Balsam Lake Mountain Wild Forest

Balsam Lake Mountain Wild Forest is home to one of the Catskills five restored fire towers, on aptly named Balsam Lake Mountain. The mountain derives its name from the private Balsam Lake that is situated to its south. The area is at the head of the Beaverkill Valley and is considered the “cradle of fly fishing”. The area contains 13,500 acres and has 22-miles of foot trails, some of which lead to bodies of water for excellent fish. Camping is outstanding with 5 lean-tos and numerous designated campsites. What’s better, this area sees less traffic than other areas in the Catskills. Elevations range from a low of 1,740 feet along Mill Brook to a high of 3,723 feet at the summit of Balsam Lake Mountain. Other notable peaks are Millbrook Ridge, Woodpecker Ridge, and Cradle Rock Ridge.

Trails in the Balsam Lake Wild Forest

Some of the trails in the Balsam Lake Wild Forest cross into the Big Indian Wilderness, the Dry Brook Ridge Wild Forest, and the Delaware Wild Forest.

Dry Brook Ridge Trail (13.7 miles, 2.2 miles from Mill Brook Rd OR 0.9 miles from Balsam Lake Parking Area to Balsam lake Mountain Trail) Dry Brook Ridge Parking | Balsam Lake Parking Area

The Dry Brook Ridge Trail crosses the Dry Brook Wild Forest in the north and enters the Balsam Lake Wild Forest as it heads south. It is an outstanding trail for backpackers. It’s 13.7 miles takes you over two summits, Pakatakan and Dry Brook Ridge, and several other unnamed bumps that could be considered peaks in their own right.

Dry Brook Ridge Parking on Mill Brook Road
Scott L. | copyright Challenged Hiking Chris at the Dry Brook Ridge Parking Area on Mill Brook Road (really cold!)

In the Balsam Lake Wild Forest, it is most commonly hiked as an approach to Balsam Lake Mountain or Graham Mountain from Mill Brook Road. Another common approach on the Dry Brook Ridge Trail to Balsam Lake Mountain is from the south at Balsam Lake Mountain Trailhead (today aka Quaker Clearing) where the Dry Brook Ridge Trail is 0.9-miles from the Balsam Lake Mountain Trail. It is the closest trailhead to the Balsam Lake Mountain Lean-to.

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.

1985 Catskill Trail Map for the Southern Catskills
Scott L. | copyright Challenged Hiking 1985 Catskill Trail Map for the Southern Catskills

Mill Brook Ridge Trail (5.9 miles, 2173′-foot elevation gain to Balsam Lake Mountain, yellow markers) Alder Lake Parking

The Mill Brook Ridge Trail is a beautiful trail connecting Alder Lake and Balsam Lake Mountain just south of its summit. From Alder Lake, you’ll climb and pass camping and a lean-to at 1.35-miles and to Mill Brook Ridge (3460′), a Catskill 67 peak, at 2.7 miles. From there you will lose and gain elevation. At about 3.9-miles you reach the connection with Woodpecker Ridge where you can bushwhack south to its high point, another Catskill 67 peak. The last mile to Balsam Lake you’ll climb about 525′ to reach the Balsam Lake Mountain Trail just south of the summit.

Balsam Lake Mountain Trail (1.48 miles, 430′ from the north and 845′ from the south, red markers) Junctions with the Dry Brook Ridge Trail and Mill Brook Ridge Trail

Balsam Lake Mountain was home to the first forest fire tower in New York State and was erected in 1887. This first wooden tower was built by the Balsam Lake Club, and it endured until 1901 until it burned. It was replaced with another wooden tower in 1905. The first steel tower was assembled in 1919, and the current tower (47 feet tall) was put up in 1930. If you’re lucky as we were on one visit you may see Bald Eagles flying in the area from the tower. This peak is one of the Catskill 3500 Club requirements.

Balsam Lake Fire Tower
Scott L. | copyright Challenged Hiking Balsam Lake Fire Tower

The Balsam Lake Mountain Trail is an odd connector trail that connects with the Dry Brook Ridge Trail north and south of the summit. It also connects with the Mill Brook Ridge Trail just south of the summit.

For our purposes, the split of north and south is the summit of Balsam Lake Mountain and the trail is almost split evenly. From its north junction of the Dry Brook Ridge Trail, it is 0.75-miles to the summit making it almost 3 miles from Mill Brook Road. From its south junction with the Dry Brook Ridge Trail, it is about 0.85-miles to the summit with an 845′ climb. It is about 1.75-miles from Balsam Lake Mountain trailhead. One can take either route and descend to the other junction and loop back on the Dry Brook Ridge Trail which runs east below and bypassing the Balsam Lake Mountain summit.

Alder Lake Loop (1.68 mile, about 200′ elevation gain/loss, red markers) Alder Lake Parking

The Alder Lake Loop trail is an easy walk around a 45-acre lake. Several designated campsites make for good camping. The lake can be fished and boated by non-gas-motorized craft. Paddling and Electric motors are allowed. Nice sized Lake Trout have been reported, especially by fly fishermen. The trail provides access to the Mill Brook Ridge Trail. The lake makes a good point for bushwhacking Cradle Rock Ridge (3160′), another Catskill 67.

Alder Lake provides opportunities for picnicking. There are accessible picnic tables, accessible parking, an informational kiosk, and a seasonal accessible port-a-john.

Kelly Hollow Loops (all descriptions will be from the west parking area) West Parking | East Parking

These trails are cross-country ski trails in the winter. If not skiing, please use snowshoes if hiking when snow is on the ground as not to cause post-holing. In season, the trails are used by hikers and approved for biking.

Beaver Pond Loop (3.8 miles, ascent 620′, yellow markers)

The Beaver Pond Loop is a beautiful loop that takes you the pretty Kelly Hollow lean-to near a small beaver pond and meadow. If peak-bagging the Catskill 67, and if inclined, one could bushwhack from the lean-to area and climb Mill Brook Ridge (3460′) and Woodpecker Ridge (3460′).

The Short Loop (1.9 miles, ascent 290′, yellow markers)

The Short Loop crosses over on a connector section at about 0.8-miles from the start. You’ll climb about 275′ from the start to the crossover path. Losing about 65′ elevation on the 0.27-mile path you’ll make a minor climb and meet up with the loop trail that you take left back to the start. You can access a designated campsite close to the eastern parking area.

Neversink-Hardenburgh Trail (6.6-miles total, 3.1 miles in the Balsam Lake Wild Forest, yellow marked) Balsam Lake Parking Area

The Neversink-Hardenburgh Trail penetrates the Balsam Lake Wild Forest from the southeast exiting the Big Indian Wilderness and ends at Quaker Clearing. In the Balsam Lake Wild Forest, it has 2 designated campsites.

One can access the 3.5 acre Tunis Pond, one of the only ponded water in the area. According to the NYSDEC Bull Heads may be present. The maximum depth of the pond is 10′. It is about .10-mile north of one of the designated campsites. In a 1993 DEC publication, it mentions a woods road near the pond. The pond gets its name from Chief Tunis, probably of the Lenni-Lenape Indians, who as legend has it buried a cache of bullets at the lake and would not reveal the location and subsequently was executed.

Camping in the Balsam Lake Wild Forest

There are 5 lean-tos in this wild forest:

  • Balsam Lake Mountain (south of Balsam Lake summit on the Balsam Lake Mountain Trail)
  • Beaver Meadow Lean-to (1.4-miles on the Mill Brook Ridge Trail from Alder Lake)
  • Kelly Hollow Lean-to (1.45-miles from the west trailhead on the Beaver Pond Loop)
  • Dry Brook Ridge Lean-to (1.4-miles on the Dry Brook Ridge Trail north of Mill Brook Ridge Road)
  • Mill Brook Lean-to (off Mill Brook Road)

Designated Campsites:

  • Alder Lake has several sites
  • Near the Beaver Meadow Lean-to
  • On the Kelly Hollow Loop
  • Two on the Neversink-Hardenburgh Trail

At large primitive camping is allowed throughout wild forest lands at least 150 feet from any trail, road, spring, stream, pond, lake, or other water source. Camping is prohibited above 3,500 feet in elevation from March 22 until December 20 each year to protect the fragile summit environment. A camping permit is required for groups of ten or more people. A permit is also required to camp at the same site for more than three consecutive nights.

Campfires are permitted below 3,500 feet in elevation, but only dead and down fuel may be used. In an established campsite, use the existing fire ring. Before you leave, completely extinguish the fire. Never leave a fire unattended. The use of camp stoves is encouraged. Treat ALL water.


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

Balsam Lake Wild Forest Map

Click the map or here for interactive version of the map

Balsam Lake Wild Forest Map
Scott L. | copyright Challenged Hiking Balsam Lake Wild Forest Map

Please note changes in access and rules for hiking and camping in the Adirondacks and Catskills during the COVID-19 outbreak. Please act responsibly during this stressful period. Please read the DEC info carefully. Read more here!

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