Western North Carolina and whitewater go together like mountains and mist. Each summer thousands raft or kayak whitewater rivers like the Nantahala and Tuckasegee.
But not everyone likes to plunge through big rapids and get a face full of chilly spindrift. Many prefer to drift down a river watching for wildlife, not waves.
For those who want a calmer river set in the coolness of the Blue Ridge, the middle French Broad River may be that waterway. The river passes through a long valley that lets watercraft glide downstream mostly on flat water, sometimes over mild rapids.
The Biltmore section, as it’s known, makes a long S curve as it goes through the 8,000-acre Biltmore Estate, with glimpses of the chateau-like Biltmore house and the Inn on Biltmore Estate hotel near Asheville.
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“We kind of put this as a family friendly, moving water experience,” said Derek Turno, owner of French Broad Outfitters, which rents canoes, kayaks and paddleboards for unguided trips. “You get to see the (Biltmore) house. It’s a little more scenic with wildlife and birds.”
On an August Saturday, the nutty-brown river was spangled with canoes, kayaks, tubes, rafts and paddleboards, creating red, yellow, green and blue flotillas.
The northward-flowing French Broad drew its name from settlers in the 1700s who observed it was a broad river that flowed into territory then claimed by France. Downstream from Asheville, the river dives into heart-racing rapids before entering Tennessee near Hot Springs.
I’ve paddled the largely wooded Biltmore section several times over the years, most recently in mid-July with a group of friends. We cruised the six miles from the section’s public put-in, Bent Creek River Park, to the first public take-out, Hominy Creek River Park. The trip takes 2½ hours.
With the U.S. Geological Survey gauge at Asheville reading 1,900 cubic feet per second, above the historical median flow for that time of year, we floated on a brisk current tempered by periodic breezes sweeping up the river. No heavy strokes that day.
The French Broad here is about 40 yards wide, with rock ledges forming small Class I drops now and then. (Class I rapids are the easiest on the international scale of Class I-VI.) Riffles of gurgling water nudged our boats forward. Tip: Dig in when going through rapids, big or small, and keep paddling 20-30 feet beyond for boat control and stability.
The Biltmore Estate lies on either side of the river with no public access. Paddlers will pass under two bridges, that of Interstate 26, near Bent Creek park, and a Biltmore Estate bridge, a half-mile before Hominy Creek.
Bent Creek park lies beside N.C. 191 just north of the Blue Ridge Parkway. The park has no steps or ramp; just a slide-down on the bank. At Hominy Creek park, paddlers take out on a set of stairs on river left and can load their vehicles a few feet from the stairs. A mile downstream, a staircase takeout lies on river left at Amboy Road River Park.
It’s a 5.8-mile drive to shuttle vehicles to Hominy Creek Park. Go north on N.C. 191 to the I-240 intersection. Go through both lights and turn left on Shelburne Road. After about 200 yards, turn left on Hominy Creek Road. The park is at the end of the road.
Take your bicycle if you want to pedal as well as paddle. The paved French Broad River Greenway begins at Hominy Creek Park and follows the river through a series of parks downstream for 2.8 miles.
The greenway passes through Wilson’s Riverfront RV Park, Carrier Park and Amboy Road park before terminating in French Broad River Park. Food is available along Amboy Road.