There's nothing like the thrill of flying along a cable at more than 40 miles per hour, suspended only by a harness 20 stories high in the air, and skidding into a tip-toe landing on a stump on the other side of the gorge a quarter of a mile away to get the adrenaline pumping and make a person appreciate life and all the experiences it has to offer.
To the staff at Highlands Aerial park, it's no longer a big deal. Excessively fun, but otherwise just another day at work, only with a death-defying commute over a gorge instead of fighting traffic.
Located on 44 acres atop High Holly Mountain just south of Highlands, Highlands Aerial Park has created "a world class botanical experience in the trees."
Located on 44 acres atop High Holly Mountain just south of Highlands, Highlands Aerial Park has created "a world class botanical experience in the trees." The aerial park features four different attractions for all ages and interests. General manager Blair Hames said that since the park opened on Oct. 5, 2012, thousands of guests have experienced the canopy tour or the challenge course, with well over 6,000 visiting just during the past summer.
The Mountain Course is designed for the firsttimer and those who want a moderate experience. Zip-liners begin from the start tower, then travel up to the "Bouncy Sky Bridge," employing three zip lines of various lengths and heights along the way. From the last platform customers can then follow a short trail up to the "Screaming Mare" observation platform and decide if they have the nerve and the adrenaline drive to take on the highest and longest zip line in the Southeastern United States. If they choose to leave it at the Mountain Course, it's a short walk back to the Tree House to relax and relive the experience.
Some may be intimidated by the full tour, but they needn't worry, said Carrilea Potter of Highlands, one of the many safety-conscious guides at the park and a graduate student studying for her Masters degree in Divinity. Potter said guests can be confident that they are in good hands.
"Zip lining is not dangerous," said Potter. "It's the safest of all the outdoor action sports, really. Safer than whitewater rafting, kayaking, rock climbing, even mountain biking."
She explained that the guides can control all of the factors involved that present any danger — referring primarily to gravity — by making certain that guests are harnessed properly and hooked onto a secure cable at all times with not only one, but two, strong safety lines.
"Whereas most outdoor sports have random conditions or elements that can't be controlled and can be dangerous, zip lining is much safer because nothing is left to chance," said Potter. The guides work all of the connections and equipment throughout the tour, so there's no chance untrained guests can make a dangerous mistake.
She obviously enjoys her work. "It's only the most fun summer job ever!" she said.
Guests that continue to the more extreme section are in for the ride of their lives, with four more zip lines beginning with the "Screaming Mare," which crosses 1,550 feet over the 20-story high gorge from High Holly Mountain to Middle Creek Ridge.
"I think the name fits," said George Powell, owner and operator of Highlands Aerial Park. "But it could have just as easily been called 'Oh My God.' That's what almost everyone says when they step up on the platform and see it for the first time."
He's not kidding. Out of two groups that came to zip line from the tower, an "Oh, my God" escaped from the lips of nearly every individual. Others simply gasped in disbelief, excitement or trepidation at the slender cable stretching out of sight far into the distance.
The "World Class Canopy Tour" is a thrilling botanical tour with 15 different elements, featuring a total of seven zip lines, two of them well over a thousand feet in length.
Retired from owning a trucking company near their home in Valdosta, Ga., Powell works at his aerial park nearly every day of the week during the season. With a genuinely friendly and inviting demeanor, he often takes time between bookings or maintaining the property to visit with guests, putting them at ease before the tour or celebrating their new experience afterward.
At 70 years young, Powell said he himself enjoys the canopy tour at least once or twice a day. It's not surprising. He seems completely at ease and in casual control of whatever space he occupies. He enjoys giving his guests an experience to remember.
"In our area, there are only a few canopy tours in the trees, but nothing quite like this one. What sets Highlands Aerial Park apart is that even though it's a commercial operation, my wife and I are not in this to get rich. It's too late for that," joked Powell. "This is a fun, exciting hobby that grew into a sophisticated commercial operation."
He explained that their park is operated with the family in mind, with more consideration than most aerial parks, many of which schedule groups at 15-minute intervals or less. At Highlands Aerial Park, groups are scheduled every hour so guests can take time to enjoy themselves. Even during the busiest season the schedule is at least a half-hour apart. Reservations are recommended but not required. And unlike other aerial parks that charge customers even if they have to cancel, guests are not charged if they can't make it to Highlands Aerial Park.
"I think consideration like that sets us apart, along with the mountain foliage and cool air in the summer," said Powell. "People thank us as much as we thank them after the course."
George's wife, Karen Powell, is an essential part of the operation and an avid zip-liner. "It's something we enjoyed after zip lining in Costa Rica. We already had the property, and would come up during the summer to get away from the heat and ride horses," said Karen. "But then we realized it was the perfect place for a canopy tour. We wanted to share this wonderful experience."
An unwitting pastime
More than 60 zip lines have arisen throughout the United States just in the last five years. It's a burgeoning industry that migrated to the U.S. from Central and South America. The concept originated from the methods of scientists and anthropologists that were studying the flora and fauna of the rain forests 40 to 55 years ago. Scientists began utilizing rope and cable apparatuses and climbing gear to navigate from tree to tree in their quest to study the intricate details of plant life and migratory patterns of animals and birds below the giant canopies.
Then the locals got creative. Zip lining first took off when the indigenous Tico tribesman of Costa Rica started taking belts, throwing them over the cables and holding on fearlessly with both hands as they zipped down the lines for fun and entertainment. What began in the pursuit of scientific exploration soon became a thrilling pastime.
Before long, canopy tours and zip lines became a novelty in Central and South America, with visitors to the region being bused in from both coasts to soar through the treetops of the rainforest. Then, as Powell explains it, zip lines and canopy tours were brought back to the United States about 15 years ago, but faced myriad safety and liability issues due to the more "sophisticated" society.
Fast forward to the last decade and, for all intents and purposes, fun has won.
"The contractors that built low ropes courses for military special forces were contacted by interested parties and recognized an opportunity when they saw it," explained Powell. A coalition of contractors, designers, operators, maintenance services and guides came together to form the Association for Challenge Course Technology (ACCT), the first accreditation body to establish regulatory standards for the canopy tour and zip line industry. Strict safety standards helped to mitigate the liability issues, and the industry has grown dramatically ever since.
For example, before a guide can take a guest onto a platform, they are required to have at least 70 hours of safety and technical training.
"Closely adhering to strict standards like this has resulted in the lowest incidents of accidents of any outdoor industry," said Powell.
Several different types of zip lines and canopy tours are built today. The backyard zip lines; the somewhat generic and overly crowded amusement park zip lines; or pole-based zip lines most often built in flatland areas such as Florida, sometimes passing over a gator pit for extra excitement. There are even shorter, educational- based botanical garden zip lines that allow a person a bird's-eye view of the beauty and design of the entire grounds of the garden.
Then there's the high-end botanical canopy tour that provides both amusement and educational value, such as at Highlands Aerial Park.
"It’s a botanical experience from the air," said Powell, "modeled after Navitat in Asheville and Banning Mills in Carrollton, Ga., which is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for the highest, longest and fastest zip line ever built."
While Powell’s aerial park wasn't built exclusively for amusement, it features some of the most thrilling zip lines of the day, including the highest elevation canopy tour in the entire Southeast.
Building a Dream Park
In order to get their dream aerial park up and running, the Powells contacted contractors endorsed by the Association for Challenge Course Technology and invited several of them to come for a site visit. After considering several bids and blueprints, Powell chose to have the courses developed by Challenge Towers out of Boone, N.C.
"It took 14 weeks to construct the course," said Powell, "with six above-ground guys and two master carpenters working over six hours a day, rain or shine. The crew were guests in our home during the construction process, and were just a great group of guys. "
"The crew may not have looked like it," Powell joked, "but they were professional in every way. They were extremely ecologically and environmentally responsible," continued Powell. "Every day they would climb hundreds of feet up the trees and hang out on limbs that you wouldn't think would support a squirrel's weight. The entire time they were careful not to break limbs or use spikes to that would scar the trees."
It was fascinating to watch the process and methods used to construct the course, said Powell. Besides using sophisticated climbing gear to avoid the use of spikes, the Challenge Towers crew utilized a specially designed rifle to fire a brass projectile with lightweight line from one side of the gorge to the other, and back again. From there the line was used to string the cables strong enough to support nearly a ton of weight. Then non-invasive platforms were built with extra supporting cables installed to provide safe, secure launch and landing surfaces for operators and guests.
Challenge Towers also provided the intensive training for Powell and his guides. Highlands Aerial Park regularly employs about 12 certified guides, up to 19 during the busy summer months, each of them trained for many hours in the proper methods and gear to provide customers a low-risk, zip line experience. By the time guides are allowed to take their first visitors to the launch platform, their expertise and technical training helps put guests at ease among the trees as they explain all of the safety procedures.
A group of local summer Highlands/ Cashiers residents taking part in the "Zip and Sip" tour said it best. The tour allows groups to B.Y.O.B. their own refreshments and have a picnic on the deck near the Tree House following a late afternoon canopy tour. This is the second tour for the group this summer, many of whom live in St. Petersburg, Fla. in the winter.
"The tour guides are really safe and have great personalities," said Mike Coates of Cashiers. "Once you go up to the first platform, you have two safety ropes that the guides secure at all times. You can't fall.”
The entire group gave credit to their guides for inspiring them with the confidence to tackle the canopy tour, including the daunting "Screaming Mare."
"Alex (Foltz) and Josh (Cummings) are terrific," said the ladies. They were impressed by the safety measures taken by the ACCT certified guides. "They do a great job of making you feel comfortable and safe throughout the tour," one commented.
"Josh can make even the scared feel bold," added Coates.
"No matter how hard you try, you can't fall," reiterated Kay Rosenthal of Highlands. "It's so much fun! It's a great new place, a great new experience for the whole family, no matter what age."
Thrills for all ages
Highlands Aerial Park differs from other parks in trying to be more accessible than many of them. "We're open yearround. And we have something for everyone," explained Powell.
He takes pride in providing something to thrill all ages and interests. In addition to the zip lines, there are two swinging sky bridges, an air stair, a short nature hike, and a bridged bog walk that passes under the Brave Indian Course before catching a ride on all terrain vehicles back to the Tree House to celebrate and perhaps hang out on the deck by the bonfire.
Guests must be at least 10 years old and weigh 70 to 250 lbs. to be allowed on either the Mountain Course or the World Class Canopy Tour. But young children five years old and up, as well as their parents and other adventurous grown-ups, can enjoy a fun-filled session on the Brave Indian Challenge Course. The harness system for the Brave Indian was designed in Switzerland with the same technology and techniques used for cable cars at Alpine ski resorts. Participants are continuously hooked up to the harness system as they run along the suspended bridges or zip over to the next platform on the challenge course.
A well-trained staff member is always present to guide clients along and inspire the kids to enjoy the adventure. "It doesn't take much effort," said Jordan Russell of Franklin as she supervised the kids. "Kids love the course." She said she likes doing the canopy tours, but gets a real kick out of watching the kids have so much fun.
Usually within minutes children go from being intimidated and hesitant, carefully watching every step, to running fullspeed along the sky bridges and jumping off the platforms to glide faster along the zip lines, as if it were perfectly natural.
Such was the case with young Anthony Qemali of Cashiers as he leaped from one sky bridge to the next with obvious glee. Fifteen minutes before, he was unsure of himself, taking it step by step. But with his mother, Kate Qemali, right behind him providing moral support, he was soon off and running.
Aptly named, the Brave Indian course is great for building children's confidence. Allison Mayner of Atlanta brought her daughters, Hope and Blair, for an afternoon session on the course. As she followed the two girls— the youngest of which is only five years old— around the obstacles and zip lines, she commented on how well they were facing any fears they had.
"I think the Brave Indian Challenge Course really increases children's self-confidence, along with their self-esteem," said Mayner. The challenge course is a great value, priced with the family in mind at only $19 for an hour-long session.
Highlands Aerial Park also offers the "Ground to Air Nature Trail." Beginning with a three-part static bridge that spans the bog section of the property, this area features native plants, boulder piles with black bear dens and bubbling spring flow creeks. Here you can experience a bit of the history of the property as you enter the wilderness trail which was once used for pack animals to haul bags of sugar, bushels of corn and other supplies to the moonshine still site next to the waterfall.
From there, a 150-feet swinging bridge crosses the waterfall about 40 feet above the creek. The trail meanders by a tunnel of rhododendron to a giant split-trunk poplar, continuing on to the gentle falls of High Holly Creek. Native plants are identified along the trail and rock outcroppings with verdant moss add to the beauty of the forest scenery. The wilderness trail is rated a moderate hike and usage is at your own risk. Waivers are required as hikers sign in at the Tree House, and the cost for adults is $15 while children can take the hike for free. However, the "Ground to Air Nature Trail" is included in the canopy tour.
If you have doubts about whether you're up to the challenge of the "World Class Canopy Tour," George Powell puts it into perspective. "The oldest person to do the course that's admitted her age is 93. She did it along with her 70-year-old daughter," said Powell.
"She loved every minute of it."
Visit www.highlandscanopytour.com for more information, hours of operation and discount promotions. Special events such as birthday parties, corporate events and team building exercises are available. Highlands Aerial Park is located at 9625 Dillard Road in Scaly Mountain, N.C. Call toll free (855) ZIP ME HI or (828)526-8773.