Nestled on the border of North Carolina and Tennessee is a bald in the Pisgah National Forest called Max Patch.
The grassy bald made national headlines last year when a photo made it look like a music festival - not a hiking trail. While the photo portrayed a habitat on the brink of destruction, it might have ended up saving the beloved slice of the Appalachian trail.
On a sunny fall afternoon, on the gravel path leading to the top of Max Patch - you hear the whistle of the trees as a bird circles the top of the bald.
One thing Dick Ott doesn’t hear? Chaos. “Fireworks, fires, drones, all the things that screw up being out in the wild. And you’ll see how pretty it is in a few minutes,” says Ott.
Ott volunteers with Carolina Mountain Club and lives on the mountain. He recalls a fall night in 2020 when a drone photo captured Max Patch littered with clusters of tents and debris. “This little area up here had 130 tents one night, no bathrooms. Not enough toilet paper. Not enough places to pee or poop. It wasn’t pretty.”
The photo went viral, prompting national attention and concern for this small slice of the Appalachian Trail. But this problem existed long before that photo
“We’ve lived up here 16 years now, the usage has dramatically increased in the last five.”
Max Patch is popular for three reasons. It’s an easy hike, it’s listed on multiple websites for best hikes near Asheville, and it’s widely shared on social media. The half mile climb on a steady incline that leads to a stunning panoramic view of the mountains in North Carolina and Tennessee - all just off of Interstate 26 - is about perfect for the beginning hiker.
Add in a pandemic with plenty of cooped up people looking to get outside for some social distancing, and you have even more new visitors - many not familiar with proper trail etiquette. Paul Curtin is the Appalachian Trail supervisor for the Carolina Mountain Club. “So people were kind of going everywhere, leaving what I would call scars on the bald," recalls Curtin.
Human waste, cheap camping gear, even a stage from a wedding. All of it was left behind on top of the bald. Some even destroyed trees and fences for firewood. “This is just killing me. People were pulling our blaze posts out of the ground and burning them for their fires.”
Curtin and other volunteers did their best to clean up, but the damage was compounding. "When you put your heart and soul into something, and you see people destroying it, it’s tough. It’s just a total disrespect for the land.”
Jen Barnhart is the district ranger with the forest service that oversees Max Patch. She says a protective order was already in the works, but the drone photo finally provided the push to get it through.
“We’re in the midst of Covid, and with the done shot and the amount of tents, that was another huge catalyst to the immense importance of getting this order actually approved," says Barnhart.
Then on July 1st, 2021, a protective order goes into place. No camping. No fires. No large groups or dogs without leashes. The list goes on.
The effect was almost instant, and the scars began to heal.
“This is the best I’ve seen it in a long time.”
That’s Brandon Vickers. He came from Knoxville with his son. They like to camp a lot, and Vickers has been coming to Max Patch for years. “We would come up here and go sledding because it might not snow in Knoxville, but the mountains always got it. Ten years ago, nobody knew about this place. Fifteen years ago, nobody knew about this place.”
There were about 30 people up on the bald the day Vickers visited, a dramatic reduction from last year. In just over a year from now, Barnhart and other stakeholders will reevaluate whether to extend the order. As of now, she says she thinks the restrictions on group size, dogs on leashes and ban on horseback riding will stay in place.
Sunsets - a popular sight on Max Patch - haven’t been affected. “People probably feel, well, we can’t have any good things," says Jen Barnhart. :Folks can still come see the sun set. That I know is dear to most folks and people have been thankful.”
The current restrictions remain in effect until July of 2023.