The Asheville blueway paddle, also known as the French Broad River Paddle Trail, is a 140-mile paddlers' paradise with camping and a number of brewery stops along the way. The trail was officially opened in 2012, but it was not until last summer that I had a chance to check it out with my husband Randy and our friends Amy Brock-Hon and Kevin Hon.
We embarked for our adventure last July, taking two cars to Brevard, North Carolina's Hap Simpson Riverfront Park, where we unloaded our paddleboards and gear — two plastic kayaks for our friends, and two fiberglass stand-up paddleboards for Randy and me. The plan was to paddle 49 miles of the trail over three days, making a brewery stop each day.
We arrived at Hap Simpson Riverfront Park on a Friday. Amy and I stayed with the gear while Randy and Kevin drove both cars to the riverfront New Belgium Brewery in Asheville where our paddle would end three days later. The plan was for the men to drive both cars to the takeout, then use Uber for a ride back to the park. While we waited for them to return, we waded in the water, paced under the trees and lounged at the picnic tables.
Two and half hours later, the guys returned, piling out of the Uber like they were surprised to find us still there. We all quickly set about loading our gear onto boards and into kayaks. Randy had our cooler (filled with everyone's goodies), and between the two of us, we had two medium-size dry bags for our tent, pads, sleeping bags and extra clothing. We also each had one small bag for a sun shirt, sunscreen and other small items, and a small tackle box for incidentals like chapstick for me, and for Randy, a waterproof camera and phone for ViewRanger, an app we would use for our tracking/mapping system.
Distance: about 10 miles
Brewery: Oskar Blues
That Friday was a clear, sunny day, perfect for being on the water, and we talked and laughed as the suprisingly strong current on this narrower stretch of the river pushed us toward our first stop: Oskar Blues Brewery.
We covered the 5 miles to Wilson Road in just a few hours — although none of us actually paddled that much. Several small creeks — King, Lombo, Williamson and Lamb, to name a few — feed into the French Broad along this stretch. The river is lined with stately sycamore and a variety of oaks, as well as tulip poplars and the usual myriad of green loveliness that can make it hard to differentiate one plant from another.
When we arrived at Wilson Road, we stashed our boats under the highway bridge and made a short hike up onto the road, where we followed the signs to Oskar Blues Brewery. It was about a quarter-mile walk. We made our way through the outskirts of a small community before turning into an industrial park and passing behind the brewing facility.
As soon as we rounded the front of the building, the scene enlivened with bicyclists, children, adults and dogs dotting the nearby bike trail or clustering around picnic tables. A delicious smell filled the air. We made our way to the food trucks parked on the property and chose from a fine selection of vegetarian and meat options, before ordering beers at the outside bar.
After our late lunch, we headed back to the river and continued downriver at our same leisurely pace, enjoying the quiet, green beauty and the impossibly blue sky. At about 6:30 p.m., just over 10 miles into our paddle for the day, we arrived at our campsite for the evening. Named for the Little River, which feeds into the French Broad, the Little River campsite is quite spacious. There was a large field, easily big enough for 30 tents, where we unloaded our boards and kayaks, pulling the former up onto the grass and tying off the latter. Then, we set up our tents near the back of the field in the shade of the trees, not far from a composting toilet, and talked until late. That night, the sound of the river lulled us to sleep.
About Oskar Blues Brewery
Oskar Blues Brewery in Brevard, North Carolina, is one of four OB locations, with two others in Colorado and one in Texas. Just 10 minutes from Pisgah National Forest, this regional brewery features an outdoor patio bar, the "Chubwagon" food truck, serving burgers and tacos, and the "Tasty Weasel" taproom, offering free daily brewery tours. What to try: Dale's Pale Ale is arguably Oskar Blues' most famous brew.
Distance: 22 miles
Brewery: Sierra Nevada
The next morning, we loaded up again and headed out. Gradually and nearly imperceptibly at first, the waterway began widening as we made our way downriver. The sun warmed our skin and we kept an eye out for obstacles under the water's surface. Our kayaking friends had the advantage of not having to worry about the bottom of their boats catching on rocks or debris. This was not the case for Randy and me on our SUP boards, which both had hard fins. If we caught the hard plastic on a rock or tree, it would stop our board and launch us into the water. A rubber rudder, something flexible that would bend as it crossed over a log, would have been a nice option.
Still, it was a beautiful day as we floated, watching for herons, kingfishers and hawks. The current was strong enough to keep us moving and the only real paddling we did was to keep our boards or kayaks headed in the direction we wanted them to go. We passed Mud and Cone creeks and then reached the next stop, the Sierra Nevada Brewery at Westfeldt Park. Though the word "reached" isn't quite correct. We weren't paying close enough attention and paddled past it. If there was a sign, we missed it.
About half a mile later — or just enough time for Randy to pull out his phone and realize our mistake on ViewRanger — we pulled over to river-left near Boyston Highway and left our SUP boards and kayaks in a little slough with our gear hidden by shrubs and greenery. Then we scrambled up the short hill to the road, crossed the river and continued on about a mile to the gates of Sierra Nevada Brewery.
As soon as we saw the building, we all exclaimed in surprise. What a place! It looked like a cross between a giant Bass Pro Shop and a German fortress. It was busy, and our wait for food was 45 minutes. Still, that gave us time to explore the inside vats and bottling facility as well as the spacious, sunny patio where a live band played from the property's amphitheater.
After we finally had our lunch, we took a spin around the sizable gift store. Then we hiked back to our boats and got back on the river. Within minutes, we paddled past one inviting campground on river-right below Sierra Nevada, but it was not yet open to the public so we continued on down for maybe a mile, round the river bend to our stop at Buck Shoals on river-left.
This campground had a table along the river, a porta-potty and a field that spread beyond the trees lining the river. We had a snack, watched the stars wheel across the sky and talked late into the night. I thought I would be tired at the end of the day since I hadn't ever paddled more than 12 miles, but with the help of the current, the conversations and beautiful surroundings, I felt only excitement about what the next day would hold.
About Sierra Nevada
Sierra Nevada is one of the country's oldest craft brewers, having brewed its first batch in 1980 in Chico, California. The Mills River, North Carolina, location opened in 2012, offering a bevy of different brewery tours, including a 1-, 2- or 3-hour tour which covers topics that range from the brew's ingredients and heritage to the natural history of the surrounding region. What to try: The seasonal, crisp Summerfest lager is the perfect warm-weather beer.
Distance: About 17 miles
Brewery: New Belgium
The river was moving when we put in the next morning, and we had to be ready to paddle the minute we stepped out of the tiny eddy in front of the rough stairs leading into the water. The river continued to widen as, over the next many hours, we encountered shoals and small Class I rapids as well as the occasional barely visible submerged boulder.
Our friends Amy and Kevin are geologists, and one of the benefits of traveling with them is learning about the land. Most interesting to us was that we were paddling over folded and faulted metamorphic rocks, formed from other rocks after having heat and pressure applied to them when the Appalachian Mountains formed more than 300 million years ago. The shoals, we learned, are the eroded remnants of the ancient Appalachian Mountains. They are more resistant to erosion than the surrounding rocks and jut out of the river as it widens and becomes shallower.
We passed under the bridge for the aptly named Long Shoals Road as well as Firefighter Island with its scenic campground. Along the way we had spectacular views of the Biltmore Estate and its grounds. Due to our SUP fins, the going continued to be tricky for Randy and me on the paddleboards and we had to bail off several times to walk our boards through small rapids or over shoals. Our kayaker friends fared better. Although the current seemed slower the last day and we didn't have to watch for submerged trees, navigating the shoals and making sure we didn't fall off and hit rocks took some of my energy and I felt tired as the day progressed. Still, we saw herons and a few hawks as we made our way downstream past Clayton Creek and Ashley Branch, as well as Hominy Creek and Swannanoa River closer to the takeout.
Our plan called for 17 miles for the day, and with about 5 miles until our takeout, the traffic on the river picked up substantially. First we saw other kayakers, canoers and tubers (but not other paddleboarders). Grownups, kids, teens, some with boom boxes and others with coolers, laughed and splashed their way along the river. Many people commented on our paddleboards, wondering if it was as hard as it looked. We assured them it was not.
Then it started raining. Initially it was just a light rain, but within 10 minutes the wind picked up significantly. We paddled hard figuring we would either get to the takeout or get through the rain. People kept floating and we kept paddling. After about 30 minutes, it stopped raining but the clouds looked ominous. We saw a takeout just downriver, located at Haywood Road, but we didn't want to get rained on again, so we decided to take out early. The place we exited the river wasn't an easy or convenient takeout — there wasn't a ramp or stairs, only large rocks. But we knew our cars were right above us, so we quickly made our way to the left shoreline and scrambled up over rocks to get our fiberglass boards and plastic kayaks out safely.
We hauled all our gear up a concrete path about 0.35 miles to the New Belgium Brewery, where our cars waited. Once our cars were loaded, we ordered food from the brewery's food trucks and sat out in the courtyard watching people and drinking beer.
In the sun, still riding the high from our first trip along the French Broad River, we began to plan our next.
About New Belgium
New Belgium Brewery's Asheville, North Carolina, location boasts a large taproom, a rotating roundup of food trucks and beer sampling tours. Though the brewery is both dog- and kid-friendly, only humans over the age of 18 can participate in the tours — and, of course, only those 21 and older get to sample brews. What to try: Fat Tire Belgian White is a fresh take on the classic Fat Tire Belgian Style Ale — one of the label's first brews.
Want to learn more about the French Broad Paddle Trail? Visit frenchbroadpaddle.com.