From Fishing to the Grateful Dead—Why Asheville’s French Broad River is a Must-Visit
With riverside brewery and culinary scenes, inclusive bars, and a thriving arts district, one of the world’s oldest rivers inspired an outdoor renaissance in Western North Carolina.
Asheville waits for you and once it draws you in, there’s no turning back. What makes this North Carolina city so alluring? Not least is the French Broad River, a body of water that proves to be a connector of us all. As the third oldest river on Earth—hundreds of millions of years old, in fact—it’s defined the area from the start. Oddly enough it’s also one of the few rivers in the world (along with the Nile) that flows south to north, in other words, the wrong way. Sometimes the wrong way is just what we need to find ourselves.
Today, the French Broad River is intimately connected with the creativity that’s synonymous with Asheville, and a growing number of businesses are breathing new life into its shores. Inspired by the river’s free-flowing spirit, Shelton Steele and Joe Balcken popped up 16 A-frame cabins in 2022, pairing urban lifestyle with the great outdoors for their lodging experience Wrong Way River Lodge and Cabins. “All that glimmering water flowing right through the heart of Asheville—float it, fish it, or just watch it roll by,” recommends Steele. Here, time slows down and the river’s outdoor personality appears. It captures many of Western North Carolina’s watersheds and “is the lifeblood of Asheville,” he says.
The Wrong Way co-founder notes that the French Broad was a trade route in the 1800s, surrounding George Vanderbilt’s dazzling Biltmore, and now marks the outdoor corridor of Asheville. Steele also shared another local business inspired by the river, Crooked Creek Holler. The local line of “outdoor-adjacent” apparel combines founder and tattoo artist Danny Reed’s dual passions for fishing and the Grateful Dead on t-shirts, caps, and more featuring his artwork along with that of other artists.
“I find [the French Broad’s] rich history is like an artery running through the city,” says Reed. “It was here before the mountains and the dinosaurs, and still remains a unique waterway with a diverse range of species and wildlife.” The river creates a central area where people gravitate. “There’s something special about spending time on such an old and majestic body of water, especially when you’re catching fish.” A fly fisherman at heart, Reed is usually on the river or at Hot Stuff Tattoo—where you can get the best souvenir around, a vibrantly hued trout tattoo by Reed himself.
Fishing, paddleboarding, and tubing
Along with the nearby Green, Laurel, and Big Ivy rivers, the French Broad offers endless activities for those seeking aquatic adventures. For the ultimate river day, Steele recommends either going for a run by the river or standup paddleboarding, followed by sips of your favorite brew. His personal favored circuit is “a short run up the Greenway, a paddleboard float downstream to Wrong Way Campground, and cold beers around the campfire.” Discover other aquatic escapades with French Broad Boatworks, Curtis Wright Outfitters, Wai Mauna Asheville SUP Tours, and Zen Tubing.
Along the river’s edge, the River Arts District abounds with former factories and historic buildings that have been repurposed into working galleries. Visitors can stroll through the workshops of nearly 300 different artists and learn about their process before purchasing their wares. Woman-owned and led, Tyger Tyger Gallery regularly shows outstanding regional, national, and international artists. And be sure to check out the North Carolina Glass Center, which offers glassblowing classes and a gallery showcasing the best of emerging and established local talent. A second location is set to open in the heart of nearby Black Mountain in 2024.
Riverside restaurants, breweries, and bars
The River Arts District is also home to a veritable culinary oasis. Newstock Pantry, the brainchild of Ashley Capps—a semifinalist for the 2019 James Beard Foundation Award for Outstanding Pastry Chef—serves excellent breads, pastries, and hearty sandwiches. Bull & Beggar’s Appalachian-inspired menu attracts a local crowd (particularly on Monday nights). Vivian offers a taste of European fine dining in a relaxed atmosphere, while Rosabees transports you to the Hawaiian islands. And French Broad Chocolate is nothing less than a local version of Willy Wonka’s famous factory.
There’s no shortage of fabulous places to enjoy pastoral river views throughout the day in other parts of the area. Start your morning with coffee from the Woodfin location of High Five where you can sit on the riverbank while dogs frolic and herons skim the water’s surface. And what could be better than watching the sunset near the river while sipping something delightful? Swing by Bottle Riot for a solid wine list, and Anoche for killer mezcal cocktails and espresso. Plēb Urban Winery specializes in local grapes, while Crucible, named after a glassblowing tool, mixes craft cocktails with a moody, artistic vibe.
Known for its eclectic (and prodigious) brewery scene, Asheville offers several places to enjoy suds along the river too. Breweries and beer halls with expansive outdoor spaces and sunshine include Wedge Brewery Company at Foundation, Cersus Keme, and New Origin Brewing. For specialty alternatives to traditional hops, head over to Saint Brighid’s inside Marquee Asheville which serves delicious cider and mead, or to Ginger’s Revenge which specializes in alcoholic ginger beer.
When the sun goes down, perch at the Getaway River Bar, where everyone is welcome and dancing is encouraged. It’s a place where everything from karaoke to theme parties to drag shows takes place on any given night of the week.
Where to stay on the river
In addition to Wrong Way’s luxury cabins, Asheville’s waterways offer a variety of lodging options. The Radical, which opened in October 2023, offers eclectic interiors by Wes Anderson set designer Kris Moran, along with panoramic river views. No stay there is complete without a sunset dinner at Golden Hour, the newest spot from celebrated Asheville-based restaurateur Jacob Sessoms. Alternatively, options like Country Inn & Suites Asheville River Arts District, TownePlace Suites Asheville West, and the Inn on Westwood offer cozy river-adjacent lodging.
Once you step foot onto the Greenway and see the French Broad for the first time, you’ll understand its magnetic appeal. It’s one of the few places in the world where you’ll spot an eastern spiny softshell turtle. Ospreys and leggy herons sit on the banks observing their prey, while locals live, work, create, and play nearby. You truly haven’t experienced Asheville until you experience the enchantment of the French Broad River.