On any given summer weekend in Hot Springs, North Carolina, pack-laden hikers and paddlers in wetsuits can be seen traversing the sidewalks of this tiny, no-traffic-light Appalachian Trail town, population 575. Acoustic music drifts from the open doors of taverns and the occasional train whistle echoes through the valley.
Surrounded by Pisgah National Forest, Hot Springs is only about 25 miles (40 minutes) from Asheville, but it feels a world away. Adrenaline may be pumping on the Class III rapids of the French Broad River which runs through the center of town, but on the main drag, Bridge Street, the pace is nothing but slow Southern town, with a certain mountain charm that has to be experienced to be understood.
And it's no surprise that people have been experiencing this place for over a century. The mineral springs, for which the town is named, first brought tourists here in the 1880's, but it's the Appalachian Trail, which literally runs down the main street here, that has given Hot Springs a reputation as an outdoor destination.
As a home base for exploring the river, the national forest, or the many nearby trails, Hot Springs has everything you need. Here are the essentials for a Hot Springs visit:
Bluff Mountain Outfitters on Bridge Street is one of the iconic AT provisioning stops. Not only do they have gear, food, maps and all other kinds of supplies hikers might need, they also have a world of knowledge and local expertise. And if you're heading south on the AT, you can pick up a backcountry permit for Smoky National Park, which is only a couple days' distance away on the trail. Not to mention, they have a shuttle service for various pick ups and drop offs along the river and on trails, and they can haul boats, bikes, and packs on scheduled and custom schedules. Trips are subject to a variety of conditions. Just ask.
Considering the size of the town, there are an impressive number of places to eat in Hot Springs. The Spring Creek Tavern describes itself as ‘hiker friendly,’ (which means they don't mind if you smell like sweat and dirty socks), and with 12 beers on tap as well as excellent pub standards like burgers and wraps, it's a great place to refuel. The covered deck next to the creek has prime seating and is usually full on weekend nights. Just next door, Still Mountain Restaurant and Tavern has more of a bar-pub feel and menu, and they often have musical acts playing into the night on their outdoor patio.
If you really clean up well, Mountain Magnolia Inn is primarily a romantic B &B, but it’s also an upscale restaurant with amazing views and is open to the public.
Get Out There
There are about a dozen rafting concessions near Hot Springs, including an outpost of the Nantahala Outdoor Center , Blue Heron Whitewater and Hot Springs Rafting Co . Each outfitter offers something a little different: some offer kayaks, canoes and funyaks, some offer tubes, with guided and self-guided trips depending on the area of the river (the French Broad near Hot Springs has everything from Class I to Class IV). You can, of course, bring your own gear and check out the shuttles offered by Bluff Mountain Outfitters.
If you're seeking a hike, the Appalachian Trail runs down the sidewalk in Hot Springs then back into Pisgah National Forest, but there are plenty of other local trails, depending on what you’re interested in. If Bluff Mountain is closed, the local library has plenty of information. One of the most popular hikes in Western North Carolina is just 20 minutes from town at Max Patch, a Southern Appalachian bald with 360-degree views and great picnic opportunities.
After a long day on the trail or fighting the rapids, the outdoor mineral baths at Hot Springs Resort and Spa might be just what you’re looking for. The tubs are spaced far enough apart to allow for privacy, and the optional spa services menu includes everything from integrative massage to hot stone and mud bath therapies. The resort also has tent and RV camping sites along the river, plus cabins.
If you’d rather unwind with a drink, Iron Horse Station might be more your speed. The restaurant and tavern offer a varied menu, wine, beer, and acoustic music. It’s located in a historic building across from the railroad track and there are upscale hotel rooms located upstairs.
In addition to the other lodging options mentioned, there are a number of local campgrounds . Appalachian Trail hikers favor the Sunnybank Inn , operated by Elmer Hall, a man who has hosted hikers for over 30 years. If you’ll be heading toward Max Patch and want a more private retreat, try Kana’Ti Lodge , a small eco-lodge with spectacular surroundings.
If you're looking for a perfect outdoor weekend getaway in the southeast, Hot Springs should definitely be at the top of your list.