Balsam Lake Fire Tower

Best Hikes: Balsam Lake Mountain and a Catskill Fire Tower

Balsam Lake Mountain stands as the guardian of western high peaks of the Catskills. From the restored fire tower on its summit, you can see the jumble of the Catskills highest peaks to the north, east, and southeast. To the west are the lower mountains of the western Catskills. This is one of the several fire towers that have been erected on the peak. The first two were crude wooden structures put up by the Balsam Lake Club.

Trailhead kiosk at parking area off Mill Brook RoadScott L. | copyright Challenged Hiking
Trailhead kiosk at parking area off Mill Brook Road

At 3,720 feet Balsam Lake is 17th tallest of Catskill High Peaks. However, the trailhead at Mill Brook Road starting out at about 2,600 feet elevation and just under 3-miles to the summit makes this one of the easier hikes to a high peak. We have done this in one hour and fifteen minutes on a cold winter day in January.

Chris taking a short break on the way up Balsam Lake MountainScott L. | copyright Challenged Hiking
Chris taking a short break on the way up Balsam Lake Mountain

Starting on Mill Brook Road you will be hiking through a private property easement until a bit after the gate on the Balsam Lake Mountain Trail. Please respect landowners rights and take appropriate precautions during hunting season. You will need to cross the road from the parking area to start your hike.

Starting at the roadside the trail will begin with a gradual climbing for about 0.3-miles which will level at the register, please sign-in even if you are though hiking the Dry Brook Ridge Trail. From the register, the trail will follow on the level then pitch up to a switchback which brings you to a broad shelf with fairly level hiking to the junction with the Balsam Lake Mountain Trail which is reached at 2.2 miles from the trailhead. About 600 feet back down the trail from this junction is the usual bushwhack point for Graham Mountain.

Gate at the junction with the Balsam Lake Mountain TrailScott L. | copyright Challenged Hiking
Gate at the junction with the Balsam Lake Mountain Trail

Up until this point, the long ridge you have been hiking on had been selectively logged. You may have noticed some old logging roads coming down from your left. According to Michael Kudish, the ridge was not entirely cut over so a small stand of first growth forest is still intact. If you are observant you will notice telephone poles along the trail which once served the fire tower.

From the gate, at the trail junction, you will now be hiking the red marked Balsam Lake Mountain Trail. From the junction your hike will be entirely in first growth forest. The trail will climb moderately with short level sections typical of the Catskills. When the leaves are down you can get glimpses of the surrounding peaks. Off to the right of the trail you may find a limited view or two looking west.

View off the Balsam Lake Mountain TrailScott L. | copyright Challenged Hiking
View off the Balsam Lake Mountain Trail

As you continue to climb you will be entering a forest that is increasingly dominated by Balsam Fir. After passing the 3500-foot sign you will quickly reach the summit. As you reach the summit at about 3-miles, you will be greeted by the observer’s cabin.

Balsam Lake Mountain observer's cabinScott L. | copyright Challenged Hiking
Balsam Lake Mountain observer’s cabin

For the uninitiated,  amenities on a Catskill summit are rare. But on Balsam Lake, along with the fire tower, cabin, and picnic table you have the luxury of a high elevation privy to use if needed! Just don’t forget your TP.

Privy on Balsam Lake MountainScott L. | copyright Challenged Hiking
Privy on Balsam Lake Mountain

The small summit clearing is completely surrounded by Balsam Fir and the fire tower pokes above the trees awaiting you to climb it. Climbing the tower is sometimes a shuttering experience.

Standing at the base of Balsam Lake Mountain Fire TowerScott L. | copyright Challenged Hiking
Standing at the base of Balsam Lake Mountain Fire Tower

Starting out in the shelter of the trees, you quickly find yourself emerging above them and the wind increases and blows through the skeleton of the tower frame. At times everything shakes.

Standing at the treetops on Balsam Lake Mountain Fire Tower Scott L. | copyright Challenged Hiking
Standing at the treetops on Balsam Lake Mountain Fire Tower

In the winter, on the tower above the treeline, you will most likely encounter ice, it will coat everything, be careful. Once above the trees, you will be rewarded with ever increasing gorgeous views.

View to the NE from the TowerScott L. | copyright Challenged Hiking
View to the NE from the Tower Heavy ice prevented us from going all the way!
View halfway up tower. Heavy ice prevented us from going all the way!Scott L. | copyright Challenged Hiking
View halfway up the tower.

Looking east you will see School House West Mountain with the mass of Graham rising behind it. To the south of Graham, you see the two summits of Doubletop. You can make out Slide, the highest peak in the Catskills. On the northern horizon, you can see sections of Devil’s Path and the Blackhead Range.

Trail sign at summitScott L. | copyright Challenged Hiking
Trail sign at summit

You have two choices to return to your car. You can retrace your steps for a simple out and back or continue south on the Balsam Lake Mountain Trail past the lean-to and take the Dry Brook Ridge Trail north back to the trailhead. Of course, you could put a car at Quaker Clearing and make this an excellent point to point.

Balsam Lake Mountain Wild Forest
Contact Information:DEC Region 3 New Paltz
Office hours: M-F 8:30AM - 4:30PM
Phone: 845-256-3000
email: r3admin@dec.ny.gov
Law Enforcement, Emergency & Ranger: 518-408-5850 or dial 911
Location: Towns of Andes and Middletown, Delaware County; Town of Hardenburgh, Ulster County
Map: Balsam Lake Mountain Wild Forest Map - PDF (3.15 MB)
Amenities:Food and gas can be found in the towns of Arkville and Margaretville, both are the north along Route 28.
Weather:Balsam Lake Mountain Weather

Map of hike to Balsam Lake Mountain

Location of all Catskill fire towers

Last Updated on by Scott L.

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