The most popular activities in Hot Springs today revolve around outdoor recreation. People come to raft on the French Broad River, which runs through town, and to hike in the surrounding Pisgah National Forest. For six months out of the year, Hot Springs welcomes thru-hikers on the Appalachian Trail. (Thru-hikers attempt to hike the trail’s entire distance more than two thousand miles in one continuous outing.) The trail runs right through town; look for the white blazes painted on the sidewalk. Another popular attraction is the recently opened Hot Springs Resort and Spa on the grounds of the former Mountain Park Hotel. The spa provides tourists and weary hikers alike with a soothing dip in the natural hot springs.
After crossing the French Broad River in Hot Springs, our route follows U.S. Highway 25/70 for about seven miles. Although the drive is somewhat scenic, you’ll miss the narrow and serpentine NC 209 from earlier on the route. The North Carolina Department of Transportation folks got hold of U.S. 25/70 big time.
Stackhouse is a ghost town. A grand Queen Anne-style house on a hill overlooks the French Broad River, but there are no other obvious indicators that this was an important commercial site in the early 1900s. The Stackhouse family, owners of the Queen Anne house, once operated a barite mine and crushing facility here, along with a post office and store. A dam across the French Broad River provided power until the great flood of 1916 washed it away. Today, Stackhouse serves as a popular access point for boaters on the French Broad.
Less than a mile downstream from Stackhouse lies another ghost town. Runion once supported a major lumber mill and logging operation, also operated by the Stackhouse family. It’s in Pisgah National Forest, so you can freely explore the area. If you spend some time looking around, you will discover building foundations, crumbling chimneys, rusty pieces of metal, and even an intact concrete strong house.
After another brief jaunt on U.S. 25/70, you come to the community of Walnut. On the route from here to Marshall, you’ll feel like you’re in a time warp. About the only modern structure is the bridge over the French Broad River in Barnard. Everything else looks like it’s stuck in the 1950s or earlier. Even the town of Marshall, Madison County’s seat, retains an atmosphere akin to the mid-twentieth century. And if you really want to experience a time warp, spend some time exploring the spiderweb of backroads that leads into the fastness of Madison County under the shadow of Spring Creek Mountain.
A 1961 Ford tractor shares space with curing tobacco in an old Madison County barn.