- Peaks: Balsam Lake
- Type: Loop
- Time: 3 h
- Distance: 4.7 mi
- Elevation Gain: 1181 ft
- Hikers: Dan, Alex
- 1:00 PM Start hiking
- 2:25 PM At summit fire tower
- 2:45 PM Start hiking down via Dry Brook Ridge
4:00 PM Back at the car
- Tracks: AllTrails, eBird 1, eBird 2, eBird 3
- Conditions: Cool (40s), cloudy, a bit muddy. No snow or ice anywhere.
Since the closure of Graham and Doubletop in 2021, Balsam Lake Mountain has stood out on the map as a lone high peak far west of all the others. I knew it would be a long drive and a short hike. An opportunity presented itself this week when Alex said we could do a high peak after our regular Tuesday morning early birders walk at Minnewaska. Since we wouldn’t have a full day, a short hike to Balsam Lake made more sense than a more ambitious hike to Big Indian and Eagle.
There was a kid at early birders with a Catskills 3500 hat on. I chatted with him and his grandmother about hiking the high peaks. It’s a rich topic for anyone who’s done this! Our plan started to look in jeopardy when it began to hail at the end of the bird walk. But we figured the weather would improve and we pushed on.
We stopped at Cohen’s in Ellenville to grab sandwiches for our hike. We’d heard lots about this place from our friend John who works next door. According to him, it’s a Jewish deli that’s now run exclusively by Mexicans. It’s very cute and the sandwiches and treats were good, but I’m a bit miffed that they left the bacon off my BLT!
The Balsam Lake Mountain trailhead is quite remote. The road to it got increasingly rugged as we approached, going down to one lane and then a dirt road. They were regrading it and we had to go around construction vehicles. We’ve been having some car trouble recently, and we were starting to wonder whether parking at a remote trailhead was a good idea. What if our car wouldn’t start when we came back from our hike? How many miles would we have to walk back on this road before we saw someone who could help?
Somewhat to our surprise, there were four other cars in the parking lot. At least we’d have company.
The hike was very gentle at first and somewhat muddy. There was a tiny bit of precipitation at the start of our hike, then it stayed dry for the rest of the day. We saw tons and tons of Trout Lilies along the sides of the path. Alex had said that these are rare, but we must have seen at least a million of them on this hike. It felt like there was a carpet of them alongside the trail.
We also saw our first open Trillium of the season.
I’ve really enjoyed seeing the seasons change in the Catskills as I’ve been going up week after week. One month ago it was still winter. Two weeks ago the trilliums were starting to emerge. Today a few of them had bloomed. I’m sure in another week or two they’ll be at their peak.
The path got steeper after the junction with the Dry Brook Ridge trail. We took the steep way up. The trout lilies and spring beauties continued almost all the way to the summit. This part was quite steep but fortunately not very long. The elevation of the trailhead is over 2500ft, so really the car did most of the work!
We passed a lean-to and spring, and transitioned to dense Balsam forest as we neared the summit. We saw a Brown Creeper and heard some Golden-crowned Kinglets here. Finally we got to the fire tower. We were the only ones there. The top was locked but the views were still great.
We had lunch and took the Dry Brook Ridge trail down. There was a conspicuous absence of Trout Lilies near the top. Alex hypothesized that the Balsam Fir trees either shaded them out or made the soil too acidic for them with their needles. This seems accurate: as soon as we transitioned out of the fir forest (and it was a sharp transition) the Trout Lilies instantly appeared.
I liked the return trail much better: it was more gradual and there was more exposure thanks to the deep river valley. This route was about a mile longer than the hike up, but we did it ten minutes faster and then long, gentle downhill made for very pleasant hiking. We saw the turnoff for Graham, which has been closed for the past few years. I’d love to hike it someday.
There was one surprise on the return: I saw movement in the brush on the side of the trail and went to take a look. It was a porcupine! I’ve seen these many times in trees at Minnewaska and at the Gunks, but never on the ground in the wild. It was fun to see the porcupine’s face as it walked around and tried to decide whether we were a threat. The yellow color on the end of its quills really stood out.
Back at the parking lot came the moment of truth: would our car start? Fortunately it did! There was one other car in the lot so we at least wouldn’t have been out there alone had we been stranded. But I’m glad it didn’t come to that.
This was a nice area to hike and we’ll likely be back here for birding later in the spring. I’d like to see more of the wildflowers in bloom.
Just three peaks left!