The Best New Smoky Mountain Float

 Laurel Scherer / Alamy

Asheville’s Western North Carolina Alliance, a group devoted to preserving the South’s public lands, recently finished work on the French Broad River Trail, a 140-mile “blueway,” or water trail, with six new paddle-in campsites. Spaced about 12 miles apart, the campsites are built on riverbanks leased from both private landowners and the state of North Carolina, providing access to a wilderness that has long been difficult to visit. Navigating the trail, which runs from the tiny town of Rosman in North Carolina’s Transylvania County through the Pisgah National Forest and into Tennessee’s Douglas Lake, takes about nine days of paddling past carefully preserved plantations and into dense woods.

French Broad Riverkeeper Hartwell Carson says the trail was designed to serve the large number of locals who had been clamoring to explore the entire French Broad River by boat. Moreover, he hopes the project will help create a sense of stewardship among paddlers and campers, and incentivize local communities to keep the French Broad clean. In the fifties and sixties, the river was one of the most polluted in the region, but thanks to the Clean Water Act and efforts by groups like WNCA, conditions improved dramatically over the past decade. The river became a destination. The trail is an effort to keep it that way.

As you paddle down the winding new trail, you’ll encounter flat water punctuated by the occasional rapid. Only near the Hot Springs area 35 miles northwest of Asheville does the whitewater truly surge. Class II–IV rapids run into each other before pushing paddlers into a deep and deserted backcountry, where beavers, deer, herons, bald eagles, and even albino squirrels bustle by the shore.

For the full experience, put in a little north of Rosman and paddle about 10 miles to River Bend, a former tree farm near Brevard and the trail’s southernmost campsite. The serene flat water here has some of the best muskellunge fishing in the state. Cook your catch before proceeding to Little River Campground, a remote site about seven miles downstream at the confluence of the Little and French Broad rivers. The next stop, Firefighter Island, has a trail running through its center that connects different campsites and is located across from Asheville’s gorgeous, sprawling Biltmore Estate, where you’re likely to spot other paddlers and campers.

The trail’s northernmost campsite is set on a remote group of islands that float across from the steep sides of the Smoky Mountains. The river, unimpressed by all the grandeur, just keeps on flowing, but you’ll be tempted to linger.

More information: Make reservations with the Western North Carolina Alliance before you rent a boat from Asheville Adventure Rentals, which runs shuttles to the river.