Looking for a place to max out on mountain scenery? Go to Max Patch.
This grassy mountaintop northwest of Asheville in Western North Carolina draws hikers by the scores on weekends for its 360-degree views.
Palisades of peaks ring the mountain. Vistas go out 30-40 miles before disappearing into the ubiquitous Blue Ridge haze.
“It’s mountains everywhere,” said Chris Nelson, 27, hiking the Appalachian Trail with John Dillon, 66, and Dustin Freeman, 39, all of Bellefontaine, Ohio. “When you’re section hiking or thru-hiking, you see so many woods, everything looks the same. And you come up here and see what you’d passed through, the highs and the lows and the valleys.”
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To the southwest lie peaks of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. To the north are the Unaka Mountains of East Tennessee. And directly east is sometimes-seen Mount Mitchell, highest point in the East at 6,684 feet.
On a recent Saturday, long-distance backpackers mingled with day hikers, picnickers and dog walkers. The Georgia-to-Maine Appalachian Trail crosses the 4,629-foot-high summit, taking trekkers from under the trail’s leafy canopy into open sky.
A magical place, sort of
Max Patch Mountain has been nearly treeless since the 1800s, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Farmers grazed sheep and cattle there. During the 1920s, it was used as a landing strip for small airplanes.
The Forest Service acquired the Madison County mountain in 1982 as part of the Pisgah National Forest. The 80-acre meadow isn’t a true grassy bald, which is a nature-created landscape such as Jane Bald near Roan Mountain. It’s maintained by contract mowing for hay, usually twice a year. On steep slopes, the agency uses controlled burns to hold down trees and shrubs, according to Acting District Ranger Linda Randolph in Hot Springs.
In summer, butterflies flit about buttercups and Queen Anne’s lace and swallows dart and dive to catch flying insects.
A parking area is a quarter-mile from the summit. Hikers should bear right, taking the 1.4-mile short loop to the summit. That loop connects to a 2.4-mile trail around the mountain. Marking the Appalachian Trail are posts with white blazes.
It’s a magical place, or sort of. On that recent Saturday, two men and a woman lugged up camp chairs and coolers from their car to the summit, as if they planned to picnic. Then they announced: Free pizza! Free beer!
Free pizza? Free beer? What’s the occasion? No occasion. Just trail magic. Trail magic is an Appalachian Trail tradition in which strangers – trail angels – provide hikers with unexpected refreshments or meals.
Will Hammond and Drew King, both of Knoxville, Tenn., and Iris Russell of Gatlinburg, Tenn., passed out seven pizzas, three cases of beer, chips and bananas as hungry hikers, like bees finding clover, gathered around.
“We hiked the Continental Divide Trail last year,” Hammond said of his and Russell’s 2,800-mile trek on the Mexico-to-Canada footpath. “I remember walking down the trail and saying ‘I’d sure love some pizza and beer.’ This is my first time giving back.”
On another part of the summit, dance was in the air. Stefanie Golightly, daughters Caitesby and Delainie, all of Franklin, performed an impromptu “circle dance” set to the song,“My Lighthouse,” in front of admiring friends.
Elsewhere, people lounged in the grass, kids kicked a soccer ball and a nonstop stream of hikers took I-made-it-to-the-top photos and selfies.
Linda Black of Chardon, Ohio, and Patti Barney of Warren, Ohio, started hiking April 20 at Fontana Dam on the Appalachian Trail. They traversed the rugged Smokies park as spring crept up the mountains before ascending Max Patch. “We watched the mountains green up and flower up,” said Black, 66, glancing at the surrounding peaks. “This is the prettiest spot we’ve been.”
Jack Horan of Charlotte is author of “Where Nature Reigns/The Wilderness Areas of the Southern Appalachians.”
If you go
Max Patch Mountain is about 50 miles west of Asheville off Interstate 40. At Exit 7, follow Forest Service Road 148 east for about 6 miles, turn left on state road 1182 and go 2 miles. Overnight camping and horse riding are prohibited on the meadow. The nearest trail shelter is the Roaring Fork shelter, 1.8 miles north on the Appalachian Trail.