Hike name: 3,610-foot Balsam Mountain
Location: Central Catskills
Length: Six miles round trip
Rating: The middle section of this climb is as steep as a trail gets in the Catskills, or anywhere else, for that matter. It bends up steeply, then steepens, gets steeper yet, then gets, well, almost crazy. The final section is practically a boulder-filled near-vertical wall.
Dogs: Better to leave Fido home watching football. See above.
Map(s): New York-New Jersey Trail Conference (NYNJTC) Catskill Trails mapset, Trail Map 42.
Features: Snow … I often say, “Don’t wish for something, you just might get it,” and I really wouldn’t wish last January’s unrelenting snowstorms on any of us, but it was, honestly, good to see a “normal” January blanket of snow in the woods. And not on the roads.
Once over the top of “the wall,” the blue-blazed Pine Hill-West Branch Trail east toward Belleayre is a really nice walk; a steady climb, with only a few ledges, and plenty of relatively flat sections to catch your breath and get your legs back.
Watch out for: See “Rating.” We brought along our Katoola MICROspikes, but never slipped them on, though we should have on the descent.
Trekking poles used as ski poles were a big plus on the descent.
Hurricanes Irene and Lee hammered the Catskills. McKinley Hollow Road was closed for quite a while, and the trailhead was inaccessible. The trail itself was damaged, and the bridge across the creek right at the beginning of the trail was washed out, and has not been replaced. Carefully cross the stream on a couple of narrow logs.
Further on, a fair amount of scrambling is necessary where the trail is still badly washed out, and the stream crossing just above the lean-to is a mess, but beyond the trail is undamaged, until the very upper part of the steep climb, that was also apparently badly washed out, though the snow cover masked this.
Background: Ralph III has thrown his hat in the ring for a full third round of the 35 Catskill 3,500 footers, and has decided to go all the way and include the four required winter climbs: Balsam, Blackhead, Panther and Slide.
Given this choice, I picked Balsam to start with — Blackhead’s a 3,900-footer, and Slide’s a 4,000-footer. Panther is a long haul, from the north and from the south. I figured the best way to get our “winter legs” in shape was to do the easiest first: Balsam. Ha! We all knew about Balsam’s mid-section wall, but, hey, see “Rating” for part of the fun of this particular climb.
Hike description: It was 3 above zero when we left Stormville; we’d packed our Everest-quality winter gear. Somewhere along Route 28 we started to see snow along the road and in the woods, and we stepped out into a 3- to 4-inch blanket at the trailhead.
The temps were frigid, and we all agreed what we were about to undertake “wasn’t for everybody,” but also agreed we were excited about the winter adventure awaiting us. There were several cars at the trailhead, so we knew we wouldn’t be breaking trail.
We ducked, dodged and scrambled through Irene devastation, passed the lean-to, boulder-hopped across the brook, soldiered across the flats, huffed and puffed up the headwall, finally reached the col, then enjoyed the heck out of the climb up the west slope to the top of Balsam. Next, Blackhead???
How to get there: Thruway or Taconic north to Route 28 west, left on CR 47 at Big Indian, right on McKinley Hollow Road. Park on left, follow trail signs to red plastic DEC disks.