Despite having a population of under 600 residents, Hot Springs, North Carolina hosts thousands of visitors each year. Appalachian Trail thru-hikers, whitewater rafters, campers, and vacationers all in need of a soak in the natural hot springs, steadily stream through this no-traffic-light town throughout the year. And for one weekend in May, they gather for a very special festival: the French Broad River Festival. This annual event essentially kicks off the spring outdoor season in the Asheville area.
It’s a pretty quirky event too: part outdoor adventure, part music festival. It’s low key, but with some seriously colorful characters in attendance. In other words, it really reflects the mix of people who flock to this area for a number of different reasons: for a whitewater adrenaline rush, for the music, for the craft beer or for the laid-back atmosphere. This year, The 2014 French Broad River Festival takes place May 2-4th.
The anchor event of the festival is “the biggest mass-start whitewater raft race in the Southeast.” Don’t think competitive, though. Think rowdy fun. A shuttle brings participants 9 miles up the river to Barnard, NC to start and all the equipment is provided. There are Class 1 to 4 rapids along the way, and while the guides certainly know the river, they also know how to have fun. The Paddle with the Pros event on Saturday is also an annual fixture, this year featuring three-time Open Canoe World Champion, Eli Helbert, who will lead a clinic for those of all skill levels with their own boat and gear. If that’s not enough, there’s also a mountain bike race on Saturday with prizes for the top finishers.
A lot of folks simply come for the music as well, which ranges from newgrass to roots rock to reggae and soul. This year the line-up includes Asheville favorites Toubab Krewe, Sol Driven Train, Hillstomp, Dangermuffin, The Jeff Sipe Trio, and Pierce Edens and the Dirty Work, plus there are late-night acoustic jams both nights of the festivals. Festival tickets are limited to 2,500 intentionally to limit crowding. Painter John, a musician who’s played the festival for years compares the atmosphere to “a big potluck at your best friend’s house,” which may be the best way to describe the sense of community that’s present at the festival.
The organizers pride themselves on making this a kid-friendly event, so there’s a kids village and parade, plus the usual slate of kid-friendly entertainers such as fire-jugglers, unicyclists, balloon artists and face painters. Food and gear vendors are aplenty, too.
The French Broad River Festival can also claim to be a good time for a good cause, as over $100,000 of festival profits have been donated to local nonprofits since the festival began. This year, donations will go to the Hot Springs Community Learning Center, Homeward Bound, and American Whitewater.
Tickets are $80 plus Ticketweb fees if purchased online before April 20th. After 4/20 price increases. Gate admission will be $90. Saturday only passes are available at the gate for $45 (no camping). Children under 11 get in free.