Photo Credit: Volunteers, attendees and train staff load the boxcar with the Christmas tree picks. Photo by Pam Wilson

They came from near and far – Colorado, Oklahoma, Arizona, New Mexico and California – to enjoy a ride on the historic Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Train through the scenic Animas Valley AND to find and cut down their perfect Christmas tree.

This was the first year for the Christmas Tree Train–a unique partnership between the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, San Juan National Forest, San Juan Mountains Association (SJMA) and FireWise of Southwest Colorado — that offered families the opportunity for a new family tradition.

Attendees bought permits to cut their Christmas trees in the San Juan National Forest. Credit: Pam Wilson.

Attendees bought permits to cut their Christmas trees in the San Juan National Forest. Credit: Pam Wilson.

The train runs every Friday and Saturday prior to Christmas, provided Mother Nature cooperates and doesn’t drop too much snow. During the winter, the train travels only as far as the Cascade Wye, where passengers disembark and can spend about 30 minutes watching the wild Animas River flow by, or warming themselves by a fire before returning to Durango.

Our destination for tree-cutting was a couple hundred yards south of the Wye on the San Juan National Forest, in an area of fairly dense white fir. This tree species has no commercial value and is a common ladder fuel found under ponderosa pine. Many people like them for Christmas trees because the branches tend to be well spaced and show off ornaments well.

Tree cutters were free to roam the small section of forest and choose a tree of their liking. The trees were not marked; as long as it was less than 20 feet tall it could be cut. Volunteers were on hand to help search, cut and haul trees and take photos of families with their trees. It was a joy to see the delight on the faces of kids and adults alike as they found and cut their tree.

After re-boarding the train, tree cutters were treated to free hot chocolate and candy canes by train personnel.

On returning from our inaugural trip, Santa and Smokey were on hand to greet passengers (and we’re working to make sure that happens during each of the remaining weekends). The railroad owner, Al Harper, and San Juan Forest Supervisor, Kara Chadwick, were there, along with several media outlets.

Each train carries six or seven volunteers from the Forest Service, SJMA and FireWise, with free tickets provided by the railroad. On the trip up, volunteers share a little information about the Forest, and our organizations and thank passengers for cutting trees and helping us “manage the forest” by reducing the wildfire hazard and creating a safety zone for firefighters. The volunteers also sell the $­­­8 tree permits. On the return trip, we shared information on getting the trees off the boxcar and into their vehicles and wished everyone a Merry Christmas.

The railroad staff was absolutely awesome – they provided the handsaws for cutting trees, staff to load and unload trees from the boxcar, and twine for loading trees on cars. We all hope to do this again in 2016 and, invite you to join us. We know the family from Prescott, Arizona is coming back!

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