Out-of-control camping and overnight partying on top of Max Patch, a beloved high-elevation meadow on the northern border of Haywood County, has been reigned in with a two-year camping ban following public outcry last year.
The camping ban was prompted by those abusing the mountaintop — who left it littered with coolers, trash, soiled blankets, fire circles and toilet paper following a weekend of revelry. A sweeping ban that applies to all overnight camping, even those recreating responsibly, was the only way to heal the desecration of Max Patch, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
“Unfortunately, the level of use is causing a public safety hazard as well as serious damage to wildlife habitat,” said Jen Barnhart, head ranger for the Pisgah National Forest’s Appalachian District.
While Max Patch’s popularity as an overnight party spot had been on the rise for several years, the final tipping point came last fall when a drone shot of some 100 tents covering the mountaintop went viral on social media.
Outrage ensued, and the image became a rallying cry to save Max Patch — ultimately spurring the Forest Service to do something about it.
“It is definitely a win for public lands, but it’s also a win for people standing up for public lands,” said Benny Braden, who posted the now infamous picture on Facebook.
It had been taken by fellow outdoor enthusiast Mike Wurner of Asheville, who never imagined the traction his photo would get.
“Max Patch is one of the most beautiful spots in North Carolina and needs to be appreciated for what it is without the party scene,” Wurner said.
Max Patch is indeed a special place to many, Wurner included.
“It was there that I felt the calling to hike the Appalachian Trail, and to see what has come of that particular place over the years was disheartening,” Wurner said. “I can’t give enough thanks to all those that have worked tirelessly to save a truly historic natural landmark.”
The Forest Service warned last year that if people didn’t start behaving more responsibly, restrictions could be in the cards.
The Carolina Mountain Club and Appalachian Trail Conservancy had been working in partnership with the Forest Service to stop the damage without resorting to restrictions. They hosted public education campaigns, held volunteer cleanup days, repaired trail damage and replanted destroyed vegetation.
“We’ve been working with partners to achieve sustainable recreation at Max Patch because of the impacts due to a significant increase in visitors over the past decade,” Barnhart said.
But their work was like spitting in the wind.
“Hopefully, the ban will give the mountain a chance to heal a little bit and the vegetation a chance to regrow,” said Braden.
One of the failed efforts to alter behaviors was erecting fences and barriers to deter people from cutting straight up the side of the hill to reach the mountaintop from the parking area. The steep but short jaunt turned Max Patch into low-hanging fruit as a party site, requiring little effort to haul cases of beer, coolers and lawn chairs to the top.
Attempts to block the easy-way up were to no avail.
Human feces had also become a problem given the high volume of campers in what’s essentially a backcountry setting.
“Max Patch was never intended to be a campground,” said Dean Bunch of Haywood County. “Hopefully, this will prevent a level of use it’s not set up to handle.”
Trash, as well as belongings simply abandoned by those who couldn’t be bothered to haul their stuff down the mountain, seemed to beget more trash, Bunch noted. Some people who saw all the trash assumed there were crews that came in and cleaned up.
“It was almost a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Bunch said. “The question now is who will enforce it?”
Indeed, while many are lauding the camping ban, concerns over enforcement loom.
“Now the hard work begins in having the Forest Service onsite enforcing it. That will be the challenge,” said Braden.
Following the two-year ban, Max Patch advocates hope limited camping in designated areas using a permit reservation system — similar to backcountry camping in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park — could be implemented.
“A solution afterwards may be a permitting system,” Braden said. “It’s not that we don’t want people to visit Max Patch, but there’s a certain level of behavior you have to follow.”
Camping is not the only activity that’s been banned on Max Patch. There’s now also a restriction on group size.
Max Patch was a popular site for birthday parties, large social gatherings and weddings. One wedding party built a large wooden platform on Max Patch and simply left it there after the ceremony.
Gatherings by large groups, even during the day, are now banned, with the maximum group size limited to 10.
Aside from no camping, overnight use of any sort is banned. The public must clear off Max Patch by one hour after sunset, and can’t show up until an hour before sunrise — which thankfully preserves Max Patch as a sunrise and sunset destination.
Other restrictions include:
• No fires.
• No camping stoves or cooking.
• Dogs must be on leashes.
• No fireworks.
• No aircraft dropping off or picking up.
Violations could carry a fine of up to $5,000 per individual or $10,000 per group.