Graham Mountain & Balsam Lake Hiking Trail

This is the standard Graham / Balsam Lake hike twofer with a twist, as it includes the southern ridge of Balsam Lake which is steep and rugged, and adds a little “Real Catskills“ to this long day hike.

Hike Length: 11.5 miles (18.51 km)

Total Ascent: 2,200ft (671m)

Intensity: Difficult Catskills Hike

Route Type: Out-and-Back

Includes: Blazed Trail

Parent Graham

Similar Entries In: Catskills, The Moderate Hikes, , , , , , , , .

fire tower view across conifer forest

View from Balsam Lake fire tower

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 Combine a loop and a spur to make this long out-and-back route.

Hiking Trail Description

The most popular route to Balsam Lake begins at the Dry Brook Ridge Trailhead on Mill Brook Road in Hardenburgh. This route is also the only “trailed” route to Graham’s summit — hiking Graham is technically a bushwhack but the herd path is so clear it almost counts as a trail.

My advice is to do Graham first and get it out of the way. It’s weird and not too scenic. And then you’ll have the big pay-off of climbing to Balsam Lake’s absolutely fantastic 360° fire tower view.

 Closed! Graham & Doubletop mountains are no longer accessible to the public. Both mountains are on private land. Trespassers will be prosecuted. The information presented here is for historical puproses only.


The long parking lot is on the north side Mill Brook Road and the trail you want is the southern section of the Dry Brook Ridge trail. Leave the lot, cross the road, and look for the trailhead sign on the opposite side.

Begin following the blue blazes

trail signs
Trail signs just off Mill Brook Road

The trail register is a good distance from the road. No, you didn’t miss it. Just keep going. You’ll get to it eventually.

trail register box
Trail Register

The trail is easy to moderate the whole way to the first junction. It follows an old jeep road so it’s mostly pretty wide and relatively even.

grassy hiking trail in forest
Easy trail to Balsam Lake and Graham

Graham Mountain Herd Path

After about 2 miles, keep an eye on the left side of the trail. There’s no sign for the herd path whichdoubles back sharply into dense woods — it’s easy to miss.

Again, a reminder that, before you step on this herd path, you must get advance permission from the land’s caretaker.

This is the view just after the junction, looking back down the trail (on the left) which I’ve just hiked up. The herd path is on the right.

junction trail
Herd path junction

The herd path to Graham is descends a little at first, then follows a fairly level contour around a small mountain. It dips into a col before heading up Graham proper.

The trail is mostly deciduous trees with no views, and not a ton to recommend it. Actually, at this time of year, you’ll see a lot of frogs hopping about, which is fun.

herd path to graham mountain
Final ascent to Graham’s summit

Eventually, you’ll get to the summit which is… weird… with its weird iron-and-concrete block ruin. The ruins are an old (1960’s) television signal relay station which was abandoned after only a few years of use. It is slowly crumbing and can be dangerous. If you venture inside, make sure your tetanus shot is up-to-date.

ruins of old station
Summit ruins

Out in front of the relay station, someone has constructed a small set of steps from free-standing concrete blocks. You can probably figure out what these might be used for; it’s up to you if you decided to use them.

The view from the summit is not great, which is odd considering how open it is. However, to the west, Balsam Lake and its fire tower are clearly visible.

not so scenic view
View from Graham

You can probably sense I’m not too excited about this mountain. It’s just this side of Graham. The other side (the eastern side) is steep and rugged and a lot of fun. I subsequently bushwhacked from Doubletop to Graham in winter with friends, and that was definitely a great, difficult hike. Graham is not a total bust for me, even if I don’t love this side, or the summit, or the ruins, or the boring trees.

Actually, right behind the ruins is a swathe of pygmy hardwood trees that I really love. It’s weird, but in a good way. It’s worth poking around back there for a few minutes if you feel comfortable.

So, okay, Graham is not a complete bust.

When you’re ready, descend back down to the junction of the herd path and the blue trail.

Balsam Lake Loop

When you get down to the main trail, turn left and walk a few hundred feet southwest until you get to the signposted junction. Most people turn here and head straight up to Balsam Lake.

Follow the red blazes of the Balsam Lake trail to the summit. It’s only ¾ mile. If you’re new to mountain hiking, this is the best option; the trail is wide and easy and it’ll take you 25 minutes tops.

trail signs
First signed junction

However, you can also continue following the blue-blazed Dry Brook Ridge trail, the left side of the fork.

Junction fork

From here, the trail descends a little before leveling out for most of the very pleasant mile to a second junction.

I maintain this short section of trail. On this day, I did some basic trail maintenance like pruning back branches from both sides of the trail and removing this blowdown trunk which had fallen in the way…

blowdown tree trunk
Blowdown across trail
open trail
Blowdown removed

This is a nice, quiet trail section with limited views into Black Brook hollow bellow. It’s a little rugged at first but soon settles down into an easy, level walk. After a mile, you get to the junction at the bottom of Balsam Lake’s southern ridge.

junction signs
Junction with trail signs

The trail from here up to the summit is pure Catskills: lush, rugged and twisty, with rock outcroppings, moss, roots and mud.

rugged hiking trail
Rugged hiking on Balsam Lake’s south side

About half way up, a short spur trail to the west/left leads down to a beautifully situated Lean-To. It’s worth the 500’ or so to go visit it and dream about an over-night here some day.

Right next to the spur junction is a spring. A metal pipe juts out of the mountain beside a large rectangular boulder.

balsam lake mountain spring
Boulder and spring

Above this, you’ll soon pass this junction which connects the Balsam Lake trail with the Mill Brook Ridge trail.

Stay right and continue on up the mountain.

hiking trail junction
Mill Brook Ridge Junction

Balsam Lake Summit & Fire Tower

Balsam Lake’s upper summit is dominated by conifers. The pine-bed trail winds through the pine forest beautifully until, suddenly, you pop out into a large, round opening — and you’re looking directly across at the fire tower.

fire tower on summit
Balsam Lake summit and fire tower

The DEC website states: “Balsam Lake Mountain fire tower is the first forest fire tower in New York State and was erected in 1887. Built of wood by the Balsam Lake Club, it survived until 1901 and was replaced with another wooden tower in 1905. Telephone lines, a small observer’s cabin and a road to the summit were added in 1909 when the state took it over. The first steel tower was erected in 1919, and the present steel tower (47 feet tall) was built in 1930.”

Cab & Views

The cab is closed during the week but, even if it’s locked, you can make your way up to just below the topmost level.

The view is stunning.

Looking east, the large close mountain is Graham, behind which you can see Doubletop (on the right) and Panther in the distance (on the left).

fire tower view across conifer forest
View from Balsam Lake fire tower

But the view all around is crazy good, especially at dawn or dusk. (In fall and winter, when the snow hits, this entire scene is just incredible.)

conifer forest view
Fire Tower view
conifer forest view
Fire Tower view
conifer forest view
Fire Tower view
conifer forest view
Fire Tower view

Heading Down

If you look down from the fire tower, you’ll see the picnic table and the southern trail you came up. To the east/left is the short ¾ mile trail you can descend to get back down to the blue trail. It’s much less steep. It the last part of the old jeep trail.

When you get back to the junction, turn northeast/left, and head back to your car on Mill Brook Road which is 2.2 miles from the junction.

Similar Hikes

Hiking Balsam Lake is a popular single-peak hike because it’s short, easy, kid-friendly, and super scenic.

If you’d like something in the same area that’s less strenuous — but still extremely beautiful — check out the Kelly Hollow Trail which is just 4 miles further west along Mill Brook Road.

The parent mountain for this hike is Graham.

If you do this hike, LMK how it went…

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Trailhead Info for this Hike

Large lot on a bend. It sneaks up on ya.

Google Maps Location: 42.070045, -74.574090

The map below shows the exact topographic location of the trailhead