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First step’s a doozie
Mason Steele, a College of Charleston student, steps into a soaring trip through the treetops at ZipLine Hilton Head.
Photo by Mic Smith
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Five-year-old Wade Hamilton, visiting South Carolina from Ohio, enjoys a birthday party at ZipLine Hilton Head’s Aerial Adventure course.
Photo by Mic Smith
Stepping off a 75-foot-tall platform—with nothing between you and the ground except a steel cable, canvas harness and a whole lot of faith—may not sound like a fun thing to do, but when it’s part of a zip-line tour through a lush forest canopy, it’s a recipe for adrenaline-fueled adventure.
On a gorgeous Saturday in April, my family and I made the drive to ZipLine Hilton Head to experience the thrill of flying through the trees on a zip-line canopy tour. Located next to Broad Creek Marina, and served by Palmetto Electric Cooperative, the park offers two-hour guided tours of a Lowcountry forest, complete with scenic views of the saltwater cut and plenty of high-speed thrills.
With three children in tow, we knew not everyone could (or wanted to) brave the 75-foot maximum height of the zip-line course; plus, there are weight limits to consider. The lightest person ZipLine Hilton Head’s canopy tour allows is 80 pounds. Any lighter, our guides explained, and a person might get stuck in the middle of the line. On the upper end, the weight limit is 250 pounds.
Fortunately for families with children (or anyone not so keen on heights), there’s an alternative: the Aerial Adventure, which has six low-altitude challenge courses filled with climbing walls, rope bridges and even a skateboard ride in the sky. Children can play while remaining safely tethered at all times to overhead cables that prevent falls. The only requirement is that a child be at least 42 inches tall.
With the kids off to enjoy their adventure, the wife and I were ready for our high-speed run through the trees. We signed the required waivers, made the requisite jokes about who would inherit our worldly goods and geared up.
A quick note about equipment—you don’t have to bring anything with you, though comfortable clothes are recommended and lace-up shoes are required, since you’ll be landing, at times, on some pretty slender platforms where traction makes a big difference. Beyond that, ZipLine Hilton Head provides everything else, including the helmet, the harness and the gloves.
Before we could get started, we had to complete “ground school,” which is where you learn to brake (by dragging your gloved hand on the wire behind the pulley) and follow your guide’s hand signals (STOP! mostly). Our guides, Lacey Mattox and Alex Bales, delivered this information in an entertaining yet informative way and gave us great confidence that soaring through canopy at 35 miles per hour would be just as natural as breathing.
The adrenaline kicked in when we climbed the stairs to the first of eight lines that gradually escalate in height and speed. I can’t deny there were jitters stepping off into the void on the first line. But, by the time we reached the final, side-by-side, dual zip line to the finish line, my wife, Leesa (did I mention she is afraid of heights?), was confident enough to challenge me to a race—and won.
The only time either of us was actually afraid was after the first ride. There’s a hanging rope bridge I’m certain no one told us about, and the boards, I swear, were spaced about 6 feet apart. (They weren’t, but it felt like they were.) Leesa and I were doing fine navigating the planks, until Lacey decided it would be fun to, you know, swing it a bit, at which point we briefly plotted her death.
Kidding aside, your zip-line guides are a part of the adventure, telling jokes, helping out with photos and gently pushing guests to test their limits. In short, they make sure you have fun while keeping everyone safe. They also share interesting facts about the forest ecology and wildlife of the island, pointing out things like the new raccoon family that’s taken up residence on the course, the ospreys soaring above and the Atlantic bottlenose dolphins and sharks swimming in Broad Creek below.
Zip-lining isn’t physically taxing, as long as you can climb a few flights of stairs (there’s plenty of water on the landings and time to catch your breath, if need be). There’s no need to break a sweat—just enjoy the scenery and the ride, says Grace Metropolis, the manager of ZipLine Hilton Head, who sums up the experience this way: “We’re here flying through the trees, beautiful breeze, having a blast all the time.”
Know the lingo. How is a canopy tour different from a regular zip line or an aerial adventure challenge course? Andrea Canberg, owner of Charleston Zip Line Adventures, explains it this way: A canopy tour always involves zip-lining through treetops and usually incorporates a study of local plants and wildlife along with high-speed thrills and awesome scenery. Zip-line courses that aren’t billed as canopy tours usually take place in open environments—the thrill of the ride is the sole attraction. Challenge courses, sometimes called aerial adventures, are suspended obstacle courses where guests can test their balance, agility and strength while tethered by a zip-line harness to an overhead cable that prevents falls. “Aerial adventure challenge courses are a lot of fun, but you have to be a little more physically fit to do them,” Canberg says.
Book ahead. And don’t be late for your scheduled tour. At popular parks like ZipLine Hilton Head, there may be as many as 600 people a day riding the cables during the busy summer season, says manager Grace Metropolis. To ensure the best experience for all guests, groups are limited to a maximum of eight people and go out on a tight schedule, usually every 15 minutes.
Be honest about your weight. Adult zip-line courses usually require guests to weigh at least 70–80 pounds, but usually no more than 250–275 pounds. These restrictions are in place for a variety of reasons, including insurance requirements, but it’s not a limitation of the cables or harnesses used. “They can hold thousands of pounds,” Canberg says. Courses designed exclusively for children are built to work with lower minimum-weight requirements that suit pint-sized adventurers.
Safety first. Reputable zip lines operating by the standards of the Association for Challenge Course Technology (ACCT) are extremely safety conscious. “We have super-high-quality training, and we have daily inspections of all our gear,” Canberg says. “We have someone ride the course every morning before the first guests to make sure no obstacles have fallen in the way. We want people to have fun and be safe.”
Zip-line operators in the Carolinas
Thrill seekers can now find first-rate canopy tours, aerial adventures, ropes courses and kid-friendly zip-line amusement rides across South and North Carolina.
Charleston Zip Line Adventures
1152 Guerins Bridge Road, Awendaw
Opening in June, Charleston’s only zip-line canopy tour features a 65-foot starting tower and seven cables to ride on your way back down to earth. There’s also a climbing wall and a kid’s zip line for thrill seekers ages 5–13. The 10-acre park is served by Berkeley Electric Cooperative.
ZipLine Hilton Head & Aerial Adventure Hilton Head
33 Broad Creek Marina Way, Hilton Head
Adventurers can enjoy canopy tours complete with views of Broad Creek as they race down eight zip lines through towering oaks and loblolly pines. The park is served by Palmetto Electric Cooperative.
Chattooga Ridge Canopy Tours—Wildwater Chattooga
1251 Academy Road, Long Creek
Begin your zip-line adventure with a 360-degree view of the Blue Ridge Mountains, then fly your way down on 12 dual zip lines that take visitors over four sky bridges and six water crossings.
Canaan Zipline Canopy Tour
3111 Sand Island Road, Rock Hill
The full canopy tour at this Rock Hill outdoor center is a three-hour journey encompassing nine zip lines that run through lush oak forests and make multiple trips across the Catawba River.
Go Ape Zip Line & Treetop Adventure
150 Citizens Circle, Little River
Features five zip-line adventures, including two that cross a 25-acre lake.
Soar + Explore—Wonderworks
1313 Celebrity Circle, Myrtle Beach
A challenge course and a kid-friendly zip line—50 feet high and running for 1,000 feet over a man-made lake—add high-flying fun to the quirky amusement park.
Zip the Zoo—Riverbanks Zoo & Garden
500 Wildlife Parkway, Columbia
Soar through the treetops on seven different zip lines, and finish your tour with a 1,000-foot glide across the Saluda River.
166 Honey Bee Drive, Saluda
Located just across the state line, The Gorge claims to be the country’s steepest (read: fastest) zip-line canopy tour. A total of 11 lines descend more than 1,100 vertical feet and span 1.25 miles of tree-covered ridges in the Green River Gorge.
Boulderline Adventure Programs
456 Boland Drive, Lake Lure
If you think zip-lining is thrilling by day, try it after dark on a night zip excursion. Boulderline Adventure Programs offers family- and kid-friendly tours around their 40‑acre property, as well as a climbing wall.
Nantahala Outdoor Center
13077 Highway 19 West, Bryson City
Combine a day of white-water rafting with a thrilling mountaintop zip-line ride that starts 600 feet above the Nantahala Gorge. NOC also offers guests a chance to test their skills at the Zip Line Adventure Park, a challenge course with 16 aerial obstacles to conquer.
Nantahala Gorge Canopy Tours & KidZip
10320 Highway 19 South, Bryson City
Get a bird’s-eye view of the Nantahala Gorge as you ride 13 zip lines (four of them side by side) through 20 acres of lush forest. Kids ages 4–12 can have their own child-sized adventures on the specially designed KidZip lines.
Asheville Zipline Canopy Adventures & Asheville Treetops Adventure Park
1 Resort Drive, Asheville
Eleven zip lines offer high-speed thrills, not to mention scenic views of the Asheville skyline and the Blue Ridge Mountains. The Treetops Adventure Park features aerial courses for adults and a kids-only zip line designed for children ages 4–10.
Navitat Canopy Adventures
242 Poverty Branch Road, Barnardsville
With two distinctly different zip-line tours, one tree-based and one stretching from mountaintop to mountaintop, visitors can choose from half-day or full-day adventure tours on Navitat’s 13 zip lines.
U.S. National Whitewater Center
5000 Whitewater Center Parkway, Charlotte
There’s more than rafting and kayaking at the U.S. National Whitewater Center. Step out on your choice of nine challenge courses or two zip-line adventures that cross the park and the surrounding wilderness.