Finishing the CHP and Fire Towers on Balsam Lake Mountain 6/8 - 6/11/12 (Catskills)

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Apr 23, 2005
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I've only had 2 Catskill High Peaks (Graham and Balsam Lake Mountains) and 1 Fire Tower Challenge peak (Balsam Lake Mountain) left for over a year. I could have easily finished both well before now... but I wanted to do it right. I had my eye on a 4 day, 30 mile backpacking trip in the Western Catskills, and this past weekend I finally had the chance to actually do it.

My plan was to do the loop from Black Bear/Basily Roads, which would allow me to not only climb Graham and Balsam Lake Mountains, but also check out the Fall Brook and Long Pond areas, and also summit a Catskill Hundred Highest peak, Willowemoc Mountain.

I arrived at the Black Bear Road parking area at the intersection with Basily Road early Friday afternoon. Rather than park at the end of Black Bear Road, I decided to park here as it would lessen the amount of hiking I'd need to do on the last day. I was afraid that hiking up Black Bear Road would be a drudge, but instead it turned out to be a very pleasant hike up a dirt road. I saw no traffic, and passed by some very nice looking hunting camps, and fields with great views of Doubletop as well as the Burroughs Range in the distance.

Soon I was in the woods, on state land and leaving the developed road behind. The Venture Out map shows several parking areas at the end of Black Bear Road- neither really exist. There's also no gate or barrier where the wilderness area begins... and it looks like there has been some 4WD traffic on state land. I know there are private in holdings north in the Beaverkill Valley, but this looked more like it was illegal motorized vehicle access to the lean-to.

The old road obviously doesn't get much use or maintenance, but it's still in decent shape and I made good time to the lean-to. The lean-to is in a small clearing, pretty overgrown with ferns and other perennials. Both the trail and the lean-to clearly get little use- in fact I think the majority of traffic that passes through this area is the occasional through hiker on the Finger Lakes Trail. There was quite a bit of mention of snowmobile use in the winter in the lean-to register, though- I would've thought that being in a wilderness area, this trail would not be open to snowmobile traffic, though.

In any case, the lean-to was in good shape, and I enjoyed my night there. I'm not sure I've ever felt as remote in the Catskills as I did there... perhaps at Echo lake... the dense forest pressing in from all sides of the lean-to did much to enhance the feeling that I was far away from civilization!


Saturday morning dawned with a fair amount of clouds in the sky and little sun. I was up by 6 and hiking by 6:30, following the trail north. The old road faded quickly, and soon I was passing through some wet spots along the edge of swamps and wetlands. Beyond, the trail started to lose elevation, and it wasn't long before I reached the Beaver Kill.


Irene had clearly sent a lot of water down this valley, and a significant portion of the trail was completely obliterated. I ended up crossing the river too soon, and bushwhacking for a bit before I realized my mistake and crossed back. Even beyond the obliterated section, there were parts where the trail was reduced to a tread only a few inches wide. Fortunately, I had no major issues navigating, though, and soon I was on the woods road that is used by private land owners to access their camps in the valley.

I had wanted to visit Tunis Pond, so I kept an eye out for any herd paths that might lead to it (the Venture Out map shows several) but I never saw anything obvious. The two designated tent sites in the valley obviously don't get much use- the eastern most one was a sizable clearing filled with ferns and looked like it hadn't been used in years. The western most site had been damaged by Irene, reduced to a cobble surface, but it looked like it'd been used more recently. Neither had any sort of marking if you're headed east on the trail, and might be hard to locate for those coming from the Balsam Lake Mountain trailhead (there were markers for those heading west, however).

The rest of the trail was pretty straightforward to the BLM parking lot. I also saw a group camped out in the field near the lot- not sure that this is a legal site, but it obviously gets some use. By the time I reached the lot, the weather had changed for the worse- the clouds had completely taken over and there was a steady rainfall.

Once I reached the BLM trail itself, the character of the path changed significantly. No longer was I on a woods path that received little use... now I was on a highway, at least until the turn off where the direct route climbs straight up the peak. Rather than head to BLM first, I decided to continue up the old road so that I could summit Graham. The old road made for some nice hiking (especially with my full pack!) although parts of it were washed out or overgrown.

The turn off for the herd path to Graham was easy to spot- a very obvious old road that leaves the main woods road in the gap between BLM and Graham, marked with a small cairn. I dropped my pack behind a tree, grabbed some water and food, and started up with the drizzling rain. The climb up Graham went easily enough, a few steep spots, a few muddy spots, some overgrown spots, but for a herd path it was in surprisingly good shape. The path more or less follows the old Jeep trail straight to the summit.

Being on the summit of Graham, with the thick clouds, drizzle, and abandoned TV tower was a bit of an eerie experience. I grabbed some food and water quickly... I was happy to be there (one more Catskill High Peak, Catskill Hundred Highest, and Ultra Fire Tower Challenge peak down!) but not eager to spend much time in the cold and wet, and I wanted to keep moving to BLM.


I made good time my way back to the old road, grabbed my pack, and started up the old road to the summit of BLM. From the junction, the climb is barely even noticeable, and soon I could see the firetower ahead of me through the mist.


The weather on the top of BLM contrasted even with what I had encountered on Graham. While Graham had been cloudy and wet, there had been little wind, yet on BLM the wind was whipping up pretty good. And this despite Graham being the taller of the two peaks! Go figure. There was an older couple volunteering on the summit for the weekend. I spent some time in the tower with the husband, but there wasn't much fore views so I climbed down to check out the cabin. The wife was in the cabin and invited me in for some tea, which I gladly accepted. She had a nice fire going in the wood stove and the cabin was a great respite from the elements.

As with all of the other lists I've finished, the feeling was somewhat surreal... it's always hard to believe when a list is finally done and over with. Immediately my mind is like "ok, so what next?" There's always more lists to be working on!

My ultimate destination for the day was the lean-to south of the summit of BLM, and due to my early start, I made it there by 2 pm, much sooner than I'd expected. I thought about perhaps continuing on over the Beaver Kill Ridge, or maybe even relocating to the lean-to near Alder Lake to the west instead, but ultimately decided that I'd had enough of the rain and was going to stay put where I was. I had a nice afternoon staying dry in the lean-to. It got quite cold at night, enough that I wore long underwear to bed!


The next morning arrived bright and sunny with clear blue skies, and I decided that there was no way I was leaving BLM without getting to enjoy the views. Since the summit was a meager quarter of a mile and 200 feet in elevation away, after packing up I ran back up. I'm glad I returned, the views were definitely worth the return trip! There were also fresh bear tracks in the trail that hadn't been there the afternoon before!


Continued in next post...
Continued from above...

After chatting with the volunteers some more, I returned to the lean-to, grabbed my pack, and started down the mountain. In no time at all, I was back at the parking area, and starting down the road. It was another pleasant walk on a dirt road to the trailhead for the Mongaup-Hardenburgh trail. At the trailhead, I met a nice gentlemen who was just coming down from climbing Willowemoc Mountain (he was working on his Catskill Hundred Highest).

Willowemoc was definitely a tough climb with a full pack, but nothing near impossible. The trail was quite steep in spots, but much sooner than I expected, I found it starting to level off as I approached the ridge. The trail obviously gets very little use, and it got even less use once I passed beyond the summit and started to descend towards Sand Pond Mountain. It was fairly clear of blowdown, however, and and for the most part easy hiking- except for the few spots where I was forced to tread through dense ferns that obscured the loose, slippery rocks in the trail beneath!


The Venture Out map promised views from Sand Pond Mountain, but I never saw anything notable. There was one spot where it looked like there had once been views from a rocky outcrop, but it was all grown in and obscured.

Before long, I came to the snowmobile trail from Mongaup Pond, which took me down into the Willowemoc Creek drainage. It looks like there is a lot of illegal camping that occurs along the creek- there were numerous sites posted against camping. It's a beautiful area for sure- a picturesque stream that flows through shaded stands of hemlock.

Beyond Willowemoc Creek, the snowmobile trail became a bit muddy in spots, but overall still provided easy hiking. I ate lunch in the old lean-to site on the north shore of Long Pond- does anyone know the history of the lean-to? Why it was removed? There are still quite a few timbers from the lean-to remaining, as well as the fire place...

The hike around to the new lean-to on the south shore went pretty easily. The lean-to is situated well away from the water in a small clearing. It doesn't look like it gets much use (most snowmobiles stopping by in the winter) but by planning to stay there on a week night I'd timed things perfectly- according to the register, there'd been a large group occupying the lean-to all weekend for a bachelor party. There was also a Pheobe nest in the rafters of the lean-to, with a bunch of very cute baby birds. At first, the parents seemed wary of me, but once they got used to me they were in an out of the lean-to all afternoon, bringing a constant supply of food for their young.


Long Pond was quite peaceful. Not exactly the nicest pond (the shorelines were pretty swampy) but still beautiful, and with the rarity of ponds in the Catskills, we have to take what we can get.


That night was in complete contrast to the previous... I was nearly a thousand feet lower in elevation than the BLM lean-to, and the weather was warmer anyways. Whereas I'd been quite comfortable in long underwear fully zipped into my sleeping bag the night before, at Long Pond I slept mostly outside of my sleeping bag that night!

Monday, my last day of hiking, was mostly a road walk. I followed the snowmobile trail east from Long Pond, reaching a junction with a dirt road that I at first though was Basily Road. I soon realized, though that it was a road not shown on the map, used to access a private in holding east of Long Pond. After the brief confusion, I was on the right track, and soon made it to Basily Road. I was easily able to cover the 4 miles back to Black Bear Road in under an hour and a half.

All in all, a great trip. There was a fair amount of road walking, but it was all pleasant walking- I highly recommend a similar itinerary for anyone looking for an excellent loop hike in the Catskills (they are in short supply!). Not only was I able to finish both the Catskill High Peaks and the Fire Tower Challenge, but I also picked up three new lean-tos, bringing my lean-to total to 126.
I've been eyeballing that route on the VO map for awhile now and it was nice to read your report and see your beautiful photos.....nice to see ferns and not prickers on those little used trails. You're going to love the Beaver Meadow Lean to near Alder Lake when you add that one to your list. :) It has a great view across an old beaver pond, now just a stream and a tiny pond in a meadow........but we saw ducks on the pond and deer come out of the woods, a humming bird near the lean to. There is a nice pipe spring and cinnamon ferns on Millbrook Mountain.
Congratulations on your dual finish also!
Doncha just love the cinnamon ferns on Millbrook Ridge? Shoulder and head high, and I'm over 6'. I'm told John Burroughs writes about them but I haven't been able to locate the essay.