Capitol tree

The U.S. Capitol Christmas tree arrives in Washington, on a trailer donated by Kenworth. (Photo by James Edward Mills/The Joy Trip Project) 

The Capitol Christmas Tree has been a holiday tradition since 1974. For the past quarter-century, at least half of the trees have hailed from one region in this country: the Intermountain West. And lately, one species has dominated the list far more than any other: the lofty, elegant Engelmann spruce. 

You might say it is a tree ideally suited to represent Colorado at a holiday celebration. Everything about this state’s native spruce is outsized: the trees thrive at high altitude. They can easily grow to 120 feet or more (making them one of the tallest spruces in this state, by far). They are instantly recognizable by those who love the outdoors, because they are found on millions of acres of west-facing mountain slopes. And they pack a dash of holiday panache: “in some areas where the tree is free of bark, one might notice a very interesting pattern,” the website MountViewtree.com notes. In such places, the wood “is often swirled and wrapped around the tree like a candy cane.”

An Engelmann Spruce harvested from the Uncompahgre Plateau will serve as this year’s Capitol Christmas Tree. Like so much else in this unusual year, picking the ideal specimen was a little trickier than usual. 

“The challenge in selecting a tree for the West Lawn is making sure it is symmetrical, full and in the perfect scale to gracefully adorn the U.S. Capitol,” Jim Kaufmann, director of Capitol Grounds and Arboretum for the Architect of the Capitol said in September. “In a normal year, we scour the forest for this special tree. Due to the pandemic, we used videos, pictures and measurements supplied by the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests to identify a suitable Engelmann spruce that all Coloradans can be proud of.” 

The tree arrived in the nation’s capitol earlier this week, after an eight-day cross-country trip. 

“It was a very successful journey,” summed up Kim Phillips, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service who accompanied the 55-foot-tall, 25-foot-wide spruce on its pilgrimage from the Centennial State to Washington. Before departing Colorado, the tree made stops in “Norwood, Ouray, and Grand Junction,” Phillips recounted. “We had only one cancellation. That was in Montrose; it was the county’s choice, and we honored it. We were able to drive through Montrose a couple of times, and people were lining the streets to see the tree. We were able to do all the other stops along the Western Slope. We went to Paonia, Gunnison and Salida, and to the Bass Pro Shops in Denver.” 

The last stop in Colorado was on the Eastern Plains near the Kansas state line, in Burlington.

“In a normal year, there would have been 20 to 30 stops” along the journey cross-country for people to see the tree. “But this year, because of Covid” — for the same reason Montrose County officials, presumably, declined to permit large crowds to gather and ogle the holiday spruce in Montrose — “it didn’t happen,” Phillips said. “We did manage to arrange one other stop, in Asheville, North Carolina. We were met with great attendance, which was nice. Then we finished up our journey to D.C.”

Colorado’s tree may be ensconced on the Capitol’s Front Lawn. But as of Friday afternoon, Phillips’ work was not done. 

“We still have to deliver 70 ‘companion trees’ to all of the D.C. offices: the Colorado delegation, the USDA and forest services, and the Department of the Interior,” she said. Like the towering Engelmann, many of these smaller conifers are Colorado natives, “supplied by Covered Bridge growers in Montrose.”

For those who would like a holiday tree from the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison (GMUG) National Forests, Christmas tree-cutting permits are available. “This year you can get an online permit, so you don’t have to go into an office,” Phillips said. “Permits are $8 each. You can purchase five of them. Any tree you chop down must be no more than 20 feet in height.” 

To see more about the Capitol Christmas Tree’s journey to D.C., visit fs.usda.gov/gmug