Sunday, November 4, 2012

Balsam Lake Mountain

Two reasons why Balsam Lake Mountain is one of the most popular hikes in the Western Catskills are that it’s the farthest west of the Catskills’ 35 high peaks and it has a fire tower on its summit. And of course there are many other reasons drawing hikers to this 3723’ summit. There are three approaches to choose from when hiking the mountain, each of varying distances and each involving a different scenic drive to reach the trailhead. Two of the trails have lean-tos, two of them follow an abandoned road that was once a thoroughfare over the mountains, and one circles the shore of a lake. And no matter which route is chosen, the mountaintop, with its dense and pungent balsam thicket, creates a special environment that is encountered only in certain locations.

The fire tower at the summit of Balsam Lake Mountain.
A common route to the trailhead begins at Route 28 and Dry Brook Road in Arkville. Take Dry Brook Road six miles (enjoying the drive up this scenic valley), then turn right onto Millbrook Road; after a two-mile uphill drive, turn right at the crest of the hill into the adjacent Dry Brook Ridge Trail Parking Area. The trail to the fire tower is on the opposite side of the road from the parking area. Following the old roadbed, the trail’s gradient is reasonable by Catskill standards, and the width makes it easier to converse with companions. At 2.2 miles the marked junction points hikers up the red trail to the right, which climbs a steeper old road and reaches the fire tower in another three-fourths of a mile. Although the tower was last used for fire surveillance in the late 1980s it has been restored, and the cabin can often be accessed on weekends from Memorial Day through Labor Day due to the efforts of volunteers. But even without access to the cabin, the 360-degree view that unfolds while climbing the tower is amazing.

A shorter route to the summit begins at the Quaker Clearing Trailhead, which is reached after an 8.5 mile drive up the Beaverkill Road from its junction with the Barkaboom Road (just south of Big Pond). This junction is reached from the bridge at NYS Route 30 and the Pepacton Reservoir by travelling east along the NYC BWS Road 1.9 miles, then continuing along Barkaboom Road another 6.2 miles. The first two miles of the hike are gradual (along the southern portion of the blue-marked Dry Brook Ridge Trail) until the junction with the red-marked trail to the tower is reached. Turning left, the ascent is abrupt but the summit is reached in under a mile. Just below the 3500’ mark, a spur trail leads to a lean-to that is tucked in a thickly wooded area. With 1200’ in elevation gain and less than six miles round trip, this hike is done by families and hikers of all ages who are prepared and in good shape.

The third approach to Balsam Lake Mountain is from Alder Lake (reached by turning from the Beaverkill Road onto Alder Lake Road and going 2.25 miles to the base of Cross Mountain Road [a rugged seasonal road connecting to Mill Brook Road], then making a right into the entrance to Alder Lake). From the parking area, the summit of Balsam Lake Mountain is about 7 miles. This distance -- along with the primitive campsites around Alder Lake and the Beaver Meadow Lean-to (1.5 miles east of Alder Lake) -- present some fine backpacking opportunities along the secluded Mill Brook Ridge Trail. As always, hikers and backpackers should be properly prepared with a map, water, food, and all other necessary equipment and provisions.