For those of us who enjoy exploring the outdoors, but might not feel like getting soaked or muddy, canopy tours and zip lines are the way to go. The main requirements: the ability to step off a high platform and yell loudly enough to echo through the surrounding canyons.
On a recent fall weekend, a group of zip-line riders took in some spectacular aerial views with a side of adrenaline while hurtling down Gravity, a new zip line operated by Adventures on the Gorge, an outdoors company. With the help of guides, riders fly up to 45 mph along several segments of steel cables a couple hundred feet above a former surface coal mine.
Gravity is one of more than 300 major commercial zip lines and canopy tours worldwide, with about 115 of them in the United States, said Jeff Coy, a hotel, resort and waterpark industry consultant. Nearly 30 opened in the U.S. in 2010 and at least 11 more are slated to open in 2011, including a new 3,000-foot line at the Adventures on the Gorge complex.
For a first-timer, it's quite a thrill to harness up and fly through the air over the scenic West Virginia forest. For $79, zip-liners get the chance to escape life's daily grind, live in the moment and clear an overloaded brain of any thoughts besides "Yeeeeahhh! Woohoo!" - by just letting the laws of physics do their job for a couple hours.
Zip lines were originally built to transport people and mining equipment across canyons and over rivers. Some of the first tourist zips were built in Costa Rica's tropical-forest canopies in the 1970s.
"You've had people who go down there, love it, and come back to the States and say, 'I want to build one here,'" Coy said. "That is part of what is going on."
And during economic downturns, zip lines are a relatively inexpensive way to upgrade or enhance resort properties, each costing about $250,000 to $1.5 million to build, compared with much higher price tags on new construction of waterparks or other structures, he said.
Other U.S. zips opening recently include ZipQuest, on 55 acres of forest near Fayetteville, N.C. ZipQuest features the two-story-high Carver's Falls, and riders end their tour with a final, long zip parallel to the waterfall. In Colorado, the Glenwood Canyon Zipline Adventures, in Glenwood Springs, take riders across the Colorado River and back. Hocking Hills Canopy Tours in southeast Ohio zips visitors over the Hocking River and near stone cliffs. The site also has a new SuperZip that lets riders fly outstretched, Superman-style, through the forest at speeds of up to 50 mph.
On West Virginia's Gravity, after a required on-ground tutorial, riders do two short warm-up zips. The main event comes after riders are transported to higher elevations for the final three segments of 1,800 feet, 1,600 feet and 1,300 feet, respectively. The valley drops off at a steeper angle than the cable, enhancing the feeling of flying away from the ground.
Initial neurotic thoughts of "Hmm, is this an elaborate conspiracy to lure me to my death?" quickly give way to "Let's do it again!"
Gravity opened this summer to complement the Lansing, W.Va., company's other offerings, including Class IV Mountain River and Rivermen whitewater trips, and its first zip attraction, the TreeTops Canopy Tour. TreeTops opened in 2009 and operates year-round - even in the winter, when nature lovers can zip through the towering hemlocks and other centuries-old hardwoods blanketed by snow.
Mark Samples celebrated his 34th birthday weekend on the New River Gorge, and he's already planning next year's rafting and zipping trip. Samples was known among the group for his enthusiastic hoots, his girlfriend, Krista Goins, for her constant smiles. Samples credits their group's two guides with ensuring everyone's safety while making everyone "feel relaxed and have a good time."
While Gravity - West Virginia's longest zip line - is heart-pounding, TreeTops is a leisurely 3.5-hour excursion through Mill Creek Canyon, several miles from the gorge. Riders zip along 10 lines and hike across five hanging skybridges that take them into the forest among rhododendrons and mountain laurel, whitetail deer, black bear and other animals.
The canopy tour's laid-back guides give short talks about West Virginia's native trees and animals that can be spotted in the canyon and near the creek, throwing in puns such as "grand-theft otter" as they discuss the river animals' habitat.
Dave Arnold, a founding director of Adventures on the Gorge, said that while rafting visits on the New and Gauley rivers have dropped off since their peak in the mid-1990s, zip-line and canopy-tour bookings really have popped, with 30,000 zips taken since TreeTops opened. TreeTops now brings in about 12 percent of the company's total revenue, and that figure is expected to grow.
Arnold - who got his start decades ago as a kayaking guide - thinks demographic changes, increasingly sedentary lifestyles and young people "spending more time inside, less time in creeks" have helped contribute to a decline in the whitewater business. Canopy tours and zip lining, however, can be done by a wider range of people.
Samples agrees. He's a whitewater-rafting and skydiving enthusiast, but understands how some people would prefer a larger sense of personal control and safety on their adventures.
"A zip line offers more of a comfortable way to do it," he said. "You get a nice adrenaline rush, nature, scenery and pretty parts of West Virginia, but it's a little more controlled."