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The Fire Tower at Overlook Mountain

Are You Ready to Take The Catskills Fire Tower Challenge?

If you love to hike the Hudson Valley and Catskill Mountain region, you may have already experienced the awesome beauty of climbing one of our six fire towers with sweeping views of the valley below. There’s nothing like it.  If you haven’t done so already, here’s a challenge to get you going.

Take the Catskills Fire Tower Challenge where experienced hikers are encouraged to visit the region’s six fire towers between January 1, 2022 and December 31, 2022.

The Fire Tower at Hunter Mountain by Scenic Catskills

The Fire Tower at Hunter Mountain | Source: Scenic Catskills

  1. Overlook Mountain – Woodstock, NY
  2. Hunter Mountain – Hunter, NY
  3. Red Hill Mountain – Denning, NY
  4. Balsam Lake Mountain – Hardenburgh, NY
  5. Tremper Mountain – Shandaken, NY
  6. Upper Esopus – Mt. Tremper, NY

You do not need to climb up to the cab but unless you suffer a fear of heights, it would be foolish not to. If you’ve made it to the top go all the way for breathtaking views to good to miss. With each visit, you fill out your log of completed hikes and submit one of your favorite photos. At the end of your journey, you’ll receive a commemorative patch and be entered to win great outdoor prizes including hiking accessories.

You can easily enter online Here.

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DID YOU KNOW
For nearly a century, observers watched the forests of New York State–including the Catskill and Adirondack forest preserves– from more than 100 fire towers perched atop the highest peaks, searching for the dangerous, telltale signs of forest fires.

Inside+Out turned to our local expert and hiking guide, Dave Holden to learn more about this storied past.

The Fire Tower at Balsam Lake Mountain

The Fire Tower at Balsam Lake Mountain


DAVE HOLDEN: When the first settlers arrived in what we now call the Catskills and the Hudson Valley, they must have been absolutely amazed at what a beautiful, pristine paradise it was. Inhabited by the indigenous Haudenosaunee, Mahican and Munsee peoples, the area was cultivated into carefully-crafted manicured groves of Hemlock, Pine, Maple and Oak. The forests were lovingly and explicitly nurtured for the unique products of the trees: healing salves, wood for building and utensils, syrups, and foodstuff, interspersed with extensive, rich gardens. 

Generally, firewood came from fallen or standing deadwood (called “goomootch” by my Micmac ancestors). After Natives were cajoled or swindled out of their land, Settlers could extract whatever “value” they could to be sold or otherwise misused. Valleys were cleared for inefficient European agricultural purposes. Large-scale animal husbandry contributed significantly to widespread erosion and major flooding events. The introduction of swine quickly ruined native gardens in ancestral bottomlands and wild roots that had long been cultivated. These practices, distinctly out of harmony with the land, started the road to destruction in the region. 

From Paradise to Perdition. During the 1800s, with no regulations in place, hardwoods and pines were over-logged, and Hemlocks were destroyed to make tan-bark. Virtually the entire landscape was dug up with millions of stumps and immense piles of slash (unmarketable remains of branches and trees) strewn across the once-pristine landscape. So it was no wonder many trains hauling lumber often ignited fires from sparks escaping their wood-fueled smokestacks. Small- and medium-sized fires were common. 

In 1885, both Catskill Park and Adirondack Park were founded to remedy this situation. It wasn’t until the great fires of 1903 and 1908 that the impetus finally occurred to fitfully attempt to protect the nearly-ruined land. The parks were meant to enforce fire protection because the fires became widespread and truly disastrous due to wide-ranging and long-lasting droughts. Some small towns in the Adirondacks were totally wiped out. Many wild animals died in these fires, including large numbers of fish that perished when wood ash from burnt trees mixed with water, creating lye that leached into streams. There was no drinkable water in large areas, and the sky was a smoke-filled ashen-grey for months. 

Finally, New York State started to get serious about fires setting up a few (primarily wooden) observation towers at high points, manned by fire observers. The State eventually changed to metal towers with enclosed observatories, called cabs. Eventually, New York State would have 102 fire towers, spread out mainly in the Adirondacks and the Catskills (which initially had 23 ). 

When airplanes became the prime method to observe and track forest fires, gradually, the fire towers became a thing of the past. Most were closed, and many were removed. For more on this important history, I highly recommend Martin Podskoch’s entertaining and informative book, Fire Towers of the Catskills – Their History and Lore.

The last five towers in the Catskills at Balsam Lake Mountain, Hunter Mountain, Mt. Tremper, Overlook Mountain. and Red Hil sat abandoned for years. Through the passion and efforts of volunteers coordinated with the expertise of Catskill Center and NYSDEC, the towers were eventually refurbished and brought back to life. 

This program has been very successful, and I am very proud to have played a role in reopening the Overlook Fire tower. In 2019, the Catskill Center and the DEC erected a new fire tower on the grounds of their shared Catskills Visitor Center (CVC)–the Upper Esopus Fire tower (www.catskillsvisitorcenter.org). This means we now have 6 fire towers in the Catskills. They can all be visited by hikes of different lengths; the Upper Esopus fire tower is only a short walk. Each is part of the Catskills Fire tower Challenge. I think the Visitor Center is the best and most logical place to start. You’ll find so much information on site, including maps of the area, and you can start with the Upper Esopus fire tower. 

Follow Dave’s Top Ten Hiking Tips:

  1. Anytime you visit, bring out what you bring in. (Leave No Trace). 
  2. Be prepared for hiking trails of all levels
  3. Follow requirements for a safe and healthy outdoor experience.
  4. Keep in touch with the CVC for updated Trail Conditions. 
  5. Watch the weather 
  6. Dress accordingly, sometimes in layers. Adequate footwear is essential – ideally waterproof, but at least with ankle support. 
  7. Bring plenty of water – there are occasional springs, but you should never rely on them. Snacks are always good. 
  8. Have a map and know how to use it. 
  9. As the days shorten, always have a light with you. 
  10. Please sign in and out at Register-boxes where available and use #catskillcenter when texting.

Thank you, “Ranger” Dave Holden
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The featured photo is of the Fire Tower at Overlook Mountain in Woodstock NY

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