Appalachian Trail to Max Patch and Buckeye Ridge

Standing guard along the state line, Max Patch Mountain is a grassy bald with fabulous panoramic views of the surrounding North Carolina and Tennessee Great Smoky Mountains. Oh, and by the way, the celebrated Appalachian Trail crosses its 4,629 foot summit. So far as Southern Appalachian summits go, this one is moderately short and easy, but you can make a day of it by taking in one or more of the other trails found in the vicinity, including Buckeye Ridge. Another grassy bald itself, Buckeye Ridge sits off the southeastern shoulder of Max Patch, and about 400-500 feet below. The Buckeye Ridge Trail offers marvelous views of the eastern flank of Max Patch and even takes you into the forest. Just don’t end up like I did… five miles from where I wanted to be with little clue how to get back. This hike occurred on Wednesday, May 29, 2013 from 8:00am to 11:30am. My plan was to climb Max Patch from the trailhead on Max Patch Road, then follow the Appalachian Trail to its junction with Buckeye Ridge Trail. According to my map, Buckeye Ridge Trail skirted the east and south of Max Patch, returning to the original trailhead. What actually happened… was a little different.

Hike Length: 8 miles Hike Duration: 3.5 hours Hike Configuration: Loop

Hike Rating: Moderately difficult, just one short climb of 500 feet up Max Patch.

Blaze: White Elevation Gain: 650 feet

Trail Condition: Appalachian Trail is very good as you would expect. Buckeye Ridge Trail is poorly marked and confusing, and overgrown in many areas.

Starting Point: Max Patch parking area on Max Patch Road.

Trail Traffic: I encountered two other hikers on the AT, none on Buckeye Ridge.

How to Get There: From either Tennessee or North Carolina take exit 24 on I-40 and turn north on Hwy 209. Go 8.1 miles where Hwy 209 makes a right turn. Continue on 209 north 11.8 more miles. Turn left on Caldwell Mountain Road and go 2.1 miles. Turn right on Meadow Fork Road for 1.7 miles. Turn left on Little Creek Road. After a few tenths, Little Creek becomes gravel. Go 3.5 miles and bear right on Max Patch Road. It is 1.5 miles to the well-marked parking area and trailhead.

I got an early start on the 90 minute drive to Max Patch, wanting to summit the mountain not long past dawn. When I exited I-40 onto Hwy 209, I entered rural Appalachia. This is horse and cattle country, and the foothills of the Smokies. As I continued north and westward the mountains got taller and the road curvier. The small communities along the way have names like Trust and Luck. On Meadow Fork Road there was this quaint country home where they painted the silo like a mural. The entire environment oozed southern charm. I could feel the intoxication that comes from the excitement of a new adventure.

The last five miles is gravel road, so beware of that when it’s been rainy. Speaking of rainy; this past January vandals took their four-wheel drive vehicles to the grassy fields of Max Patch when the ground was very wet and tore large gouges in the lush hillside. When I pulled into the parking area I could immediately see some of the remediation efforts that were made on the part of volunteers to prevent this type of vandalism from reoccurring. Large boulders surrounded the gravel parking. These could not be driven over, around, or through. Catawba rhododendron and mountain laurel were planted for beautification.

There are two paths to the summit from the trailhead. The Appalachian Trail (AT) takes a gradual turn from the south, around the western face for an easy climb. Or, you can just plow straight up the western slope in a race to the top. Anxious as I was to see what was awaiting me, I chose the latter. Along the way, I passed freshly laid hay where the restoration volunteers had filled in the tire ruts and reseeded the native grasses. We all owe a big debt of gratitude to these trail angels.

It’s about 500′ of elevation gain to the summit. As you’re ascending the western incline, behind you the Tennessee Smokies begin to appear, including Mt. Sterling and Mt. Cammerer, one that was crossed by the Appalachian Trail thru-hikers on their way to Max Patch.

When I reached the summit of Max Patch, it was everything I’d been led to believe. Surrounded by the Great Smoky Mountains on all sides, I couldn’t decide which way to look. I hastily setup my camera tripod and began to capture the scene. The grass that covers the mountain was 6-8 inches high making a nice bed to walk, or lay on. The entire expanse of the summit was awash in early morning sunlight, perking up the lutescent buttercups and cinquefoil.

Directly to the east the sunrays and haze created the effect that gives the Smokies their name. The great expanse of Pisgah National Forest stretched across ridge after ridge after ridge. To the north is the Bald Mountains Range, the French Broad River and Cherokee National Forest. Far away to the south are the mountains in my backyard, the 6000 footers along the Blue Ridge Escarpment. It is all a grand and glorious panorama.

One of the AT marker stakes had a small American flag affixed, no doubt a remnant from the just past Memorial Day. I imagined the picnic baskets and frisbees from a few days prior. Max Patch would be a great place for a familial outing. For me, the weather was perfect… temp in the low 60s, barely a whiff of breeze, the only clouds far away on the horizon. If I lived closer, I could see myself coming to Max Patch almost weekly.

All good things must come to an end, and I still had more than seven miles of exploring ahead of me. The Appalachian Trail descends Max Patch on the eastern slope, enabling a direct view of my future destination, Buckeye Ridge. There were bales of hay spread out every few hundred yards over the ridge, left from seasons past. It was an inviting scene.

As I ambled eastward, a couple hundred feet below the summit, I turned to survey the scene behind me, catching the half-moon against the azure sky with a broad expanse of reddish tinted meadow in the foreground. Max Patch Mountain is just as beautiful here as the western pitch. There are two ways to trace the path of the Appalachian Trail. There are periodic wooden stakes, about waist high, and painted white at the top. And, some kind souls come up here regularly and actually mow the grass in about a 4-foot-wide swath for the hikers. How about that?

Western Slope of Max Patch

Eventually the trail comes to the treeline, and enters. After the bright expanse of the mountain meadow, I had to remove my sunglasses and reset the ISO. There are a few primitive campsites along the path, no doubt very popular with the thru-hikers. The only other people I saw on this day were there, just finishing breaking camp.

Winding through a hardwood forest for about half a mile, the trail meets an old forest road, designated on maps as 3535. This is the junction with Buckeye Ridge Trail, and you want to turn right. But, I wanted to go left to explore the fishing pond where 3535 meets Max Patch Road a half mile away. In hindsight, I may have passed on that, because I got into a bunch of stinging nettle that just loved scraping my bare legs as I passed by. Plus, the fishing pond was no great shakes. Um, yeah.

So, back to the AT-Buckeye Ridge junction for the next phase of my adventure. 3535 dead-ends perhaps a quarter mile later and the Buckeye Ridge Trail becomes single track. At first, it’s somewhat rocky as if it’s a wash on rainy days, but soon after it becomes a very lush forest floor with fern and moss and lichens. I could see through the trees that I was approaching a clearing, then popped out onto the long heath-lined avenue that is Buckeye Ridge.

Every few hundred yards the Forest Service has planted one of those bendy, foldy trail marker signs with an arrow pointing Buckeye Ridge this way. My guess is the grass through here is probably waist high in July, making the trail very difficult to follow. For me, in late May, it was perhaps a foot deep.

After about 10 minutes of wandering among the blackberry bushes and butterflies, all the while surveying the Max Patch summit, I reached a rise in the ridge. By now I was getting a bit hungry, so I’m thinking I’ll get off trail and have some lunch. I climbed about a hundred feet to the top of the rise and found a great cushiony spot with a fabulous view of the eastern acreage of Max Patch.

Shedding my pack and tripod, I took a seat in the soft grass and pulled out my sandwich, totally enjoying the picturesque landscape that surrounded me. I was about half way through my sandwich when I was awakened from the revelry by the feeling of something crawling on my legs. Looking down, and around, there were literally hundreds of small grasshoppers in the grass, and on me. It was kinda cool. There was a rustling sound as they hopped from blade to blade of grass.

My girlfriend always asks me about ticks whenever I tell her my trail adventures, especially when it includes walking (or in this case, sitting) in tall grass. I always check myself carefully, and I didn’t see any on me this time. No doubt they are around, but with my layers of REPEL and sunscreen, they didn’t bother me.

When I finished lunch it was time for some pictures, so I setup the tripod again. This time aiming at the Max Patch summit, I was in a playful mood and did a self portrait. That’s the photo at the top of this post. You can click it for a larger image. You can’t tell in the picture, but there are hundreds of grasshoppers skittering about in that grass. Fun stuff!

Back off the rise to the trail I went, and a meeting again with the AT. I had a decision at this point: either to take the AT back up and over Max Patch, or to head back into the woods on the Buckeye Ridge Trail. I’d already seen Max Patch, so I wanted to explore more of Buckeye Ridge Trail. This may have been the first in a series of mistakes that I was about to make.

The path through the forest was lined with buttercups, fleabane and geraniums… and a bit more nettle. I passed under a power line and, after about a quarter mile, reached an unmarked t-type trail junction. There is a cairn there, but no sign of any kind. My trail map wasn’t detailed enough to give me any hints as to direction. I could intuit that turning right (northwest) would take me back to the grassland of Buckeye Ridge. I had no idea where left (southeast) went.

Since the cairn appeared (to me anyway) to be leaning to the right, I chose to go uphill that way. Along the way I passed several more cairns. Within five minutes I reached a primitive campsite under a magnificent giant oak. Not long after that I was back out in the open on the ridge.

Remember the hay bales I mentioned seeing from the east side of Max Patch? I was now in the midst of them. I climbed another rise in the ridge and turned just in time to see three deer scampering across the grass and into the forest. Sorry, the photo turned out too blurry. I walked to the end of the ridge where it was lined with blackberry bushes and I was stymied by a ravine.

I walked back and forth along the edge of the ridge looking for a path through the ravine. On my map, it looks like Buckeye Ridge Trail eventually meets up with a forest road that skirts the southern side of Max Patch Mountain and leads back to the parking area. But I couldn’t see that anywhere. I could see that I could climb northward up Max Patch back to the AT, but the Buckeye Ridge Trail just seemed to die in the tall grass at the edge of the ravine.

That’s when I made my 2nd bad decision. Remembering the unsigned t-type trail junction back in the forest, I decided to go back there and try the left trail. So back past the hay bales, past the magnificent old oak, past the cairns I went.

Looking East from Buckeye Ridge

Deeper into the forest I advanced, and then the trail met an old forest road. Good, I thought, this must be the road on my trail map. Onward I went, past the old Kana’ti Lodge with a barking dog, and then down, down, down. That just didn’t seem right. With the altitude app on my phone I determined I was below the level of the Max Patch parking area, and continuing downhill. I was expecting to come out on Max Patch Road about 200 yards from my car.

Instead the road I came to was Poplar Gap Road. Huh? I pulled out my map and looked for Poplar Gap. Nowhere to be found. It was even a paved road, but simply wasn’t on my map. Now what? I had three options. (1) I could turn around and go back to the Appalachian Trail at the hay bales. (2) I could turn left (north) on Poplar Gap Road, or (3) I could turn right (south) on Poplar Gap Road.

Pulling out my compass, I determined that I had to be south of Max Patch. So I made my 3rd, and worst, mistake. I decided to head north on Poplar Gap Road. After winding about for a bit, Poplar Gap also started going down, down, down. About every quarter mile I’d pass a remote country home, seemingly always with a barking dog.

By now I was beginning to run low on water, and decided the next person I saw, I was going to ask for help. After probably two miles on Poplar Gap Road, I came upon an elderly lady watering the flowers by her mobile home. Telling her I was lost, and pulling out my map, she said, “That’s odd. My street isn’t on your map.” I said I know, that was my dilemma. After joking about my situation some, she asked where I was trying to go. I said Max Patch. She pointed, and said, “Oh, the Patch is back that way about five miles.”

And of course, she was pointing the way I had come. So there I was. Nearly out of water. Five miles from where I needed to be. All uphill. I quickly did some mental gymnastics. I was already a little tired and hot. Could I make it back up the mountain with almost no water? It would be tough. How much cash did I have in my pocket? $14. If I acted helpless, and offered her a ten, would she be willing to give me a ride to Max Patch in the cherry 1960s era Buick sitting in her yard? I mustered all my gumption, swallowed my pride, and asked the question.

She jumped at the chance. What a sweetheart! She went inside to get her car keys (fortunately not her shotgun) and off we went. We climbed back up Poplar Gap Road. We passed where I had come down from the lodge and stopped to decide which way to turn. We came to the end of Poplar Gap Road, but it still wasn’t Max Patch Road at the junction. We climbed Little Creek Road, where I had been at 7:30 in the morning, and then finally came to Max Patch Road. It was still another mile and a half to my car.

I was thinking by this time how relieved I was that I’d asked for a ride. There’s no way I would have made it walking on the hot and dusty gravel country roads. I told my new friend how she was my rescuer today, my trail angel. She told me she had lived up the holler on Poplar Gap for the past 23 years and grown up in Haywood County a true country girl for all of her 80-some years. I left the $10 on the car seat between us and thanked her from the bottom of my heart. Despite the crap we sometimes have to face in our day to day lives, I am always encouraged by the natural human instinct to help others in need. My trail angel sure helped rescue me from my bad decisions on this hiking debacle.

Best Hike Despite the way this hike ended for me, Max Patch and Buckeye Ridge is a remarkable and beautiful day hike. The views from the summit of Max Patch are among the best the Southern Appalachians have to offer. A friend I’ve made in North Carolina, who used to be from California, thru-hiked the complete Appalachian Trail in 2005. He told me the time he spent on the trail in NC between Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Erwin, NC including Max Patch was what would later entice him to move to Western North Carolina. I can certainly understand why. I would label this one a best hike.

I’ve posted a still image of the GPS map from above where I have added arrows to mark the points where I was confused and made poor decisions. The arrow with dashed lines is where I was stymied by the ravine. The arrow with the circle on the end is the t-type trail junction with the cairn. Hopefully it will help prevent you from making the same mistakes I made. The map image is down below the following photographs.

 

 

Hiking Debacle Map

Hiking Debacle Map

 

Update 10/22/2013: I went back for a fall leaf-peeping hike at Max Patch. The scenery was stunning and I found my way to the continuation of Buckeye Ridge Trail where I got lost in June. Yay me! Now I can hike Max Patch like I know what I’m doing. Enjoy the new photos.

 

This post was created by Jeff Clark. Please feel free to use the sharing icons below, or add your thoughts to the comments. Pack it in, pack it out. Preserve the past. Respect other hikers. Let nature prevail. Leave no trace.

 

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