The Max Patch Mountain & Harmon Den Area
Note September 2020: Visiting Max Patch is not advised at this time due to over-use (especially on weekends), unsanitary conditions and resource damage, and an inability to take proper precautions during the pandemic.
At 4629 feet elevation, Max Patch is not the highest summit in its immediate vicinity, but this grassy bald is certainly one of the prettiest. Sitting just inside North Carolina along the boundary with Tennessee, the mountain is considered by some to be the "crown jewel of the Appalachian Trail".
360-degree views and plenty of relaxation await the hiker at the top, with views into the Smokies, toward Mount Pisgah, and all the way to areas like Mount Mitchell to the east. But Max Patch, while easily the most well-known feature, is just the start of what's available for hikers in this area.
Drivers along Interstate 40 west of Asheville, just before the Tennessee state line, encounter what is known as "The Gorge" as the highway snakes its way along the Pigeon River, which has cut a deep chasm between the Great Smoky Mountains to the southwest and the Bald Mountains to the Northeast. Towering cliffs and mountains that soar more than 4000 ft above the road create an impressive backdrop for the winding highway.
Between the Gorge and the well-known Max Patch is a lesser-used area (with perhaps an equally enigmatic name) known as Harmon Den, accessible off of exit 7 on I-40. It contains quite a few more hiking trails and attractions to explore. A couple of off-trail waterfalls top off the list of attractions in the area.
Aside from I-40, there are only a few winding country roads that connect you to this area, and there are no major towns in the immediate vicinity.
There are nearly 40 miles of trails available in the area, including the Appalachian Trail, which runs along the spine of the mountains along the state line from I-40 up to Max Patch Mountain. Max Patch is by far the most popular destination for hiking in the immediate area, and for good reason.
If you just want to hike to the summit of Max Patch (and you do!), take the moderate, 1.4 mile blue-blazed trail to the left of the signs to the summit and back. You can make it a short loop hike by descending a similar trail on the other side. Note that due to erosion and resource damage, the former routes leading directly up the mountain from the parking area have been closed, so please stick to one of the the well-signed side trails to reach the top.
For a more all-inclusive experience, continue another mile on the Max Patch Loop trail, which stitches together several old roads, new trails, and portions of other longer trails such as the Buckeye Ridge and the Appalachian Trail to form a longer sort of jagged loop. It passes through some forested areas as well as meadows lower down with awesome views back up to the top. The trails on Max Patch are fairly well-signed, although a few confusing spots do exist - so bring a map and pay attention.
The Harmon Den area is as well-known to equestrians as Max Patch is to hikers, and is a very popular place for horseback riding. There is a reservation-only horse group camping area along Cold Springs Creek. While several miles of hiking-only trails can be found in Harmon Den, all of the horse trails are also open to hikers. Hikes in the Harmon Den area are mostly of the backcountry variety.
For more pictures of the area, visit the Harmon Den & Max Patch Mountain Photo Gallery.
The easiest directions to the area involve coming in via I-40. From Asheville, drive about 39 miles west of the I-40/I-26 interchange to Exit 7 for Harmon Den and turn right on Cold Springs Road. From the west, it's about 37 miles east of the I-40/I-81 interchange on I-40 in Tennessee (just under 7 miles from the NC state line) to Exit 7 with a left turn onto Cold Springs Road. Cold Springs Creek Road then goes 6 miles up the mountain and ends at Max Patch Road, passing thru the Harmon Den area along the way. Turn left and go another 1.5 miles to the Max Patch Mountain parking area.
Via Hot Springs
If you're coming in from the north, it makes more sense to come via the town of Hot Springs than I-40. From Hot Springs, take NC Hwy. 209 south for 7.2 miles and turn right on Meadow Fork Road. Go 5.3 miles and turn right on Little Creek Road. Go 3.5 miles - up the mountain - to Max Patch Road.
From here, turn right and go 1.4 miles to the parking area for Max Patch Mountain. Or, turn left and go 0.2 miles, and turn right on Cold Springs Creek Road to descend into the Harmon Den area. It's 6 miles to I-40 on Cold Springs Creek Road.