Updated: Apr 25
Standing atop the windy bald of Max Patch for the first time as a Carolina Mountain Club member, Paul Curtin looked around and saw the beauty of the surrounding landscape. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park and many other Appalachian views are abundantly visible from this vantage point, but that is not all he saw. Looking closer, he saw the eroded scars on the slope and the waste left behind by visitors. He saw the need for greater protection of this popular tourist destination.
“We all just want the best for Max Patch and are passionate about restoring and maintaining its beauty,” says Curtin, Carolina Mountain Club’s Appalachian Trail Supervisor.
Max Patch is an easily accessible, short hike to the top of a bald and a unique habitat that has not yet been consumed by forest. It is located along the Appalachian Trail on the border of Tennessee and North Carolina, about 15 miles from the Smokies.
The location has acquired a lot of publicity in the past decade, which brings in more visitors. However, most people come unprepared and uninformed. Out of the approximate 50,000 visitors Max Patch has each year, about 65% are first-time visitors; this makes stewardship much more difficult.
In the height of the pandemic, more people than usual began to camp on top of the bald. Many thought of it as a place to party since most businesses were closed and colleges virtual, and they were abandoning campsites and leaving behind a lot of trash, toilet paper and waste. This took a toll on the plants and wildlife and caused a ban on camping to be implemented.
“The purpose of the ban was to give Max Patch some time to recover because conditions had become really bad on top of the bald,” says Rob Campbell, head of Max Patch communications subcommittee for the U.S. Forest Service.
The two-year ban started in July of 2021 and will end in June of this year. However, camping was not the only restriction put on Max Patch. The following is a list from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy:
The area closes 1 hour after sundown. It reopens one hour before sunrise. Visitors prohibited during closed hours.
Group size limited to 10.
Dogs and other animals must be on a leash no longer than six feet, or in a crate or cage.
Stay on designated trails.
Aircraft may not land nor drop off or pick up anything in this area. Drones are prohibited on the Appalachian Trail.
Bikes must stay on roads only.
Horses and other saddle and pack animals may not be ridden, hitched, tethered, or hobbled in this area.
The ban resulted from a culmination of irresponsible use and misinformation or ignorance about the bald and its purpose to protect the ecosystem. The fire from people’s campsites sterilize the soil and make it difficult for plants to grow. The native grass and wildflowers are also negatively affected by the creation of social trails, or shortcuts made by visitors which trample the plants. The noise pollution from large groups takes a toll on the wildlife and can cause them to completely abandon the area. Golden wing warblers, which are predicted to be listed as an endangered species within the next five years, rely on the habitat; the lower section of Max Patch is dedicated to them. There are also many different pollinators that occupy the habitat.
“What happened with Max Patch was we saw all of this overuse contributing to a lot of damages there and really negatively affecting the species,” says Campbell.
Since the ban, a lot of work has been done to restore the plants and habitats that were affected. The Carolina Mountain Club, U.S. Forest Service, Appalachian Trail Conservancy and the surrounding community have been working together to revive the beauty of the bald. They have hardened the trail so it can handle the amount of people walking on it and added gravel in many places, planted small trees for the warblers, and much more.
Matt Drury, associate director of science and stewardship for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, has planted 4,000 native wildflower and grass seed plugs and put thousands of dollars of native seed down. He also installed 80 erosion control structures to reduce erosion on the slope where a now closed, unsustainable, fall line trail used to be the main access to the top.
“We have been able to stabilize that slope and enhance the habitat which we wouldn’t have been able to do without that closure,” says Drury.
A decision has not yet been made on whether the ban will be renewed or not, but most volunteers and workers are advocates for the renewal. They believe that as soon as camping is allowed again, people will take advantage of it and cause a regression. Most feedback they have received from the public concerning the ban has been positive as well. A public survey conducted in September showed 76% in favor of extending it.
Curtin, Campbell and Drury do not believe that Max Patch is the best place to camp. Since there are no trees, campers are very exposed to the elements, and the extreme wind and cold can cause people to abandon their campsites.
“It’s not a great place to camp; it’s a beautiful spot, but it’s always windy, and there’s no water or wood for fires,” says Curtin.
There are many other options for camping very close to Max Patch. Camping is allowed all along the Appalachian Trail and at many sites at the base of the mountain.
People can help with restoring and maintaining the ecosystem by volunteering and donating. The Carolina Mountain Club hosts an event every year on National Public Lands Day in September where volunteers come and help with beautification.
People can also help by following leave-no-trace ethics when visiting. This includes picking up after themselves and their animals or picking up trash left behind by others.
“We are all public landowners, so the biggest impact can be ruining other people’s experience,” says Drury.
For more information on Max Patch conservation, visit the website at www.maxpatch.org.
First photo provided by Mike Wurman, second photo provided by Rob Campbell, third photo provided by Abigail Wolfenbarger.