A full loop up and over Balsam Lake’s summit. The southern ridge is steep, which is what males this hike "moderate" rather than "easy".
Hiking Trail Description
This route combines the easiest ascent to any summit in the Catskill Park with a much more interesting (and far less trafficked) descent down the south side of the mountain. I also tried to find the scenic view, and visited a lean-to.
It’s quite easy to drive past the parking area for Balsam Lake because it’s directly after a curve on Millbrook Rd. It’s a large lot with two entrances, and a very full information board.
Notice the sign for FIRE TOWER which points to the left.
Leave the parking lot, cross the street, and pick up the blue trail which ascends immediately from the opposite side of the road.
There are no tough sections on the way to the summit. It’s easy hiking the whole way. Like Slide Mountain, the whole ascent takes barely 90 minutes — but it’s even easier. Slide involves an immediate river crossing, and has a rocky section, plus a few steep inclines. In comparison, Balsam Lake feels like walking on an airport travelator.
The register for Balsam Lake is quite a distance from the road.
This trail is very straightforward. The first mile has a moderate amount of incline and the second mile is a mix of long flat sections and elevation loss. Very quickly, about two miles in, you’ll be at the junction/turn-off for Graham Mountain.
Herd Path Junction to Graham Mountain
The turn-off for Graham is unmarked and, again, it’s easy to miss. Coming from the north, you’ll pass it on your left. Keep an eye on your GPS and turn around when Avenza or Gaia shows that you’re just a little way past the junction. When you look back, you’ll see the herd path heading off to the right.
Permission is always needed to climb Graham and Doubletop mountains, and access to hikers is closed completely during hunting seasons. (See sidebar: Restrictions.) Today, I continued on to Balsam Lake.
Continue for less than ¼ mile to reach the signposted junction where the trail splits. Head directly to your right, along the red-blazed trail.
Pass by the gate. Continue climbing.
Not long after the 3500 FOOT ELEVATION sign, the woods change suddenly from deciduous to dense stands of evergreen pine. Then the trail flattens out along the summit ridge. It’s very pleasant.
After just a few minutes in the pine woods, you’ll pass the observer’s cabin on your right and then enter the clearing with the picnic table and the fire tower. This is the summit.
Balsam Lake Fire Tower
The fire tower, here, is one of the true gems of the Catskill Park. (It’s also one of the fire towers that must be climbed to complete the Catskills Fire Tower Challenge.) The views from the cabin extend for miles, all around. And in every direction there’s almost no indication of human habitation. The scene is primordial.
If the tower cabin is closed, as it is most of the time, you can still climb the tower; just not all the way.
The wind up there was bananas. You can hear it on this video. I didn’t stick around. I took my shots and scurried down the tower. But, later, reviewing the images, and finally figuring out what I’d actually been looking at — for me, that was a real holy cow moment.
It can be difficult to orient yourself up there, but the observer’s cabin is a big help. Once you climb the tower, the roofline of the cabin points away from you, roughly to the east — toward the southern Catskills. The large mountain in the foreground is Graham. Beyond it, to the right, you can see Slide, Doubletop, Lone, Table and Peekamoose.
What surprised me is that, to the left of Graham, Panther was also visible, and from this angle it looked incredible.
What really killed me, though, was that the ruins of the repeater station on top of Graham were clearly visible from Balsam Lake. On a big screen, you can see them as a slight break in the line of snowy pixels on Graham’s summit. I remember seeing Balsam Lake’s fire tower from Graham’s summit the last time I was up there. (I love seeing one summit from another and then, later, reversing the view.) Now that I know what I’m looking at, I can’t wait to get back up there with my long lens.
At this point, most people turn around and head back out the way they came in. From the parking area to the fire tower is one of the easiest hikes in the Catskills.
However, if you’d prefer a more adventurous descent, you can return to Millbrook Road by the more challenging southern route…
Southern Descent (Challenging)
When you first came into the clearing, you may have noticed another opening in the woods on your left. (From the tower, if you look down at the picnic table, you’ll see it clearly.) This trail leads down the steep south ridge. The character of the trail going down the south side of the mountain is very different from the trail you came up. It’s steep and rugged, and much more authentically Catskills.
In these conditions, even with an inch or two of snow on the ground, I’d been able to bare-boot my way to the summit. Not for the descent. Before heading down, I put on my microspikes.
The trail descends gradually at first, until the first junction, where you’ll see signs on the right for Mill Brook Ridge. Not far down that trail, there’s a scenic view marked on the NYNJTC maps that I wanted to check out. You lose some elevation, and there’s an intense switchback which you can see on my Gaia track. Through the trees, I saw what I think was Woodpecker Ridge. But I found no amazing lookout. Stepping off the trail to bushwhack didn’t seem wise; it’s very steep right there. More research needed, I think.
I re-climbed to the junction, turned right, and headed once again down the red trail.
The spring not far below always seems to be flowing pretty well. You come to a large, very-rectangular boulder and the spring is just to its right, a small metal pipe sticking out of the mountain.
Below this, the trail is very steep. If there’s any snow or ice at all, you’ll absoutely need traction. I was glad I had my Hillsounds on.
The next side-trail leads down to a very sweetly-situated lean-to. The blazing is patchy so keep your eyes peeled, but it’s not far down the trail.
I hung out here for a few minutes — it’s extremely peaceful — then headed back to the descent route.
The trail winds down the mountain, sometimes steeply, sometimes more easily. The blazing is pretty good. Eventually, reaching the bottom, you’ll reconnect with the blue trail.
This view is looking back up the trail I’ve just come down…
From here, it’s just a mile back to the junction with the red trail which you took up to the summit. The brook downhill to your right is Black Brook. I do trail maintenance on this section of trail. It’s nice and quiet here, too. I don’t think this trail mile gets used a ton.
From the junction with the red trail that goes up to fire tower, it’s 2¼ very easy miles to your car.
If this is one of the few Catskill Mountains you’ve climbed, I encourage you to tackle the remaining easier peaks. All of them are do-able by people of varying abilities, young and old. Maybe you’ll even try Indian Head, and maybe it’ll change your life the way it changed mine.
If you do this hike, let me know how it goes in the comments below…
Trailhead Info for this Hike
Description: Large parking area!
GPS Location: 42.068064, -74.579035
Location: The map below shows the exact topographic location of the trailhead.
Pretty great for most of this hike. Which, for the Catskills, is unusual! From the trailhead (from where I was able to send texts) all the way to the fire tower, the signal dropped only a few times. Coming down the south side of the mountain, I lost coverage more frequently. (My network is Verizon. YMMV.)