Find thrills and surprises at four zip-line courses in the southeastern United States.
By Hope S. Philbrick
Who says a TV show can’t change your life? It was thanks to episodes on shows like Amazing Race, Survivor and (I sheepishly admit) The Bachelor that I warmed to the idea of giving zip-lining a try. Watching person after person after bimbo zip-line successfully, the idea of being so high up off the ground while securely attached to a cable started to look fun and do-able rather than scary and dangerous. I thought, “Maybe, some day.”
Then I learned that the longest and highest zip-line course in the northern hemisphere is a mere 45-minute drive from my hometown of Atlanta, Georgia. At the time that I first contacted the owners of Historic Banning Mills to learn more, they noted that never been visited by a travel writer. We made arrangements for mutual firsts.
That first zip-line experience yielded a high that I didn’t expect—and I’m not talking about walking a thin suspension bridge 300 feet above the ground, though that happened, too. Completing the course led to an invigorating sense of accomplishment. It was nerve-wracking, physically challenging and super fun. What’s more, a bird’s-eye perspective can yield some pretty spectacular views.
Turns out that whizzing along a zip-line at 60 miles per hour can be addictive. I’ve since returned to Historic Banning Mills several times—the owners keep adding more to the course as ever more enticement to return. And I’ve never passed up a chance to zip-line anywhere else.
Having now zip-lined in multiple countries and experienced various sorts of environments, course designs and tour approaches, I can tell you that not all zip-line experiences are created equal. While the opportunity to spy green monkeys at eye-level among the treetops in Barbados is a joyful memory, that course doesn’t even make my top four.
While safety is crucial and I most respect zip-line tour providers who emphasize, maintain and train, that safety training for guests need not go overboard to the point of becoming a ridiculous waste of time—which too often happens at lesser zip-line courses. Spend an hour watching two dozen people practice dangling 18 inches off the ground and you’ll know what I mean; or better yet, don’t.
These are my four favorite zip-line courses, and it is pure coincidence that they are all in the southeast (though that does work out quite nicely for me since it’s my home region).
Whether you’re an experienced or novice zip-liner, add these courses to your travel destination wish list. All are top-notch in terms of fun and, of crucial importance, safety; all are certified by the Association for Challenge Course Technology.
As is often said, you never forget your first time. The site of my first zip-line experience is still my favorite zip-line course and I return as often as I can. What opened as the longest and highest canopy tour in the northern hemisphere, and the first in Georgia, is now certified as the world’s longest and largest course. It has no equal.
The course has grown to be so huge that several different tours and packages are offered, so you can choose the experience that suits your mood, budget and level of experience and/or derring-do. It’s possible to zip for eight hours without repeating the same thing twice, even though you may crisscross the Snake River Gorge 18 times.
The course is more than 10 miles long with six levels and more than 60 different zip lines—four of which are a half-mile long—and 52 bridges. Among the various highlights and challenges is a 900-foot zip-line that jumps off a 200-foot cliff, a 65-foot tower with two sets of parallel 1,000-foot zips, a 900-foot zip-line that flies down the middle of Snake Creek just above the rapids, parallel 1,500-foot zips, a 600-foot bridge 18 stories above Snake Creek Gorge, a half-mile long high-speed zip, a 10-story free fall, a 3,400-foot zip and many more thrills.
Some points are “like jumping out of a skyscraper,” says Mike Holder, who co-founded and operates Historic Banning Mills with his wife Donna. Positioning the course high within trees not only provides access to the canopy ecosystem, it helps give “a sense of how high you are and also how fast you’re going,” says Mike. First opened in 2007, the canopy tour was designed by Mike, a former American Airlines pilot who’d seen zip-line tours in South America and wondered why none were in the U.S. or Europe, along with engineers at Signature Research. The initial construction and testing took three years.
Located on property that housed paper mills in the 1800s, Historic Banning Mills is a 1,000-acre estate the Holders have developed into a resort destination. In addition to zip-lining, you might enjoy horseback riding, kayaking, hiking, and climbing the world’s tallest freestanding climbing wall. Less vigorous itinerary options include a day spa and birds of prey shows. On-site overnight accommodations include cottages and camping sites.
The course, which is located in Saluda, North Carolina (near Hendersonville and Asheville), offers 11 zip-lines across 1.25 miles and descends 1,100 vertical feet. There is one “gravity defying” sky bridge, but it is really quite sturdy, as are all the platforms.
This course is thrilling enough to please anyone: If you’ve never zipped, the platforms are solid (which helps mitigate fears) and the equipment is easy to use. If you’re an experienced zip-liner (zipper?), the views here are so spectacular that it’s worth trading a few thrills and physical challenges (compared to Banning Mills) for the chance to see them. The course takes about 3- to 3.5-hours to complete; it’s so fun that time seems to fly.
Zip-line often and you’ll discover that the equipment for this “sport” is not standard. Here, you’ll use both hands on a handle bar contraption that straddles the cable, so it’s reminiscent of the style you might see in cartoons or old-timey documentaries about miners. There’s an automatic breaking system installed on all the lines, so you simply hold on and pay attention to the guides’ instructions about when to move your hands off the handles and onto the harness. You may need to pull yourself in the final few feet by turning around and doing a hand-over-hand pull that’s easy to do since a harness is holding your weight.
There are three rappels at strategic points in the course, which are billed as “free fall.” That description had me so concerned that before I agreed to the adventure I called to ask exactly what that meant. It is nothing like bungee jumping, I was assured by a woman who seemed to understand my trepidation. Her words proved to be true. You simply sit into your harness: “Commit to the sit,” is how one guide explained it. The thing that I most feared ended up being my favorite aspect of this course, as is often the case with zip-lining.
Each tour through breathtaking Green River Gorge is led by two knowledgeable, experienced and well-trained guides. The two leading our group were genuine fun.
The Mega Cavern in Louisville, Kentucky, is the only place on earth where you can zip-line in subterranean space. That’s right, underground. The course is inside a 100-acre cavern that was once a limestone pit mine. (The cavern at one time housed the largest civil defense shelter in Kentucky with provisions for 50,000 people to live underground for an extended period of time. It now houses a recycling center, offices, warehouse space and the zip-line course.)
There’s plenty of elbow room, so don’t worry—this is not a cave, so there are high ceilings and wide expanses that shouldn’t spark claustrophobia (fear of being closed in small spaces). It may challenge achluophobia (fear of darkness), however, since it is underground thus no matter how sunny it is outdoors won’t make a difference here. (In fact, the average temperature inside the cavern is 58-degrees Fahrenheit year-round, so dress appropriately.) You’ll be outfitted with a headlamp and there is ambient lighting staged throughout the space—some quite funny: Red lights illuminate the first rocky slope, which is referred to as the ‘Zip to Hell.’
The darkness has one potential benefit: Alleviating acrophobia (fear of heights). Sometimes, it’s nearly impossible to see how high up off the ground you really are. You may be stepping off a 90-foot platform or walking on a bridge suspended 70 feet off the ground. Or you might find yourself on a particularly wobbly bridge that some dude behind you (Hi, Rick!) insists on shaking with each step, ramping up your nerves, only to discover once the lights are turned up is only two feet off the ground.
Tours take about two hours and are led by two certified guides. The equipment used here is also handle bar-style. You’ll whiz along six zip-lines, including a dual racing zip. And you’ll be up to 165 feet below the highways and businesses above, including the Louisville Zoo.
Mega-Zips offers an adrenaline rush very different from that of a tree-top zip-line experience. But equally fun.
Not convinced yet that zip-lining is for you, but intrigued enough to have read this far? Then head to ZipLine Hilton Head on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. This place is good for beginners and yet still delivers fun and spectacular vistas for even the most jaded aficionado.
Weaving through massive live oak trees and tall pines, this two-hour tour offers eight zip-lines and two suspended bridges up to 75-feet above the ground. The finale is a dual cable 900-foot racing zip—and if you want to get a taste of zip-lining before signing up for the whole shebang, you can just try the racing zip for $20 per person.
One segment of the tour overlooks Broad Creek, with a picturesque view of blue waters glistening against green marsh. Most zip-line courses hug trees, so the opportunity to look out at the horizon line makes this course stand out in memory—and may give some insight into how a bird feels during flight.
At any zip-line course, in between zips you’ll stand on platforms waiting for the other folks in the group to start and/or finish each particular line. At ZipLine Hilton Head, the platforms are more spacious than most and solidly sturdy—you won’t sway with the trees here, which can be reassuring. And the fact that groups are limited to eight people plus two certified guides means that you’ll spend less time standing around and more time zipping. And that equals more fun.
Odds of Encountering Children…
At Historic Banning Mills, participants must weigh at least 100 pounds and be at least ten years old. Tours are sold in segments, and most families buy shorter experiences, so buy a long challenging route for the best odds of spending time with adults.
At The Gorge, zip-liners must be at least 10 years old and weigh at least 70 pounds.
At Mega-Zips, participants must at least 55 pounds and at least eight years old.
At ZipLine Hilton Head, participants must weigh at least 80 pounds and be at least ten years old. Groups are limited to eight, which can lower the odds of youths as well as increase the need to interact with any present. So if this is a concern, ask the reservationist if an adults-only group is available.
-Photo Credits: Courtesy Historic Banning Mills, The Gorge, Mega-Zips and ZipLine Hilton Head.
Featured products, services and/or travel arrangements may have been complimentary in part or in full; this affords the research opportunity but does not sway opinion.
* Original post: March 2013