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Balsam Lake Mountain Winter Experience

There was no better way to kick off 2021 with my boyfriend than take a road trip to the Catskills in New York State to tackle our first high peak. In the summer of 2020, I first heard about the 3500 club.

Growing up going to the Adirondacks, I always heard about the high peaks and imagined becoming a 46er. Living 4 to 5 hours from those peaks, going to accomplish that, is more involved.

Hearing about the 35 high peaks in the Catskills, the desire to complete these peaks grew with an easy day trip! How cool would it be to complete the 35 high peaks by the time I’m 35? I think that would just be awesome!

Sean from Total Catskills has excellent guides and gives a great break down for any kind of hike you’re thinking of doing a hike in the Catskills. Driving to the trails, hear you drive on Catskill Mountains Scenic Byway. It is a beautiful road all year round!

The Catskills scenic byway is a glimpse of the view you’ll get to see when you hike Balsam Lake Mountain. Balsam Lake is part of the Catskill 3500 Club. It is an excellent summer hike, but I highly recommend seeking out a winter wonderland experience.

There are a group of mountains in the Catskills that are above 3,500 feet elevation. While hiking up the trail, you’ll pass an elevation sign. Don’t forget to snag a photo with it!

Kicking off 2021 with this snowy covered trail was a great way to start the day. When doing a winter hike, I highly recommended doing this in the winter.

Distance from NYC: 143 (~2 hours and 45 minutes)

When to visit: Winter, but open all year.

Why go: Winter wonderland hike, fire tower views, and not crowded

How to get to the Trail Head:

Coming from Northern NJ, it is about a two hour drive. If you're also coming from NYC, take route I-87 North. From to I-87 N take NY-28 W in Ulster. Take exit 19 from I-87 N. Continue on NY-28 W. Drive to Mill Brook Rd in Hardenburgh

If you are looking up directions for how to get to trail head, put Graham via Dry Brook Ridge Trailhead into your GPS.

What conditions to expect in the winter:

  • Snow

  • Ice

  • Windy in tower

  • Freezing temperatures (28 degrees in the parking lot, 16 degrees at the summit)

Location: Catskill State Park, New York

Distance: 7.5 miles loop

Elevation Gain: 1,546 feet

Estimated Time: 4 hours and 30 minutes

Difficulty: 🍍 🍍 🍍

Pass/permit: No

Dogs: Yes, leashed

Road access: Mill Brook Road, Parking Lot Trail Head

This trail is rated 🍍 🍍 🍍 pineapples because of the icy conditions when we went. If you are taking the trail in and out from the parking lot, this hike would only be 🍍, maybe 🍍 🍍 pineapples. In and out from the parking lot is the gorgeous trail. To complete this trail in association with the 3500 club, I believe you need to complete the full loop for it to count.

Taking the southern trail to the lean-to, out south, and then back to Millbrook Road, it was icy, down trees, and without microspikes, it is more challenging. Neither of us had microspikes.

If you have microspikes, I recommend packing them! If you do now have them, do not feel like you cannot do this trail.

Must-Have Items For This Winter Hike:

  • Baselayers

  • Thermal layer

  • Fleece layer

  • Outer Shel layer that’s waterproof

  • Waterproof pants or winter hiking pants

  • Trekking poles

  • At least a 20L pack

  • Water, lots of water

  • Snacks

  • Aquafor

  • Gloves

  • Neck guard

This was our first time attempting a 3500 club peak and doing a long winter hike. What could possibly go wrong?

Things To Know Before You Go:

If you are appropriately layered about a mile into this hike, you’ll delayer. This is a good stopping point to delayer and have a decent warm-up done. If you’ve ever winter hiked, then you know you layer up for the freezing temperatures. Knowing you’ll warm-up, is not a good excuse to not wear more layers to start the hike.

Conditions are always changing, especially in the winter. Wind, snow, lighting, and all these things make winter a challenge just from the elements.

For this trail specifically, know going to the fire tower and back from the Dry Mill Brook Trail is easy. If you do this section and turn back, you’ve completed the 3500 peaks. I did not see a canister at the summit, but there is a sign-in book a few hundred feet into the trail.

I love signing in for a hike! It’s just something that brings me joy. Do not forget to register!

How to Navigate the Trail:

From the parking lot, there are two trails. To get to the Balsam Lake Fire Tower, it is across the street from the parking lot. There are signs at the trailhead. Posting to the Fire Tower, you want to follow this direction. There will be blue trail markers and a big sign with “Trail To:, follow signs to Balsalm Lak Mt. Fire Tower, 3 miles.

The trail is very well marked. Anytime a trail splits, look at the sign and follow the trail to the fire tower. The begging of the fire till the sign in, it was icy. Mind your footing. If you have microspikes, this is the area to wear them for.

As you get to a higher elevation, there is more snow post 1 mile, and the microspikes are no longer necessary. The beginning of the trail will start off with elevation gain. Nothing too crazy. If you have layered adequately about a mile into this hike, you’ll delayer. This is a good stopping point to delayer and if you have microspikes, remove them.

Neither of us had microspikes for this hike, don’t feel like you shouldn’t do this hike if you don’t have microspikes, yes it is helpful. Still, if you’re cautious and have trekking poles to help you balance, it is doable.

Shortly after passing through a gate, the blue trail will continue straight. You don’t want to go straight. Keep to the right to go to the fire tower. The trail changes trail markers you follow will change from blue to red trail marker up to the fire tower.

Shortly after, you’ll come to the 3,500 elevation sign. You only have

In this part, you’ll be in a snow-covered pine wonderland. The air becomes crisper, snow becomes light, and the raw chill is not there. My suggestion, do not de layer more from this point. The pines are full will snow. You can smell the piney snow.

If you’ve never been skiing, hiking before, or somewhere in a higher elevation, you know this clean air effect. However, if you have never experienced this, take your time walking the final mile to the fire tower.

Fire Tower:

This trail has very few stretches of a flat trail. When you get to the tower, there is a small building that has bathrooms. They were closed when I went. They did have a thermometer that we checked, and the summit's temperature was 16 degrees. It did not feel like it at the bottom of the tower with the pines protecting the summit.

The tower was a very different story. The steps are covered in ice. Each step, be careful. The further you get up the tower, the wind is no longer blocked by the trees. The wind is no joke!

Be forewarned, the top is not opened in the winter. You will get specular views all the way up, and my photos are from the view. As you can see, it is stunning!

Do not take your steps for granted while walking up and down the tower.

If you only go to the fire tower and back, these are your states for the hike:

Distance: 5.9 miles in and out

Elevation Gain: 1,204 feet

Estimated Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes

Difficulty: 🍍

The in and out is an easy hike. The loop that includes the lean-to is where this becomes an intermediate hike. Part of the trail to the lean-to is a spring that runs lone it that freezes in the winter. This section you will want microspikes for.

Now, neither my boyfriend nor I had microspikes. We walked slowly. I actually just sat at some moments and sledded down different sections. I will say it did save my knees a little. I also had fun! You can go pretty quick too.

The lean-to is mainly a stopping point. The lean-to is barely a .2 mile detour off the main trail in and out.

The ice continues till you reconnect to the Dry Brook Ridge Trail from the Balsam Lake Mountain Trail. This completed the mountain loop. The signs are clearly marked when you come to this section. You will see s sign to the fire tower, the other parking lot, and the parking lot where this section began.

Dry Brook Ridge Trail Reconnect:

You are no longer going to be on the red trail and follow the blue trail again. The frozen section will continue on this section. Even though it’s a 1 mile stretch of ice, trees to climb over, and honestly, it felt like a challenge going uphill with icy conditions. This one mile felt longer than the whole hike to the fire tower.

I’m not trying to exaggerate this at all. Going uphill, it was on and off to delayer, but then the chill would set in from the day, getting later. There were many moments I thought we were approaching the section to the split we first encounter.

From here, you’ll see the sign and know you only have about 2 miles to the register snd it’s a short distance to the parking lot!

Overall Hike Summary:

Balsam Lake is one of the easier peaks of the 3500 club, standing at 3,729 feet elevation. This has a Fire Tower and full scenic views. Perfect for a winter hike, it must be stunning in the summer. Whether you make the trail in and out from the parking lot or full loop, you will love it.

If you are looking to get more into challenging hikes, this will be a great starting point.

Facts & Attractions of Catskill State Park:

  • Balsalm Lake Mountain is located in the western region of the Catskills

  • Albany is the capital of New York

  • American currency is in American dollars and cents

Want to do this hike?! Save these pins to complete this hike!

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