By Joseph Love

Guests are belayed from below by a guide, but control their own speed as they descend. Credit: Erica M. Pfeifer

Canopy tours were born of necessity. Researchers studying South American rainforests needed a way to travel quickly between research stations high in the trees. They installed an old climbing and logging setup of cables and pulleys, known as a Tyrolean traverse, between the trees and zipped across on small platforms. When the research ended, the scientists left behind a network of trees attached by cables and many unemployed locals. These locals started charging tourists to zip through the trees, and the canopy tour was born.

“In 2005, there were only seven [zipline] tours … in the whole country,” recalls Steve Gustafson, zipline tour builder and one of the founders of the Professional Ropes Course Association (PRCA). He and a colleague recently tried to count how many courses had been built in less than a decade. “There’s somewhere between 225 and 250 courses,” Gustafson guesses. But it’s a confusing number, Gustafson admits, because the distinction between zipline tours, canopy tours and ropes courses gets blurred as their popularity rises. In North Carolina, zipline and canopy tours dominate, distinguished by their construction and presentation. A zipline tour is typically a short, fast tour on pole-built platforms — with emphasis on speed and fun. Canopy tours are built in trees and can take up to four hours to complete. The runs are still long and fast, but guides emphasize educational talking points throughout the tour, and the focus is very much on nature.

Minimizing risk is a huge priority for operators, and building practices and daily operations prove it. Courses are inspected daily, and tours won’t run until defects are fixed. Industry-recognized builders follow construction guidelines from either the Association for Challenge Course Technology (ACCT) or the Professional Ropes Course Association (PRCA). Some builders even follow both guidelines.

Thousand-foot ziplines, views for miles, eye-watering speeds and cables stretched over deep valleys typify the Appalachian canopy tour experience. It also represents a booming trend in ecotourism that shifts the focus from simply ogling mountain ranges and waterfalls to advocating environmental responsibility. As a universal rule, a tour is only as good as its guides. Tour guides are trained in aerial rescue techniques, first aid and CPR and spend a few hours every month brushing up on their skills. Canopy tour guides act as docents for Mother Nature, churning out dozens of facts about nearly any plant as you zip from platform to platform. Did I mention the trees? Guides love trees. They have to; it’s their job.

A fall scene from the Craggy View platform put in perspective. Here, Navitat’s double-cable setup can be seen. Credit: Erica M. Pfeifer

Trees that are vital to a canopy tour course are monitored seasonally to detect any change in foliage density, structure and overall shape. The verticality of the trees is very important, considering the platforms are bolted directly into them. This might seem counterintuitive to the industry’s stance on conservation, but course builders design their platforms to allow for the trees’ natural movements and growth. Opposing guy cables transfer the lateral forces of ziplining straight down the trunk. Trees withstand this compression force much better than shear force. Even the trees’ cambium, a layer of cell tissue beneath the bark, is protected from cable abrasion by nylon jacketing or wood blocks.

Zipline tours don’t have to worry about tree growth because poles don’t grow. But just as much attention is paid to the integrity of a pole-based course as a tree-based one. And the same physics principles apply to their operation as well: guy cables transfer forces and gravity accelerates the participants.

It is also becoming more common for tour operators to act as protectors of the sites they occupy. They give back to their environments by implementing long-term site maintenance plans and sustainable or low-impact operating practices. They use biodiesel in transport vehicles, provide biodegradable cups to thirsty guests, plant bare-root saplings, eradicate invasive species and treat diseased trees.

Navitat, an Asheville, N.C., canopy tour company, takes the effort seriously. In 2010, they hired Sarah Marcinko as their environmental programming director to treat diseased trees, implement conservation practices and develop educational programming for their tours. Her largest effort has been treating the course’s 4,000 eastern hemlocks against the woolly adelgid, a parasite that turns densely needled hemlocks into scrappy logs. Her goal is ultimately one of stewardship. Says Marcinko, “If we can increase environmental literacy through outdoor recreation, then our hope is that people will better understand and engage with ecological problems at home and beyond.”

The forest isn’t the only thing that needs support and understanding in the Appalachians. At the heart of every tour is the property on which it is run, and most tours are operated on undeveloped swaths of privately owned land. While owning large tracts of mountain real estate once meant plenty of room to farm or raise livestock, it now means significant financial burden and the willingness to take risks to retain heirloom property. Today, landowners can partner with builders to start their own tours, or they can lease their property to operators and share a percentage of profits. In the mountains, it’s common to see families slowly sell off land tract by tract in hopes of better managing the constantly rising taxes. A zipline or canopy tour built on one’s property doesn’t just preserve and display a site’s natural resources, it preserves a family’s legacy and helps secure its future.

Built in two-pieces, the platforms are supported by telescoping legs and can be adjusted as the trees grow. Credit: Erica M. Pfeifer

If you’re interested in a canopy tour, be prepared for the full experience. You’ll hike, climb and zip — no matter the weather conditions. Most of all, you’ll learn something about the ecosystem you’re traveling through at canopy height. There are plenty of options, so get zipping!

Here are just a few places across the U.S., where you can experience a canopy tour:

Action Alert: Enjoy forest recreation opportunities and want to support them in your area? Urge members of Congress to address H.R. 709 Urban Revitalization and Livable Communities Act to rehabilitate and create new urban forest, parks and recreational areas by using our pre-written action letter.