5½ Catskills Fire Tower Hikes You Can Absolutely Do

5½ Catskills Fire Tower Hikes You Can Absolutely Do

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balsam lake fire tower

Balsam Lake Fire Tower and Picnic Table

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.
If you have feedback on this page, please comment below or feel free to contact me directly.

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: 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…

  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 (planned)

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

balsam lake fire tower
Balsam Lake Fire Tower & Picnic Table

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.

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).

fire tower and cabin
Hunter Fire Tower & Cabin

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.

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

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.

fire tower
Red Hill Fire Tower

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.

mountain sunrise scene
Sunrise over Table & Peekamoose

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.

fire tower seen from the bottom
Mount Tremper Fire Tower

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.“

scenic mountain view
Mount Tobias at Sunrise

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).

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

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.

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

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 COVID pandemic. When it’s completed, it will be a wonderful addition to the existing array of Catskill views.

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.

You can read more about this project at the Catskill Center’s Bramley Mountain Fire Tower Project page.

Next Steps

Just make a list and go — after you’ve read the following!

2 responses to “5½ Catskills Fire Tower Hikes You Can Absolutely Do

  1. 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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