Fire Tower Mountains of the Catskill Forest Preserve
Balsam Lake Mountain
By Carol and David White, with Laurie Rankin
The fire observer's cabin on Balsam Lake Mountain. Photo by Laurie Rankin
The fire tower on Balsam Lake Mountain. Photo by Laurie Rankin
Balsam Lake Mountain is located in the southwestern Catskill Forest Preserve, southwest of Belleayre Mountain. From Sunset Lodge on Belleayre’s summit, you can just make out the fire tower on 3,720-foot Balsam Lake Mountain. Of the three approaches to the summit, the northern approach is most accessible (see directions). The elevation gain to the trailhead means that you can summit Balsam Lake Mountain with substantially less climbing than if you approach the mountain from the south¹, although it’s still an 1100-foot ascent from Mill Brook Road.
Cross the road from the parking area and walk a few yards right to the blue-marked Dry Brook Ridge trail, which is the old jeep road to the summit. This first stretch up is a moderate grade but can be very icy, so bring suitable foot gear such as microspikes, stabilicers, or crampons. The trail curves around a scenic rock outcrop, reaches a trail register, and levels out for a substantial breather before resuming the ascent. Sections can be icy or wet.
After the trail swings to the right, the grade moderates somewhat as you climb past great rock ledges; views open up over terrain that drops steeply down the mountainside. The trail levels out for a surprising distance before resuming a steadier ascent up an area open to the west winds and often covered in snowdrifts. Where the trail levels and swings right, an informal path to nearby 3,868-foot Graham Mountain does a nearly hairpin turn left toward Graham, one of the larger trailless peaks in the Catskills, with fine winter views. (The path is not obvious in winter. To hike Graham, which is on private property, seek permission by contacting William Scholl at 845 586 4056, the caretaker for Furlough Properties. A guidebook, appropriate Catskill map, and compass/GPS are essential, especially for hiking trailless peaks.)
Proceed on the blue-marked trail toward Balsam Lake Mountain, soon reaching a junction with the red-marked Balsam Lake Trail at 2.25 miles. Leaving the blue-marked trail, pass a barrier gate and begin a 0.75-mile steady ascent to the summit. Partway up, you can see the remnants of an old television relay station on the summit of Graham to the east. Level trail offers a welcome breather, followed by final ascents up scenic ledges and a lovely walk on level terrain through snowy evergreens as you approach the fire tower. Visit http://beebehill.info/balsamlake/ for more information.
Balsam Lake Mountain Then and Now
by Laurie Rankin
My father, Larry Baker, was the observer on Balsam Lake Mountain for many years of his Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) career. He kept watch for fires from the summit tower, kept the lines of communication open, participated in searches for missing hikers and lost children, led recovery parties into plane crashes, did trail work, fought forest fires and provided hiker education nearly every day. We often joined him on the mountain as he worked every weekend. I knew we were getting close to the top when I could hear the “tower bird” singing (I found out later that it was the song of the white throated sparrow that lives in the summit firs each summer). I always enjoyed this time greatly!
As times changed, the way of life in New York changed. Trains were no longer such an important and common mode of transportation, thus there were fewer fires started due to their passing. Logging practices changed and there was less slash in the forest. People stopped burning trash and fall leaves in their back yards, but took trash to landfills and bagged or recycled leaves. My father’s job changed as well. He spent more time on trail work, search and rescue², and trash pick up. He still watched vigilantly for fires from the tower, but so did airplanes. Communication systems had improved; rather than having to pick up the phone in the tower (after repairing the phone line first) to call “Balsam Lake in service” each morning to the local ranger, he now picked up a radio microphone and called the same thing statewide. More homes had phones, and now most have cell phones to call any fire sightings in immediately. My father, as the last full time observer on Balsam Lake Mountain, moved on to another position within the DEC, and the tower, cabin, and mountaintop lost their caretaker.
The last time my father and I visited the summit before 2000 was a stormy, foggy day. We had no desire to climb the tower with no views, and I was thankful—it was hard for him to see the roof torn off the tower, the steps removed and broken glass from the windows everywhere. The clearing contained lots of trash. The cabin door stood open, and animals now occupied the space. It was a very sad visit.
Fast forward to October 2000, following an initiative by the Catskill Center for Conservation and Development (CCCD) and the DEC to refurbish fire towers. A crowd nearing one hundred stood on the summit as those involved explained how large the task had been. My mother and I were part of that crowd and overjoyed to see the tower with a shiny new stainless steel roof, glass all replaced, and a fresh coat of gray paint on both the steel and the new wooden landings and steps. The cabin had been taken back from the animals and secured from the elements. There is a new lean-to about half a mile from the summit, placed there with a cooperative effort between the Catskill 3500 Club and the DEC. All that the mountaintop lacked was that caretaker.
The CCCD and the DEC solicited volunteers to man the tower each weekend between Memorial Day and Columbus Day each year. I volunteered and in 2010, became the volunteer coordinator for this mountain; our caretaker/volunteers are an awesome group! They do routine maintenance on the tower, the cabin, the trails, the spring and the lean-to. They greet and educate visitors every weekend. The cabin has become a museum regarding the importance of fire towers and their observers. We have lots of Smokey the Bear information on plants and animals as well as fire prevention. We have the history of wildland fire fighting and the tools that those fire fighters used. We have pictures, personal stories, and history from Balsam Lake Mountain on display, such as when the horses brought the steel up the mountain for the fire tower. We still have the phone in the cabin, the old original alidade³ map, hiking maps, and a weather station. Our volunteers will take you on a tour of the cabin and will also offer you the opportunity to participate in a scavenger hunt around the summit area where you can learn more of the history of the mountain and the unique summit vegetation. Up in the tower, we have binoculars, hiking maps and our alidade map. Volunteers explain what you are seeing, including several states on a clear day! They’ll explain how observers spotted a fire, triangulated it with other fire towers, phoned it in and either went to fight the fire or monitored progress from on high.
In 2004, the local ranger needed assistance for a work project on the mountain and asked my father to help. He and four generations of our family accomplished the work, and it was fitting that the sun shone brightly on this mountain caretaker. Dad still lives close by and we stop in to let him know how things are on the mountain, who our latest volunteers are, the wildlife we saw, and the children who climbed. He still cares, as do the many volunteers who keep the towers, cabins and mountains well taken care of. The vigilance continues!
¹ If approaching Balsam Lake Mountain from the end of Beaver Kill Road, the ascent to the fire tower is 1600 vertical feet in 1.8 miles, starting on the south end of the Dry Brook Ridge Trail and then climbing the Balsam Lake Mountain Trail to the summit. A quarter-mile from the summit, the 5.9-mile Mill Brook Ridge Trail comes in from the east end of Alder Lake; the Beaver Meadow lean-to is located 1.5 miles from the lake. (Alder Lake is at the end of County Route 54; see travel directions).
² Among many stories, three Boy Scouts were found by Mr. Baker after they were reported lost on the mountain. He was called at 11 pm and found the boys huddled, cold and wet, in the lean-to about half a mile from the tower. He brought them down to Mill Brook Road by 5 am and they were returned to camp. The boys had been hiking with a dozen others for ten miles from the scout reservation through challenging terrain, and the boys became separated from their party; half an inch of rain fell on the mountain and by nightfall they were lost.
³ An alidade is a small mounted telescope used to get an exact directional sighting on smoke.
To Reach the Trailheads and Parking Areas:
The most accessible approach to Balsam Lake Mountain is south from Route 28 in Arkville on County Route 49 (Dry Brook Road), just west of the bridge over Dry Brook. Travel 6.1 miles to Mill Brook Road, turn right for 2.2 miles up Mill Brook Road to the DEC parking area. Because narrow winding Mill Brook Road climbs about 900 feet, it is best not to travel in fresh snowfall.
To approach from the south, at Livingston Manor on I-86/Route 17 exit 96, take the first two right turns. Proceed 0.3 miles, and turn right on County Route 151, which becomes Route152 and part of Route 54 (same road) for fourteen miles to Beaver Kill Road. Where Rt. 54 turns north to Alder Lake after Turnwood, continue straight on Beaver Kill Road, which is a scenic drive for nine more miles to Quaker Clearing, the DEC parking area.
Carol and David White are authors of Catskill Day Hikes for All Seasons (Adirondack Mountain Club, 2002) and editors of Catskill Trails, 3rd edition: Volume 8 (Forest Preserve Series, Adirondack Mountain Club, 2005). Carol is editor of Catskill Peak Experiences: Mountaineering Tales of Endurance, Survival, Exploration & Adventure from the Catskill 3500 Club (Black Dome Press, 2008). Signed copies of all of these books are available at the Village Square Bookstore and Literary Arts Center in Hunter, NY.