Sure, the French Broad boasts good length, big parks, a fun name and zealous environmental defenders — not to mention its putative status as the world’s third-oldest river. But besides it and the wily Swannanoa (carver of historic valleys and deceptively sleepy flooder of gift shops), the Southern Appalachians are striped by myriad other intriguing streams. With July Fourth in mind, here are three that are within an hour's drive of Asheville. On a hot summer’s day, they’re all well worth checking out.
Boldly inverting the tragic Trail of Tears, Mary Jane Ferguson recently used the phrase "Trail of Hopes" when referring to the culturally significant Oconaluftee River. (Ferguson, who is vice chair of the Cherokee Historical Association, was interviewed by the Knoxville News Sentinel for a May 17, 2009, article about the Great Smoky Mountains National Park's 75th anniversary.) She was talking about the pristine, 1.5-mile riverside trail that runs from the Oconaluftee Mountain Farm Museum to Oconaluftee Islands Park in downtown Cherokee. The trail marks a prominent North Carolina-side entrance to the Smokies.
A chatty, sparkling, trout-filled gem that is mesmerizing in all seasons, the Oconaluftee supports commercial tubing and "funyak" excursions, but it’s less congested than other easy white-water spots, such as the nearby Tuckaseegee River and Deep Creek. Solitary fishing (with a tribal license) and plain old contemplation are still possible on the "Lufty," whose full name means "by the river" in Cherokee.
But tranquility takes a back seat at Islands Park— at least in summer, when the place teems with people. This newly beautified area — updated with an extensive wooden walkway and deeply shaded picnic grounds — actually delivers on the family-friendly premise so casually tossed out by promoters of similar recreational areas. You can't safely take the littlest ones down Western North Carolina’s other rivers, but even babies can get their feet wet in the shallowest spots at this pretty park.
Stunning and wild, the Green River runs through Polk and Henderson counties, and it’s accessible off Interstate 26 near Saluda. Green River Adventures founder Sara Bell says it's one of very few rivers in the country with three geographically defined sections whose rapids represent distinct levels of white water: class I-II, class I-III and class IV-V.
"Everyone from day-one beginners to the best kayakers in the world come here," she notes. (Indeed: In an uncharacteristically emotional Wikipedia entry, the river's middle "Narrows" portion is described as "one of the extreme white-water challenges in North America … with one section dropping at a horrendous rate of 350 feet per mile.")
What's more, the river, a popular tubing destination in its milder stretches, abuts state-protected game lands —preventing all commercial and residential development while protecting wildlife.
"I saw our first river otter this year on the Upper Green," says Bell. "We always see tons of deer, and we've seen bobcats and blue herons." This spring, on twisty Green River Cove Road, which corkscrews down to the Lower Green, a mother black bear and her cub have already put in frequent appearances.
But it's the road itself that most folks recall, she notes. "It drops about 1,000 feet in two-and-a-half miles. I've run into people whose grandmothers remember descending that road to get on the river. It always sticks out in people's memories."
En route to the popular Hot Springs Resort & Spa on the French Broad lies another Madison County oasis — and this one's free. The Laurel River, easily accessed at the junction of highways 25/70 and 208, is flanked by a mostly wide, level trail that follows its course all the way to the French Broad. In the woods beside the path stand bona fide ruins — the remnants of Runion, a former logging town.
Dan Gallagher, co-owner of Bluff Mountain Outfitters in Hot Springs, also praises the trail's "good [tree] canopy and excellent swimming holes." The Laurel is too unpredictable for commercial kayaking, especially after rain, though some daredevils do risk it from time to time. “When the river is not running big time, those [swimming] spots are excellent,” says Gallagher. "At least you can be sure no one's going to come downstream and hit you in the head with a raft."
Melanie McGee Bianchi is a stay-at-home mom and freelance journalist.
Even babies can get their feet wet in the shallowest spots at Islands Park on the Oconaluftee.