What a Spot! Planning for Conservation Design.

In October 2023, five Landscape Architects including myself met at this beautiful place called Max Patch to assess trailhead expansion opportunities and discuss ideas about how to solve some of the challenges that this extremely popular and spectacular recreation site experiences. Being that Max Patch is shared geographically by Pisgah National Forest of NC and Cherokee National Forest of TN, two Landscape Architects from TN and two from NC, plus myself as an LA intern, all got together to walk the site. This visit served as a sort of reconnaissance mission to brainstorm in-the-field ways that we may address the challenges of this site while preserving what makes it so awesome and attracting to visitors.

Max Patch sits at 4,129 elevation and is renowned for its stunning 360 degree views ranging from Mt Mitchell and the Black Mountains to the Smoky Mountains, and many more in between. Max Patch is a bald, a relatively high elevation, open area consisting primarily of grasses, wildflowers, and ferns, with no large trees, and sits on top of a mountain. This bald has been a go-to spot for panoramic vistas of the Appalachian Mountains during the day and for dark sky viewings of the stars at night. It has become intensely used ever since the influence of social media and the Covid pandemic increased participation in outdoor recreation at large and increased awareness about this special place. Max Patch is important ecologically as prime habitat for the endangered Golden-winged Warbler and a stopover for Monarch butterfly’s during their annual migration, which have seen a massive reduction in numbers over the past 30 years or so. Balds like this in the Southern Appalachian Mountains tend to be home to other endemic, endangered, and threatened species of flora and fauna and are not all too common, so they often receive lots of engagement by the public. Max Patch is a hotspot for the region socially and ecologically.

The challenges facing this place revolved around high intensity use from the public and the behavior of visitors. Illegal parking, user-created trails, illegal fire rings, traffic jams blocking the road from through traffic, and human trash have been the most pressing problems that Max Patch experiences. This has been problematic for the local community who use the road to Max Patch as a through road in their daily life and who are most directly impacted by these recreation issues “at their back door”. Thankfully, nature has begun to reclaim user-created trails and illegal fire rings due to a closure order that started in 2021 and has recently been extended to 2026, which prohibits camping overnight, limits large groups of people, and prohibits recreation activities that are detrimental to the site such as bicycling, horse-riding and others. With the closure order extended, the primary goals now are to improve the trailhead and alleviate stressors on the site. Some of the key objectives believed to achieve these goals will be increasing parking capacity, facilitating traffic flow, and providing more amenities for users – all while preserving the vistas and conserving the ecology which makes this bald the iconic destination that it is. Lanscape architecture often exists somewhere along the spectrum between form and function, where aesthetic ideals for enjoyment overlap with practical goals to solve problems or achieve some objective. This project to improve the trailhead and overall experience at Max Patch couldn’t be a better expression of the role of a landscape architect, and I’m grateful to be involved with it. And always remember: tread lightly – pack in, pack out – leave the place better than you found it.

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