Catskill mountain fire towers are an endangered species. However, thanks to the good work of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, the Catskill Center for Conservation and Development, the Catskill Mountain Fire Tower Restoration Project, and countless volunteers, 5 out of the historical 108 fire towers are still standing for all of us to enjoy. Firetowers stand tall in the Catskills mountains of New York at Hunter Mountain, Tremper Mountain, Overlook Mountain, Red Hill, and Balsam Lake Mountain. This past weekend, I, along with my family, dedicated our weekend (May 18th and 19th, 2014) to checking out a couple of these fire towers. Previously, the only Catskill fire tower I had been to was Hunter Mountain (mentioned in post “A Homecoming…”). It was fun to check out some new ones. Spectacular doesn’t even begin to describe them.
Balsam Lake Mountain
On Saturday, my brother and I set out on a sunny morning from the trailhead on Mill Brook Road, south of Margaretville/Arkville on the blue blazed Dry Brook Trail. We were hiking south, our intentions set on checking out the Balsam Lake Mountain Fire Tower. The trail here is fairly wide and gradual due to the fact that it was an old jeep road. As expected, the trail was really wet after heavy rainstorms the day before. At some points, it felt more like we were hiking through a river as our boots got soaking wet.
Eventually, we met the junction with the unmarked trail that leads to Graham Mountain. In fact, we had informally planned on doing Graham, but I remembered that permission was needed from the private land owner to climb it. Because I failed to call ahead and get permission the week before, we decided hiking it wasn’t the right thing to do, although we probably wouldn’t have gotten caught. It was a total bummer, because it would have been another summit to check off our Catskill 35 list (more on the Catskill 35 at the bottom of this post). On we went.
We reached the junction that would lead us to the fire tower only to see cloudy gray skies above us. In the hopes that the sky would clear later on, we hiked past, continuing on the Dry Brook Trail until we hit the the next trail junction that we could take back to the fire tower. We were greeted with more water for our feet, however, the move paid off as we eventually felt more sun on our faces. We reached the junction and turned onto it to ascend Balsam Lake Mountain and check out the fire tower. It is a nice hard climb up to the summit, taking you along a short section that is combined with the Finger Lakes Trail and past a 3,500′ elevation sign. Finally, the summit and fire tower appeared. We had another peak to check off our Catskill 35 list, and a chance to climb the fire tower. By the time we reached the summit, the sky was clear and our patience was rewarded with 360 views from the tower, including pure Catskill wilderness and Graham Mountain. While hanging out at the summit, we chatted with the volunteer fire tower caretakers, who were at the cabin preparing for the opening next weekend. A great hike with my brother.
The descent was smooth, creating a 7 mile ‘lollipop,’ and we made it down around lunch time to hang with our parents the rest of the day, and did bit more Catskills exploring along Dry Brook Road.
This hike is a double-shot of Catskillian greatness. My family and I hit the trailhead on Sunday morning to chilly air, but a blue sky. We hiked up to the ruins of the Overlook Mountain House and the Overlook Mountain fire tower.
In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, the Catskills was quite the tourist destination. Appropriately, there were numerous lodging options, from small inns to grand hotels. However, all of the hotels were made entirely of wood, so many of them suffered the same fate: fire. Fire destroyed many of the hotels in the Catskills, including the first Overlook Mountain House. When it was rebuilt, it was again burned down by fire. Lastly, on the third attempt, the hotel was constructed with concrete walls, however, financial difficulties caused the hotel to go unfinished. The unfinished hotel also burned, leaving only the concrete walls remaining. For whatever reason, the state never took them down, and they still stand to this day for hikers to see.
You can hike to the Overlook Mountain House from Kaaterskill or Platte Clove, however the shortest way is from just north of Woodstock, NY. We chose the trailhead closer to Woodstock, as it was the only realistic option for the entire family, which is a 5 mile out-and-back. This trail is heavily used and very wide. However, it makes sense because it was the old road up to the Overlook Mountain House. As you might know from reading my blog, I’m not typically a fan of wide and much used trails, but a trail like this is like following a path back into history. Engaging with both nature and history on a trail is a special feeling.
My family and I stopped and explored the ruins, checking our path of travel from room to room to ensure nothing was falling from overhead. The ruins featured multiple buildings that had ornate work above the doorways, a few fireplaces, staircases, and naturally, some graffiti. Ruins are interesting. They’re kind of like a painting that was completed, then destroyed, but you can still tell ultimately what it is. With the pieces that are left, it is up to you and your imagination to picture what it might have looked like in its perfect state. We engaged with other hikers around us, discussing the history of the hotel and other hiking adventures.
But beyond the ruins is another treat. My parents, going farther than I expected, continued up the trail where we joined each other to the summit of Overlook Mountain. Overlook mountain had another fire tower, and boasts one of the the best views I have ever seen, anywhere! This view has everything you could ever want in a view, including pure mountainous wilderness, a touch of civilized valley, multiple water features (Ashokan Reservoir and the Hudson River), and even the Overlook Mountain House ruins! It was especially cool for me to be able to see and identify Kaaterskill and Platte Cloves, places of much personal significance for me and my family. It was awesome to see them from that perspective. My brother, Dad, and I all went to the top of the tower, but my mom only went a few levels up. Either way, the 360 degree views were tremendous, and a fine example of the diverse levels of nature that the eastern deciduous forest has to offer. This view is spectacular, certainly rivaling any of my favorite views in New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine, Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, Utah, and dare I say Colorado? It’s that good! A wilderness purist might not like the trail too much, or the number of people on it, but this view cannot be beat and is a must see for anyone that not only hikes, but breathes, haha. Climb this brilliant Catskill fire tower and check it out!
Post hike we went into Woodstock to walk around, see the sights, and refuel on burritos before a drive back home. This hike’s proximity to Woodstock makes it a killer option for a full day of fun in the Catskills.
If you’re interested in learning more about each fire tower, the history, or volunteer information, definitely check out the link below. Better yet, visit the fire towers! Any time of year is great, but the rooms at the top of the towers are only open on the weekends between Memorial and Columbus Day.
The Catskill 35 are the 35 peaks above 3,500 feet in the region. Anyone who completes the list is entered into the 3500 club. Completing the Catskill 35 isn’t necessary a goal that is consuming all of my hiking desires, but it is definitely something I’m working on slowly, when I can. For more information, click the link below.