August 2010 Issue
Wet and Wild Adventures
Spend a weekend — or even a week — ziplining, hiking and whitewater rafting in West Virginia.
The ability to fly outside the confines of an airplane has been a dream of mine since childhood.
As a kid in the ’70s, my friends and I would dream of sporting jetpacks at the turn of century.
Although “The Jetsons”-esque existence never transpired, the desire to soar well above the ground with the wind blowing through my hair never abated. I’m apparently not alone. According to a recent realsuperpowers.com poll, the ability to fly tops every extraordinary ability wish, save telekinesis.
We may not be able to fly, but we can come close by embarking on West Virginia’s Treetops Canopy Tour (newrivergorgecanopytour.com
Sure, you’re strapped into a harness and clipped to a cable, but you take some serious air while you’re up there. During the longer stretches of the zipline jaunt, riders soar as far as 730 feet. During the aptly titled “Rock Launch,” in which you run off a wide rock formation, it’s possible to travel up to 30 miles per hour.
It’s a total rush soaring through the scenic Mill Creek canyon covered with lush rhododendron, old-growth Eastern Hemlock and deciduous forest. The feeling is akin to motorcycling with your feet dangling through the sky.
The zipline phenomenon is a relatively new craze. The canopy tour was popularized in Costa Rica just over a decade ago. Initially, it wasn’t popular in the United States, according to Dave Arnold, owner of Class VI Mountain River, who decided to bring a zipline to his resort.
“People weren’t sure it would catch on in this country, because we don’t have the exotic animals such as monkeys and toucans in the trees,” he says. “But we figured out that people were more than fine with zipping along in our beautiful forest.”
Since opening Treetops in 2009, the zip has been Arnold’s top attraction. It’s easy to see why a wide cross-section of thrill seekers is up for the adventure. Eight of the New River Gorge’s 10 ziplines are simply exhilarating.
The first two zips, which follow a pre-training session, dubbed “ground school,” are short, nearly 200-foot runs, which are necessary introductions. After navigating through the pedestrian “Michigan” zip, there is an option for those uncomfortable with the experience to disembark and call it a day.
Once you hit the first of the back eight zips, you’re committed for the three-hour-plus journey, which also includes walks over five sky bridges and three short hikes necessary for higher elevation.
It took until the trip’s midpoint for the realization that I could place my head on a swivel and look down and all around to admire all of the natural beauty. Upon hitting “Almost Heaven,” the highest perch Treetops offers, our guide John suggested that we lean back off the edge of the platform, supported only by the strap connected to a mighty hemlock. It took a few seconds to have enough trust to follow our leader, but it was a giggle-inducing experience to have faith in the lone tether as I hung over and focused on the babbling brook 90 feet below my feet.
The experience was thrilling, but it wasn’t up to the rush of soaring along the fastest run, “Lover’s Leap,” where you are 75 feet off the ground and it feels like you’re flying with the birds.
It may not be the rain forest, but it was still pretty cool to walk along the sky bridges and spot skin shed by a snake along a hemlock and a flying squirrel’s nut-laden home.
The adventure didn’t end after experiencing more than 3,500 feet of zips. After traveling across the rapid “Double Z,” we capped the trip by rappelling 40 feet to solid ground.
The Tarzan-like experience is open year-round, but if you prefer to stay closer to the ground, there is always whitewater rafting along the New River, which has been a popular attraction for generations.
My children, ages 8 and 11, have made four runs down the pretty and relatively tame Upper New River, which features rapid levels ranging from one to three. One is the tamest and three is somewhat technical with a few undercut rocks.
Throughout the summer, the New River, which flows south to north like The Nile, has water temperatures that typically range from the mid-70s to low 80s. The warm water provides a refreshing break from the oppressive heat and humidity. After paddling through the mild rapids in our inflatable kayaks, which are known as duckies, we traveled downriver for my children’s favorite New River activity, ducky wars.
The battle commences shortly after reaching deep water. After jumping into the river, two participants flip over a ducky. The next step is to climb onto the capsized vessel, stand and rock back and forth until your opponent loses his or her balance and falls into the river. The sweaty warrior typically slips happily into the inviting water.
My children needed a good night’s sleep before taking on their next endeavor, interpretative hiking, which means you can design whatever kind of trek that you desire. There’s an expert guide available, whether you want to check out wildflowers, learn about varieties of fungi or, as in our case, just venture off into the coolest part of a forest.
Kyle, our laid-back Class VI guide, drove us to the “Endless Wall” trail, which is a mile-long hike that is moderately strenuous. The Endless Wall is an unbroken cliff line that follows the rim of the New River Gorge for two miles. Our walk followed some intense rain. The ground was muddy, which pleased my son, who enjoyed running through the muck. My daughter loved the lizards, which were ubiquitous after severe precipitation hit the area. I was crazy about the stunning views of the gorge.
There’s certainly something for everyone at the New River Gorge: Adrenaline junkies will be sated and there are plenty of activities for children. There is also always something new on the horizon. The next Class VI project is the New River Gorge Walk, which will open at some point in 2010. For more information, call Class VI-Mountain River at 800/252-7784, or go to class-vi.com
Contact the West Virginia Division of Tourism, wvtourism.com or 800/225-5982, for maps, lodging, events and other travel information.