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Road trip stop: Climbing Max Patch Bald in western North Carolina


Maxpatch4 me croppedSome people were born for outdoor adventures. They rock-climb, they ski off-piste, they scuba dive. I'm not one of them. For me, an outdoor adventure is getting off a paved trail -- like the day this fall when I climbed Max Patch Bald in western North Carolina with friends.

Max Patch lies within a mile of the Tennessee state line and within view of the Great Smoky Mountains. It's a gently rounded summit just under 4,700 feet, lower than many of the nearby peaks. A century ago it was used as pasture for cattle and sheep. Now the U.S. Forest Service mows it with a tractor. That doesn't mean the grass is always close-cropped; it means that trees and shrubs aren't allowed to get a toehold.

People sometimes refer to Max Patch as the Sound of Music experience.  The mountaintop looks like the scene at the beginning of the movie when Julie Andrews runs onto a high meadow, arms outstretched, and bursts into song -- especially in the spring when, I'm told, the Bald is alive with wildflowers. Maxpatch2 view At the top, with a magnificent 360-degree view of one ridge line after another fading away to the horizon, you can almost see the curvature of the earth.

The well-trod dirt trail from the parking lot to the summit rises not too steeply, but you may get a little winded if you walk briskly.

The Appalachian Trail crosses the summit, and when I stood on it, it was the first time I had set foot on the Trail. I felt pretty adventurous, wielding a sturdy walking stick that my friends had provided, until two hikers, heavy packs on their backs, reached the top. They were clearly through-hikers, looking tired and grimy, and they said not a word to us, even when my friend Gail gave a Maxpatch5 hikerswhoop of congratulations. I don’t know how long a segment of the Trail they were doing, but it was October, and if they had started in the spring, they could have been hiking all the way from Maine.

Some people picnic at the top, but on this day, the only person who had planted himself at the summit was a fellow flying a kite. We lingered for a while, turning round, trying to get our bearings – "Is that Tennessee?" "No, Tennessee is west; you’re looking north" – and comparing the views. The woods, mostly poplar trees, had passed the peak of fall color, but bronze leaves still clung to the branches.

Then we started back by a different route that looped around the side of the mountain. Except for some crude steps cut into the hillside, the descent was gradual and relatively easy. Twice, we passed small mounds of bear scat on the trail, bolstering my sense of adventurousness. Black bears inhabit the area, and I thought of the scat when we arrived back at the parking lot and saw a flyer asking people to watch out for a small dog who had run off on Max Patch and never returned.

Maxpatch1 kite

More information here. We started out from Asheville, a drive of 75 to 90 minutes, but the closest town is Hot Springs, N.C. The hike up to the summit and back is 1.4 to 2.4 miles, depending on which route you take. The mountain is open for hiking year-round.