The Appalachian Trail, or AT, has always been a captivating place for me. Its nicely maintained trails and shelters offer easy-to-reach getaways for just about anyone seeking an internal recharge. With this in mind, and with the strikingly colorful leaves of autumn approaching, I would recommend a weekend trip to Max Patch.
Located in North Carolina's Pisgah National Forest, Max Patch is a 350-acre piece of land offering panoramic views of surrounding areas. Twenty miles to the south and easily visible are the Smokies, as well as the Unakas to the north and Black Mountains to the west. The AT conveniently crosses the summit, offering weary thru-hikers a glimpse into why they likely began their journey in the first place.
From the Max Patch parking lot located at the foot of the mountain, one can summit this destination with ease (a 5-10 minute hike). Depending on your time frame, this could be a much-needed afternoon picnic destination or a vacation for your pets. However, those electing to camp and enjoy the nighttime beauty of this area will be greatly rewarded. From the summit on a clear evening, the 360-degree views of the amazing universe are nothing short of psychedelic. If you're looking to camp, try to avoid staying on the actual bald part—the Forest Service prefers that campers stay in the foothills. Appropriately, there is a great camping spot with a fire pit immediately at the bottom of the north side (heading toward Hot Springs) with large trees nearby for hammock enthusiasts.
For those of you looking to spend a weekend in this area (which I highly recommend), it's a 20-mile hike from the summit down into Hot Springs and is well worth the trip. Along the way, there are two shelters with fire pits and water sources nearby that could serve as resting points or for overnight stays. This mild adventure generally takes two or three days depending on the shape you're in, and is often completed in a single day by thru-hikers drooling for a beer in Hot Springs.
Named for its healing mineral spring water, Hot Springs was discovered by Native Americans and has been maintained recently as a waypoint for travelers seeking supplies and rest. With the AT literally running through the heart of town, there are several shops and taverns to help thru-hikers bound for Maine recuperate from their daunting journey. Although the steady flow of thru-hikers have already passed through, you're always certain to meet some interesting characters in this small town.
Check out Bluff Mountain Outfitters (www.bluffmountain.com) of Hot Springs for information on shuttle rides to and from Max Patch. A good plan is to leave the car in Hot Springs and take a shuttle up to Max Patch for the hike down. Other highlights in Hot Springs include the natural mineral baths offered by Hot Springs Resort and Spa, a well-deserved hour of relaxation located directly on the banks of the French Broad (less than $15 if you arrive before 6p.m.). For the beer connoisseurs, stop by Spring Creek Tavern (across the street from Bluff Mtn Outfitters and also along the trail) for drinks. They generally keep 12 beers on tap, most of which are locally brewed. For a glimpse into the past, ask about Paint Rock, located a few miles outside of town. Native Americans filled this famous cliff face with pictographs circa 2500 B.C.
Getting to Max Patch from UT: Take Interstate 40 East towards Asheville. Once you cross into North Carolina, take exit 7 at Harmon Den. Take an immediate left off the exit ramp into what becomes a gravel road (Cold Springs Creek Road) maintained by the Forest Service. Follow this road for about 6 miles until it dead-ends into SR-1182, (Max Patch Road). Turn left and the follow this road until you see the parking area (about 1.5 miles). The Google directions on this are a little spotty, but getting to Hot Springs from Knoxville can be easily navigated using Google Maps. The drive can be made in an hour and half or less, enjoy!
Note: The generous people of Bluff Mountain Outfitters can answer any and all questions regarding a trip to this area, and may be reached at (828) 622-7162.
— Matt Reed is a graduate student in wildlife and fisheries. He can be contacted at email@example.com.