Climbing Fire Towers in the Catskills

Nola rushes to a picnic table - a rarity atop mountains unless there is a fire tower.
Nola rushes to a picnic table – a rarity atop mountains unless there is a fire tower.

For nearly a century, observers kept a watchful eye on the forests of New York State from more than 100 fire towers perched atop the highest peaks. Of the 19 steel structures once vital to spotting forest fires, only five escaped dismantling. The last steward ended his watch in the Catskills in 1990 at Red Hill Fire Tower, just outside the hamlet of Claryville.

That’s where we set out to pay homage to the history of fire towers in the Catskills. Our drive down from Albany took us into the heart of the Neversink Valley, a forsaken tract of undisturbed streams, rocky wilderness and pristine waterfalls.

With an elevation of only 2,914′ Red Hill does not qualify as a high peak. In the winter, remote Dinch Road (a.k.a Coons Road) is “Seasonal Use” only so we had to park a good quarter of a mile from the entrance. Having left late in the day the sun had already peaked when we arrived.

The trail was coated with a thin layer of newly fallen snow but underneath lie a hidden blanket of slippery blue ice. At only 2.86 mile round trip, this is said to be an easy hike but today, without micro spikes, the summit proved too dangerous for the unprepared. Tracks from other climbers ended at the water spring sign but we pressed onward.

At the top we came upon the Ranger Station and the fire tower in a small clearing. A couple picnic tables looked inviting but the last hour of daylight was fading fast so we scurried up the ninth rung for better views.

On our way down the trail, some of us abandoned our poles and slid down on our backside like a sled. Hey, there’s no shame in wanting to get home without an injury!

Pay a visit to any of these 5 remaining gems in the Catskills. Brochures and maps can be found online at the Trail Conference website.

1. Hunter Mountain
Town of Hunter-Elevation 4,040 feet
FYI: The highest elevation of any fire tower in New York State.

2. Overlook Mountain
Woodstock-Elevation 3,140 feet

3. Balsam Lake Mountain
Hardenburgh-Elevation 3,723 feet

4. Tremper Mountain
Shandaken-Elevation 2,740 feet

5. Red Hill
Denning-Elevation 2,990 feet