History of the Catskill 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.
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!
Help: Please wear a face mask when visiting a tower. Use hand sanitizer before and after climbing a tower to protect other hikers and any fire tower volunteers.
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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.
The Fire Towers: Six 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…
- Balsam Lake (best wilderness view)
- Hunter (highest tower in New York State)
- Red Hill (most beautiful)
- Tremper (most underrated)
- Overlook (best overall view)
- Upper Esopus (newest)
- Bramley (planned)
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.
The view is stunning. You truly feel like you are looking at huge swaths of wilderness in every direction.
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: Hunter
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.
The view to the east takes in Plateau and Kaaterskill High Peak. 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 casual day-hikers come up via the Spruceton trail, which is an old road; it makes for a very steady and even ascent. More experienced hikers come up via the steep Becker Hollow trail, or via the Devil’s Path — this post describes both of these routes.
Most Beautiful: Red Hill
This is another easy hike. But what a treat. The sole trail to this summit (which starts on Old Dinch Road in Ladleton) is short but beautiful. And 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.
The big view here is directly to the east. From 60 feet up, it’s a great spot for sunrise. 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.
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Most Underrated: Tremper
Other websites will tell you the view here is not great. But I was stunned by the scenery here. 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.
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.“
Hiking to 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 View: Overlook
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.
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.
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
The fire tower at the Catskill Center in Mount Tremper offers “an introductory fire tower experience” to visitors. This is the 5½th hike because the tower is right on the center’s grounds — no elevation gain required. Just climb that tower and enjoy a view of the Upper Esopus Valley and surrounding Catskill mountains.
(I haven’t been there yet, but will get there soon.)
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.”
The Future: Bramley
The Bramley Mountain Fire Tower Project is currently several years from completion, and its progress has recently been stymied by the COVID pandemic. But when it’s completed, it will be a wonderful addition to the existing array of Catskill fire tower views.
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.
Just make a list and go — after you’ve read the following!
- Don’t know what gear you should bring on a mountain hike? This list of basic hiking gear will get you started.
- Grab these excellent free fire tower maps generously made available by New York-New Jersey Trail Conference.
- Whenever you’re heading into the wilderness, always pack The Ten Essentials.
- Before you head out, grab the best hiking apps for your phone.
- Support the Catskills: buy come Catskills merch.