The Capitol Christmas Tree

Truck carrying Christmas tree to the US Capitol

This holiday season, a Christmas tree from a remote part of western Colorado will glow in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. The residents of Jefferson were elated that the tree paid a visit to our town on its way to the Capital.

But first, it’s got to get there.

Resting in a giant cradle with a rubber bladder full of water secured snugly against its trunk, the Capitol Christmas Tree is touring its home state via big rig before heading east. The victory lap for the 55-foot-tall Engelmann spruce started Tuesday in the tiny town of Norwood, not far from Telluride, and will continue through Sunday. 

Denver and Grand Junction are on the itinerary, but most of the stops are scheduled for much smaller communities, including Ouray, Salida and Burlington. 

It’s the kind of journey former Colorado U.S. Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell knows well. He drove the Capitol Christmas Tree all the way to Washington twice.

Nighthorse Campbell, who first got his commercial driver's license to help put himself through college decades ago, noticed that when he first started volunteering to transport the precious cargo, there was little fanfare for the tree along the way. 

“It’s become a big pageant now,” he said.

During his most recent trip in 2012, an odyssey that lasted about a month, he saw how popular the tree’s arrival had become for rural communities. 

“The smaller the town, the bigger the crowd,” he said. “We stopped in St. Louis. There were very few people that came to see the tree. But we stopped in towns like Alamosa, Colorado — there were hundreds of people that came out to see it, particularly school children.” 

He remembers stopping in about 20 Colorado towns that year. He joked that it seemed like the person who’d created the itinerary had never driven though the state, because he ended up having to navigate small roads and turn around in tight spots.

aerial of Truck carrying Christmas tree to the US Capitol

“But it’s OK. To me, it was just a big adventure,” Nighthorse Campbell said. “So I enjoyed it even in times when we could get stuck in traffic or in crazy places. It was really, to me, a kind of life memorable experience.” 

Though COVID-19 has shortened this year’s tour and made many of the stops drive-by only, visitors can still see the tree up close at its visits to Paonia and Gunnison. There are also opportunities to watch its motorcade pass through several towns.

After this year’s Capitol Christmas tree leaves Colorado Sunday, it will continue on to Asheville, North Carolina, before making its way to Washington, D.C., where it will be festooned with lights and ornaments made by Coloradans. 

The Capitol Christmas Tree, which is chosen from a different forest each year by the U.S. Forest Service, is typically illuminated each night from the beginning of December through New Year’s Day on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol. This year’s tree hails from the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests.

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