HOT SPRINGS – Halfway through a two-year closure order, in June 2022, U.S. Forest Service and Appalachian Trail Conservancy officials said they expected the Max Patch camping ban/closure order to be extended in June 2023.
That’s exactly what happened, as the U.S. Forest Service extended the closure order for an additional three years, until June 30. 2026.
The order was signed by James Melonas, deputy supervisor with the U.S. Forest Service, earlier this month.
Spring Creek resident Alice McVey serves as a trail ambassador at Max Patch.
“Max Patch is now a place that Spring Creek is proud of,” McVey said. “It is a safe place to go and spend an afternoon with family and friends.”
In July 2021, the U.S. Forest Service implemented a number of rules designed to limit the land’s degradation after overuse by visitors:
- No camping.
- No fires.
- Area closes one hour after sunset and reopens one hour before sunrise. Visitors are prohibited during closed hours.
- Group size is limited to 10.
- Dogs and other animals must be on a leash no longer than 6 feet, or in a crate or cage.
- Visitors must stay on designated trails.
- Aircraft may not land or drop off or pick up anything in the area. Drones are prohibited on the Appalachian Trail.
- No fireworks.
- Bikes must stay on roads only.
- Horses and other saddle and pack animals may not be ridden, hitched, tethered or hobble in the area.
In 1982, the U.S. Forest Service acquired Max Patch’s 392 acres at the urging of Carolina Mountain Club, a nonprofit organization founded in 1923 that helps route and trail the Appalachian Trail. The club maintains 420 miles of trails in North Carolina.
Paul Curtin is the Appalachian Trail supervisor for Carolina Mountain Club and the trail ambassador leader. According to Curtin, the CMC trail ambassadors are volunteers who have been enforcing the closure order and meeting with Max Patch visitors to educate them and collect important data on hikers.
In fall 2020, Max Patch, the grassy bald known for its 360-degree views of the Pisgah National Forest’s 4,629-foot summit, was thrust into the national spotlight after viral photos depicted the land being overrun with visitors leaving trash in their wake.
Curtin said CMC members became increasingly conscious of Max Patch’s degradation in 2017 and met with Jennifer Barnhart, a U.S. Forest Service ranger, as well as members of Appalachian Trail Conservancy about the emerging issues.
In 2018, the group formed a Visitor Use Management team to collect data that would later be used in decision-making and planning.
According to Barnhart, the Visitor Use Management committee is composed of members of the U.S. Forest Service, Appalchian Trail Conservancy, Carolina Mountain Club and local residents.
Visitor Use Management team, Carolina Mountain Club honored with Public Lands Award
Barnhart said the all-volunteer trail ambassador team enforces the order’s restrictions, working to also educate visitors on outdoor rules such as Leave No Trace.
“They’re the ones that are messaging the closure order,” Barnhart said. “If a law enforcement officer or a forest protection officer is available, then they’ll be up at Max Patch talking with the visitors, but the trail ambassadors are the ones that help give the messaging. They explain what all is allowed and not allowed.”
The trail ambassadors’ three jobs are to “educate hikers, collect data and protect the resource,” according to Curtin.
The trail ambassadors also work with the Visitor Use Management committee.
In May 2023, the Public Lands Alliance chose Carolina Mountain Club and the U.S. Forest Service as one of four national recipients of the Public Lands Partner Award, according to a news release from the Forest Service.
The PLA chose Carolina Mountain Club and U.S. Forest Service “primarily for their leading role in the restoration and preservation of Max Patch,” the release said.
“In 2022, Carolina Mountain Club members organized and reported 22,139 hours of volunteer work across the Appalachian, Pisgah, Nantahala and Unaka Districts, spanning three National Forests and two states,” the news release said. “CMC is responsible for maintaining more than 400 miles of trails in the National Forests in North Carolina, including sections of the Appalachian Trail, the Mountains-to-Sea trail, and highly trafficked and popular trails such as the Art Loeb Trail. With trail crews working every Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and roving crews on the weekends, Carolina Mountain Club is the only trail maintenance organization with members on U.S. Forest Service land most days of the week. The US Forest Service appraised Carolina Mountain Club’s contributions during 2022 at more than $663,000.”
Carolina Mountain Club is celebrating its 100-year anniversary in 2023.
Closure order’s success
Barnhart said the closure order’s effectiveness was a “wonderful surprise,” and emphasized the collaboration between the U.S. Forest Service, CMC and ATC, as well as the attention raised by volunteers and environmental advocates.
“It became national news when that misuse was really happening back in 2020,” she said. “It’s a very iconic location on the Appalachian Trail, and it’s also in the backyard of Spring Creek community members. So a lot of Spring Creek Community members have joined the efforts and volunteered as being trail ambassadors too.”
The Spring Creek Community Center, of which McVey is a board member, has served as the de facto home base for the public’s interaction with Max Patch officials.
In September and October 2022, Carolina Mountain Club, U.S. Forest Service and Appalachian Trail Conservancy held two open houses to help gather more information from the public on such issues as increased parking and access to toilets at the park, including through the use of surveys.
“This is mainly around public input. What we have now are some proposed locations and some options, and that’s part of the survey,” Curtin said. “The VUM committee will look at all these surveys and help guide our actions. We collect data and make decisions based on that.”
More: Max Patch to offer bathrooms?The future of Max Patch: Continued restrictions? New bathrooms? Parking? Public weighs in
For more information on Max Patch, visit its website.