There are experiences that are fairly universal to visitors to Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and the Great Smoky Mountains.
The Ripley’s Aquarium? Sure thing.
Max Patch? Huh?
You can visit East Tennessee dozens of times and have a lot of fun never getting off the beaten path. But if you’re looking for a vacation experience a little bit out of the norm, then there are plenty of things to do in the mountains that don’t involve go-karts or watered down “moonshine.”
Max Patch isn’t exactly a secret but there are a lot of locals who either have a vague idea of Max Patch or have never heard of it at all.
Max Patch is a bald – essentially a treeless meadow on a mountaintop – located in the Pisgah National Forest at the North Carolina-Tennessee border. A major landmark on the Appalachian Trail, it’s accessible from the North Carolina side from Hot Springs on NC 209, and from Exit 7 on the North Carolina side of I-40. I’ve never come in that way and I’m told there’s quite a bit of gravel road involved. We took a third route, through Del Rio.
I have to believe, however, that either route is preferable to the route we took on a gravel road winding up mountains and along ridgebacks.
We didn’t know that when we set out to meet some relatives coming from the North Carolina side. We simply printed out the Google map and set out for what we assumed was going to be a pleasant adventure in the mountains.
Because Max Patch is so remote, there’s no cell service so we printed out our directions and followed accordingly. We drove to the tiny Cocke County community of Del Rio, to the aptly named Round Mountain Road. It was evident we’d made a tactical error early on but with no way to contact our family, we decided to press on.
We were never really in danger. Round Mountain Road isn’t one of those that hang along a precipice, but it is a windy mountain gravel road in the middle of nowhere and our Ford Focus wasn’t exactly built for the job.
Every once in a while you read a story about someone following a Google Map glitch and driving into some precarious situation and while I white-knuckled it past places like Rattlesnake Branch and Lemon Gap I contemplated the possible headlines that might appear following our ill-fated and untimely demise.
The biggest issue was the uncertainty. Were we being led on a goose chase? If we were on the right road had we stayed on it? Round Mountain Road had a few offshoots, usually unmarked, and while common sense dictated which gravel path was the main road, it felt like something of a crapshoot. A couple of times we passed a car heading in the other direction and a smattering of summer cabins let us know we hadn’t left civilization entirely, although the feral donkey wandering alone amongst one nest of cabins said otherwise.
Around the Round Mountain Campground we met a couple who assured us we were on the right path and eventually we pulled into the small parking lot, grateful for both the views before us and that we had survived to see them.
Max Patch isn’t a place to come for a quick, pretty view. It’s a place for lingering. It’s perfect for a quiet picnic disconnected from the world, save for the few other souls who’ve come to get away. It’s a wonderful place to have a picnic, lounge, read a book and catch sunrises and sunsets, though I wouldn’t recommend trying the Del Rio assault under the cover of darkness.
Wildlife viewing is possible. It’s possible to seek elk and deer. You should treat bears with caution, as always and again, there’s a least one feral donkey. Be careful, they bite.
The views are some of the best in the mountains, better than even Cades Cove, in my opinion. The giant meadow atop a 4,600-foot summit comes with a 2.6 mile loop trail.
It’s the closest that many of us regular Joe’s will come to experiencing life on the Appalachian Trail.
If you go in the non-summer months, remember fall arrives early and spring comes late in the higher elevations so even on a scorching day at lower elevations you may need to bring a jacket.
Most mountaineering websites say list Max Patch as easy to access. I think that, in this case, easy is a relative term. I would say if the weather has been rainy, don’t attempt to reach Max Patch from either side without a four-wheel drive, and I’d get a fairly good idea of the predicted weather before taking a family for a picnic.
But, if you’re looking for an experience that doesn’t involve massive amounts of fellow tourists and truly offers a chance to disconnect, then Max Patch just might be the spot for you.
Location: 8, Spring Creek, NC 28743
Office Hours: Open Year Round
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