Catskill 3500, #1. Balsam Lake Mountain

September 10, 2016
After dipping my toes last weekend in the Catskill Mountains, I had to go back again this weekend, this time for something a little more challenging. I loaded up the overnight backpack (base weight – 22 lbs/10 kilos) Thursday night. My plan was to take off directly from work on Friday. I reserved a Friday night spot at one of the “remote” hike-in sites at the DEC’s Little Pond campground. From there, the next morning, I would ride to the overnight trailhead lot for Balsam Lake Mountain, backpack up to the peak, camp overnight at the lean-to, and then hike back down to the bike on Sunday and ride back to NYC, ready for a new work week.

Aside from having to suffer the miserable 17 leaving New Jersey, the ride up was uneventful. I arrived at Little Pond before dark, hiked in a lengthy 0.1 mile, and set up camp right on the shore. The remote sites are brilliant in this regard. None of the drive-in sites allow this sort of access. It’s a beautiful sight to wake up and look directly out across a pristine body of water.

Setting up the Hilleberg Unna right at the shore at DEC Little Pond Campground in the Catskill Mountain region.
Setting up the Hilleberg Unna right at the shore at DEC Little Pond Campground in the Catskill Mountain region.

The next morning I departed for the Balsam Lake Mountain access lot. From there the hike to the top of the mountain would be approximately 3 miles. However, because my GPS truncates the titles of my waypoints, I mistakenly rode to the southern lot. From this lot the hike to the peak is 1.85 miles, in other words much steeper inclines. (An FYI, the final leg of the access road there, Beaverkill, is a groomed dirt road that is unmaintained during the winter. You’ll need a snowmobile or snowshoes when it snows.)

The southern access lot for the Dry Brook trailhead and juncture of the Neversink-Hardenburgh trailhead in the Balsam Lake Mountain Wild Forest in the Catskill Mountains.
Parking the BMW R1200GS in the southern access lot for the Dry Brook trailhead and juncture of the Neversink-Hardenburgh trailhead in the Balsam Lake Mountain Wild Forest in the Catskill Mountains.

The first leg on the yellow-blazed Dry Brook Ridge trail was fairly easy, a very gradual incline. At the 0.9 mile mark, I veered onto the blue-blazed Balsam Lake trail. The ascent instantly became steeper, running from 2,900 feet up to 3,650 feet over the next 0.6 miles, a grade incline of 24%. The final 1/4 mile to the peak allowed for a much needed respite as it covered the final 73 feet or so, an almost level incline compared to what came right before it.

The blue-blazed Dry Brook Ridge trailhead. As always, don't forget to register in/out when hiking.
The blue-blazed Dry Brook Ridge trailhead. As always, don’t forget to register in/out when hiking.
Veering onto the red-blazed Balsam Lake trail in the Catskill Mountains. Here's where the fun begins. The next 0.6 miles is STEEP.
Veering onto the red-blazed Balsam Lake trail in the Catskill Mountains. Here’s where the fun begins. The next 0.6 miles is STEEP.

Highlights of the trip?
1. Passing the 3,500 foot elevation marker. Boy, did that cause a surge of happy juice.
2. Drinking from a natural spring at 3,600 feet. Wow, was it cold and delicious.
3. Seeing the base of the Balsam Lake Mountain fire tower through the trees.

What a rush! Hitting the 3,500 ft mark of Balsam Lake Mountain in the Catskills. I think I might just have to sign up with the Catskill 3500 Club.
What a rush! Hitting the 3,500 ft mark of Balsam Lake Mountain in the Catskills. I think I might just have to sign up with the Catskill 3500 Club.
Natural cold, fresh spring water at 3,600 feet on Balsam Lake Mountain is INCREDIBLE. It, alone, is worth the journey.
Natural cold, fresh spring water at 3,600 feet on Balsam Lake Mountain is INCREDIBLE. It, alone, is worth the journey.
I've hit the peak. The Catskill's Balsam Lake Mountain fire tower can be seen through the trees.
I’ve hit the peak. The Catskill’s Balsam Lake Mountain fire tower can be seen through the trees.

I was briefly disappointed that there was no view from the summit, however the fire tower was open. Unfortunately, my timing couldn’t have been worse. The day was overcast and peak was enveloped in misty clouds. I was escorted up into the cab by a volunteer but, as you can see in the photos, I wasn’t able to see beyond a few hundred feet.

Bad timing. The peak of Balsam Lake Mountain is enshrouded in clouds. I'm missing out on beautiful panoramic views. That's the ranger's station at the bottom right.
Bad timing. The peak of Balsam Lake Mountain is enshrouded in clouds. I’m missing out on beautiful panoramic views. That’s the ranger’s station at the bottom right.
Inside the Balsam Lake Mountain fire tower. The painting cruelly lets me know what I'm missing.
Inside the Balsam Lake Mountain fire tower. The painting cruelly lets me know what I’m missing.
Jessica, a Balsam Lake Mountain fire tower volunteer explains how the fire watchers would use this map to help triangulate exactly where a fire was located.
Jessica, a Balsam Lake Mountain fire tower volunteer (and who, in an incredible feat of “small world”, lives 15 blocks from me in Manhattan), explains how the fire watchers would use this map to help triangulate exactly where a fire was located.
Your host, catching my breath, in the Catskill Mountains' Balsam Lake Mountain fire tower, approximately 3,770 feet above sea level.
Your host, catching his breath, in the Catskill Mountains’ Balsam Lake Mountain fire tower, approximately 3,770 feet above sea level.

Heading back down, I stopped by the lean-to. I was planning on camping out here for the night but I was warned that a major thunderstorm was expected and I didn’t feel experienced enough to hike back down a steep incline the next day on slippery rocks the entire way. Call me a woose.

The Balsam Lake Mountain lean-to. I was planning on camping out here for the night but I was warned that a major thunderstorm was expected and I didn't feel experienced enough to hike back down a steep incline on slippery rocks the entire way.
The Balsam Lake Mountain lean-to. I was planning on camping out here for the night but I was warned that a major thunderstorm was expected and I didn’t feel experienced enough to hike back down a steep incline on slippery rocks the entire way.

Well, my first Catskill 3500. It was exhilarating, to say the least. I’m going to have to look into Catskill 3500 membership, a much worthier accomplishment than completing a Bernie’s Bagels/Distillery Passport of round-the-world beers.

I missed out on the view, so I’m going to have to go back. I was told that camping is allowed on the peak during the winter schedule when camping is allow above 3,500 feet. I’m doing it! (As long as I’m able to ride my motorcycle there.)

The elevation graph from my Garmin GPS showing the ascent of Balsam Lake Mountain from the blue-blazed Dry Brook Ridge trailhead in the Catskill Mountains. You'll notice a deviation east along the Neversink-Hardenburgh trail where I started off on the wrong path.
The elevation graph from my Garmin GPS showing the ascent of Balsam Lake Mountain from the blue-blazed Dry Brook Ridge trailhead in the Catskill Mountains. You’ll notice a deviation east to the Black Brook along the Neversink-Hardenburgh trail where I started off on the wrong path.
The elevation graph from my Garmin GPS showing the ascent of Balsam Lake Mountain from the blue-blazed Dry Brook Ridge trailhead in the Catskill Mountains.
The elevation graph from my Garmin GPS showing the ascent of Balsam Lake Mountain from the blue-blazed Dry Brook Ridge trailhead in the Catskill Mountains.

Next up: Panther Mountain. 🙂

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