On a breezy summer afternoon, Benny Braden and I hike about half a mile up an eight-foot-wide United States Forest Service path from a small, busy parking lot to the top of Max Patch, a mountain bald located in both the Pisgah and Cherokee National Forests. Well, he hiked and I huffed. 

He may be wearing an orthopedic boot on his left foot from a hiking injury, but Braden, 50, once held the speed record for hiking all 900 trail miles in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. He strides to the summit of 4,629 feet, pointing out the budding blackberry bushes and depositing “microtrash” he picks with a litter removal grabber into a barley sack as we ascend.

In the southern Appalachians, balds are grassy, treeless areas on mountain summits, surrounded by forest. Some, such as Roan Mountain on the North Carolina/Tennessee border, are known as ecological balds because they happened naturally. In the case of Max Patch, the forest was felled more than a century ago to make way for a cow pasture, creating what is known as a cultural bald. 

Max Patch gives hikers an unbroken vista of layer upon layer of blue mountains in all directions—the Smokies to the south and, on a clear day, Mount Mitchell to the east. Hikers can see storms moving in from dozens of miles away. It’s a destination point for thru-hikers on the Appalachian Trail, which crosses over it, and a selling point for local tourism. 

Benny Braden at Max Patch. (Photo by Allison Salerno)

When Braden and a group of friends visited Max Patch to spend the night camping in September 2020, they were alarmed to find trampled grasses, pounds of human waste, discarded tents, blankets, camping chairs, dozens of fire rings filled with food waste, leftover cigarettes, and broken fence posts.

Mike Wurman, a 59-year-old Asheville pastel artist and Appalachian Trail hiker, had visited the area that same weekend in 2020. He’d driven more than an hour northwest from his home to spend time with his friend Sarah Jones Decker, 42 of nearby Marshall, N.C. The two were shooting promotional videos about the trail. When they drove up the gravel road that leads to the Max Patch parking lot, they were surprised to see parked cars on both sides for a quarter mile.

Decker, a professional photographer, author and trail maintainer with the Carolina Mountain Club, had hiked to the summit dozens of times and never seen more than three tents. That day, the two witnessed what they described as “mayhem”: well over 100 tents, piles of toilet paper, human waste, cases of beer, blankets, pillows, bottles of whiskey, and dozens of campfires. 

Hundreds of young adults were gathered in large groups, some playing music loudly, one conducting a yoga class, another group using a hatchet to clear grass to set up still more tents, Decker said. “It looked like Woodstock,” she said. “We could barely see the ground.” 

They descended the summit and decided to send Wurman’s drone up to take footage. “It was the perfect opportunity to show how bad it could get if we didn’t do something,” Decker said. 

The next day, Decker posted a still from the drone footage on her personal Facebook page with the cutline “The patch is maxed. Loving it to death.” 

While Decker only had about 1,000 Facebook friends, the public post went viral—it was reposted 16,000 times in less than 24 hours.

A still from drone footage shot in September 2020 showing all the activity at Max Patch. (Courtesy of Mike Wurman and Sarah Jones Decker)

Most who shared the photo shared her concern about damage to Max Patch. But Decker said she also received hundreds of hateful messages. “I’m going up there to trash it just because of you,” she recalled one reading. “What makes you think you are the only one who can go up there?” said another. After 24 hours, Decker made her post private, but the photograph kept being shared. 

The email inboxes at the Carolina Mountain Club, the U.S. Forest Service and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy were also filling up fast. 

“We got responses to that from literally all over the world,” said Morgan Sommerville, director of visitor use management for the conservancy. “I got a number of emails saying, ‘Morgan, fix this.’” 

In July 2021, the U.S. Forest Service issued a two-year ban on camping, fires, drones, fireworks, and bicycles at Max Patch. Dogs must be leashed, and groups larger than 10 aren’t allowed at the summit. The federal agency decided this summer to extend the order another three years, until June 30, 2026, to protect public health and safety and to give the mountain bald time to recover.

And these measures seem to be working. Braden, who lives two and a half hours away in eastern Tennessee, hadn’t been back to the site since July 2021 until the day we visited. He was impressed by how much the meadow had healed since then; tall grasses dotted with wildflowers now proliferate. “I’m very happy with that progress,” he says. 

But the ban also raises the larger question of how to balance rising enthusiasm for hiking and other outdoor activities on public lands and protecting what makes those lands precious. 

The destruction and rebirth of Max Patch also underscore the role individual hikers play when it comes to caring for the Appalachian Trail, a natural resource that crosses political boundaries, and leveraging their passion to protect what’s wild.

Max Patch has only been part of the Appalachian Trail since 1982. The U.S. Forest Service bought 444 acres from developers for $566,000 and thwarted an investment group’s plans to build an “exclusive type resort” at the site, local newspapers reported at the time. 

The preserved mountain bald, in part, is what prompted Alice McVey and her husband to move from Raleigh to the Spring Creek community, about a mile from Max Patch, in 2005. “We wanted it to be more remote, more of a small community,” said McVey, 61, who serves as a trail ambassador with the Carolina Mountain Club. “Raleigh had turned into a metropolis.”

As a backcountry site, Max Patch has no bathrooms or trash cans, which perhaps made the mess of 2020 understandable, McVey said. “The bottom line is people really just want to know the rules,” said McVey, 61. “And there were no real rules.” 

The Appalachian Trail runs through a grassy field at Max Patch. (Credit: Matt Wunder via iStock)

While Max Patch is a draw locally, its popularity has also risen alongside increased use of the Appalachian Trail. The number of people attempting a thru hike on the 2,200-mile trail surged after the 1998 publication of Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods

In 2000, nearly 3,000 people attempted a thru hike—61 percent more than in 1997—and more people completed it than in the first 40 years combined, according to the Appalachian Trails Conservancy. This year, about 4,300 people set out to attempt a thru hike starting in Georgia. 

Max Patch in particular has felt the pressure. “It’s too many people in one place at one time, which in and of itself isn’t necessarily a problem,” Somerville said. “It’s the misuse that may come with it.”

Even before Wurman’s notorious drone footage, officials were getting worried about keeping roads clear for emergency vehicles and the risk of fires caused by careless campers. Locals had also started to complain. 

Paul Curtin, 65, joined the Carolina Mountain Club as the Appalachian Trail maintenance supervisor in 2017, after thru-hiking it himself two years earlier. “We already were seeing the issues emerging at Max Patch from heavy use,” he said. By 2018, the Visitor Use Management Committee, which included employees of the Forest Service, the conservancy, and mountain club volunteers, was discussing how to balance the rising use of public land and the need to protect it. 

Max Patch was overrun with visitors October 3, 2020 as people camped and watched the sunset. (Credit: Angela Wilhelm-USA TODAY NETWORK)

Curtin met with residents in the gymnasium of the Spring Creek Community Center in February 2020 to hear their concerns and discuss which crowd-management tactics were already underway. About 50 residents showed up—so many, McVey recalled, that there were not enough chairs to seat everyone. “People resoundingly said, ‘We tell people to not go to Max Patch now,’ because a landmark that had once been a source of local pride had become an ‘ugly, embarrassing eyesore,’” McVey said. 

A particular challenge for Max Patch has been what are known as “social trails”—unmapped routes to the summit that visitors create. Hikers can get lost, and they also damage ecosystems. 

Volunteers with the Carolina Mountain Club spent the two years before COVID improving existing trails by constructing new stairs, repairing old ones, and adding gravel. They built a six-paneled wooden kiosk at the parking lot with a map of the 1.5-mile loop trail to the summit with information about “Leave No Trace” hiking ethics, Forest Service rules, and how to volunteer with trail maintenance. 

Volunteers work to repair a staircase along the Appalachian Trail leading to Max Patch during National Trails Day in June 2018. (Credit: Angela Wilhelm-USA TODAY NETWORK)

They also blocked off social trails with locust fencing, a laborious process of harvesting downed trees, cutting them to length, transporting them to the site, and building posts and rails. But during the pandemic influx, less courteous visitors chopped down the fencing and used it to build campfires.

The club also realized that protecting Max Patch also means educating visitors—particularly the estimated 65 percent who were hiking there for the first time. They launched a Trail Ambassador program in 2019 with eight volunteers who would help educate hikers and collect data about exactly how many people were visiting. Volunteers receive three hours of field training on the bald itself to learn how to talk with hikers. While the program was suspended in the early days of the pandemic, it has since grown to 30 trained volunteers.

A tricky part of educating visitors is avoiding confrontation. While police officers have authority based on their position, volunteers do not. Instead, they try to get visitors to defer to what’s known as the authority of the resource: nature. 

“Nature has all these beautiful landscapes and all these beautiful plants and animals that are out there,” said Curtin. “And, they have their rights. And, we’re trying to respect the authority of the resources out there. So we speak to the people from that perspective.”

Most of the time, volunteers are able to encourage visitors to tread lightly. But Curtin recalled one instance in which he asked a local couple to not take an unmarked trail, explaining it was causing erosion. 

“They said they had been going up there for 20 years and they were going up the center trail and I wasn’t gonna stop ‘em, basically.” 

As visitors depart from the Max Patch parking lot, they take a blackberry-bush lined trail through a young forest of sugar maples and buckeyes and cherry trees. Toward the summit, the forest ends with a feathered edge. The trail crests dramatically, giving hikers a sudden panoramic view of the summit. 

None of this is happenstance. 

The tableau is carefully curated, primarily by one man: Matt Drury. A former ranger in Yancey County, Drury, 44, is now the associate director of science and stewardship for Appalachian Trail Conservancy. He has developed what he calls a “habitat matrix” for Max Patch. 

Think of this as Drury crafting pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, with each piece representing a different stage of forest growth, from open meadows to mature forest canopy. Each stage is needed to provide the right conditions for different communities of plants and animals. “What I am doing is delineating different successional stages at Max Patch to be managed for that successional stage long term,” he said. 

People hike to the summit of Max Patch through a designated rehabilitation area in October 2020. (Credit: Angela Wilhelm-USA TODAY NETWORK)

He manages a total of 43 open areas on the trail in North Carolina and Tennessee, on land administered by the USFS. The Appalachian Trail traverses millions of acres of national forest, but the public footpath has been under the National Park Service’s oversight since 1968. Day-to-day management, however, falls to the conservancy, which works cooperatively with local hiking clubs as well as federal and state governments. 

Protecting birds, pollinators, and plants is a key part of Drury’s strategy. In the last five years, Drury’s teams have planted thousands of seedlings of species native to Max Patch, including yellow wild indigo, Virginia wild rye, deer tongue grass, broomsedge, black-eyed susan, and large coreopsis. 

Of special concern is the diminishing population of golden-winged warblers—since 1966, their numbers have fallen 98 percent in the southern Appalachians. They build nests on the ground in “dense patches of vegetation,” which is why Drury made sure to leave several acres of blackberry bushes unmowed just behind the kiosk to the right of the loop trail’s start. The brambles also provide a place for black bears to forage and help keep hikers from forging their own routes to the summit. 

The meticulous planning and planting is possible because Drury now has a larger source of funding from the National Park Service for habitat maintenance. He credits the advocacy of his predecessor for tripling the budget since 2016 to more than $100,000 annually for his region. A larger, more reliable funding source means Drury can do long-term habitat planning. 

Previously, the approach was much looser: “We gotta a slug of cash, let’s go to Max Patch and figure out what we’re going do with it,” he said. 

At the same time, he tries to keep the hiker experience in mind. “I’m kind of directing people to where they want to look,” he said. “We know we want to maintain 360 [degrees views], but that doesn’t mean we have to annihilate every tree in pursuit of that.”

Public support for the Forest Service’s renewed ban on camping and other activities at Max Patch has been strong; 85 percent of the responses to an ongoing survey have been positive, Curtin said. 

Still, not everyone is convinced. Steven Reinhold, 39, grew up about 10 miles from Max Patch and learned to camp as a teen there. Reinhold thinks a reservation system for designated campsites could keep the bald open to overnight visits while protecting its ecosystem, though that is not currently an option under consideration.

“It’s really important to make it easier for people to have those experiences,” said Reinhold, who owns an outdoor adventure company that previously offered guided campouts at the site. “I love the daytime experience, but for me, it’s a whole ’nother level when you spend the night somewhere and you see the stars, you wake up for sunrise … Kind of like rewilding yourself a little bit.” 

Braden told me before our hike that he wanted even more extreme measures taken, starting with removing the parking lot. If anyone wants to visit Max Patch, they should hike seven miles to get there. He’d spent multiple weekends cleaning the bald after the infamous drone images, and even launched a nonprofit, Responsible Stewardship, to organize clean-up days on public lands. 

“Don’t give anybody a chance to park anywhere,” he said. “If your car is caught parked in the road, it gets towed immediately at your expense.”

But after our visit, Braden softened his stance. Flowers were blooming. The grass had returned. There were few signs of firepits. The parking lot can stay, he said, “as long as they keep that ban in place and they keep seeing all the native flowers that are coming back up.”

From Curtin’s perspective, Max Patch is faring better ecologically than it has in decades—a sign the restrictions should be permanent. 

“People can still play,” he said. “Max Patch is going to continue to get better because we have plans … In five more years, it’s going to be amazing what that place looks like.”

Allison Salerno is an independent multimedia journalist who is also an avid Appalachian Trail backpacker. Among other places, her work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor and on America’s Test Kitchen’s podcast, Proof