For nearly a century, observers staffed more than 100 fire towers throughout New York State, located primarily on the highest peaks in the Catskill and Adirondack regions. This was in response to the intense logging and tannin harvesting operations that would leave virgin forest barren, dried, and very susceptible to fire. Rangers would often reside in nearby cabins while keeping a regular lookout for smoke and flames throughout the surrounding valleys. If a fire was spotted, a message was sent to the nearby town and the location of the suspected fire would be triangulated and confirmed by other fire towers in the area.
Beginning in the 1980s the towers were systematically closed as monitoring from planes became more cost effective. Some towers have been dismantled, others remain in disrepair, while a select few have been revitalized by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, or purchased and renovated by the general public. Restorations continue throughout the state and there are many assistance programs you can join to help support and maintain these historic icons. Each tower offers a new and unique perspective of New York, and serves as a monument to forest protection throughout the state. Take the Hamilton County Fire Tower Challenge, then step up your game and visit them all! Here are a few of our favorites:
The Blue Mountain Fire Tower is perhaps one of the most well-known towers in the Adirondacks. Over 15,000 visitors flock to this mountain throughout the year to experience its stunning 360-degree views over the surrounding Adirondack landscape. The trail to the summit is a 4.2-mile, round-trip route that climbs a little over 1,500 feet, with picturesque views that are well worth the climb.
While there are several Owl’s Head Mountains throughout New York, there is only one that hosts a historic fire tower. This Owl’s Head Mountain is located within the Sargent Pond Wild Forest and is accessed by a 6.4-mile round-trip, there-and-back trail that is moderately trafficked. At the top of Owl's Head there is a cleared area with an incredible cliff-face overlook. The tower’s cabin is also open for visitors to take in the incredible 360-degree views of the surrounding landscape.
Standing high upon the edge of the West Canada Lake Wilderness, the Pillsbury Mountain Fire Tower overlooks the mixed conifer forest of the Adirondacks with incredible views that span for miles. The 3.1-mile there-and-back hike to the summit is a challenging, moderately trafficked adventure that climbs about 1,500 feet in elevation. There are a few muddy sections to find your way around, but the trail is well-defined with shade that is moderated by deciduous trees that gradually transition to pines as you gain elevation. There are no views along the trail, but once you reach Pillsbury Mountain's summit you will be delighted by the perspective this tower has of the surrounding lakes, marshes, and high peaks.
The prominent rock face of Snowy Mountain can be seen across the Adirondack horizon for miles. At its summit stands one of the highest fire towers in New York. An approximately 7.5-mile round-trip trail climbs over 2,500 feet and connects Route 30 to the summit. Located on the edge of the West Canada Lake Wilderness, this is one of the longer fire tower hikes in the local region, but the energy and effort are well worth the visit.
At less than a mile round trip, Belfry Mountain is a short, family-friendly hike that offers a big reward for a little effort. Parking is along the roadside, and the trail is accessible year round. The trail is a gravel road with a moderate grade for most of the walk, and it narrows to a footpath near the top. The fire tower was built in 1917 and has since been restored. It now offers a 360-degree view for those who ascend its stairs. From the top of the tower you can see Lake Champlain and Vermont’s Green Mountains to the east and the Adirondack High Peaks to the west.
Mount Arab sits outside of the High Peaks surrounded by lakes and reservoirs in the Adirondacks. The ridge hike is short and only moderately steep, leading to great views and a historic fire tower and museum. While the trail is well worn, it is strewn with roots and rocks in some places. During the summer you will likely encounter Thomas Cullen and his two Newfoundlands, Toby and Apollo: He oversees the museum, the fire tower, and greets climbers.