TRIP REPORT: Balsam Mountain – Catskills, NY 7-2-17

Hiking stats at a glance:

Total Mileage = ~5.5 miles

Elevation Gain = ~1,600 feet

Hike Highlights = Balsam Mountain (3,602ft)

Trailhead = Rider Hollow Road

Total Time = 3 hours


In honor of our engagement last year we decided to spend the anniversary on another mountain. Since we couldn’t make it back to Acadia (Since the fourth fell on a Tuesday and we had to work Monday!) we settled on a short trip up to the Catskills to hike Balsam Mountain. In picking this peak for our trip I have to admit I didn’t know much of anything about it besides the general path of the loop hike we planned on doing.

View of the parking area and trailhead. The register is just on the other side of the gate.

We arrived at the Rider Hollow Road parking lot at about 1:15 and signed in to the trail register by 1:30.

View of the first sign at the trailhead.

The hike started with a simple flat trail which lead to the first bridge over the brook that we would end up crossing several times on the descent.

View of the bridge right at the start of the trail.


View of the brook from the bridge.

Luckily the water levels weren’t very high so the water crossings weren’t much of a concern throughout the day but it is something to keep in mind if its raining or there have been recent thunderstorms/snow melt. The trail from here continued at a fairly flat grade before reaching the fork in the trail where you need to make a choice on which way you want to go up and down.

View of the first fork in the trail.

Going left will take you up the driest route and across the entire ridge before reaching the summit of Balsam Mountain. Going right will take you towards the Lean-to and force you to make several water crossings right at the beginning of the hike. We decided to make a left and save the water crossings for the end of the day just in case we had to get a little wet. The trail from here began to climb at a pretty constant grade towards the top of the ridge.

One of the only parts of the trail which was a little harder to follow due to blow down along the brook.

The trail overall was pretty easy to follow and well marked but the section of trail along the brook had a good amount of blow down which made things just a tiny bit trickier. If you keep an eye on the trail markers you should have no problem staying on course. In all honesty I expected this hike to generally be pretty boring but I was very pleasantly surprised. There was plenty of tall old growth trees which made the area seem all the more beautiful.

View of some of the towering trees along the trail.


Another shot of a particularly beautiful spot.

The lush green foliage also made the area feel so alive and made me feel like I was somewhere other than New York for a little while. The trail continued from here getting a little steeper but it really wasn’t anything too dramatic.

View of the trail on our way up.

Before too long we reached a large boulder that we had to walk around which was followed by the first real rocky sections of trail on the day.

Large boulder you make your way around.

From here it was only a fairly short distance to the top of the ridge itself. Unlike my last climb in the Catskills there were no incredibly steep or rocky spots that needed to be navigated. Once on top of the ridge things flattened out considerably.

View of the trail as it flattened out on the ridge.

Before too long we reached the next trail junction. From here we hung a right and continued towards the summit of Balsam Mountain. This was also the only spot we encountered any serious mud along the trail.

View of the second trail junction.


View of the mud and trail on the way towards the summit.

From here the hike continued to be pretty flat for a ways before we made a more mellow climb up some small rocky sections.

View of the trail along the ridge.


View of a small rocky section along the way.

Then we hit the 3,500 ft marker which meant we only had another 100 feet or so of vertical gain left on the day. From here the vegetation also began to become more coniferous. I always love seeing the transitions in environments as you hike!

View of the 3,500 ft marker.


View of the trail above 3,500 feet.


Another look at the trail.

As we made our way across the ridge above 3,500 feet we reached the only viewpoint of the day we would encounter. There might be others but unfortunately we didn’t see them but we also didn’t try too hard to find others. The true summit is actually completely in the trees so be sure to stop here and take in the view.

The one view we had all day.



From the viewpoint we continued on a bit further before seeing the small trail on our left which led to the true summit. The summit was marked by an upturned rock which served as the summit marker/cairn. It was an uneventful summit but it didn’t take long to get to and the trail was otherwise quite beautiful.

View of the trail junction for the true summit.


View of the summit marker.

We only hung around for a minute before continuing on our way back down the mountain. The trail on this side of the ridge was more of the same and didn’t have any other particularly interesting features for the first mile or so.

View of the trail on the way down.

In what seemed like no time we reached the third trail junction where we made a right and continued back down towards the Rider Hollow Trailhead. As a side note on our way down we ran into a couple groups of hikers on their way up. I think they under estimated what they were getting into because they seemed pretty beat and I think only had one 16 oz bottle of Poland Spring between five people. Try not to be these people, be sure to pack enough water for any hike, even if you think it will be quick and easy. Its better to be safe than sorry. At least 2 liters per person, per day is a good rule of thumb, on hot humid days you might even want more. In the desert for example they recommend 1 gallon per person, per day. This concludes my public service announcement.

View of the third junction sign.


Cairn marking the trail junction.


The next section of trail after the junction started another steep descent towards the brook which flowed towards the trailhead. From here the trail crosses back and fourth over the brook several times.

View of the trail descending through the lush foliage.


View of the first brook crossing.


Looking back up the mossy brook.

The trail through this section is also pretty scenic and has a nice bit of variety. Luckily the water crossings weren’t flowing very hard so we were able to cross without any trouble at all but I could see some of them being troublesome in high water conditions.

View of the second water crossing.


View of the third water crossing.

After the third crossing the trail widened considerably into almost a carriage road. There were some old stone structures off to the side of the trail so I imagine there might of been some sort of camp or something around this area in the past. I’m sure someone with more local knowledge could fill me in on what was going on around this area back in the day.

View of the wider trail section.

This wider section of trail lead to the largest water crossing along the way back. Depending on the water level you could count this as one large or two small crossings.

The fourth water crossing.


Another view in the middle of the crossing.

After making this crossing you can see the Lean-to off in the distance. Some folks were staying in the Lean-to so I didn’t want to be the creepy guy taking a close up picture of it while they were there, but I think you can get the idea of where it is from the photo below.

View of the Lean-to off in the distance.

After the Lean-to we came to the final water crossing over the brook which also had what looks like a rickety metal bridge. However, this bridge was in fact very sturdy!

View of the final bridge crossing.


Close up of the bridge.

After crossing the bridge one final stretch of trail brought us back to the original fork in the trail.

Last stretch of trail.


View of the original trail junction as we approached.

After passing the original trail junction we continued on our way to the trailhead along the trail we started on. Overall this was a short but great little hike in the area. In fact I would actually say it has been one of my favorite Catskill hikes to date. Just goes to show you that it isn’t always about the summits, but sometimes it is about the trails that get you there. I certainly plan to continue hiking in the Catskills so be sure to subscribe to the blog for future posts about other great hikes in this region.


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