond your vehicle are required by law to have red or fluorescent orange flagging.
  • Pack food, water, and an emergency kit.
  • Wear boots, warm clothes, and be prepared for wet weather.
  • Most trees can be found a short drive off the highway. If the weather is iffy, consider taking a 4-wheel drive vehicle if you plan to leave the highway.
  • Plan to make a day of it.

Artist, writer, adventurer, father of two, Steve Graepel is in constant pursuit of the balanced life. Living in Idaho, he can pursue it with gusto. Steve’s work has appeared in National Geographic Adventure, Patagonia’s The Cleanest Line and

Steve and his wife Kelly live in Boise, Idaho with their two children, Chloe and Ethan.

Published on November 20, 2018