Appalachian Trail: Max Patch, Max Views, Max Adventure

We had a few days off work on March 16 and 17 (rumor has it we got those days off because of the start of the NCAA tournament), so with the extra free time my friend Emily and I headed off to the mountains to hike a section of the Appalachian Trail.

This was Emily's first backpacking trip and the pressure was on me to make sure she 1) didn't die, and 2) had a good time. (Spoiler: I delivered on #1, and hopefully on #2!)

We originally wanted to start at Brown Gap but when we made it to the mountains we discovered white stuff on the ground. Lots of white stuff! The roads were snowy and icy and we had no service for navigation, and so we followed signs to the better marked and better plowed Max Patch parking area. We traced the mountain curves behind an SUV from Vermont that went surprisingly slow through the snow and switchbacks and caught sight of some woolly cows that sped off when we pulled over to gawk. Even with the better marked and plowed route the road was rough and icy and I bounced my Crosstrek unceremoniously over potholes and ice sheets.

Woolly cows! They didn't like it when we stopped to gawk at them. Come back, cows!

Finally we reached Max Patch and the bald mountain loomed large above us, glowing white with a dusting of snow.

"I really didn't expect there to be snow here!" Emily exclaimed.

"Me neither, but it makes for an adventure!" and so we took off, northward, uphill, and through the snow. 

The trail head at Max Patch parking area. That's a big hill to climb.

Emily excited for her first backpacking adventure!

A view from halfway up Max Patch

Hiking is already a thousand times harder with a heavy backpack, but add to that some soft snow and it is infinitely harder. With every step we fought for traction against the snow and patches of mud, sliding back down the mountain before we'd even made progress up the slope, and we worked our trekking poles for a little bit of stability. Fight, fight, fight, and we made it up to the short but breath-taking summit and spun 360° to take in the powdered vistas.

Max Patch!

No wonder the Forest Service defies nature and maintains the bald. Vistas, vistas, vistas! In every direction there were grey-blue mountains coated with sugar and dotted with chocolate sticks, a scrumptious winter candy land, and there, snaking over the bald and marked by stakes with white blazes, ran the Appalachian Trail.

After Max Patch we worked our way through hardwood forest under a bright blue sky and over bright white snow, and then we entered the AT's ubiquitous "green tunnel." Or a least in other circumstances it would be the same old green and brown tunnel with dense foliage crowding over the same old dirt path, but under a blanket of snow it somehow seemed enlivened, brighter, and greener. I'd wondered before why on Earth people would go through the misery of thru-hiking in winter, and suddenly I understood: the trail was devoid of people, less inviting, and yet more rewarding for those few brave souls. It was the trail like I'd never seen before.

A view of Max Patch from the trail.

The "green tunnel" was totally transformed under snow.

If we'd started at Brown Gap we would have had a decent amount to trek in one afternoon to get to Roaring Fork Shelter, but since we started at Max Patch it was just a leisurely two and a half miles to our overnight site, which Emily reported was a good and easy intro to backpacking.

Roaring Fork shelter. Plus a lot of our stuff, ha

Dedication plaques

A place to hang your pack. The beer can prevents mice from getting to your pack.

Some carving graffiti at the shelter.

Some graffiti at the shelter.

Roaring Fork Shelter is nestled into a depression in the trail - one of those rare sustained downhills on the AT - near a creek from which it gets its name. The hemlocks are dying and the rhododendrons were bright green despite the snow, and the occasional birch by the stream is peach and peeling.

"That tree's as rough as a corn cob!" Emily exclaimed, and I paused for a moment and raised one of my eyebrows at her regional expression, but then I realized it was a perfect description as I looked up the frazzled trunk reaching to the sky.

We were joined by three shelter mates before dark - a Belgian family led by Scott (an NC native and former marine) and his two young sons. 

"We started at I-40 and it's our second night on the trail," Scott explained. "We're thru-hiking, and we're going to flip flop after we get to Katahdin and my wife and two young girls will meet up with us and hike the last 240 or so miles south from I-40 where we started."

I'd never heard of anyone flip-flopping from the I-40 crossing, but it's a good idea: these hills down to Hot Springs are some of the easiest I've done on the trail with the nice, welcoming descent to the friendly hiker town and the Broad River valley. But I couldn't help thinking how much they were going to hate hiking north out of Hot Springs.

"We were going to make it from I-40 to Hot Springs in two days, and then three, and now it looks more like four," Scott chatted while he and his boys set up bivy sacks under the shelter. That's how it goes: you always think you can hike more, but then you get out there and the trail just kicks your butt. This was also why I was very unambitious about our weekend trip: I know how brutal it can be when you first start backpacking, so I purposefully planned an easier and shorter hike. From Max Patch to Roaring Fork Shelter it was just 2.5 miles. From Roaring Fork Shelter to the second night's campsite it was 9.5 miles, a respectable distance for one day and a great distance for a first-time backpacker. (Seriously, go Emily!) On Sunday morning it was just 2 miles to the car at Garenflo Gap. All downhill. Easy breezy.

That night it rained torrentially, beating down a staccato rhythm onto the shelter's tin roof. Sometimes the wind roared and I woke to spray smattering across my face. Sometimes I blinked hard against flashes of lightning, all while a mouse nibbled on my magazine. I dreamt that I'd found a kitten and was cuddling with it only to roll over in my sleeping bag and feel a mouse slide off my legs, and poor Emily had the misfortune of having a mouse run across the top of her head, but I'd say it was a generally uneventful night in the shelter, and in the morning all the snow was gone and in its place was mud - brown and black sticking, sucking mud - and a mist in the trees.

The morning hike was exciting as we crossed streams gorged from all the rain and snowmelt. At one point we passed a beautiful mountain stream that cascaded down several levels of smooth rock and I thought how maddening it must be for summer hikers to hear but never see the rushing mountain stream.

Emily still seemed happy despite her run-in with mice at the AT shelter.

We made good time hiking, enheartened by the gradual downhill slope towards Hot Springs with just two sharp climbs: one up Walnut Mountain and the other up Bluff Mountain. We startled some pheasant on our way up Walnut Mountain - a first for me - as well as a salamander whose skin glistened in the sunlight, and some fungus that sat on the forest floor like an octopus. By 1pm Emily had bravely suffered to the top of Walnut Mountain and we stopped in a big grassy clearing and munched on lunch while the skies threatened and bellowed. I was surprised when our sheltermates from the previous night caught up with us. They had left before us in the morning, but they had gotten turned around on the trail (an easy enough thing to do; I've gotten turned around several times on my short section hikes).

It turns out it's called an "earthstar fungus" for its star shape, and apparently if it's dry the spikes will close up around the puff pods. (Though technically this one is the "the hygroscopic earthstar, the barometer earthstar, or the false earthstar.") Pretty cool! Though I still think these look like octopi.

With all the moss and mist sometimes it felt like the Pacific Northwest on the Appalachian Trail.

Walnut Mountain's views aren't as rewarding as Max Patch, but it was exciting to sit in a grassy meadow and watch the skies turn blue and then grey and then purple and eat our lunch. It was exciting when Scott and the boys caught up with us and we knew we hadn't gotten lost and we were making good time, and it was nice when they stopped to chat a bit and asked to take a picture with us so they could remember who all they'd met on the trail (it would have been nice if I'd remembered to get a picture with them as well on my camera. Darn. Next time!).

It's possible Emily and I were the first people the family had met on the trail. I hope we made a good impression. I just remember one of the boys asking me the night before at the shelter, "So why do you backpack?"

I laughed, "Oh, I suppose I do it to get away from people."

"And because of the nature?"

"Son, she probably likes getting away from people who ask her annoying questions," Scott interjected.

"Oh no, really it's fine. I like getting into nature, and I like that it gives me time to write."

"If you thru-hike you can have plenty of time to write about your experiences on the trail and then you can turn it into a book."

"I could..."

I wanted to ask him if he thought there were too many books just like that though. I should have asked him.

The Belgian family had just rounded the ridge of Walnut Mountain when the wind picked up. Emily was still munching on some trail mix but I wandered around taking photos for a minute until the wind blew disturbingly cold. I could tell it was going to rain soon, so I started packing up, putting on the the pack cover, fishing out my rain jacket and fumbling with the camera cover, but I was too slow - much too slow! Mountain weather can be variable and unpredictable and I was being lazy and stupid; suddenly the threatening sky was pelting us with hail - tiny ice wads that stung at first, and then larger balls the size of marbles. I kept trying unsuccessfully to get my rain jacket zipped and the cover on the camera when I realized I couldn't feel my fingers.

"We need to move - NOW!" I said and I clutched my camera to my chest and hoisted my pack onto one shoulder and took off down the trail to the shelter, Emily hot on my heels. The Belgian family was already in the shelter and we huddled together to avoid the rain and the leaking spot in the shelter roof and I worked to get the cover on the camera and feeling in my fingers again.

"Well, now you two can say you've been through hail and back," Scott quipped and we all laughed as we pulled on gloves and hats and drew our jackets tighter around us until the hail finally subsided and the Belgian family left, and Emily and I followed them shortly thereafter.

We wouldn't see the Belgian family again until the next morning when we came round the perfect campsite tucked by a beautiful cascade in a ravine, and again when we were packing up Emily's car at Garenflo Gap to head out. The only other people we saw on the trail were some scruffy young men who seemed rather proud of their beards and their daily mileage.

Bluff Mountain was another tough climb with an interesting gathering of rocks at the summit and a view you can only enjoy in winter. But we didn't linger on the summit since the wind was sharp and we had a few more miles to go. We'd originally planned to sleep at Walnut Mountain shelter but since we got there at lunchtime and since the shelter was in poor condition and since the wind was picking up and it was already supposed to be cold overnight and since Emily had this shiny and unused backpacking tent, we decided to press on and find a decent campsite once we were tired. The descent from Bluff Mountain was icky at best. We worked our way through slick, black muck, saving ourselves from sliding off the mountain in the slick mud multiple times with our trekking poles.

Rawr! I'm queen of Bluff Mountain!

"If we'd gotten here yesterday with the snow we could have skied down the mountain!" I joked. The snow and rain had turned the trail into a sucking bog and we were glad when the lower elevations turned out drier and more sheltered from the wind. It was too cold to spend too much time outside the tent at the campsite, so we holed up in the tent and I looked forward to another warm night in my sleeping bag.

In the morning it was bittersweet. We were both tired and eager to get home where we could sit on soft things like couches and cushioned chairs and sleep on soft beds, but I'm always depressed at the end of a hike. I want warm, soft things, but at the same time I never want to leave the trail, and it was difficult to exit when I knew thousands of miles lay ready before my feet, stretching northwards if I were only to keep walking.

Heeeeere bear bear bear! (Note: I did not find any bears in this cave to disturb.)

There were apparently some bets in the office on whether I'd actually come back from the hike or if I'd keep hiking the trail, but that is for another spring, and I made it back home to spring weather, soccer games, and a fluffy bed, happier for my time in the woods and ready for my next big adventure.

Hike it:

Trail head: Max Patch parking is actually a short trek up to the summit. If you want the best and the easiest option just park there and hike up to Max Patch and immediately enjoy the views. If you like pain then put on your hiking boots and hike the 14 miles from Max Patch to Garenflo Gap (bring a friend so you can park one car at Max Patch and park the other car at Garenflo Gap). If you really really like pain then strap on a heavy backpack like we did!

Highlights: Fantastic views at Max Patch and a nice grassy bald at Walnut Mountain.

Bonus: It's mostly downhill if you're hiking north since the trail is dipping towards Hot Springs in the Broad River valley. Yay downhill!

Save it for later:

Have you ever done a section hike (or a thru-hike!) of the Appalachian Trail? What are your thoughts on backpacking in winter? Let me know in the comments!

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