by Alivia Acosta, ATC Volunteer Development Coordinator
Partnerships and Management Efforts at Max Patch
Paul Curtin, Trail Supervisor with the Carolina Mountain Club (CMC), explains how visitor use management challenges have been addressed at Max Patch over the years.
Why do you think visitors are drawn to Max Patch?
Much of the Appalachian Trail (A.T.) in the southern region is referred to as the Green Tunnel. When hikers emerge on top of Max Patch, they are excited to be offered a 360-degree view and a profile of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
People often use the loop trail that is roughly 1.5 miles long to get to the flat half-mile section of Max Patch bald. This blue-blazed loop trail signifies that the trail is an official side trail of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail.
The CMC is privileged to maintain Max Patch and its adjacent 94-miles of the A.T., which mostly follows the North Carolina and Tennessee state border. Considering the cities of Asheville, NC, and Knoxville, TN, are each approximately an hour and a half from Max Patch, most visitors are driving in from the surrounding area to spend the day on the bald and in the nearby area. Social media and increased tourism have put additional strain on several scenic and short hikes, like Max Patch.
Unfortunately, this southern jewel began to be degraded visually and physically by its visitors.
What challenges has Max Patch faced?
Over the years, visitation to Max Patch was steadily increasing but it really culminated in Fall 2020. Some days, Max Patch saw over 600 visitors with more than 100 tents and around 20 user-created fire rings dispersed across its summit. During the pandemic, partying increased on top of Max Patch. Trash was being left at the top and people were hauling coolers up the trail. Visitors were also breaking through fencing put up to prevent them from hiking off the designated trail and creating their own user trail. These user trails eventually looked like boulevards leaving huge scars on the earth and degrading much of Max Patch.
When faced with these challenges the CMC, as an A.T. maintaining club, was focused on what we could do to protect the Trail but eventually, we noticed the impacts being made to the community as well. For example, the dangers associated with people being careless with fire, or how the road to Max Patch was being overcrowded and blocked in by the cars of visitors making it difficult for emergency responders or mail carriers to reach residents. The community of Spring Creek surrounds Max Patch and has a view of the bald. Nearby residents were starting to become concerned with what was taking place. Had the Max Patch Visitor Use Management (VUM) Committee conducted a stakeholder survey in 2018, I think we would have figured out pretty quickly that we needed to bring the members of the Spring Creek community in a little sooner.
How were these challenges overcome and what is taking place now?
In 2018, the CMC recognized that something had to be done to mitigate the damage that was taking place on Max Patch. Initial strategies included making the designated trail more amiable to hikers by bringing in gravel to harden the trail and installing 100 steps for climbing to the summit. A trailhead kiosk and a surrounding platform were also built to provide information and education, and locust fencing was installed to encourage visitors to remain on the designated trail.
But the real work came in with the VUM Committee and when a Trail Ambassador program was initiated in 2019. Trail Ambassadors are responsible for monitoring Max Patch and providing visitors with educational information. Ambassadors also collect data about the trends in visitor use that are taking place at Max Patch. However, all of this was not enough to reverse the negative impacts due to so many visitors.
With this supporting data from the Trail Ambassador program, the Appalachian Ranger District of Pisgah National Forest instituted a forest order in July 2021, which banned some of the major challenges that were impacting Max Patch. It included a ban on overnight camping, campfires, and large group use at Max Patch. This has resulted in a transformation in visitor impacts, dramatically reducing resource damage. Much work remains to make these changes permanent and make the hiking experience at Max Patch great for everyone.
If you would like to learn more about this partnership between the residents of Spring Creek and the Carolina Mountain Club, as well as other successful partnerships along the A.T., register to receive a recording of the American Trails webinar “Successful Partnerships for the Appalachian Trail” at gotowebinar.com.