Patch happy: Take a Hyde Park Walkabout & the Catskills Fire Tower Challenge

Do you need some sort of concrete incentive – besides beautiful vistas, improved physical fitness and a sense of personal accomplishment – to get out and hike? Here are two local opportunities to structure a plan for yourself to spend more time on the trails, with prizes to be won at the end.

Hyde Park Healthy Trails Walkabout

The less strenuous option of the two, in terms of elevation gain, is the Hyde Park Healthy Trails Walkabout, an annual program to encourage walking for health. Each year a new themed design is announced for the Walkabout Patch, which you can sew onto your daypack to prove your trailworthiness once you’ve completed the challenge: Walk at least five Hyde Park trails within a year. 

The 2019 patch celebrates the addition of Hyde Park’s New Guinea community to the National Register of Historic Places. Once the location of a prosperous community of freed slaves and blacks, this site is located in the woods of Hackett Hill Park along Freedonia Lane. 


The Hyde Park Healthy Trails Walkabout is typically launched with a guided hike in April, during Earth Day week/National Park Week. From the kickoff hike, you have until April of the following year to earn your patch.

Your walking options include a variety of parks, preserves and historic sites: the Vanderbilt Loop, Bard Rock Trail, Pinewoods Nature Trail Loop, Hackett Hill Park, Winnakee Nature Preserve, Roosevelt Woods, Roosevelt Farm Lane, Eleanor’s Walk, Top Cottage Trail and Mills-Norrie State Park. At, you can print out a map and checklist to keep track of your progress.

This reward program uses the honor system, so all you have to do to qualify for your free patch is to turn in your checklist at any of the participating sites once you’ve completed a minimum of five trails. There’s bound to be a lot of good hiking weather between now and April, though, so you might want to hang onto it until you’ve walked them all.

Catskills Fire Tower Five Challenge

Issued by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, the Catskills Fire Tower Five Challenge uses the network of fire-spotting towers within the Blue Line as the structure for a goal-oriented hiking program geared for those for whom bagging the 35 peaks of the 3500 Club seems overly challenging. Perhaps the biggest frustration of Catskills hiking for casual outdoorspeople is the fact that the mountains are so green, so densely wooded that it often takes hours of uphill slogging to reach the payoff of a great view: a literal example of not being able to see the forest for the trees. But the fire towers are situated where they are precisely because they open up broad, spectacular vistas, so they provide excellent incentives to keep on keepin’ on during those stretches when you’re looking down at your boots and wondering if there isn’t a more fun way to get your cardio points.

Historically, more than 100 fire towers were used to keep an eye out for telltale plumes of smoke in the Catskills. The Challenge program takes you to five that remain standing, popular and accessible; you can learn more about the history and specifics of all five towers at When you’re done, presumably you’ll be motivated to go on and explore more trails leading to former lookout sites on your own; the Forest Fire Lookout Association website,, can help you find them.

By submitting a selfie taken at each of the five towers between July 11 and December 31 of this year, you’ll also qualify for a prize package: a certificate, a set of commemorative pins and a one-year subscription to Conservationist magazine, and be entered into a drawing for a package of luxury hiking accessories. The first 500 participants who complete the Challenge within the specified timeframe will receive a free Empire Pass for 2020 and be eligible for a commemorative special-edition New York State license plate featuring the Catskills. The five fire towers you’ll need to bag in order to qualify are the following:

Overlook Mountain, Woodstock, elevation 3,140 feet, six-mile round trip, moderate difficulty. Accessed via the red-marked Overlook Spur Trail from Meads Mountain Road, just outside of downtown Woodstock.

Hunter Mountain, Hunter, 4,040 feet, moderate. Seven-mile round trip via the Spruceton Trail, marked with blue disks, from Greene County Route 6 (Spruceton Hollow Road) in the hamlet of Spruceton. Four-mile round trip via the yellow-marked trail from the Hunter Mountain Sky Ride when it is open.

Red Hill, Denning, 2,990 feet, moderate, three-mile round trip. Follow the yellow-marked Red Hill Tower Trail from Coons Road (formerly Dinch Road) just outside of Claryville.

Balsam Lake Mountain, Hardenburgh, 3,723 feet, moderate, six-mile round trip. Follow the blue-marked Dry Brook Ridge Trail, located on Mill Brook Road outside the hamlet of Arkville.

Tremper Mountain, Shandaken, 2,740 feet, moderate to difficult, six-mile round trip. Follow the red-marked Phoenicia Trail, located on Ulster County Route 40 just outside of Phoenicia.

To enter the contest, snap a selfie at each tower and send all five with your name, address and e-mail address to or by post to Catskills Fire Tower Five Challenge, 625 Broadway, 14th floor, Albany, NY 12233-1010, no later than December 31, 2019.