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.
Hike Length: 6 miles
Route Type: Out-and-Back
Total Ascent: 1235 feet
How Hard: Moderate
Trail head map
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 the Balsam Lake Mountain trailhead (today aka Quaker Clearing) and make this an excellent point to point.
Quaker Clearing location: The original Quaker Clearing location was about 1-mile south of the current Balsam Lake Trailhead where RT 54 (Beaver Kill Road) swings north. The old Neversink-Hardenburgh Trail route ended at a parking area at the swing in the road. The turnpike from the Neversink was the original route for the Neversink-Hardenburgh Trail until sometime after 1985 it was relocated to end at the Balsam Lake Mountain trailhead. Today hikers commonly, although mistakenly, refer to the Balsam Lake Trailhead as Quaker Clearing.
Map of hike to Balsam Lake Mountain
Click map for larger version or here for interactive version.
|Balsam Lake Mountain Wild Forest|
|Contact Information:||DEC Region 3 New Paltz
Office hours: M-F 8:30AM - 4:30PM
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|
Location of all Catskill fire towers
Backwoods wanderer with a passion for backpacking, hiking, kayaking, and exploring the wilds of the Catskills and Adirondacks in New York. A Catskill 3500 Club Member and Adirondack Forty-Sixer. Climbed Mount Rainier. Professionally an Exercise Physiologist.