Hike a scenic alternate route to the ultra-popular Max Patch Mountain. Follow the Appalachian Trail from Lemon Gap, climbing through a mossy, creek-filled forest to exceptional summit views from the grassy, sunny mountain bald.
OFFICIAL MAP: Nat Geo 782 Trails Illustrated Map
Max Patch Mountain is one of the most visited, most photographed, and most well-loved mountaintops on the Appalachian Trail in the South. It’s a grassy mountaintop that’s feverishly loved by thru-hikers on the epic-length AT and day hikers alike. The sun-drenched, domed summit is home to broad, grassy meadows filled with abundant wildflowers and enormous, epic views in every direction. And while scoring some solitude at the summit can be downright magical, this mountaintop has earned some rabid popularity with tourists and picnic-goers, so parking at the mountain’s nearest trailhead can be sometimes scarce. Thanks to the AT’s epic length, though, there’s more than one way to the summit – and one of our all-time favorites is via Lemon Gap.
This ten-mile hike on the Appalachian Trail visits the popular summit by way of Lemon Gap, a smaller and lesser-traveled trailhead just north of the mountain. It’s a fantastic longer-length day hike or quick overnight backpacking adventure that avoids the usual trailhead crowds, yet scores all of the summit beauty from the mountain’s grassy top. From Lemon Gap, the hike follows the AT through a sun-dappled, creek-filled forest. Reaching the mountain, the route circles up and over the mountain’s summit, and then loops back to the AT along an old gravel road, catching stunning views of the mountain from its lower southeast elevations. While there’s no avoiding the usual crowds on the mountain’s summit (hike early mornings mid-week for the best chance), this route scores some serenity throughout much of the hike, and explores some exceptionally beautiful Carolina forest along the way.
Appalachian Trail at Lemon Gap: the hike
The adventure begins at the Lemon Gap trailhead on Max Patch Road (view maps and driving directions), following the white-blazed Appalachian Trail southbound from the border of North Carolina and Tennessee. The trail rolls elevation through the shady forest, meandering through switchbacks, crossing several small creeks over rustic wooden bridges, and passing a large campsite. The AT snakes through the wooded landscape, passing an enormous, lichen-covered rock outcropping at one mile. Wildflowers thrive on the forest’s floor in late springtime, carpeting the sides of the trail in millions of colorful blooms.
The trail continues its meandering, southerly direction, crossing a small creek at 1.25 miles and ducking through dense thickets of rhododendron. From here, the hike begins a nearly unrelenting climb, exploring a rocky, moss-covered landscape and passing a campsite at 2 miles. After crossing a rustic bridge over the rocky bed of a tumbling creek, the trail carves through a sharp series of switchbacks and then makes a steady southbound climb beside Roaring Fork Creek. The trail swings westbound, making several more creek crossings before reaching a rustic log structure, the Roaring Fork Shelter, at just under 3.5 miles. The shelter was built a decade ago by the Carolina Mountain Club, a nearly two-year effort of hard work led by dedicated volunteers.
Departing the shelter, the AT continues its southbound ascent, climbing rustic stone stairs and winding through a shady, moss-covered slope filled with abundant rhododendron. The hike crosses a Roaring Fork tributary and then veers through a rustic, moss-covered wooden fence, crossing a gravel road.
The AT dives through a dense tunnel of rhododendron on Buckeye Ridge. The hike reaches a trail intersection at 4.25 miles, marked by a wooden sign, and veers right at the intersection to hike a counterclockwise loop around Max Patch. The trail arcs to the north, passing a campsite in a grassy meadow before crossing a trickling creek and arcing back to the west. The hike passes several large campsites in a heavily wooded grove before exiting tree cover and entering an enormous, grassy meadow. The domed, wildflower-covered summit lies ahead.
The trail climbs through the mountain’s sun-drenched lower slopes, following white trail blazes on rustic wooden posts covered with silvery gray lichen. The hike reaches the mountain’s summit at 5 miles, catching expansive panoramic views in every direction. The Smokey Mountains dominate the southern horizon, and the towering summits of the Black Mountain range, including Mount Mitchell and Mount Craig, are visible to the east.
The AT dips from the summit, continuing its southbound journey and catching view after stunning view as it drops along the mountain’s southern slopes. The hike descends a series of rustic wooden stairs, veering to the east, and then loops southwest, reaching a signed intersection. This route turns left at the intersection, following the Max Patch Loop away from the nearby parking area and hiking southeast. Reaching a campsite at 5.75 miles, the route hikes northbound through a rhododendron tunnel, following a wide gravel road and catching wide-open views of the domed, grass-covered mountain along the road.
The hike reaches an intersection with the Appalachian Trail at 6.25 miles; it’s the same point the route passed at mile 4.25. The hike veers right at the sign, retracing the outbound route on the AT to Lemon Gap, enjoying the nearly continuous descent to the trailhead through the cool, shaded creek valley. The hike reaches the Lemon Gap trailhead at 10.5 miles, completing the adventure.
Nearby Appalachian Trail adventures
If you’re looking for a shorter route to the summit, or searching for a quick hike to catch an epic summit sunrise or sunset, follow the 1.5-mile loop from the Max Patch Trailhead for the most direct route to the mountaintop. Or follow the Appalachian Trail from Hot Springs along the scenic French Broad River, climbing to towering heights and beautiful views from the rocky summit at Lovers Leap.
Further north, chase some more wide-open mountaintop beauty at Roan Mountain, following the AT as it rolls elevation over a trio of grassy mountain balds from Carvers Gap. And don’t miss our favorite hikes on the Appalachian Trail in North Carolina, following the iconic trail to historic fire lookout towers, grassy knobs, and rocky summits.
Trails and routes may change – so please refer to official trail maps for the latest route.
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Free (but limited) parking is available at the Lemon Gap trailhead. (Note: trailhead access is via gravel USFS roads).
35.825317, -82.937800 // N35 49.519 W82 56.268