West Virginia's New River Gorge area was already a destination for adrenaline junkies, but now the thrill factor has reached new heights.
Two hundred feet, to be precise. That's the height at the highest point of Gravity, the mile-long zip line that is the latest attraction at the growing Adventures on the Gorge vacation complex.
Participants jump from platforms high in the trees, reaching speeds of 40 mph to 60 mph as they glide along zip lines that take them whizzing through the West Virginia forest.
"It's really a super thrill," said Brian Campbell, one of the owners of Adventures on the Gorge.
The New River Gorge is a gash in the heart of West Virginia, 1,000 feet deep in most places. The New River that foams and glides along its base is considered one of the nation's top whitewater rafting destinations, said Campbell.
The area is also home to the town of Fayetteville, known for its quaint downtown and chef-owned restaurants; and Beckley, home to the combined Exhibition Coal Mine and Youth Museum of Southern West Virginia, which offers visitors a tour 1,500 feet below ground.
Hiking is also popular. A highlight of the region is the New River Gorge Bridge, a stunning steel arch bridge built in 1977, which soars 876 feet above the river and has a catwalk open to pedestrians.
But adventure has always been the mainstay of the area. In 2008, three rafting companies — Class VI River Runners, Mountain River Tours and Rivermen, owned by Campbell — merged to form a resort on the rim of the gorge. This year, the group added a fourth rafting company, Songer. Those companies have retained their identities while becoming part of the larger adventure destination, said Campbell.
"Our goal was to evolve from a one- or two-day rafting getaway to a more well-rounded vacation destination," said Campbell.
Adventures on the Gorge has invested millions of dollars to add restaurants and lodging, and now has three restaurants, including Smokey's on the Gorge, with a deck that is cantilevered over the gorge. There are also bars and a bandstand for live entertainment, said Campbell.
Lodging options at the property range from camping sites to fully furnished cabins that have kitchens and hot tubs.
Last year, the resort added an all-inclusive option, so visitors could pay one price for lodging, meals and the adventures of their choice. Prices range from $149 to $219 per person per day, a fee that includes activities such as guided whitewater rafting and mountain biking tours. The guides can even set up a skydiving jump with West Virginia Skydivers.
Two years ago, the resort added the TreeTops Canopy Tour, with 10 zip lines ranging from 190 to 730 feet in length. The lines take visitors on a rushing ride through the forest before landing them on platforms in trees, between 40 and 80 feet high. Five cable bridges connect the platforms and the whole thing is constructed so participants zip across Mill Creek, a 300-foot tributary of the New River Gorge, nine separate times, said Campbell.
"The canopy tour has been our biggest success," said Campbell. "It's really the first activity that we've added that rivals the rafting in quality and ability to attract people just to do that program."
The adventure is designed with shorter and slower zip lines to start, so users can get used to the feel of flying through the trees, while also learning how to brake and how to land on the platforms, he said.
They are harnessed in and don't need arm strength, but there is also an exit option if users decide after a few zips that they don't want to continue. If they persevere, the best is yet to come.
"After six zip lines, you're back on the ground at the bottom of the canyon," he said. "We then go on a short 800-foot hike to regain about 100 feet of elevation." From there, it's time for the longest and fastest zip line, which whooshes through a forest of hemlocks that are hundreds of years old before landing on a platform in one that is more than 400 years old.
A year later, the company added Gravity, a more adventurous adventure, with a zip line that is 3,100 feet long.
And more attractions are yet to come, said Campbell. Next will likely be a swimming pool and another aerial park, this one suitable for younger children, since the minimum age is 10 for TreeTops and 12 for Gravity.
"We are actively competing with the beach vacation," said Campbell. "We do all the hard work and we've got all the toys. You're going to have experiences you will talk about for the rest of your life."
If you goAdventures on the Gorge
The vacation complex is based in Lansing, W. Va., near the New River Gorge. The resort offers inclusive packages so visitors can pay a single price for lodging, meals and activities including zip line tours, whitewater rafting trips and mountain biking adventures.
Getting there: It's about a six-hour drive from Baltimore. Take Interstate 70 west to I-68 west, crossing into West Virginia. Then take I-79 south to U.S. 19 south. Follow for about 60 miles and turn right onto Ames Heights Road. If you cross the New River Gorge bridge you've gone too far. Follow Ames Heights Road for about one mile.
Information: For more about Adventures on the Gorge, call 888-650-1932 or go to adventurewestvirginia.com.