Sunday, January 10, 2016

Appalachian Trail from Max Patch to the Smokies

Our day began extremely early as we drove to Standing Bear Hostel to catch our shuttle to put us on trail at Max Patch somewhere around 8:00. It's funny how getting up at 4:something to go hiking is easier than getting up at 6:15 to go to work! We arrived shortly after sunrise to a frozen tundra and frigid temperatures at the base of the bald. I don't know what the exact temperature was, but it had to be in the neighborhood of 15 degrees. Our shuttle driver told us there were two ways we could begin our hike back to Standing Bear Hostel near I-40 at Harmon Den, NC. We could take the easy way and hike around the base of the bald and catch the AT on the edge near the tree-line. Or we could hike virtually straight up that mountain to the middle of the bald. Three guesses (and the first two don't count) which way we went! You got it--straight up!

I'd been wanting to do this hike for many years. I've heard my dad tell stories from his childhood of picking huckleberries with his father at Max Patch. That would have been almost 80 years ago! This was finally going to be MY day on Max Patch!

 The summit of the bald was definitely worth the climb to get there! The ground was frozen solid and any vegetation (grass, small shrubs, or trees) on the way up was covered with frozen fog or dew from the night or early morning. Fog still hung in the surrounding valleys and it was easy to imagine the bald shrouded in fog only maybe an hour before when the rising sun would have burned it off just for us. This was a picture-perfect day on Max Patch!

Breathless from the climb and the magnitude of the mountain ranges that stretched out in all directions before our eyes, we instinctively spread out, taking in the vistas separately, each soaking up the magic in our own individual reveries.  Moments passed, but eventually the winds and bitter cold temps took their toll. We came back together, oriented ourselves by finding the white blazes painted on fenceposts hammered into the bald to mark the footpath that we would follow for over 13 miles on this day, and headed south. Just as we were leaving the bald, my iPhone totally froze up and turned itself off. That's how cold the temperature and wind chill was on that morning! I was afraid my photography for the day had ended early, but after some time deep in my pocket, the phone began to work again, much to my relief.

Once below the tree-line and shielded from the winds by the mountain ridge to our right, we began to warm as we trekked through the trees and rhododendron thickets. The trail crossed over the road that we had taken to the parking lot then turned left back into the woods and began another rise through the still frozen forest.
Photo credit: My hiking partner, Jennifer Miller, caught this one while my phone was still frozen.

The trail was smooth and wide, evidence that this is an oft-travelled but well-maintained section of the AT, and with good reason! Eventually the day began to warm some and the trail took on the brown tones of any winter wandering in the Appalachian Mountains on a day without snow. We progressed through primarily hardwood forests up hills and down to two different gaps.

Jennifer, Wildcat the AT Chaplain, and Kirsten
During this stretch, at one high point on the trail but still within a heavily wooded area, we came across another hiker. At closer look, we discovered that it was an employee of Little River Trading Company where Kirsten is a frequent customer. Burt, aka Wildcat, is an Appalachian Trail Chaplain who walks the trail looking for people who need his company, his help, or his encouragement to continue their trek. He told us stories of folks that he had assisted in recent days, even inviting one couple home to his house in Maryville for Christmas when they encountered some difficulties with money and gear. He maintains a Facebook page where you can follow his progress. We stood and talked with him for probably half an hour, but eventually we began to get chilled so decided to walk on.  Wildcat was headed the opposite direction, so we bid our farewells. Happy trails, Wildcat!

After about 6.5 miles, we came to the side trail to Groundhog Shelter. Here we did stop to have some lunch before beginning the steep ascent of Snowbird Mountain. The next 2.5 miles would prove to be a vertical challenge in stretches, some of which rival the steepest parts of Lost Cove Trail in the Smokies. We gained 1723 feet of elevation as we made our way up Snowbird Mountain. As we climbed, I kept thinking back to the steepest of the trails we've done in the Smokies. I remembered the Eastern Towhee that chirped encouragingly as we tried to finish strong on Pole Road Creek Trail. I remembered holding onto roots for balance on most challenging sections of Lost Cove Trail. I remembered struggling up the final ascent to Gregory Bald after having drug ourselves up Long Hungry Ridge. Those are all comparable climbs to Snowbird Mountain.  This was the reward:

The FAA Monitoring Station on Snowbird Mtn.

Fenceposts bearing the White Blaze of the Appalachian Trail demarcate the path that ascends the bald on Snowbird Mountain. Some of the best views, including the "reward shot" above, can be had by turning around about half way up. If you do this hike, take time to stop on the way up both Max Patch and Snowbird Mountain to enjoy the view from a little different angle than you get on top. You'll want to anyway because you will need to catch your breath!

We were lucky enough to encounter another AT hiker while on Snowbird, trail name Mariposa, the Spanish word for butterfly, who had thru hiked in 2014 and had returned to the trail for a short time during her college winter break. I would imagine the trail gets in your blood after spending 5 or so months on it and continually calls to you afterwards. That's the way it seemed with Mariposa. She was hiking the same direction we were, in fact, she had passed us on the climb up Snowbird, but it was nice to get to chat with her a bit at the summit. She used Kirsten's phone to check in with her mom, then hiked on, planning to hang out overnight at Standing Bear. Kirsten later received a text saying, "Thank you kind lady." I can only imagine the relief of a mother to hear from her daughter after a couple days by herself on the trail. It was kind of special to be a part of that moment.

Standing on the summit of Snowbird, we looked back to the north. I am assuming that patch of brown grass on the far mountain top is where we began our day, 8.5 miles earlier, Max Patch. After enjoying the views and saying our goodbyes to Mariposa, we began the 5 mile descent to Standing Bear. Toward the end of the day, where the switchbacks begin, two large massifs kept coming into view through the trees, peaks we were just sure were a part of our beloved Smoky Mountains. They welcomed us home at the end of an exhilarating but tiring day. 

Mt. Cammerer in the Great Smoky Mountains
Mt Sterling in the Great Smoky Mountains

Finally, we emerged from the woods onto Green Corner Road and walked the .1 mile back up to Standing Bear Hostel who had provided us our shuttle early that morning. I cannot speak highly enough of them! If you are in their neck of the woods, stop by for a rest or a resupply. They're very nice folks and helped make this one of our best days ever on the trail.

One of the main buildings at Standing Bear Hostel 

   This blog post would not be complete without including Lulu, the Boston Terrier who belonged to our shuttle driver and provided us with licks and entertainment on the way up that morning. Here's to you, Lulu! May you always have a rock or piece of wood to chew on since that gives you such pure joy!


  1. Although cold, you had a beautiful day for this lovely view hike! I enjoy reading trip reports from hikes in other parts of the country.

    1. Linda, so glad you enjoyed it! My husband and I are hoping to take a trip out to Oregon sometime in the not too distant future. Looking at your blog, I think that's where you're from. Lots of gorgeous scenery out there as well.

  2. Saved as a favorite, I love your blog!