Every tree has a different shape, smell, and color. Is your family looking for a deep, rich, dark green; a blue-green; or a light green tree? Something cone-shaped or more triangular? The hunt for the perfect Christmas tree is a fun, family-friendly event, so grab everyone and load up the car. It is an activity your kids will remember forever, so make a full day of it. Wake up, have a hearty breakfast together, and begin your journey! Go slowly and don’t rush the picking. It is best to do a walk-through of an area before you pick the one. Bring a thermos or two of hot chocolate or hot cider to enjoy when you are done chopping the tree down to celebrate the momentous event, and don’t forget these items on your way out to the hills: 

  • A saw (duh…)
  • Gloves
  • Rope
  • Permit!
  • Car Survival Kit
  • Tape Measure
  • 4-Wheel Drive Vehicle
  • Bright Colors – especially in deer/hunting seasons!

You will need the gloves to protect yourself, and I don’t mean winter gloves or mittens. You’ll want to break out the work gloves for this job. The rope will help you drag the tree out of the forest and secure it to the roof of your vehicle. Another thing you will want to remember is to dress in layers. In the Black Hills, the transition between a beautiful sunny day and a snowstorm can be fairly quick, so you want to be prepared for anything! It can take longer than you think to find the perfect tree for your home.

Now, you may be wondering what this “permit” business is all about. In order to chop down a tree from the Black Hills, you must purchase a tree permit. These are available from mid-November through the week before Christmas. They allow you and your family to choose from any ponderosa pine, spruce, or juniper tree in the hills. They cost $10 and can be purchased from most of the Forest Service offices. |

  • Forest Supervisor’s Office

1019 N. 5th Street

Custer, SD 57730 Phone: (605) 673-9200

Fax: (605) 673-9350

Hours:  8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday – Friday

E-mail: SM.FS.r2_bkf_webin@usda.gov 

Located north of Custer on the west side of Highway 16.

  • Northern Hills Ranger District

2014 N. Main Street

Spearfish, SD 57783

Phone: (605) 642-4622

Fax: (605) 642-4156

Hours:  8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday – Friday

  • Mystic Ranger District

8221 Mount Rushmore Road

Rapid City, SD 57702

Phone: (605) 343-1567

Fax: (605) 343-7134

Hours:  8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday – Friday


Along with the permit, purchasers receive a brochure that guidesthem through the process and shares some dos and don’ts (e.g., the maximum height is 20 feet (6.1 m); you must cut the stump within six inches of the ground). Of course, there are a few exceptions to where you can hunt, including Spearfish Canyon, Jasper Fire area (near Custer), Black Elk Wilderness, campgrounds and administrative sites, Beaver Park (near Sturgis), and Black Hills Experimental Forest (near Roubaix Lake/Rochford). 


If you don’t want to go out into the Black Hills but you and your family still want a real tree, take a trip over to the Christmas tree lot run by the Club for Boys! For all you parents out there (or the young at heart), it will be like reliving the Charlie Brown Christmas special! If you need a refresher on what that looks like, check out 
this clip from the timeless classic. Their lot has a variety of pines including the Black Hills Spruce, Scotch Pine, Ponderosa Pine, White Pine, Balsam Fir, Grand Fir, Fraser Fir, Noble Fir, and Nordmann Fir. To learn about each individual variety, visit TheClubForBoys.org.

Another important thing to remember that most people don’t think to do, is to shake the tree before leaving the lot. You never know what critters and creepy crawlies the tree has picked up over the years. Shaking the tree will rid it of any nests, loose pine beetles, and unwelcome bugs before journeying into your house. To test the tree’s longevity, there are a couple of tricks you and the kids can perform. Ask the kids to slightly bend the outer branches. If they snap off easily and seem too brittle, the tree is too dry. You can also cup your hands around the needles and run a branch through them. The needles should stay on the tree. When you finally chop down the tree, count down from three with the whole family before the final blow so the kids can all join in yelling, “TIMBERRR!

If you’re going straight from the hills to your home, cut a slice off the trunk just above the original cut and soak it in a bucket of water. It is important to keep the tree watered at all times. Cutting the thin slice off first will help the tree absorb water more quickly. Make sure that you do not put your tree next to any fireplaces, stoves, or heating vents. 

WORDS BY SARAH RICHARDS