By Michael Garrigan

The Rewilding of Max Patch

June 17, 2022

This article is a special preview of the Spring/Summer 2022 issue of A.T. Journeys magazine.

“In time strong green growth will rise here trees back to life native flowers pushing the fragrance of hope the promise of resurrection”
– bell hooks

We are drawn to places that pull us from our small worlds and open us to the expansive landscapes of intricate life surrounding us — places that bury themselves deep into our consciousness, that we can never forget, that push us to look at the world in a new way, that reorient our sense of being. We are drawn to environments that jar us out of our everyday routines and force us to fall into earth’s rhythms and topographies, where we cease to be just flesh and bone and become something more than what we’ve always been, where we become intimately connected with the world around us.

A meditative sunset along the Trail on Max Patch. Photo by Steven Yocom

Max Patch, an expansive, grassy bald in the Appalachian Mountains bordering North Carolina and Tennessee, is one of those places. Its wide-open stretch of grasses is a blunt bareness exposing the mountain’s skin and offering anyone who visits a long view of the Pisgah and Cherokee National Forests. It’s too warm here for this 4,629-foot summit to be alpine, so it stays a pocket of grass shouldered by forests. When wind lifts from the valley and crawls up the mountain, the horizon sways and moves and the edges of the world blur into a sway and swell of tall grass, Appalachian cottontails, and wildflowers.

Max Patch has long been a popular destination for hikers and view seekers, but that popularity has brought misuse and destruction of critical habitat. Thanks to the dedication and collaboration of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC ), the Carolina Mountain Club (CMC ), and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), it is now undergoing a variety of restoration efforts that favor native flora and fauna while keeping it open and accessible to hikers and visitors.

A.T. blazes are in place to help visitors navigate the narrow footpath on Max Patch, and to protect the bald. Photo by Sarah Jones Decker

A Cultural Bald

Max Patch is a cultural bald, a relic of our agricultural past that is now being transformed into a shared space for plants, animals, and humans. Endless mountains stretch from every viewpoint, a continuous horizon of ridges and ravines — Buckeye Ridge to the northeast, Poor Ridge to the northwest, Cold Springs drainage to the southeast, and Gulf Creek watershed to the southwest. Max Patch offers a 360-degree view of public land and many peaks including the dramatic Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In the morning, clouds cling to the foothills, fading into a smoky haze as the sun climbs. At night, after the area closes to campers and visitors, the sky grows luminous with stars. The Milky Way is dense and long, stretching across Orion’s belt in the south, north towards the elbows of Cassiopeia. When you are standing on Max Patch you are standing on top of the Appalachian Mountains, able to lose yourself within its topography and geology.

Every landscape has a history and a story to tell and is inevitably shaped by those who live near it and use it. Each Appalachian bald is unique in its being and creation. Some balds are of natural origin, others have been created for agriculture. These days, the balds are actively maintained as some of the ecological mechanisms that kept them open have been interrupted. Remnants of the last ice age, when a colder climate drove a climatic treeline in the southern Appalachians, many of these grassy balds were used for grazing areas by prehistoric megafauna until their extinction. More recently, elk and bison found their way up to these high points. When they were hunted to near extinction, many balds reverted to their original forested state; however, Max Patch was clearcut for lumber and to graze cattle and is maintained as a grassy bald today.

Cattle and sheep grazed here back in the 1800s before it became an area that barnstorming pilots used occasionally in the early 1900s. The Forest Service acquired Max Patch in 1981 in order to route the Appalachian Trail off of Max Patch Road and into the woods, which shaped it into the place it is now — a hiking destination. Max Patch has been molded and shaped by people and animals according to their needs and pursuits for hundreds of years — a place so useful and beautiful is bound to be very popular/well-loved. Yet it remains in remarkable condition.

Over the past few years, Max Patch has become incredibly popular for hikers and campers who are looking for easily accessible, expansive views and the exulting feeling of being above the valleys and among the ridges. With the advent of the internet, Max Patch was discovered as a beautiful, easily accessible destination and use began to rise. Due to this increasing use and issues it caused, in 2017 the ATC organized a planning effort using the Interagency Visitor Management Council’s planning framework in cooperation with the CMC and Pisgah and Cherokee National Forests. Work to mitigate increasing camping on the summit had already started when, during the pandemic, the amount of people camping and using the area reached a breaking point. In 2020, a drone photo captured over a hundred tents and human debris scattered across the bald. With overuse came the destruction of habitat, human waste, and trash scattered where there should be tall grass and wildflowers. It looked like Max Patch was being loved to death. A Forest Supervisor’s Closure Order began in July 2021, which limited Max Patch to a day use area for hikers in an effort to mitigate the user impacts. Max Patch’s popularity persists and much is being done to restore it to a more pristine state.

We venture into nature because we want to experience a vibrant world shaped by relationships between its plants and animals. The conservation efforts to rewild Max Patch are guiding it into an ecologically functional bald that reflects our changing understanding and relationship to a landscape.

Carolina Mountain Club volunteers’ work to stop erosion and stabilize the slope on the bald has been a success. The club, along with the ATC , works hard to maintain roughly 94 miles of the A.T., including Max Patch, along the border of North Carolina and Tennessee. Photo by Matt Drury

A Rebuilding

It’s one thing to mitigate user impact, it’s another to steward a heavily used natural area into a rewilding. In response to its needs, the ATC , along with the CMC and USFS, have teamed up in an effort to find a balance between ecological functionality and the visitor experience. These organizations are doing incredible work to usher Max Patch into a habitat that works for all users: humans, pollinators, plants, animals, and birds. Instead of keeping Max Patch as a manicured terrain that only offers trampled paths and striking views for hikers, they are working and collaborating in order to let it grow into a biologically diverse ecosystem that supports native species and managed public use.

The CMC works hard to maintain roughly 94 miles of the A.T., including the Max Patch, along the border of North Carolina and Tennessee. With help from the USFS and the ATC , they launched a Trail Ambassadors Program in 2019 that helps educate users about and monitor Max Patch. These volunteers are trained by the club and go to the Trail at peak user times. They collect data on user trends at Max Patch and help educate visitors on Leave No Trace ethics. It is through programs like these that we become better stewards and users of the A.T. and its surrounding ecosystems.

Along with the Trail Ambassadors Program, CMC has installed new signage along the Trail and across
the bald in order to manage access and help hikers know where they are and how to get back to their starting point on sustainable designated trails. This gives the area a chance to grow back from misuse. A three-panel kiosk with a viewing platform and maps have been built in order to help educate hikers about the restoration efforts and the ecology of Max Patch. Locust rail fencing recently put in helps minimize user impact by blocking poorly located user-created trails. CMC volunteers have also worked to strengthen the footpath by hardening it, installing water diversion where needed, and building steps to build more resilient, user-friendly trails. ,Their work is just one example of how a natural area can be tended to and managed in a way that keeps access open for people and strengthens its biodiversity.

This isn’t the only important landscape that’s being protected through strong partnerships with
an acute awareness of effective conservation efforts. Similar work is happening on McAfee Knob, a famously dramatic rock outcropping located in Virginia that offers stunning views of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Thanks to efforts of the ATC , Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club (RATC ), The Conservation Fund, and the National Park Service (NPS), hundreds of acres have recently been preserved around Dragons Tooth, McAfee Knob, and Tinker Cliffs where the Trail’s protected corridor is particularly narrow. A complex system of stakeholders is currently lending their collective expertise to devise a visitor use management (VUM ) plan for the area. The NPS is working to ensure the management partnership has a well-supported and thorough plan that is expected to be complete later this fall. The RATC is contributing their deep knowledge of visitor use patterns and of the resource itself. They’ve also raised significant funds, in partnership with the ATC , to purchase a property adjacent to the existing McAfee Knob parking area, which will allow for a more thorough implementation of the VUM plan’s recommendations once enacted. The RATC has been important in making sure that any developments to the Trail reflect the unique and irreplaceable character of this iconic location. These conservation efforts built around strong collaboration, much like the ones that are happening on Max Patch, will effectively manage use while also preserving the ecosystem of these incredible areas.

Max Patch is a lesson in resilience, collaboration, and conservation. It is evidence that we can shepherd a place back to its native, wild roots while still being an active part of its identity.

Already, bees and butterflies are flickering across the purples and oranges and yellows of the wildflowers that bloom across the bald. Photo by Abigail Ridaught

The Natural Rhythm

As they walk along a narrower Trail that is defined by native plants, hikers will realize that what they are looking for in an experience with nature is the same thing that the organisms around them are looking for. For example, pollinators are drawn to the same things that people are drawn to in nature — color and structure throughout the season. Prickly native species are encouraged in areas where illegal trails frequently pop up. These bushes not only narrow the footpath and help hikers navigate; they also provide critical habitat for birds. For example, the golden-winged warbler uses these thorny bushes to build their fireman’s pole nests and to hide from predators. What once was a long pasture in the hardwoods is growing into a layered, nuanced early successional ecosystem that is good for both people and animals.

When you reach the top of Max Patch, you will still be blessed with beautiful views; however, the periphery of the patch will be rougher, a scrubby habitat that holds the hues and flashes of the various native species. Where before the mowed Patch would simply end, now more beneficial plant species and spacing are being prioritized on purpose, rather than by chance. What once was a pasture and hayfield is becoming much more diverse. The buzzy notes of warblers and other birds can be heard as they flick through native grasses and pollinators flutter from one wildflower to the next. Conservation efforts have focused on replanting and reseeding Max Patch so it becomes a bald of native species. Wildflowers and flora have been planted with seeds that are not only native, but are of a locally sourced genotype. These are not just native plants, they are native seeds to the region that add layer and paint this bald with different colors each season — little bluestem, broom sedge, and purple top grass; large Coreopsis, Maryland golden aster, butterfly milkweed, black-eyed Susan, partridge pea — creating a seed lineage of wild flora that has been absent from this mountain and now has a chance to spread their roots along the Appalachian Mountains once again.

We venture into nature because we want to experience a vibrant world shaped by relationships between its plants and animals. The conservation efforts to rewild Max Patch are guiding it into an ecologically functional bald that reflects our changing understanding and relationship to a landscape. With a deeper understanding of what a native, biodiverse ecosystem looks like and how it functions, Max Patch is evolving into land that can be loved by more than just humans. Already, bees and butterflies are flickering across the purples and oranges and yellows of the wildflowers that bloom across the bald, and one day it may become a breeding ground for golden-winged warblers who nest in its native bushes. Max Patch is proof that a place can be open to managed, responsible recreation while still being allowed to grow into an ecologically dynamic landscape.

A Shared Landscape

Max Patch is a lesson in resilience, collaboration, and conservation. It is evidence that we can shepherd a place back to its native, wild roots while still being an active part of its identity. What has been used for generations by farm animals and people is now getting a chance to be cradled back to its wild self, growing into an intricate native space that supports biodiversity and responsible recreation. It is thanks to the hard work of these organizations and their volunteers that these places will be able to stay wild and open for all — warblers, Virginia wildrye, cut-leaf coneflower, small yellow false indigo, bumble bees, and monarch butterflies, and yes, humans too. If and when you go, step lightly knowing that this vista isn’t just for you, but instead a shared place where plants, animals, and humans can experience a remarkable Appalachian bald full of native species looking out across thousands of acres of protected, public land.


Michael GarriganMichael Garrigan writes, teaches, and hikes along the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Robbing the Pillars and his next poetry collection — River, Amen — will be published this fall. He was the 2021 Artist in Residence for The Bob Marshall Wilderness Area and you can read more of his work at www.mgarrigan.com.