Max Patch via Brown Gap – Pisgah National Forest, NC

 

Southeast view of the Newfound Mountains from Max Patch
Southeast view of the Newfound Mountains from Max Patch

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.

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Big Bald – Appalachian Trail, TN

 

Approaching summit of Big Bald through ice, wind, and clouds

My plan was to hike to Big Bald, supposedly one of the finest of all the grassy balds in the southern Appalachian Mountains. If you can get a sunny day in the winter, nothing beats crystal clear views from an open summit. There’s just too much haze in the summer to compare. The forecast started with clouds in the morning, clearing out for sun after noon in the low 40s °F with a light wind. As I drove north on Interstate 26 from Asheville I was beginning to doubt the veracity of the NOAA forecast. Usually they’re spot on, but as I approached Sams Gap on the North Carolina/Tennessee border all I could see was a low cloud ceiling covering every peak. Big Bald, at 5,516 feet, is the tallest summit of the Bald Mountains along the state border and the tallest mountain on the Appalachian Trail for 148 miles. It requires a long hike from either direction. Sams Gap is the typical hike since it is located right off the interstate. I expected beautiful scenery every step of the way, but what I got was an icy wintry wonderland and an unforgettable experience.

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Roan Highlands – Appalachian Trail, NC

 

Thru hikers descending Hump Mountain
Thru hikers descending Hump Mountain

There were less than 15 cars parked at Carver’s Gap which I took to be a great sign. Originally I thought there would be more people hiking today. It was beautiful outside and just past 11:00 AM. When I stepped out of my car, I felt a chilling gust and immediately questioned my clothing for the hike. A couple of days prior I had seen the weather should be mid-50s and sunny and failed to check the weather the night before. Even with clear skies it was definitely in the 40s and the wind was blowing steadily. All I had were shorts, T-shirt, long sleeve shirt, pullover fleece, and my hoody I wore in the car. I made the conscious decision to bring all of my layers even though the hoody added a lot of extra weight. This reminded me that even if Spring is here, the wind and elevation can still make a hike quite cold. It had been years since I last visited the Roan Highlands, arguably the crown jewel of the Appalachian Trail in the Southeast. (I would personally claim Mt. Rogers as a solid 2nd place). During my last trip I backpacked to the Overmountain Shelter, day hiked to Hump Mountain, and returned the same day to Carver’s Gap. This time I was essentially doing the same trip, in one day. Not one section of this hike is extremely strenuous or technical, but it still covers more than 19 miles and that is always a tough undertaking no matter what kind of topography you encounter. I think I planned this perfectly excluding my clothing choices. And the thing about the Roan Highlands is they are freakin’ beautiful. Once you are hiking atop these open grass summits you seem to forget how many miles and how much climbing you have done. With these kind of temperatures and the lengthening Spring days it is easy to cover many miles. If you live in the Southeast you have to put this hike on your list, even if you can’t cover everything I did here.

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