French Broad River rapids
Heading into some Class II on the French Broad River
“This is the first of our Class III rapids today,” says Seth, leaning off the back of his raft, addressing our small cluster of inflatable kayaks bobbing in a sheltered cove of the French Broad River. “You’ve got to hit this one just right. Watch for Erin. She’ll signal you where to go.”

The rafts paddle onward into the whitewater, leaving us behind. I watch as the first few kayakers disappear around the boulder and down the waterfall through Entrance Rapid. As I launch into the current, the blue kayak in front of me flips. Erin screams at the swimmer to grab the rock, and he does, watching his kayak disappear over the falls. I’m next. I make the curve and whoop out loud as I go over the edge, cold water pouring into my lap as I land several feet below. “Woohoo!”

Catching the Rhythm

Within fifteen minutes, we pull the kayaks over at a sandy beach on a quiet river bend. Several daring souls scramble up the rocky cliff and do a ten-foot dive into the river; I settle for a brief swim. It’s my first whitewater trip in a kayak – thanks to my friend Paula, who thought it would be more fun than a raft – and I underestimated the amount of strength it would take to control the craft through each rapid. Although I fancy myself a decent paddler in Florida, fighting a strong river current is another thing entirely. My shoulders are already one big ache. The lunch stop, where the Nantahala Outdoor Center crew scrambles to set up a buffet on the rocks, is just another place for the muscles to tighten up. Still, it’s great to wolf down some ham and cheese and salad before hitting the river again.

Shoals on the French Broad near Big Laurel Creek
Shoals on the French Broad near Big Laurel Creek

Paddle Faster!

As we approach Big Pillow, a severe-looking Class III, the kayaks get spread out, and I’m dogging well behind. I catch up barely in time for the last bit of instructions, and watch as the first few kayakers head down the steep flume. It’s like pinball—kayaks caroming from rock to rock as they sweep down and around the curve.

Just as I paddle out, the lady in front of me hits a rock and spills over. I’m in it now, caught in the current, praying I won’t run her down. I bounce off the first rock and watch her ride the rapid down to the pool below. I follow close behind and hook her boat with my paddle. Another kayaker catches her, and together we pull her back into her kayak before we descend out of the calm pool. Then it’s down The Ledges – “just point into the waves and go!” yells Erin – and into Stackhouse Rapid, in the shadow of the 1904 Amos Stackhouse home, just above our take-out. Pulling to shore, I give a thumbs-up to Paula. “It’s a successful trip anytime you don’t fall out of your boat,” she says.

Our reward is a visit to nearby Hot Springs, with a hearty lunch at the Paddler’s Pub and a well-deserved soak in a hot tub fed by hot springs from this very river, an excellent way to wrap today’s adventure.

Paddlers Pub in Hot Springs
Paddlers Pub in Hot Springs

Paddle the French Broad

The Nantahala Outdoor Center has 40 years of experience leading rafting trips through the region. Book well ahead to ensure the dates you want to run the river. If you’re new at paddling and a bit nervous about running the rapids, NOC offers a paddling school you can take in advance of your trip.

Nearby Hot Springs offers excellent places to stay, including the Mountain Magnolia Inn and the Hot Springs Resort & Spa, home of the famed springs.