Some things are still worth doing the old-fashioned way. That's how it is with Christmas trees: There's nothing quite like setting aside a sunny December afternoon for an outing to a tree farm. Let the kids run ahead and burn off steam while you wander through the acres of eligible trees, smelling the needles and picturing what each one might look like in your home until someone finally shouts, "That's the one!" As the kids count the rings around the freshly cut base of your new tree, count your own blessings that some Christmas traditions never change.
Look below for a list of the very best tree farms in your region―places where you can talk to the growers and spend a few hours breathing in the cool, crisp air. Sure, it takes longer than popping down to the local tree lot, but you'll be making the kind of long-lasting memories that the holidays are all about.
Choose the right tree ― and keep it fresh
• What to look for. A healthy tree will be lush and full with good proportions and even color. The tips of the branches should be green, not brown.
• Freshness test. Pick a few needles and bend each in half. For fir trees, each needle should snap cleanly; your fir's too dry if the needles arch without breaking. For pines, it's the opposite: The needles should bend without snapping.
• Shaking and baling. Many farms offer these services, and they're a good bet. Shaking the tree removes loose needles and any insects. Baling―wrapping the tree in twine―helps protect it on the way home.
• Recut at home. A few hours after a tree is cut, the trunk seals itself off and water can't pass through, so before you bring your tree inside, use a small handsaw to take an additional 2 inches off the base. Place in a tree stand with a reservoir.
• Check water daily. Trees drink a lot. In Sunset tests, a Douglas fir with a 4½-inch trunk took up a gallon of water during its first 24 hours at home. Plain water works just great, but an inexpensive commercial tree additive (sold at tree lots and nurseries) can keep your tree fresh longer.
Getting your tree home
• Have the tree baled at the farm, or wrap it in twine yourself―this helps keep it from drying out on the drive home. Most of a tree's water loss occurs through its needles.
• Face the cut end of the tree toward the front of your car so branches don't get bent the wrong way as you drive down the road.
• Most farms provide rope and twine to secure your tree. If you don't have a luggage rack, thread anchor ropes through your car's open windows.
Where to find them near you
Patchen California Christmas Tree Farm. Gather free pinecones and boughs for wreath making as you select your tree from this family-owned farm near Scotts Valley. We love that the owners snap digital pictures of visitors and post them online for families to download later. Nov 25-Dec 18. 22217 Old Santa Cruz Hwy.
LOOK FOR: Douglas fir, Monterey pine, and Sierra redwood.
Rancho Siempre Verde. This coastal farm near Año Nuevo State Reserve has a homespun, family-friendly spirit, with wreath-making tables and tons of different swings to play on. Nov 25 and Sat-Sun through Dec 24; wreath making $5. 2250 Cabrillo Hwy. (State 1); 650/326-9103.
LOOK FOR: Deodar cedar, Arizona cypress, Douglas fir, Monterey pine, and Sierra redwood.
Satterstrom's Christmas Tree Farm. Kids will love the free ride on what owner Mike Satterstrom calls his Christmas Trolley―a big red wagon pulled by a pair of black Percheron draft horses. Also a bonfire and views of the Kings River. Nov 25 until trees are sold out. 41255 Rd. 40; 559/897-3685.
LOOK FOR: Deodar cedar, incense cedar, Afghan pine, Monterey pine, Scotch pine, and coastal redwood, plus precut noble fir and silver tip fir.
Crest Ranch. The setting for this story―we love the sunny vistas across the Santa Cruz Mountains at this family-owned ranch. Founded in 1948, it's the oldest choose-and-cut farm in the West. Nov 19-Dec 24. 12500 Empire Grade Rd.; 831/426-1522.
LOOK FOR: Arizona cypress, Douglas fir, white fir, Scotch pine, Sierra redwood, and more.
Victorian Christmas Tree Ranch. The best thing here? Hunting for your tree at night by lantern (provided). Bob and Sally Parks take pictures of families who visit to add to the farm's scrapbooks and serve free cider and pumpkin-nut bread. Nov 25-Dec 24. 1220 Gravenstein Hwy. N.; 707/823-0831.
LOOK FOR: 14 varieties, including Douglas fir, grand fir, noble fir, Scotch pine, and Sierra redwood.
Casazza Christmas Tree Farm. In the dry hills below Cajon Pass, Gail Edwards grows 70 acres of trees. The farm's been around since 1955―Edwards's father bought the farm from its original owner in the '70s. A real old-school, country-style experience. Nov 19-Dec 20 (closed Nov 24). 6231 East Ave.; 909/980-2908.
LOOK FOR: Monterey pine, Sierra redwood, and Leyland cypress.
Peltzer Pines. The fourth-generation family operation runs four farms in the O.C.: Irvine, Orange, Yorba Linda, and Silverado (the most scenic of the four, and worth the drive). Monterey pines are cultivated from seed in the family's nursery, and their Leyland cypress seedlings come all the way from Georgia. Nov 19-Dec 22 (closed Nov 24). 714/289-1129.
LOOK FOR: Leyland cypress and Monterey pine.
Farmer Brown's Christmas Trees. Our best bet? Combine a tree hunt here with an overnight camping trip at nearby Potrero County Park. Farmer Brown's sells lovely, fluffy pines and homemade apple pies. Most visitors drive an hour from San Diego, but nearly one-quarter come from across the Mexican border, just 6 miles away. Nov 25-Dec 18. 25655 Potrero Park Dr.; 619/478-9297.
LOOK FOR: Monterey pine.
Santa Paula Christmas Tree Farm. One of the best tree farm experiences you'll find: Take a 45-minute train ride on the Fillmore & Western Railway ($20, 800/773-8724) to a gorgeous rural farm. Your chosen tree rides home on the train's special flat car. Nov 25-Dec 24 for train and driving visitors. 18540 E. Telegraph Rd.; 805/525-8268.
LOOK FOR: Douglas fir, noble fir, and Monterey pine.
Live Oak Canyon Christmas Tree Farm. Who'd have thought there could be a 450-acre farm just off the I-10? This is as full-service as tree hunting goes, with 9 acres of trees, plus free hayrides, a gift shop, and a petting zoo ($1) featuring baby mules Indy and Coal. Nov 12-Dec 21. 32335 Live Oak Canyon Rd.; 909/795-8733.
LOOK FOR: Aleppo pine, Monterey pine, and Sierra redwood.
Vollstedt Farms. Ride in a tractor-pulled wagon through the grounds of this 115-acre farm with wonderful vintage barn buildings. After you've chosen your tree, meet back in the greenhouse for free homemade cookies and cider. Bring binoculars for bird-watching on the farm's wetland areas. Wed-Sun Nov 25-Dec 17. 451 N.W. Quarry Rd.; 541/926-5640.
LOOK FOR: Douglas fir, grand fir, noble fir, and Nordmann fir.
Trees 'N Bees. Mrs. Claus tells stories and gives out free hot cocoa and treats on weekends at this family-owned 34-acre farm about 35 minutes from Seattle. Honeybees live here too, and the farm sells its own local honey, plus decorations, crafts, and homemade fudge, at an on-site store. Nov 25-Dec 21. 34747 162nd Ave. S.E.; 253/939-1149.
LOOK FOR: Douglas fir, grand fir, noble fir, Pacific silver fir, subalpine fir, pines, and Norway spruce.
Carnation Tree Farm. This eco-conscious 25-acre farm offers free tree recycling after the holidays―trees are fed through a chipper and turned into mulch. The Norwegian owners sell traditional crafts at the gift shop. Fri-Sun Nov 25-Dec 18. 35123 N.E. 40th St.; 425/333-4510.
LOOK FOR: Douglas fir, Fraser fir, grand fir, Korean fir, noble fir, Turkish fir, and Norway spruce.
Oregon City, OR
Historic Kirchem Farm. There's room to roam on this beautiful 110-acre farm beside the Clackamas River. Ride through the fields in a tractor-pulled wagon (free; Sat-Sun only), then picnic beside a stone fireplace under a 100-year-old grand fir. Most visitors come from the Portland area―the farm's about a half-hour drive away. Thu-Sun Nov 25-Dec 11. 19723 S. Bakers Ferry Rd.; 503/631-8817.
LOOK FOR: Douglas fir, grand fir, noble fir, and Scotch pine.
Thornton's Treeland. You can't beat the gorgeous rural setting of this family farm just across the river from Portland. Take a free hayride, visit the petting zoo, or explore the barn, which houses a nativity scene and gift shop. Nov 25-Dec 24. 7617 N.E. 119th St.; 360/573-8733.
LOOK FOR: Balsam fir, Douglas fir, Fraser fir, grand fir, noble fir, and blue spruce.
Forest Service Christmas Tree Program. Plan a day in the mountains to cut your tree on national forest lands. Officially, you should have mailed your application for the permit lottery by late October―but insiders say there are typically a few permits for last-minute purchase (call 602/225-5200 to check).
Look for: Juniper pine and piñon pine.
Tim Mitchell's Christmas Trees. It's not choose-and-cut, but this family-owned business has been a local tradition since 1950. Fire barrels warm the six metro-area lots, and there are pretty wreaths and garlands to take home too. Dec 1-24. Main location: Mayo Blvd. at Scottsdale Rd., Scottsdale; or 602/956-9574.
Look for: Precut Douglas fir, Fraser fir, grand fir, noble fir, and white fir.
Queen Creek, AZ
Schnepf Farms. Choose-and-cut tree farms are basically nonexistent in the desert, but this farm offers both live and precut trees. Don't miss the Winter Wonderland light display ($10 per car). Wed-Mon Nov 25-Dec 31. 22601 E. Cloud Rd., 35 miles southeast of Phoenix; 480/987-3100.
Look for: Eldarica pine and precut Oregon blue spruce and noble fir.
Forest Service Christmas Tree Program. This year's national Christmas tree on Capitol Hill is from one of New Mexico's five national forests, so chances are good you'll find something right for your own home. Through Dec 24. Each forest administers permit sales separately; for information, call 505/842-3292 or go to the website, click "Select a Forest," and contact the nearest office.
Look for: Balsam fir, blue spruce, and piñon pine.
Cassidy Farms. At 7,400 feet, you might encounter bonus snowflakes as you hunt for your tree on this gorgeous 8-acre farm in the Mora Valley. Nov 25-Dec 21; call for appointment. Off State 518, 44 miles southeast of Taos; 505/387-2645.
Look for: Blue spruce, Scotch pine, Southwestern white pine, and white fir.
Farr West, UT
North Pole Pines. The best thing here? Hunting for your tree at night by high-powered flashlight (provided). This scenic family farm about an hour from Salt Lake City is tucked against the mountains of the Wasatch Front. Mon-Sat Nov 25-Dec 10 or 17 (call to check). 2546 West 3100 North; 801/731-6466.
LOOK FOR: Scotch pine and white spruce (go early―the farm often sells out).
Fern Hill Farm. Here in the high-desert plains an hour north of Denver, Clifford and Sally Clift grow 10 acres of fluffy pines. Cozy up to the firepit, or find the perfect picnic spot with views of the Platte River. They also sell wreaths made with boughs cut high in the mountains. Nov 25-Dec 23. 2001 Fern Ave.; 970/352-4478.
LOOK FOR: Scotch pine.
Christmas Trees at the Covered Bridge. You're sure to find the perfect tree at this 50-acre family-owned farm an hour outside Grand Junction. Take a free hayride in a wagon pulled by Clydesdales, let the kids climb a giant haystack, then warm up with free cider and coffee. Nov 25-Dec 20. 17249 6250 Rd.; 970/240-0106.
LOOK FOR: Austrian pine, Scotch pine, Southwestern white pine, Black Hills spruce, Colorado blue spruce, and Norway spruce.
Orchard Mesa Tree Farm. Kid-approved: Teacher Paula Martin and husband Andy Windsor have 13 acres of pines in this peach- and grape-growing farm country outside Grand Junction. Martin's first- and second-grade students visit every year to take in views of 10,000-foot Grand Mesa (and go on hayrides too). Nov 25-Dec 25. 3338 C Rd.; 970/523-0401.
LOOK FOR: Scotch pine.
Windsor's Christmas Trees. What does one do after retiring from the Forest Service? Grow Christmas trees, of course. This is a small family farm (owner John Windsor is the father of Andy Windsor of Palisade's Orchard Mesa Tree Farm), with hayrack rides, free cider and candy canes, and holiday games for the kids. Dec 3 until trees are sold out (call ahead). 33741 N. Seventh St.; 970/686-5253.
LOOK FOR: Scotch pine.