It had been an unseasonably warm February, and the weather on Sunday, Feb 19th looked perfect for a hike with big views. Surprisingly I’ve never been to Max Patch Mountain. Despite its fame, it is really out of the way for me unless I’m staying in the Asheville area. After two hikes earlier in the day to Chambers Mountain and Little Fall Branch Falls, I decided to cap the day off with a nice hike on the Appalachian Trail to Max Patch. Many people drive close to the summit on the long, gravel SR 1182. If you do this, the hike is around 2 miles total which is far shorter than I prefer. I chose to begin deep in the Harmon Den Wildlife Management Area of Pisgah National Forest, taking the Appalachian Trail north from Brown Gap. This is a pleasant hike through deciduous hardwood forests along ~4,000-foot ridges and at 7.1-miles round-trip is manageable for many types of hikers. The weather was in the mid-50s °F with bright sun and little wind. I’ve seen so many pictures of Max Patch but I was still blown away by the views from the summit. You are surrounded and dwarfed by some of the tallest peaks in the Appalachian Mountain. It is truly an awesome feeling. I highly recommend a trip to Max Patch, it is one of the best grassy balds in North Carolina.
The drive to Brown Gap is not difficult to navigate, but the road close to the gap is not easy for small cars. You will take Exit 7 off of I-40 while driving through the Pigeon River Gorge. The sign indicates this is the exit for Harmon Den. There really is nothing else around. Cold Springs Creek Rd immediately changes to gravel as you enter Pisgah National Forest. From Exit 7 drive 3.2 miles on the road beside Cold Springs Creek. Turn left on FR 148A immediately before the parking area beside the Harmon Den kiosk and follow FR 148A uphill for 1.2 miles to Brown Gap. As you get closer to the gap there are some deep washboard sections. I was surprised initially and my car hit them hard, but I made it. I recommend driving FR 148A slowly and this may be very difficult after rain when this road looks like it could get muddy. I drive a Nissan Versa for reference. The road levels out at Brown Gap and forks when it crosses into Tennessee. There is no parking area, just park on the shoulder of one of the forest roads.
Max elevation: 4619 ft
Min elevation: 3537 ft
Total Time: 03:13:10
The Appalachian Trail (white blaze) crosses FR 148A at Brown Gap. Take the AT compass east (trail north) and then climb over 600 feet out of the gap. This climb is pretty steep and is by far the toughest part of this hike. After about a mile the climb is over and the AT follows the contours of ~4,000-foot ridgelines characteristic of the NC/TN border in this region. The forest is pretty sparse throughout this area. The slopes had large, beautiful trees with the occasional mountain laurel tunnel. There was only one more significant drop and climb in a saddle between two ridges. The views through the trees were decent, but unless the leaves are down you will see nothing from the trail.
The Appalachian Trail turns left at a wishbone junction with the Cherry Creek Trail  (yellow blaze). Shortly after, at mile 2.8, the AT crosses SR 1182/Max Patch Rd and briefly drops down into a drainage. You’ll start climbing and pass through another junction with a forest road at mile 3.2. On the left is a forest road and then the Max Patch Trail, both originating from the parking lot on SR 1182 where most people park to hike up to Max Patch. The Max Patch Loop Trail continues to the right following the forest road track, eventually making a loop around the base touching the Buckeye Ridge Trail. Keep going straight, soon the trail leaves the forest behind and the amazing scenery begins as you climb the bare mountain.
It is difficult to describe in text the awesome summit of Max Patch. You can get a sense of it from my pictures and video, but you have to hike their yourself. The massive bald is maintained by the forest service mainly by mowing, sometimes prescribed burns. It is a lot larger than I imagined, and very flat. There were over 50 people on top enjoying the beautiful sunny weather. Some kids were throwing around a football, and I immediately imagined a football or soccer game being played on the grass. I walked around the perimeter trying to identify peaks and ranges in each direction, then settled onto the grass to enjoy some snacks and the sun.
The summit of Max Patch provides some of the best 360º views in the southern Appalachian Mountains. Unlike other panoramic summits, Max Patch is surrounded by bigger mountains in almost every direction. Although you feel on top of the world, the mountain is only 4,629 feet high. Some of the tallest peaks in the Appalachian Mountains are visible from the bald, and nearly 2,000 higher. Immediately north the big peak is Bluff Mountain. The Appalachian Trail continues north crossing this peak on its way to Hot Springs. The Bald Mountains straddle the NC/TN border and are visible north, east, and south. Further northeast on clearer days you may be able to spot Big Bald, the highest peak in the Bald Mountains. The Newfound Mountains surround Max Patch and the Bald Mountains to the east and southeast. This range is barely discernible from the Bald Mountains, but the crest of the Newfound Mountains is an impressive sight. You’ll see a long, craggy ridge a few miles southeast culminating in a pyramidal peak on the southern tip. This is Crabtree Bald, the highest peak in the Newfound Mountains at 5,320 feet. The high ridge runs north towards Sandymush Bald, which is easy to pick out with a large clearing at the top. In the distant east is the high crest of the Black Mountains. I could identify every peak on the main crest, and even spot Pinnacle and Graybeard Mountain. I love seeing the Black Mountains dominate from such a distance.
The other 3 tallest mountain ranges in the Appalachians unfold to the south. From east to west you can see the high peaks of the Great Balsam, Plott Balsam, and Great Smoky Mountain ranges. Since it was still winter and late afternoon, the sun was washing out clear visibility. I could not pick out my favorite peaks in the Great Balsam or Plott Balsam Mountain ranges. The closest Great Smokies were easy to identify. The range culminates in the rocky promontory of Mt. Cammerer before dropping steeply to the Pigeon River. The broad peak on the left is Mt. Sterling, and the biggest peak in the middle is Mt. Guyot at 6,621 feet.
It was getting late so I had to get moving, but it was hard to pry myself away from Max Patch. The hike back seemed quick and uneventful. I don’t necessarily recommend the hike as I did it, since it may be harder for the average person to find. The road is also rough. There are easier ways to do this, but I like my mileage. You will love Max Patch no matter how you decide to hike it.