Rising from public land deep within the southern Blue Ridge Mountains, the French Broad River flows through five counties and two states before joining the Holston to form the Tennessee at Knoxville. Within those 218 miles, the French Broad - commonly considered one of the world's oldest rivers - plays host to a broad diversity of topography, ecology, culture, and recreation.
The Cherokee names for the French Broad vary, but the most common was Tah-kee-os-tee, meaning ‘‘racing waters.’’ Others, such as Peo-li-co, Agiqua, and Zillicoah usually referred to certain sections of the river. The mainstem of the river as a whole was often called “Long Man;” and its tributaries, the “Chattering Children.” The contemporarily-used "French Broad" name has its origins in early settlers distinguishing it from another "Broad River" in the region. The western territory that the French Broad drained into was held by the French, while the corresponding river draining to the east was held by the English. What we now know as simply the "Broad River" was originally called the English Broad River. The "French" addition to our river stuck and is how it's known and called today.
For much of the twentieth century the river was environmentally threatened by deforestation, industrial pollution, garbage, human waste, and poor agricultural practices, but through an immense partnership of public and private initiatives it has recovered and become an important ecological sanctuary and recreational opportunity for locals and visitors alike.
The mainstem of the French Broad River officially begins at the confluence of the North and West Fork near the town of Rosman in southern Transylvania County. These steep and rugged headwater streams form in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Parkway in Pisgah National Forest; the North Fork gathering steam in the quiet mountain holler of Balsam Grove and the slightly-smaller West Fork finding its origins just east of the Blue Ridge Escarpment, home to dizzyingly steep rivers such as the Toxaway and Horsepasture. Both forks, especially the North, are known for their high-quality fly fishing and whitewater kayaking when the conditions are right, with the North also enjoying protection as federally Wild & Scenic-eligible under the latest Nantahala-Pisgah Forest Plan revision.
Downstream of Rosman, the French Broad flattens and slows, meandering its way through wide floodplains, occasional groves of hemlocks, and a few scattered rocky bluffs as it flows alongside farms, summer camps, and homes. The river passes near Brevard and the unincorporated communities of Pisgah Forest and Penrose before turning north toward Henderson County, absorbing the Davidson and Little Rivers, which also have their origins in protected public lands, along the way. These Transylvanian waters are perfect for the novice paddler, the experienced angler, the intrepid tuber, and the curious snorkeler alike. Several riverside campsites exist for multi-day floaters, and a wide range of water levels allow for safe and fun boating.
Agriculture dominates the neighboring lands of the French Broad's course through Henderson County. Although not much can be seen from the river itself, the surrounding landscape is a quilt of farms and greenhouses growing plants and grazing cattle. Conservation is also a theme of this section of river, with several floodplain restoration completed or in-progress through partnerships between private and public landowners, land trusts, government agencies, and other non-profits. After absorbing the Mills River and Mud Creek and passing by the towns of Etowah, Horseshoe and Hendersonville, the French Broad begins to change character from its slow meanders into a straighter, shallower river as it flows into Buncombe County.
The French Broad widens and shallow as it passes into Buncombe County, with shoals and islands defining the riverbed. The viewshed is a mix of highways and development along with the long uninterrupted natural beauty of the Biltmore Estate lands. As it passes the confluences of Hominy Creek and the Swannanoa River, the French Broad enters into Asheville’s "River Arts District," surrounded by greenways, river parks, breweries, and art studios. Continuing downstream, Woodfin's historic industrial buildings turn to parks and greenspace as the "Woodin Greenway & Blueway" comes to fruition before the river passes over Craggy Dam. As the French Broad leaves Buncombe County, the neighboring valley walls become narrower and taller, and development lessens to be replaced by quiet river parks, small rapids, and several islands.
The river's entry to Madison County begins along state game lands before reaching the town of Marshall. Despite public access challenges due to Capitola Dam and the railroad, this county seat remains well-connected to the river. The French Broad then spills over Redmon Dam before becoming surrounded by pastoral farmland and forested mountains as it weaves through steepening gradient and whitewater. Passing Barnard and Stackhouse, tiny communities with history along the Buncombe Turnpike, the river gathers steam with rapids such as "Big Pillow," "Kayaker's Ledge," and "Frank Bell's." Below Stackhouse, Pisgah National Forest hosts notable riverside trails and tributaries such as Big Laurel, Lover's Leap, the Appalachian Trail, and Spring Creek. Hot Springs is the last town the river passes in North Carolina, named for geothermal waters known for healing and relaxation.
The French Broad crosses into Tennessee at Paint Rock in Cherokee National Forest. Known for its 5,000-year-old petroglyphs inscribed on vertical cliffs, the section of river between Paint Mountain and the Wolf Creek Bridge, known as "Section 10," is one of the most remote stretches along the entire Paddle Trail. Home to neighboring points of interest such as Paint Mountain, Chimney Rocks, Weaver Bend, Twin Bridges, and Buffalo Rock; dramatic topography and mild whitewater dominate eastern Cocke County. Below Wolf Creek Bridge, the French Broad significantly flattens and slows as it meanders through farmland and homesteads between Del Rio and Newport. A handful of scattered rapids, including "The Falls," keeps things exciting as the river approaches Bridgeport, however the free-flowing waters begin to slack as the mouth of Douglas Lake draws near.