French Broad RIver
The mighty French Broad River starts as a small stream high in the North Carolina mountains and flows 200+ miles to Knoxville to help form the Tennessee River. It's the third oldest river in the world, even older than our mountains (formed some 300 million years ago)! Since it runs through the center of Asheville and the surrounding national forests, there are plenty of ways to enjoy it - including camping, hiking and biking along the shores or paddling on a kayak, canoe or paddleboard.
There are many parks along the way with access points for fishing, bird watching, picnics and more.
While the river is fairly flat through the city of Asheville (perfect for tubing and float trips),
you'll find big rapids north in Madison County - a great place for whitewater rafting and kayaking!
The river was named the French Broad to distinguish it from North Carolina’s other Broad River and because the territory into which it drained was held by the French. The Cherokees had several names for river, including Tah-kee-os-tee or “racing waters,” as well as Poe-li-co, Agiqua, and Zillicoah.
North Carolina’s French Broad River is the third oldest river in the world, older than the mountains it passes through.
It is so old, in fact, that it is practically devoid of fossils.
Hot Springs was named after its earth-warmed mineral waters.
A grand hotel was built in Hot Springs 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.
The French Broad River is the largest watercourse in Western North Carolina. First settled by members of the Cherokee Nation and visited in 1540 by the treasure-seeking Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto, the river basin was ultimately occupied by English-speaking settlers. They gave the river its often-misunderstood name because it flowed west toward the Mississippi Valley lands claimed by French explorers and fur traders. With a rich and varied history, the river has had a major influence on human activities in the area and continues to do so today.
From the river's headwaters west of Rosman in Transylvania County to the border of Tennessee, the French Broad is about 70 miles in length. Its drainage basin includes 5,124 square miles, with 1,664 square miles occurring in North Carolina. At its highest elevation, the French Broad River reaches 6,400 feet, where one of its major tributaries, the Swannanoa River, begins below Potato Knob in the Black Mountains. The river's lowest North Carolina elevation, 1,240 feet, occurs at the Tennessee state line west of Hot Springs.
The French Broad River has several characteristics that are unusual for rivers of the southern Appalachians. Due to the nature of southeastern Blue Ridge topography, the river flows in a northward semicircle, cradled between the Tennessee Valley Divide and the Pisgah Ridge. Beginning at the junction of its first three major tributaries, the North, West, and East forks, the river flows first to the northeast, then turns north to Asheville, and finally sweeps to the northwest toward Tennessee.
Another of the French Broad's interesting characteristics is that it flows along a nearly level grade for much of its length. The river's southern portion has an average fall of only 3 feet per mile and, at some locations, as little as 1 foot per mile. This rate eventually increases between Asheville and the Tennessee line, where steeper gorges and narrower channels result in a fall of 16 to 30 feet per mile.
In addition, the river is wider by comparison than others in the region. The slow currents, together with the gently sloping topography, contribute to an expansive floodplain along the river's portion south of Asheville. This floodplain is especially wide in the area between the French Broad's junction with the Mills River and the Asheville vicinity.
Finally, the French Broad River occurs at a fairly low elevation, where winter temperatures are relatively moderate and summer temperatures approach those expected in the Piedmont and Coastal Plain provinces. This combination of geology and climate influences forest and animal species found along the river. While trees typically associated with the mountains such as basswood, tulip poplar, and various oaks are found here, so are a number of floodplain species—river birch (Betula nigra), sycamore (Platanus occidentalis), American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana), hazel alder (Alnus serrulata), and several species of willow.
A large variety of wildlife, especially birds, can be seen along the French Broad River, the most notable being the wading birds. Great blue herons are numerous, and green (Butorides virescens) and little blue herons (Florida caerulea) appear as well. Egrets, which make their way inland after nesting in Coastal Plain habitats hundreds of miles to the southeast, are a special treat in the mountains. These magnificent white birds can be seen searching for fish and crustaceans along the banks of the French Broad's quiet waters.
Other water birds include the black duck (Anas rubripes), pied-bill and horned grebes (Podilymbus podiceps and Podiceps auritus), belted kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon), osprey (Pandion haliaetus), wood duck (Aix sponsa), and, occasionally, the spotted sandpiper (Actitus macularia). The southern bald eagle historically nested along the river and still can be spotted today. Migratory woodland and riparian birds commonly seen and heard in summer include the white-eyed and red-eyed vireo (Vireo griseus and V. olivaceus), hooded warbler (Wilsonia citrina), worm-eating warbler, yellow-throated warbler, northern parula warbler (Parula americana), Acadian and great crested flycatcher (Empidonax virescens and Myiarchus crinitus), Louisiana waterthrush (Seiurus motacilla), and various swallow species.
Sharp eyes will spot river otters, white-tailed deer, and perhaps turtles basking on sunlit logs. Colorful red skimmer dragonflies often hover above the French Broad's waters which sparkle with tiny flakes of mica.
West of Asheville, paddlers are treated to a totally different experience. Intense whitewater excitement replaces the relaxed drifting and nature study possible below the city. For whitewater enthusiasts, numerous parks (both city and county) provide access points from Asheville to Hot Springs.
Once polluted and nearly lifeless, the beautiful French Broad River has been rehabilitated and now supports a wide variety of fish, including largemouth bass (Micropterus salmoides), brown and rainbow trout (Salmo trutta and Oncorhynchus mykiss), muskellunge (Esox masquinongy), and catfish. Riverlink, Inc., a nonprofit community organization, has been spearheading efforts to promote the health and use of the river, including converting former industrial areas along the Asheville riverfront into parks, riverside shops, and other businesses.