Every year, timed around the holidays, the Forest Service in certain parts of Colorado put on a little program that allows you to cut down your own Christmas Tree. When my buddy Wes posted on our local off-road club's Facebook page that they were setting up a group run to go get a tree, I knew that is a trip I did not want to miss. The plan was to go up on a Saturday morning to run one of my favorite trails in Northern Colorado and finish it off by cutting down a tree for Christmas.
We started the adventure by meeting at Sevenmile Road, which is an awesome trail located about 1 hour west of Fort Collins. Upon getting to the trailhead, we ran into my good friend Tim, who also happens to be a Trails Offroad author. He told us that he was going to explore up higher in elevation, but ended up getting turned around by the Forest Service since they were running the tree cutting program. So Tim and his good friend Doug came back down and joined us for this adventure!
This trail has a bit of everything (trees, rocks, mud, water crossings, camping), but most importantly, it is open during the winter months. So we all got on the same HAM channel and started up the trail. We were confronted by the usual ice walls that this trail has the tendency to create since it weaves in and out of the creek, however, they were not bad at this time of year (they can sometimes get up to 18+" tall and can be very tricky to navigate without the proper vehicle).
My buddy Ben made quick work of the snow and ice walls in his "slightly modified" FJ60. By "slightly modified", I mean this thing has a Cummins diesel in it. It is an awesome vehicle to see and hear out in the woods. I think he said he has around 1500 hours into the build so far with an FJ80 frame swap in the very near future.
We continued forward up the trail and by now the snow was really coming down! We safely got to the intersection of the Stump Hill obstacle, which is a part of this trail that is only open during the winter. We opted to stay on the trail and save Stump Hill for another day as we were getting to the shelf part of the road. In normal summer conditions, the shelf road is easy, but we were dealing with about 18" of snow already on the trail, and it was coming down a few inches per hour. A stock 4th gen 4Runner had gotten stuck in a wind drift on the approach to the shelf road. Their crew had tried to pull him out a few times, followed by subsequent rounds of having him keep on the throttle to bash through the snow, but with no lift and stock tires, it just didn't have enough clearance. Tim ended up getting out the Bubba Rope and gave him one big yank with his JL. We freed up the 4Runner, and it was our turn to conquer the hill.
I started our group up the trail in my 2005 Toyota Sequoia, which is mildly built with 33s and a 2.5" lift kit. This was the moment of truth, whether we were all going to make it up or not. I knew I had to keep my foot on the gas for the entirety of this section of trail. Stopping would mean getting stuck and blocking all traffic, possibly putting the group into a potentially dangerous recovery situation.
I shifted into drive, and floored it! I bashed through the snow that the stock 4runner had gotten stuck in, and just barely made it through. With a smile on my face and my blood pumping, I rounded the first corner. I can hear the engine roaring, but all of a sudden, my speed drops to a halt, and I get stuck. I radio back to the group saying to hold up while I assess the situation. We had made it this far and I was damned if I had to turn around.
I put it in reverse, backed up 10 or so feet, put it in drive, and gave it full gas again! Stuck! Ok, one more shot. It is going to happen! With my fingers crossed, I put it in drive, and mashed on the gas with my hands gripping the wheel. We approach the point where I kept getting stuck and blast through it this time! Success! With moderate speed and my nerves letting me know that now is not the time for anything but full gas, we round each turn, slipping and sliding. Turn by turn, we were feeling good about our small wins and eventually made it all the way to the top! We did it, and now I have to wait for the rest of the crew to make it up.
A few conversations on the HAM radios, and one by one, each vehicle pops out of the snow and reaches the summit. We all made it to the top where it is flat and wide open... just time for lunch! It is amazing how hungry a few nervous sections of trail makes me. We all pulled next to each other and got the stoves and kettles out.
As I walked around all of our vehicles, the air was smelling of hotdogs, quesadillas, and hot coffee. We were ecstatic to be up here at the top. We all relaxed and socialized for about 30 minutes, eating and talking about the previous parts of the trail we just ran. Now was the time that we all came for, to cut down the Christmas trees!
Our next trail to get to the Tree Cutting was Swamp Creek Road, which they had renamed for the program as Smokey Bear Road (map below). We saw a lot of families while we were up here, including happy kids in a few of our vehicles. This is a seriously cool family activity! It is an awesome program because not only does it allow people to safely and legally venture out in the woods to cut down their own tree, it helps clean out some of the undergrowth that can be potentially harmful during the high fire risk months. It also helps donate to the USFS who helps maintain our precious public lands, which permits are $20 per tree. The Canyon Lakes Ranger District does a great job of marking the trails for the public to go cut down a tree.
After talking with the Forest Ranger, he recommended we go and check out Blitzen Lane, which he said had a great stand of trees he thought would make good Christmas tree candidates. We fired up our engines and headed that way. These trails are much flatter and less challenging that Sevenmile Road, and can easily be done in a stock AWD/4WD vehicle. Upon reaching Blitzen Lane, we had found a place to stop, pull aside and get the hand saws out. We walked down the trail and found us some great looking Lodgepole Pines. Wes was the first one to cut down his tree.
With a saw in one hand and a tree in the other, Wes trudged through the snow and made it back to where we had all parked. The last piece of the puzzle was to get it on top of the truck. He hoisted it to the roof, tied it down, and voila...a freshly cut Christmas tree for the holidays.
This was a great day out in the woods with our local club. If you are looking for local people to wheel with, a club is always a great place to start. A legitimate club (versus something like a Facebook club) will ask for dues in the form of payment, but don't let that turn you away. The money goes towards the group and also goes towards trail advocacy and keeping trails open. This particular club that ran this event was the Horsetooth 4 Wheelers Group. Here is a quick blurb about them on their website.
"Horsetooth 4 Wheelers (Est. 2001) is Northern Colorado's TLCA Chapter Club. We welcome all Toyota 4x4 owners to join us explore the trails of Colorado and Wyoming! As a club we have one meeting, and at least one trail run each month. Membership dues are $50 per year per person, of that $20 is donated to non-profit organizations which actively work to maintain access to Colorado 4x4 trails. By joining us you are helping stem the never ending attempt to close OHV trails."
From all of us at Trails Offroad, we wish you a safe and happy holiday season, and we will catch you out on the trails!