One of the most glorious spots our county has to offer is the beautiful bald that overlooks the gorgeous ridges of North Carolina and Tennessee. Max Patch offers a breathtaking network of trails, including the treasured Appalachian Trail, and a fishing pond. The trails meander around the base of the mountain and up to the majestic top- which is a lovely place to picnic, take in the stunning views of surrounding states, or even fly a kite.

Cleared in the 1900s for pasture land and grazing, in the 1930s the Civilian Conservation Corps constructed the section of the Appalachian Trail that connects the Great Smoky Mountains to Hot Springs, NC. As a result of recent overuse, efforts at Max Patch are now geared towards the rewilding of the bald, planting native flora, appropriately redirecting visitors and hikers on sustainable trails, and educating the public as to how they can respectfully visit this wonderful place.

Max Patch Being Loved Too Much?

September 19, 2020 Photo by Mike Wurman

In 2018 local trail groups and residents noted that Max Patch was beginning to be loved, quite literally, to death. There were dozens of fire rings left on the top (over 70 at one point!) sometimes still smoldering, left unattended, and obviously leaving a huge potential for wildfires. Trash was left all over from abandoned camping expeditions, toilet paper, tables, diapers- you name it, it was left behind. This trend only became more prominent as social media and regional publications sent even more folks wanting to explore the area.

COVID was when things got way out of hand as folks yearned to be safely outdoors- this was when the now viral picture of well over 100 tents, abandoned trash and camping debris proved that the general public didn’t understand how to appreciate this public gift. Fortunately, local residents, the Carolina Mountain Club, Appalachian Trail Conservancy, and the USFS Appalachian Ranger District came together with an action plan and a force of heroic volunteer efforts to save this beloved public land.

When I first moved to the area in the late 1990s, you could go to Max Patch and you might see a few other people. It’s wild to consider how different it is these days, with folks from all over the country visiting. While you certainly can’t blame them for wanting to be somewhere so breathtakingly gorgeous, I’m also deeply grateful for the volunteer efforts that saw the writing on the wall, and to the US Forest Service for making the appropriate closures, allowing the necessary time needed for it to heal.

A New Way of Loving Max Patch: the Max Patch Trail Ambassadors and Carolina Mountain Club

I sat down with a few of our Max Patch Trail Ambassadors to get a sense of what exactly their work entails. I spoke with Dick and Suzanne Ott and Bill Mills, all of whom live relatively close to Max Patch. The Trail Ambassador program was started in 2019, founded by the trail supervisor of the Carolina Mountain Club, Paul Curtin. In an effort to record traffic from out of state (not including NC or TN, since the bald is in both states), volunteers head up to Max Patch for 2-4 hr stints at a time (except during the winter months). They educate folks on leave-no-trace practices, compile data on trash, number of tents, fire rings, hiking taking place off trail, and groups larger than 10- all information that the US Forest Service then uses to track the progress of their set goals. The great news is that since these efforts began, the ambassadors regularly see folks genuinely interested and concerned in wanting to help in the efforts to save this tremendously special place we are so fortunate to call public land.

Work on the Trails at Max Patch by the Carolina Mountain Club

Dick and Suzanne shared a story of one of the last large groups they encountered at Max Patch, not too long after the initial closure. A group of 12-15, larger than currently allowed (10 is the limit), were gathered up top, attempting to cook on a prepackaged starter log. Typically, the first question a TA asks is where are you folks visiting from? It became evident, much of the group didn’t speak English, and through the conversation with the woman that did, it became apparent many also didn’t read in English. As it turned out, they were a family that had come to celebrate the arrival of a relative who had made it to the US from Ukraine. They were thrilled to be together for such a wonderful occasion in such a glorious location- they took Dick and Suzanne’s explanation of the closure order to heart, and enjoyed the rest of their afternoon following the requests of their ambassadors, happy to have learned their new skills.

For the sake of perspective, when these efforts to save Max Patch began, as many as 140 cars were parked along the road, making it impossible for emergency vehicles, delivery trucks for surrounding residents, or even cars coming from the opposite direction to get through safely, if at all. When you consider most of these vehicles had more than one person and zero bathroom facilities- the bald was facing a perfect storm of overuse.

New Rules and Cleaning Up the Mountain

Photo by Matt Mechem

Since the closure order was placed in 2021, volunteers removed truckloads of trash. Rocks from fire rings were carried off and the scorched earth where the fires were was scratched and planted with native seeds. The closure order has since been extended until at least 2026, and the Trail Ambassadors report consistent improvements on all fronts of areas with data being collected. It is incredibly heartwarming to know these efforts resulted from concerned citizens. Dick was quick to say they aren’t heroes, but I have to disagree with his sentiment. The work of these volunteers is literally priceless and generations of wildlife and humans will reap their efforts.

These days, as you pass the native flowers, grasses, erosion protections, and specific trail guidelines- you can do so with the understanding that such efforts are placed with intent. A sustainable offering that connects an intricate web of balance, supporting natural life on the bald with those of us lucky enough to be passing through. Let us always visit with consideration of the generations that will visit after ours.

Learn More:

Max Patch Information:
Max Patch Closure Extension:
Leave No Trace:
Carolina Mountain Club:

– Article by Wendy Stancil, March 2024