The start of the hike to the summit of Balsam Mountain from Rider Hollow Road is a soft, mossy incline in a slender canyon between two mountains, crossing back and forth five times over (two) bridges and gushing streams, enveloped by the heady, familiar aroma of evergreen trees.
It’s an exquisitely picturesque hike with a narrow trail off which the dog strays, excitedly sprinting down to the gushing stream for a splash around and then back up the mountain to chase chipmunks. After the last bridge, the going begins to get rocky and steep, requiring hands and feet both in places, giving little respite until the next mile marker. Even after the mile marker, it’s a first-rate clamber in parts, second in line to the great rocky Giant Ledge/Panther Mountain hike. However, I’ve only done five of the Catskill 35, so I’ve little to compare it to, but it’s a thigh-busting challenge.
However, as the great lady said, by heck, it’s gorgeous. Not only gorgeous, it’s magical, evoking memories of childhood books in which squirrels and other spritely mammals live in enormous trees, like they’re Brooklyn brownstones, and go to forest school in uniforms. The magic was compounded by the fact that the base of the mountain was shrouded in fog when I hiked, so my ascent was a misty rise into a lushly ethereal world. You are never really alone until you’ve done a steep, perilous mid-week hike into the mountains after the summer season has finished and revelers have retreated to their city habitats. Always sign in for hikes. It could save your life. There is nothing like the doom of having unwittingly wandered off-trail and being lost in the wilderness with darkness looming. I recommend it at least once, because if you have stressful concerns about business, trivial family wrangles or superficial worries, they will dissolve like a desert mirage once you get lost on a hike with no cellphone service.
Hiking the Catskills 35 has taught me that I can start a hike fretting about a demanding client and by the time I’ve gone off-trail, become lost and suddenly relying on the dog to get me back to civilization, that formerly important client is miraculously dead to me.
There’s a cell tower on Belleayre, but don’t let that fact get you complacent. From Rider Hollow Road, the Balsam Mountain hike begins with the Oliverea-Mapledale Trail, blazed red, then after the first mile markers, you turn left and follow the blue blazes. This is not apparent from the mile markers. Take your map. Once again this is a loop that I have not done because I frequently start out late in the afternoon and run out of time. On reaching the summit, I sat down on a stone ledge overlooking the rest of the world and shared a cold cheese pie with the dog, then I went back the way I came. A bewitching summer afternoon hike that I was compelled to do twice: my favourite.