I decided to hike Balsam Lake on Saturday, as it was the only fire tower Catskills 3500 peak I hadn't yet done, and on summer weekends the fire towers are staffed with volunteers and open to visit. Spoiler alert: There was no one at the tower. (Other hikers reported that the volunteers arrived shortly after.) You can still climb the tower stairs, though, and get essentially the same view, so that's what I did.
The hike up seemed relatively easy - mostly because I've been doing a lot of the trailless peaks that require bushwhacking as of late. Even compared to many of the peaks with trails Balsam Lake is somewhat easy, simply because most of it is an old road. There is no scrambling up ledges, for example.
After two miles of road, the trail splits. The left fork continues the road, going to a shelter, another trail, and eventually the tower. The right fork goes more directly to the tower. There is actually another fork a little before this one, an unmaintained trail on private property to Graham Mountain, but it's more obvious when coming downhill than when going up. I didn't do Graham, partially because I hadn't called and partially because I promised my PT I wouldn't push it too hard.
After coming down, I decided to ride the Catskill Mountain Railway. The route is short and not really that interesting, but the stop at the railway museum was interesting. The railway is on the outside of Phoenicia, which is a touristy little town.
Many of the towns in the Catskills are only a collection of houses at an intersection, plus maybe a post office. Others have a business or two, but still aren't draws in themselves. In the areas I've explored thus far, there are two principal towns of size. One is Tannersville (shading into Hunter), which I am quite fond of. It's cute, it has several decent restaurants, and reasonably interesting shopping. You can stay at nearby North-South Lake Campground or sleep indoors at the Snowed Inn for reasonable prices, or stay at one of several pricier B&Bs. I am not qualified to speak as to those, however. Eat breakfast at Maggie's before hiking and dinner after at the Last Chance.
Phoenicia is the other town, and I just haven't been as fond of it. It's not as attractive; it is well-sited and has some historical buildings, but one side of the downtown strip is just boxes. There is a souvenir shop and an ice-cream-and-fudge shop; there is also a river tubing service ("Why not tube the Esopus?") and the railway. Its offerings seem to be aimed at families, and you could exhaust them in a day. It also has very little lodging and almost no decent food. Mama's Boy coffeeshop is good, but it's not an all-purpose restaurant. Brio's, which bills itself as a wood-fired pizza joint, is really a diner, and it's not bad but it's nothing special. There is an attached sports bar, and that's it.
However, there is the Phoenicia Diner, which isn't on the main strip but on the highway. I've seen it totally full up with bikes and pickups, but it's not always convenient eating for hikers - it's not open for dinner. But the railway ticket guy recommended it, so I tried it. You see that watermelon-feta salad above? That's from the diner. Apparently they hired all the chefs away from another former Phoenicia establishment. So, the diner in town is fancier than a diner, and the place that bills itself as a restaurant is actually a diner. Go figure.
There are a couple of other largish towns in the Catskills, such as Margaretville, but I haven't found their locations as convenient to explore, as they tend to be on the edge of or outside the "blue line" marking the park edge. But I readily confess there is a great deal I may be missing out on.