Follow an ancient river through Appalachia to explore one of the South's most stunning landscapes.

By Leigh Ann Henion
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French Broad River
Credit: Robbie Caponetto

When Wilma Dykeman was growing up in the mountains of North Carolina, her father told her that the moisture from the creeks she loved could be sucked into clouds and returned to the earth in the form of rain. Dykeman—author of The French Broad (1955), a regional classic—recalled the revelation her father's words sparked: "I could stand in one small corner of the world and be part of its vast design," she marveled. "I know that my place and river is not an isolated corner of the world. It is an artery at its heart."

The French Broad is believed to be the third-oldest river in the world. It's the longest free-flowing river in North Carolina, and it inches into Tennessee. A mountain river is the path of least resistance revealed by water, and the French Broad's curvature historically dictated the placement of villages, towns, and industry. It's traced by drover trails from the 1700s, which evolved into a historic route known as the Buncombe Turnpike. The river once transported explorers, livestock, and lumber through areas that were otherwise hard to reach. It's now more common to see a fleet of neon inner tubes on the French Broad than a herd of sheep. Still, on foggy mornings, it's hard to know what era you're standing in when you can see the blaze of a fisherman's red jacket through haze.

Like every waterway, this river is constantly in flux—because of weather, time, and human hands—but its ability to evoke awe is enduring.

Brevard, NC

The southern Appalachian mountains are temperate rain forest, and you'd be hard-pressed to find a place that's a better reminder of that than Brevard. With 250 cascades, Transylvania County is known as the Land of Waterfalls. You can easily access Looking Glass Falls, one of the most photographed waterfalls in the United States, to get a feel for the French Broad's origins. At Sliding Rock Falls, take a ride down slick stone into a natural pool.

Transylvania County Waterfall
Credit: Robbie Caponetto

In Cherokee, tributaries of the French Broad are also known as "chattering children," and one of the most intimate ways to engage in the conversation is with a fishing pole on the Davidson River. Davidson River Outfitters leads guided fly-fishing trips seven days a week. They'll teach you how to cast a line, catching fish and morning light with the motion of poetry. The practice is called fly-fishing because of the lures used, but releasing a fish in shimmering waters can feel like soaring.

Discovery at Dusk Canoe Tour
Credit: Robbie Caponetto

The clear-running creeks around Brevard culminate in a calm section of the French Broad that's full of birdsong at sunset. Join Headwaters Outfitters for their four-hour Discovery at Dusk tour. This guided canoe trip covers 8 miles with an emphasis on naturalist education. The French Broad is thought to have one of the largest blue heron populations in the world, and it is common for them to take flight in front of boats, spreading their wings to slip along open water.

Asheville, NC

When Kyle Ellison moved to Asheville from his native Hawaii, he wanted to bring a little bit of island culture with him, so he started Wai Mauna. The tour company's name means "fresh water flowing through the mountains," and Ellison has transplanted paddleboards from the waves of the Pacific to the currents of the French Broad. The tours—offered at various times, including sunrise and sunset—start out on Hominy Creek, where novice paddlers learn to stand upright on their boards before entering stronger currents.

Wai Mauna Paddle Board Tours
Credit: Robbie Caponetto

The French Broad allows Ellison to share a southern Appalachian version of Hawaii's aloha, which he describes as "a welcoming spirit where humility, sincerity, and respect for nature combine to bring us happiness and connect us with our natural surroundings."

The Biltmore Estate
Credit: Robbie Caponetto

Wai Mauna tours float under Asheville's concrete bridges and through the wooded and agricultural landscapes of Biltmore. The historic estate is famous for its cultivated gardens, designed by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, but the grounds also include open meadows and networks of trails that skirt the river. Through Biltmore's reservations office, you can book serene boat trips within sight of America's largest home.

New Belgium Brewing Company
Credit: Robbie Caponetto

A popular paddleboard takeout is located near the New Belgium Brewing Company, where you can learn how water becomes ale—and then try some on the riverside deck of the tasting room, called the Liquid Center. Head over to Local Provisions for dinner made with ingredients sourced from nearby.

Marshall, NC

The French Broad flows directly to Marshall from Asheville's River Arts District. The artists who made that neighborhood famous have been quietly moving downriver to Marshall, ahead of the crowds.

Marshall High Studios—a renovated high school, circa 1925—is located on Blannahassett Island in the middle of the French Broad. It is the only structure on the island, which it shares with a community park and, sometimes, geese. Selinde Lanier is a textile designer who rents one of the studios, which are former classrooms with high windows and views of the French Broad. "This school was built in a time when architecture was generous," Lanier says. "Here, on the water, an artist has the space to brainstorm and create. Marshall is a nourishing place."

On Mondays and Fridays, wood-fire tortillas and bread are delivered, still warm, to Madison Natural Foods. Pair them with local smoked trout, cream cheese, and a bottle of wine, and you'll have a classic Blannahassett Island picnic. From the park—where you can watch potters loading kilns and hear musicians practicing the banjo—enjoy a long-range view of downtown Marshall, which includes an old jailhouse that's slated to be transformed into another studio collective. On the banks of the French Broad, drinking from a handmade tumbler, it's easy to fall into daydreams about what it might be like to live in this relaxed, arts-infused town.

Hot Springs, NC

You can tell what season it is in Hot Springs based on the direction people are walking. In spring, they come out of the woods and onto Lance Avenue headed north. In fall, they're moving south. These seasonal migrants carry large packs, because Hot Springs' thoroughfare doubles as part of the Appalachian Trail.

Hikers may lean toward local campgrounds, but downtown, Iron Horse Station offers burgers and special packages for its historic rooms. Another overnight option for travelers in this area is the Mountain Magnolia Inn, Suites & Restaurant, a restored Victorian home that offers accommodations and a fine restaurant that serves breakfast and dinner. You'll need a good night's sleep to tackle the river here, where relatively gentle waters turn fierce. Book a trip with the seasoned guides at Hot Springs Rafting. They'll teach you the language of river navigation (river right!), and they might even snap a photo from the sidelines to capture your adventures for folks back home.

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Hot Springs was named after its earth-warmed mineral waters. A grand hotel was built here in the 1800s, along with a marble-lined bathhouse. They were lost to fire, but their foundations stand as monuments to an earlier time. Roughly 70,000 people a year still pilgrimage to the rustic campgrounds and cabins of Hot Springs Resort and Spa, some claiming that the springs can ease ailments ranging from arthritis to fibromyalgia. Natural carbonation occurs when the water is pumped into whirlpool-style tubs, giving it the effervescence of a Champagne bath.

Heather Hicks, the manager of Hot Springs Resort and Spa, grew up on the French Broad River, literally, as part of a family of white-water outfitters. She moved away, only to return to Hot Springs—population 560—so her son could have a childhood full of riverbank playdates. "The French Broad accepts change, and she keeps thriving," Hicks says. "I think that's what we all seek to do, isn't it?"