Traveling to western North Carolina is one of my favorite trips. After hiking this section on the Appalachian Trail in 2013, I have been back to the area multiple times. And will continue to go back, trying to bring as many friends with me as possible to share the experience.
I tend to complete this as a round trip. Being from Richmond, VA I can drive 64-W, go through beautiful Charlottesville then hit I-81 S for Max Patch in western NC. After Max Patch, I head to Asheville then I venture northeast to the Blue Ridge Parkway entrance.
Or I can flip it, and go to Asheville NC first from 85 S/40 W then to Max Patch to camp out for the night. After witnessing Max Patch’s sunrise, drive out to Roan Mountain Highlands in TN for the bonus and then head back home.
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Max Patch Sunrise
Section hiking the Appalachian Trail in 2013 has led me to one of my favorite places to catch a sunrise, sunset, and overall amazing views. This spot, Max Patch is located about 1 hr west of Asheville in the Pisgah National Forest on the Appalachian Trail.
It is the start of a beautiful section on the trail that I’ve gone back to multiple times. The bald top allows for sweeping 360 views and plenty of spots to camp out and catch the sunrise/sunset. A fire road leads almost directly to the top of the bald so it’s pretty accessible if you don’t plan on hiking in.
Pro Tip: If staying the night is the goal, get there early for a good spot. But if there ends up being a lot of people on top, slide down south on the AT to the tree line for some quieter/less crowded spots.
2nd Pro Tip: If staying the night during the main thru-hiker season April-July (give or take a month or two for the area), it won’t be quiet.
Asheville, North Carolina
If you’re up to mixing city sights with an amazing culture, check out Asheville after Max Patch. It’s about 1hr 20 mins west of Max Patch and well worth the visit if you love beer, unique food, and great coffee.
Make sure you ride the pub cycle when you’re out there, it’s perfect for first-time visits. And of course gets better with each trip, especially if you love beer.
Blue Ridge Parkway
If you choose to visit Asheville, Blue Ridge Parkway is not far away and offers many beautiful hikes and views, including Mount Mitchell and Craggy Gardens. The route was busy when I went during early fall, but not horrible. There were plenty of scenic views right from the road if hiking is not your thing.
I stopped at Craggy Gardens for a quick hike since it is near a pull-off with a parking lot. The views were mostly blocked by fog and the gardens were not very vibrant due to me being there out of season (October). I came close to not including this here, but I’ve seen many pictures of this area. So I recommend going in June for the beauty of the rhododendron season.
After Craggy Gardens I recommend going to Mount Mitchell as well. It’s the highest peak on the east coast and has a large viewing platform for full 360 views. If looking to stay the night and have a challenge, you should look into Black Mountain Crest Trail as a camping spot. The trail connects to the parking lot at Mount Mitchell and the views are amazing, but it isn’t for the faint of heart.
I can’t recall the mileage to the camp sight, possibly 4 miles, but within that time the climbs didn’t stop coming. The sun was also going down so I was in somewhat of a rush to get to my campsite before dark.
Once the sun went down (I still hadn’t made camp) I was treated to an amazing view overlooking the valley below. The full moon lit it up perfectly while the clouds covering the ground made it look like a blanket of snow. Made it well worth the difficulty.
(Sadly for my readers) I was lost in the moment and decided to continue enjoying the moment so I chose not to bring out my camera for the shot.
Upon exiting the Blue Ridge Parkway the next afternoon, I luckily turned in the wrong direction. I say luckily because I came across a bridge that helped me set up my capstone picture for that trip.
It took me a few attempts to compose the shot I was looking for, but it worked out in the end. See below.
Most pictures here were taken with my older Nikon D3000 and a rented Tokina 11-20mm f/2.8 from LensRentals.com. I upgraded to the Nikon D750 shortly after but am still blown away with what I was able to capture. Goes to show that you do not always need the latest and greatest gear to tell your story.
Bonus: Roan Mountain Highlands
About 2 hrs 30 mins north of Max Patch, is Roan Mountain Highlands. Also located on the Appalachian Trail, but in Tennessee. Roan Mountain Highlands consists of three balds, each allowing nearly 360 views. Rhododendron blooms here in June and appear to be quite breathtaking, but each time I have been down there I miss their peak season. I came close to traveling down to the rhododendron festival this past June but had to abandon plans last minute.
If staying the night, hiking a few miles north on the Appalachian Trail it’s highly recommended to stay in the Overmountain Shelter. It’s an old barn converted into sleeping quarters mainly used by AT hikers. If you’re early enough you are lucky and can get a spot on the first floor. The views are breathtaking. I have missed sleeping on the first floor each trip so far but I did get to enjoy dinner down there on one occasion. Fog swept in through the valley like ocean waves never completely impeding the views. It added an amazing touch to the already scenic view. (Update: The Overmountain Shelter closed in 2019 for safety reasons. A recent article from Asheville Citizen-Times explains in more detail and explains possible next steps. )
I know there are many other great spots to explore in Western North Carolina, so what are your favorites?