Two Years Ago, Visitors Trashed Max Patch on the Appalachian Trail

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Max Patch is on many hikers’ bucket lists for a higher-altitude bald spot with 360-degree mountain views along the Appalachian Trail. Day trippers once visited the site for picnics, football or frisbee games, and a quaint spot to camp on a thru hike. But as visitor numbers hit a staggering peak during Covid-19, the 350-acre peak made headlines for its unruly crowds and growing litter problem.

Hikers left their mark on the area with whiskey bottles, dog and human poop, social trails and more. Nine months after a drone photo of the crowded, garbage-choked area went viral in 2020, the US Forest Service announced a number of restrictions and prohibitions in the Max Patch area, which will remain in place until June 30, 2023. Under this order, hikers are prohibited from camping on Max Patch, starting a fire, walking on unauthorized trails, visiting earlier than one hour before sunrise and later than one hour after sunset, and more. Violators of these restrictions are subject to a fine of US$5,000 (US$10,000 for organizations) and/or imprisonment for a maximum of 6 months.

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But while these restrictions can be a pain, evidence suggests they are having a positive impact on the landscape. Matt Drury, associate director of science and stewardship for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, says these “visiting changes and our ecological restoration efforts have helped facilitate healing.” The visitor experience is now more natural with less debris, noise and erosion.”

The past few years have been an era of significant change and recovery for Max Patch. Organizations like the ATC, Carolina Mountain Club, and the US Forest Service have worked to reduce the impact of camping, monitor erosion, and protect native plants. Still, according to Drury, there is still a lot to do. “Visitor usage problems persist and remnants of past abuse are evident,” he says. “There’s still a long way to go, but Max Patch is doing much better than he’s been in years.”

Locals have used the area for centuries, beginning with the area’s Cherokee residents. In the 1800’s farmers cleared the trees that once stood on Max Patch and turned the area into pasture for grazing cattle and sheep. Thereafter, the Forest Service mowed the area and prescribed burns to prevent new growth and preserve the bare 4,629-foot hiker overlook.

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The Appalachian Trail at Max Patch Bald west of Asheville, NC.
In the early 19th century, Max Patch was called “Mac’s Patch” or “Mack’s Patch”. At the time, these were both common nicknames for people whose names began with the Mc prefix. (Photo: Cavan Images via Getty Images)

Today, many Asheville residents are responding positively to the closure of campgrounds. They support the restoration efforts taking place at the beloved regional icon, says Jeffrey Hunter, an Asheville-based senior program manager at the National Parks Conservation Association. This Saturday, September 24, volunteers and officials celebrate National Public Lands Day with a service project on MaxPatch. Participants will recover the trail from 8:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. According to Hunter, this event is a great example of the dedication people have to preserving the area.

“Hopefully we’ll see a corresponding increase in funding for land management agencies like the Forest Service and the National Park Service for new staff, education and management,” says Hunter. “Our public land deserves nothing less.

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Max Patch is unlikely to be the harbinger of a wave of closure orders elsewhere in the AT. There are local AT management partners (like an ATC chapter or the Carolina Mountain Club) that monitor visitor usage, says Morgan Sommerville, director of visitor usage management at the ATC, and these types of closures or restrictions depend on the needs of the area and the reality of the situation.

The closures on Max Patch halted further damage or erosion: We reported about it in June that the number of rings of fire has dropped from 70 to 9 and the social pathways that once covered 22,000 square feet of the mountain now number only 9,000. Some hikers are also seeing the Max Patch closures as a reason to seek out less traveled trails in less crowded locations, such as Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander Rocky Fork State Park.

“Less popular trails aren’t less beautiful or less quiet,” says Hunter. “Many natural wonders in western North Carolina and beyond deserve more protection and resources. So many members of the hiking community understand the direct link between a positive visitor experience and the need to support conservation. We are moving in the right direction.”

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