Zip line tours offer an elevated perspective
Have you ever wondered what it would feel like to be a bird? To flit from treetop to treetop, looking down on the landscape, soaring around in the mountains? Well, you can experience it yourself by taking a zip line tour.
Aerial cables as a mode of transportation in the mountains have been around for a couple thousand years, but zip line or canopy tours for recreation are fairly new. Canopy tours originated in Costa Rica, where wildlife biologists set up zip lines in the 1970s to study the rainforest ecology. Costa Rica patented the first recreational zip line system in 1998, and eventually the trend caught on in the United States.
Pump the adrenaline at Durango Adventures
Durango Adventures owner Stefan Van der Steen was a business consultant before he made the leap of faith from the corporate world to the outdoor adventure world. Initially he was just in the business of guiding hiking and mountain biking, but in 2011 he took another big step off the platform into zip lining. “That made adventures more accessible to people, and we’ve been pretty successful since then.”
Durango Adventures has other activities—off-road tours, whitewater rafting, even axe throwing (after a year of pandemic restrictions, it’s a great way to work out frustration, says Van der Steen) but its star attraction is the zip line operation.
It’s an impressive setup, encompassing twelve zip lines and a forty-five-foot adventure tower with different climbing elements including a freefall feature. Located in a natural setting, guests hike to the top of the park to start. The first half of the spans are shorter tree-to-tree routes to let people get comfortable and enjoy the views of Durango and the mountains. “The last part of the adventure, the last five or six, are more ‘adrenaline’ zip lines. Once people are used to the feel of the lines and the harness, they’re longer and faster…more speed,” says Van der Steen.
The pièce de résistance is the adventure tower, which is the finale of the tour but can also be accessed separately with the “Hour on the Tower” package. It is forty-five feet high, made of steel, with a rope ladder and netting. From the top of the tower, visitors can step off the platform and experience a free fall before the auto belay device catches them for a slow rappel to the ground.
The free fall is not mandatory—guests can instead opt to take one last zip line that spans over the parking lot and lands on the roof of the office building. “It’s pretty cool; there’s a waiting area with couches. It’s fun for groups, kind of like a rooftop patio. They land right there. It’s fun to see somebody landing on top of a building.”
The operation is open year-round, and Van der Steen prides himself on taking care of his employees, making guiding a real profession and not just a passion by paying them well and giving them work that is not seasonal. “That was one of my goals coming from the corporate world. Our guides are not just hired for the summer, and they’re not living in a van by the river. It’s a full-time, year-round career opportunity where they can make a living and start a family.”
His other goal? Sharing the stoke with his customers. “For me it’s always been a passion to try to get people outdoors, and to make the outdoors accessible for just about everybody. People are timid and skeptical sometimes…to watch them progress and go outside of their comfort zone is very rewarding, not only for the customers, but also for the guides and for me as an owner. I’d like to think that we make people appreciate the outdoors a little more.”
The great escape:Soaring Tree Top Adventures
If the COVID-19 pandemic taught us anything, it’s the value of escaping the grind and spending time immersed in nature. Quarantines and crowds drove us away from urban centers and into the freedom of being in the wild expanse of the outdoors.
Remote places held a new kind of allure; and places like Soaring Tree Top Adventures were in even higher demand.
Soaring Tree Top Adventures sits on 180 acres surrounded by the San Juan National Forest. It used to be the Tall Timber resort, but in 2004 it became the first zip line operation in the United States. It’s an adventure just to get to the former resort, which is only accessed by train or helicopter. And last summer, when the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad was shut down by the pandemic, there was a whole lot of helicopter traffic to the destination. “The resort began in the early 70s. Soaring was an add-on activity, an additional offering to the guests, but it took on a life of its own. So we switched to accommodating guests who arrived by train, day guests, if you will. Zip lining was new, and nobody even knew what it was in the early 2000s,” says co-operator Dionne Beggrow.
Soaring Tree Top Adventures features twenty-seven spans ranging from fifty-six to 1,400 feet in length, including ten river crossings over the Animas River and two parallel spans of more than 600 feet, where people can race each other. Guests begin in the learning center, in a building with multiple stories, start with shorter spans to get accustomed, and the day ends with the 1,400-foot span.
The patented system they use is unique, relying on the rise and run of the cables to slow people down before they come into the next platform—no braking necessary—and are greeted by the Sky Rangers, Soaring’s zip line guides, who also help them set off on the next leg of the adventure. The system has allowed them to accommodate guests age four all the way up to ninety-four. “You don’t have to control your own speed; you just hold on and have fun. The rangers do all the work,” says Beggrow.
The adventure lasts five and a half hours and includes a four-course, gourmet lunch. The focus is on the alpine setting, a beautiful old-growth forest, and the experience features an eco-tour interspersed throughout the course. “A lot of people describe it as really exhilarating. You’re in this pristine forest, and you can experience it in a different way. It’s such a smooth, free feeling.”
That feeling is owing in part to the system’s construction: the platforms and lines are built with helicopter-grade, stainless metal that is smoother than a standard cable, explains Beggrow, and guests ride in custom Petzl harnesses. So it’s also a quieter experience; the sound of travel over a standard hewn cable is why it is called “zip” lining.
Beggrow says that they adopted COVID protocols early and were able to accommodate groups and guests who helicoptered in last summer, and this year, with the train operating again, they have created a special VIP Private Tour package including transportation for groups of up to twenty people. “We get lots of return guests, even grandparents bringing their grandkids, family reunions, groups of friends,” says Beggrow. It is not just an adventure, but a sanctuary, a true wilderness escape. “It’s stress-free being here, away from all the busy places and tension.”
Get high with Telluride Canopy Adventures
Telluride didn’t invent the art of adventure, but it has certainly taken it to the next level. The destination is renowned for its bold experiences: climbing Wilson Peak, braving the sheer wall on the Via Ferrata, skiing the resort’s steep mountain chutes, or downhill mountain biking on its thrilling Mountain Bike Park Trails.
The Telluride Canopy Adventures are the newest option. Constructed for a summer 2020 opening but delayed by the pandemic, the trips are now open for visitors in 2021. Director of Mountain Operations Scott Pittenger says the opening is just in time. “We saw the increased desire for outdoor recreation opportunities and wanted to diversify our offerings with the canopy adventure. This is a really incredible experience that we think fits our market. It engages people in our natural environment and we’re proud to be stewards of it,” says Pittenger. “It’s a really rad adventure.”
The canopy excursions are suited to active participants. The route is comprised of five spans, two rappels, two sky bridges, and a short hike. The longest span is 1,800 feet and the course traverses gullies and bounces from ridge to ridge, high above the ground, anywhere from forty-four to 208 feet up. Guests travel at speeds between ten and forty miles per hour, depending on the length of the span and the person—it’s a self-braking system with fail-safe backups, so guests can take it fast or slow and still be protected.
The trip starts with a ride up Lift 4, and a training assessment and gear introduction by the guides—each group has a lead and a tail guide. Anyone under the age of fifteen must be accompanied by an adult, and riders need to weigh a minimum of seventy pounds, enough mass to make it through the zips, says Pittenger. They should also be comfortable with heights—although every step is secure. Guests are hooked in by guides for the rappels, and clipped into a cable for the traverse across the wood sky bridges, so they can hold on with both hands as they walk from tower to tower. After the trip, they get a ride back down in a side-by-side four-wheeler. “If you’re comfortable riding on a lift, you’re going to be comfortable riding on a canopy adventure. But you’re just so immersed in the experience you hardly notice how high you are. It’s a safe feeling when you are rigged in to the zip, a sense of security so you can enjoy the experience,” says Pittenger.
That’s the point, after all—to experience the scenery in a unique way. “We’re famous for our natural beauty and dramatic landscape. Hiking, you’re engaging on the ground level. With the canopy adventures, you’re up at the top of the tree level. You can look down, but also look above treeline and take in the expanse of our landscape. You can get a cool perspective on where you are in this world and how special and unique Telluride is.”