Going on my first hike in Western North Carolina (WNC) would seem like the simplest thing because I’m already in the foothills…but NO! The first challenge was to figure out exactly where to go…so many choices. How far did I want to drive and in which direction? Okay, I’d have to start setting some parameters – so I put an hour drive time limit on this first hike. I decided that I would like to keep the hiking distance under 10 miles. Then I realized that distance in miles was probably not the most critical factor… vertical distance(elevation change) and total elevation would be two very critical considerations. So elevation became a tricky thing, because I wanted to get a good view, but I was still not used to the altitude after living for a decade at nearly sea level. After too many internet searches to bother you with – the winner was:
Max Patch Trail – 4 miles – 4300′ beginning elevation – 430′ elevation gain – expansive, grassy bald at the top(translation: great views) great for having a picnic. This seemed perfect…
Getting there was going along fine until I was stopped by a flagman on highway 63, which is more of a winding mountain road than a highway. They were laying new asphalt on the road and it would be a few minutes until the traffic came down the mountain and it was my turn to go up. I followed the lead set by the locals and turned my car engine off. Twenty minutes later, I was on my way again. At least I know that next time NC-63 will be in great condition going up that mountain.
Throughout the journey to the trail head, there were physical road signs pointing the way to the Max Patch Trail that matched nicely with my GPS. Then about 2 miles from the trail head, my GPS got wonky and the road turned into a rutty, gravel road that seemed deserted. I started to think that I must have taken a wrong turn. Just about the time I was thinking of attempting a turn around on this primitive road, a small dirt parking lot appeared. Let me inform those of you that like to hydrate on your way to a hike that there are no restrooms available here.
At first glance, there appeared to be only one trail to the top … straight up a little dirt path. For you city folk, that path has an elevation change equivalent to climbing 43 flights of stairs. Because I was starving and the only way to get to eat my picnic lunch was to get to the top, I put my head down, grumbled loudly, and started putting one foot in front of the other. Let me mention that this was listed as an “easy to moderate” climb on the internet – it may be easy if you’ve lived your whole life in a mountainous area, but this city girl’s legs burned all the way up. Luckily this part of the trail is only a little over a mile long.
Alas, at the top I was rewarded with 360 degree long-range views and a lovely, cool breeze. There were a number of people up there, but since the “bald” is so vast, I had plenty of grassy spots to choose from and felt like I had the whole place to myself. After a sandwich and some fruit, the beauty and majesty of this place started to settle in. I began to understand why Max Patch is considered by some to be the crown jewel of the Appalachian Trail. This summit straddles the North Carolina/Tennessee border and offers views of the Smokey Mountains, Mt. Mitchell (tallest peak in the Appalachian mountains), Mount Pisgah and the Black Mountains.
For the hike down, I followed the Appalachian Trail markers which are very distinctive white, rectangle blazes on tall posts and then followed the smaller arrows marking the 2.4 mile hike back to the parking lot. For future hikes, I will definitely be heading to the right from the parking lot and following these markers instead of going straight up. I found this way much more enjoyable as it was a wonderful trail through the forest, berry bushes, wildflowers and some open clearings. It was also a nice, gentle trail, well except there was a fairly steep climb of Appalachian Trail wooden stairs at the very end to get up to the bald.
So in the final analysis… I’ll be back!