A view of history: Catskills fire towers

Once upon a time, 23 steel fire towers dotted the high peaks of the Catskills. They were staffed by fire tower observers, who scanned the horizon for smoke and filled their downtime with shimmying up the steep steel struts, taming bears and sharing space with pet snakes. (Those stories and other fire tower tales are collected in the book Fire Towers of the Catskills by Martin Podskoch, published by Purple Mountain Press.)

The job of the fire spotter vanished decades ago, and the towers fell into disrepair. But between 1997 and 2000, thanks to the efforts of Catskill Fire Tower Project volunteers, five of the original fire towers of the Catskill Park were renovated and opened to the public.

They are:

Balsam Lake Mountain in Hardenburgh
(3,723 feet)

Red Hill in Denning
(2,990 feet)

Tremper Mountain in Shandaken
(2,740 feet)

Overlook Mountain in Woodstock
(3,140 feet)

Hunter Mountain in Hunter
(4,040 feet)

Another local fire tower just outside the Catskill Park, at the 3,214-foot summit of Mount Utsayantha in Stamford, was restored and reopened to the public in 2005.

All of the towers command breathtaking views of the hills and offer a glimpse of Catskills history.

The fire towers are staffed with able volunteers most weekends from Memorial Day to Columbus Day. They open the lookout “cab” at the top of each tower so that hikers can scan the horizon for forest fires, just as fire observers did. The mountaintops themselves are good destinations for relaxing and picnicking, with picnic tables and outhouses for visitors.

Hiking one of the five Catskill Park fire towers this season will make you eligible to earn a Catskill Fire Towers badge, and you will be entered into a drawing for neat prizes through the Morgan Outdoors Five Fire Tower Passport. (See our article, "Scout's honor: Earn Catskills badges" for details.)

Support the Catskill Fire Tower Project by purchasing fire tower T-shirts, hats or patches at catskillcenter.org/store. All proceeds support fire tower maintenance and the volunteer interpreters at the Balsam Lake Mountain, Hunter Mountain, Overlook Mountain, Red Hill, and Mount Tremper fire towers. For more information about the Catskill Fire Tower Project, visit the program’s website at catskillfiretowers.org.

Lisa Lyons is the proprietor of Morgan Outdoors in Livingston Manor.

This article originally appeared in the print version of the 2014 Catskills Outdoor Guide, our annual publication covering recreation in the Catskills great outdoors. The Catskills Outdoor Guide is distributed across the Catskills region and at select locations in the NYC metropolitan area. Find a copy near you here.