Max Patch is a high alpine bald in a remote area on the NC/TN border. Surrounded by 6000 foot peaks and bisected by the Appalachian Trail, you will want to linger when you get there. There are several popular routes to the top. The 44 mile version published here approaches the bald from the southwest via the long Harmon Den gravel climb. On the way you will visit Buzzard’s Roost with its sheer drop and impressive view of the interstate far below. Several roads on the Max Patch route rank among the highest quality gravel ever ridden by SoutheastCyclingRoutes.com.
There are several options for accessing the 4,629 foot high bald mountaintop known as Max Patch. Popular start options include Del Rio TN to the north and Hot Springs NC to the northeast. This version starts in the town of Waterford, on the banks of the Pigeon River to the southwest.
Maps are not clear on whether Waterford is actually in North Carolina or Tennessee. A large “Welcome to North Carolina” sign at the bridge over Big Creek makes the former a good bet but you could throw a rock into the latter if you wanted. Regardless, get off Interstate 40 at Waterville Rd (exit 451) on the Tennessee side of the border. Fun Fact: The Appalachian Trail crosses the over the Pigeon River and under the interstate at this location. A small park adjacent to the Walters Hydroelectric Plant offers parking for about twenty cars but little else.
Once under way, pavement gives way to gravel and climbing begins after only 0.8 miles. Up to mile 4.9, land on your right is part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Keep your eyes peeled for a footpath leading downhill around mile 11.6. Marked with a red cross, the path leads to an overlook known as Buzzards Roost. The view of the surrounding mountains and interstate 1000 feet below is breathtaking, especially if you are afraid of heights! At the time the route was scouted, gravel on the initial climb was some of the finest ever ridden by SoutheastCyclingRoutes.com – hard packed, smooth and swept clean as if with a broom.
High quality gravel continues on the descent from Buzzards Roost until Pigeon River Crossing – a concrete span which is often submerged when the river is high. Consider well whether it has rained heavily in the days leading up to your ride and consider eyeballing the crossing before committing to the start. Pigeon River Crossing is located a few hundred feet off Interstate 40, exit 7 on the NC side of the border.
Once across the river you will need to settle in and find a rhythm because the Max Patch parking lot is 2500 feet above you. Harmon Den Rd is wide and the gravel is superb. Expect lots of distractions as you gain elevation – rushing creeks, fields of wildflowers in summer and wonderful views year-round. There may be some motor vehicle traffic, especially on summer weekends and keep an eye out for equestrians. Should you need it, the Cold Spring Picnic Area provides a welcome interruption about half way up. It’s a great place to filter water and relax in the shade of a river birch. The entrance to the picnic area is shared with the Harmon Den Horse Camp, to your right at mile 20.
It would be a sin to ride to Max Patch and not visit the summit. For cyclists, the issue of getting beyond the parking lot is complicated by the Nation Forest Service rule which states, “Bikes must stay on roads only.” It’s clear that bicycles can’t be ridden on the summit trails but whether they can be pushed or carried is uncertain. If you do walk up, and you should, the trail to the left of the kiosk is somewhat easier and the preferred route.
You will need to trust your GPS on the way down. Brown Gap Rd isn’t shown on some maps and many side roads make the descent seem somewhat labyrinthine. The rough surface requires good line choice if you lingered too long on the bald and are racing the sun back to your car. It’s a rugged and extremely beautiful place but the forest is dense and which road to take is not always obvious. Follow the line on your GPS and you will eventually break out of the woods onto wonderfully smooth and gently undulating pavement. The final gravel segment is county maintained and steep before crossing the interstate, the river, and coasting back to your car.
About an hour west of Asheville, NC and adjacent to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, there’s more to do in the area than can reasonably be packed into a week long vacation. Non-riding family (shame on them!) can meet you at the top with supplies, tour the Biltmore estate or shop at the outlets while you tackle the Max Patch route. Gravel routes visit some amazing places but Max Patch is one of the few which defy adjectives. It’s special, and worth the effort.
Drop a note in the comment section if you ride the Max Patch route and let other know how it went.
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- As stated in the post above, the concrete roadway at Pigeon River Crossing is frequently under water when the Pigeon River is running high. You will NOT be able to cross and will need to backtrack if this is the case. Reconnaissance prior to starting the ride, especially if it has been raining, is highly recommended.
- River height data from the USGS gauge just downstream of the start location can be viewed at https://waterdata.usgs.gov/monitoring-location/03460795/#parameterCode=00065&period=P7D
- The picnic area at mile 20 is alternately named Cold Spring or Harmon Den depending on the map. Some maps omit the facility altogether. The water in Cold Spring Creek at the picnic area is indeed clear and cold but Giardia is real so filter it anyway. Visit https://www.cdc.gov/parasites/giardia/index.html if you have never heard of Giardia.
- Watch for equestrians around the Harmon Den area and along the climb to the summit. Proper etiquette around horses is a safety matter so educate yourself if you are not familiar.
- National Forest Service rules for Max Patch can be found at https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/nfsnc/recarea/?recid=48620
- Start early, especially if you plan to explore around Max Patch.
- There are zero stores on the route. Self sufficiency will be required.
- Parking at the start location is free.
- The start location has picnic tables and grilles but signs warn that they may be used by reservation only. Bathrooms were locked when the route was scouted so make sure you bring your own TP.
- The nearest town with modern conveniences is Newport TN located 18 miles to the north on Interstate 40. Newport has big box stores, restaurants, motels, auto repair shops and a medical center.
- The nearest large cities are Asheville, NC and Knoxville, TN.
- The Max Patch route is more difficult than it appears on the map and resupply with water will be a challenge. The Cold Spring Picnic Areas is a wonderful place to take a break as you filter from the creek. It's only 20 miles into the route, which doesn't seem like much, but you will have already climbed over 3000 feet. SoutheastCyclingRoutes.com highly recommends refill at this point, especially if you plant to walk to the Max Patch summit.
- Brown Gap Rd runs along and crosses many small creeks should you need to filter after the summit.
Who first came up with the route is unclear. Jon Livengood of Knoxville TN maintains a nice description of the HARDford route at his Rollin' Appalachia page on Ride with GPS. Jon is a Ride with GPS ambassador and a heck of a rider!
If you know of the creator of this route is then drop a note in the comments section below or use the contact page to get in touch with us. SoutheastCyclingRoutes.com would like to thank them and give them credit.