Riverbanks Zoo’s Canopy Tours Offer Wild Ride

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They’re going wild at Riverbanks Zoo and Garden — and I’m not talking about the animals.

It’s visitors who are climbing ropes, swinging over the river and romping in the treetops as part of two zip line canopy tours now available at Columbia's most popular attraction.

Zip the Zoo! and ZOOm the River! offer participants a Tarzan-like experience without the vines. In fact, you can swoop through the forest hands-free.

Outfitted with a helmet and full-body harness, you’re clipped onto overhead cables by two trolleys. The cables are stretched from one tree to another with just the right amount of slack to allow gravity to serve as the braking system.

“As you approach the receiving platform, you glide uphill which automatically slows you down,” explained canopy guide Kevin Desrochers. “You never have to touch the trolleys.”

That leaves your upper appendages available to take pictures, scratch your sides like a monkey or wave and shout to your mother, “Look ma, no hands!”

Zip the Zoo! — recommended for beginners and children — features four short zip lines through a wooded area along the edge of the zoo’s Carousel Plaza. ZOOm the River! offers a wilder ride with three longer zips, including a breathtaking run over the scenic Saluda River.

From the water, the 1,010-foot long cable seems a mile high. I paddled under it a dozen times this summer, imagining what it would be like to fly across the river like an osprey. I found out recently when the zip line opened to the public.

Accompanied by two canopy guides, we started the tour by climbing up a cargo net to a platform built around a large white oak tree. The guides work all the gear, attaching and detaching you from cables and carabineers to ensure you are safely secured at all times. You are admonished not to touch any of the “shiny” parts of your harness to avoid getting accidentally pinched by the clips.

The first two zips are about 100 feet long, making for a nice warm up to the mega ride to come. As part of the zip line’s gravity braking system, the receiving platforms feature a downward sloping ramp that you run up as you glide along the final few feet of cable. A guide is there to help you up if you don’t quite make it to the platform.

Zip No. 2 is followed by the “Indiana Jones” bridge, a series of six-inch wide planks suspended by ropes. The difficult part comes in crossing from plank to plank as they tend to separate when you step off one board and put your foot on the other.

Holding on to the rope handrails, I managed to keep my balance as I walked slowly along the first board. When I got to the end of the plank, I used my arms to lift myself across to the next board, avoiding the split-leg scenario. Of course, you are securely attached to an overhead cable so there’s no chance of falling beyond the boards. But I have to say, it’s a tricky challenge.

Once you’ve made it over the bridge, you get your first look at the river crossing. The platform sits 25 feet up a tree that’s perched on a ridge north of the river. But the ground quickly descends past the ridge leaving you to slide through a tunnel carved out of the trees. By the time you’ve reached the platform on the other side you’ve dropped 67 feet.

When it was my turn to launch, I took a deep breath and stepped out into nothing but air. I didn’t waste any time getting into the cannonball position as directed by the guide. Although gravity does most of the work, bringing your knees into your chest speeds up the descent, sending you gliding along the cable at 35-40 mph.

When you emerge from the forest canopy, you’re 75 feet above the water. I took a quick look around and could see the Saluda’s Pop-up hole rapid in the distance to my left. To the right was a peanut gallery of zoo visitors watching and waving from the pedestrian bridge.

I couldn’t help but “woohoo” as I rocketed across the river and re-entered the forest. Because riders can pick up some serious speed on this zip line, it’s equipped with an automatic breaking system known as a Kinetic Energy Absorber. As I approached the platform, the KEA slowed me down to a comfortable landing speed, allowing me to make it easily up the ramp without fear of becoming an arboreal adornment.

The 30-second ride was exactly as billed — exhilarating! To return to terra firma, you have to climb up another cargo net to a platform and then lower yourself through a cone-shaped rope web.

Zip line tours are offered seven days a week by reservation only. You must weigh between 70 and 250 pounds to participate in either of the tours. It costs $45 to Zip the Zoo, $55 to ZOOm the River. If you want to ride both, the combo price is $80. Canopy tour prices include admission to the zoo, so after you’ve had your fun in the treetops, you can check out the other wildlife in the park.

To make a reservation, click here. For more information on Riverbanks Zoo and Garden or the zip line canopy tours, call (803) 779-8717.

Provided by: SC Insider Writer, Marie McAden