Catskills Fire Tower Challenge 2023

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fire tower shot from below

Hunter’s Fire Tower standing in for Bramley

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Catskills Fire Tower Challenge

New for 2023, finishers who have completed the challenge in multiple years will receive an additional commemorative Catskills Fire Tower Challenge prize.

History of the Catskills Fire Towers

In the early years of the last century, stray ashes from steam engines would often ignite fires in the Catskills. Drought and lightning strikes were an issue, too. Logging and quarrying also started damaging fires. Forest fires were a big problem! For a short period of time, fire towers were an important part of the solution.

To control fires, between 1908 and 1950 New York built over 100 observation towers across the State, including 19 in the Catskills. They were manned by trained spotters who would determine the location of fires from cabins atop the towers, and communicate via dedicated phone lines. (In fact, even now the remaining towers are used to support crucial radio comms for DEC Forest Rangers and Environmental Conservation Police.)

However, technology soon made the towers unnecessary. Beginning in the 1980s, the State began to phase out their use. In 1990, the last 5 towers still in operation were closed.

Most towers were disassembled. Some were put into storage.

However, in 1996 the five remaining towers were added to the National Historic Lookout Register. The next year, they were added to the National Register of Historic Places. Local committees raised money for their repair. In 1999, the tower on Overlook Mountain was the first to be reopened to the public.

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The Catskills Fire Towers Today

The towers have since become some of the Catskills’ most popular destinations. Overlook’s fire tower is the third most visited site in the Catskills!

With the addition of the new tower at the Catskill Center on Route 28, there are now six towers in the Park. The reconstruction of a seventh is currently in the planning stages

Many fire towers have stewards working on them during summer weekends. Stewards (usually volunteers) provide information on the history and important function of fire towers. They can also name the mountains, lakes and communities seen from the fire tower.

Sources: WikiPedia, Catskill Center and DEC.

The Fire Towers: 6 Incredible Views

The six existing towers are the only way to get that rarest of Catskills treats: a full 360° view.

Unlike the Adirondacks, all Catskills summits are, for the most part, treed-in. We have some great and unique panoramas — see Wittenberg, Twin, Cross — but our fire towers are the only way to get above the tree-line completely and see the surrounding land in all its glory.

The fire towers are…

  1. Balsam Lake (best wilderness view)
  2. Hunter (highest tower in New York State)
  3. Red Hill (most beautiful)
  4. Tremper (most underrated)
  5. Overlook (best overall view)
  6. Upper Esopus (newest)
  7. Bramley (coming soon!)

Overlook, Tremper and Hunter are moderate to strenuous hikes. Balsam Lake and Red Hill are the two easiest peaks to hike.

Best Wilderness View: Balsam Lake

One of the easiest summits to hike to, Balsam Lake Mountain was the first summit to get a fire tower in New York State.

The tower here is 47 feet tall — more than enough to get you above the majestic conifer forest that surrounds it.

balsam lake fire tower
Balsam Lake Fire Tower & Picnic Table

The view is stunning. You truly feel like you are looking at huge swaths of wilderness in every direction.

To the east (looking over the cabin) you see Graham Mountain, Doubletop, and Panther. To the west, Woodpecker Ridge lays lengthways.

scenic view
Looking east from the tower

Hiking to Balsam Lake’s Fire Tower

The classic route to the Balsam Lake Fire Tower from Mill Brook Road is an easy 6 mile out-and-back. The GPS track on that page includes a more rugged descent (completely optional) down the south side of Balsam Lake — but you can also just head back out the way you came in via the standard route.

You can also hike Balsam Lake from the south from Beaver Kill Road, or from the west via the Mill Brook Ridge trail (but that’s a very long hike).

Highest Tower in New York State: Hunter Mountain Fire Tower

Historically, this was the last tower to be used for observation. It is both the highest fire tower in the Catskills and the highest fire tower in New York State.

fire tower and cabin
Hunter Fire Tower & Cabin

The view to the east takes in Plateau and Kaaterskill High Peak.

view from fire tower
Plateau with Round Top and Kaaterskill High Peak in the distance

To the north, you can see the Blackhead range. To the west, Rusk and East Rusk. And to the south, an array of southern Catskills lined up along the horizon.

Hiking to Hunter’s Fire Tower

There are several routes to the summit. Most day-hikers come up via the Spruceton trail, which is an old road; it makes for a very steady, even and quick ascent. More experienced hikers come up via the steep Becker Hollow trail, or via the Devil’s Path — this post describes these tougher routes.

Most Beautiful: Red Hill Fire Tower

This is another easy hike. But what a treat.

The classic trail to this summit (which starts on Old Dinch Road in Ladleton) is short but beautiful.

fire tower
Red Hill Fire Tower

mountain sunrise scene
Sunrise over Table & Peekamoose

In early 2021, a new route with better parking was opened. The new trail to Red Hill from Denning is crazy beautiful.

Red Hill trail in forest, stone steps
Blue blazed new trail

From 60 feet up, the big view from Red Hill Fire Tower is directly to the east.

The sun comes up directly behind Table and Peekamoose mountains — behind which you can see Slide Mountain and Ashokan High Point. To the north, in the distance, Graham and Doubletop are also visible.

This is a great spot for your first sunrise hike.

Red Hill cabin and outhouse
Red Hill summit cabin and outhouse

The summit of Red Hill itself is exceptionally well-maintained. The care and pride of the volunteers who take care of this tower is so evident. As ever, please Leave No Trace.

Most Underrated: Mount Tremper Fire Tower

Other websites will tell you that the view here is not great, but I was stunned by the scenery on view.

It’s intensely dramatic in every direction, taking in the Ashokan Reservoir, Wittenberg, Giant Ledge, Panther, West Kill, Hunter, Indian Head, Plattekill, Mount Tobias, and many more too — a truly grand 360° panorama.

fire tower seen from the bottom
Mount Tremper Fire Tower

The Catskill Center fire tower page says, “The Tremper Mountain Fire Tower is believed to be the original structure that was built in 1917 and used for fire observation until 1971.“

scenic mountain view
Mount Tobias at Sunrise

Hiking to Mount Tremper’s Fire Tower

There are three trailed routes to the summit of Tremper. Most people hike Tremper from Plank Road, just off Route 28. You can also come up from the east side via the Willow Trail which connects with the Warner Creek Trail. For a longer hike, you can thru-hike down from Notch Inn Road in Edgewood (requires a car shuttle).

Best Overall View: Overlook Mountain Fire Tower

Obviously, this is a very personal call, but I think Overlook has the best overall fire tower view. The mix of elements is astonishing.

To the east the Hudson River and its flatlands, with the Taconics poking up along the horizon. Looking south, the Ashokan Reservoir shines and Woodstock is visible. In the west, the Burroughs Range towers over the landscape. And to the north, in layers, the Eastern Devil’s Path, Kaaterskill High Peak, even the Blackhead range.

fire tower seen from directly below
60’ doesn’t sound like much but it is much

At dawn, as light plays across the landscape, it’s just really primordial and unbelievable looking. In particular, the mountain ranges layer up spectacularly. Throw in some water? Basically, you’re in heaven. I spent 90 minutes here and it felt like five.

pre-dawn mountain ridges
Pre-Dawn light over Plattekill, Kaaterskill High Peak, and the Blackhead Range

Central Ashokan Reservoir

overlook tower
Looking west: Overlook Tower & Ruins

Hiking to Overlook’s Fire Tower

There are two trailed routes. The most popular is to hike Overlook from Meads / KTD.

A more interesting option is to come down from Platte Clove in the north, which brings you through some wonderful Catskills terrain. Sure, it’s longer but (shhh) it’s a lot less steep.

The Newest: Upper Esopus Fire Tower

First opened in October 2019, the Upper Esopus Fire Tower at the Catskill Visitor Center in Mount Tremper offers “an introductory fire tower experience” to visitors.

The fire tower is right on the center’s grounds — no elevation gain required. Just follow the easy, level, red-blazed Interpretive Loop Trail around the back of the Catskills Visitor Center, climb the massive tower, and enjoy a wonderful view of the Esopus Valley and surrounding Catskill mountains — Ticetonyk and Mount Pleasant are most prominent.

fire tower and information board
Upper Esopus Fire Tower & information board

This fire tower is unusually tall for the Catskills. This DEC page states the tower is “an 80-foot AERMOTOR MC-39, first installed in Venice, Florida, and weighs 18,000 pounds and stands 92 feet high from the ground to the peak of the cab.”

fire tower and two benches
Fire Tower & Benches

scenic view from fire tower
Looking west down the Esopus Valley

The Future: Bramley

The Bramley Mountain Fire Tower Project is currently on track to break ground in 2022. When it’s completed, it will be a wonderful addition to the existing array of Catskill fire tower views.

You can read about the Friends of Bramley Mountain Fire Tower project at And, BTW, donations to the project are 501c tax-deductible.

You can read also read little more at the Catskill Center’s Bramley Mountain Fire Tower Project page.

Bramley mountain (2817’) is situated north of the Pepacton Reservoir, near Delhi, NY. A four mile trail that includes a significant abandoned bluestone quarry and impressive caves and cliffs is already open to the public. The summit currently offers views of Mount Pisgah further north.

Here is a recent update on the project.

Next Steps

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5 responses to “Catskills Fire Tower Challenge 2023

  1. Thanks for the mention of the planned Bramley Mountain Fire Tower. It would be great if you could include a link to our organization – Friends of Bramley Mountain Fire Tower – who are working to put the tower back on the mountain. We’re still moving forward, even with the pandemic, just a lot slower than we expected.

  2. You might also mention the Rock Rift fire tower which still stands and has a group working to rehabilitate it. The tower is missing the lower steps which were removed by the DEC. It is on the Finger Lakes Trail but has no view from the ground. The Ferncliff Forest tower is also worth visiting. While not in the Catskills, it provides a great view of the Catskills. I could go on and on but I understand you were trying to limit the article in some way.

    1. Thanks again Ralph, great tips! I’ll leave them here in the comments. (And, yes, I respect anyone who writes for a living. It’s hard work! LOL.)

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