Last updated June 25, 2021
Take to the treetops for an aerial adventure vacation to remember with Adventures on the Gorge.
I’m standing in the middle of a forest. A maze of wooded alleys led me to a calm clearing guarded by a sea of trees. It’s teeming with life, and yet I hear nothing but the crunch of gravel beneath my feet and the trickling of Mill Creek in the distance.
“Just wait till you see it from above. It’s so peaceful.” A voice reminds me why I’m here. I’m wearing 12 pounds of bells and whistles, and I’m about to catapult across the sky on a 500-foot cable.
“Ok, this is just the practice round—no sweat—you’ve got this,” my inner calm attempts to assuage my sudden uptick in panic. Crystal, a fellow first-time zipliner, volunteered to give the test course at ground level a go. I was selfishly relieved not to be the guinea pig but instead the outsider who got to watch and learn.
The first round of instructions was super straight and easy to retain. I had mental images of how Crystal used her hands to brake—laying one flat like a quesadilla behind her on the bottom cable—never wrapped like a burrito or even half curled like a taco. These were the brilliant analogies our guides taught us that just clicked for me.
Once we got up to the first platform, everything my second guide, Cullen, was teaching was falling on very distracted ears. My stream of consciousness was filled with Mexican food and ziplining mishaps.
Two cables stretched out for what looked like miles in front of me, disappearing into the green abyss—and I was going to—zip across this?!
Suddenly, I not only forgot everything J, my first guide, said, I also forgot how to formulate words. “Deep breaths. We’re all gonna get through this with some good deep breaths,” J’s words from earlier resurfaced to comfort me.
Luckily, I was one of three ziplining newbies on the TreeTops Canopy Tour, and when I glanced at them, their faces mirrored my same nervousness.
“Anybody have any questions?” Cullen asked calmly, confidently. “Umm, yeah! What if I just realized I forgot everything you just said?! Am I—doomed?! Is it curtains for me?!”
Everyone laughed, including me, and J quickly assured me, “Don’t worry, we’re just telling you how everything works—everything we’re going to do to keep you safe. Can you show me where your hands go? And how you brake? Perfect! You’re ready.”
I felt calmer, but there was no stopping the adrenaline that was rising in my chest.
I started to realize that I was more excited than nervous, but not the kind of excited you get when you learn that it’s Wings Night on the Gorge, and there will be live music and cornhole.
This was a really intense excitement that can perhaps only be drummed up on an adventure vacation when you’re wearing 12 pounds of gear, an orange helmet and gardening gloves while staring across a clearing of tree limbs and leaves, eyes searching for a destination unknown.
It felt symbolic of the road trips I take and how they always have the idea of a destination in mind, but what it looks like and what I’ll encounter along the way, I never know.
I often underestimate the braveness it takes to merge onto roads I’ve never set wheels on. I rarely recognize my trust in the pavement beneath me and how it always brings me to wonderful places and experiences. I couldn’t help but look at that first long stretch of cables the same way.
“Ok, who wants to go first?” we were asked excitedly. “I will!” A voice called out from within me without checking with my brain first. “Alright, Lauren, you’re up!”
My feet marched up to the step stool, again, without consulting my mind first. It was as though the call of the zip possessed my entire body, and the quest for adventure was pulling the strings deep within me.
My guides maneuvered like they’d been doing this for years—strapping me in and buckling me up with the precision and care of a parent packing their child into a car seat.
I sat down in the air, letting the line above hold my full body weight. I felt like small potatoes in its grip—this 500-foot cable could’ve easily carried two of me through glorious aerial paradise.
I gripped the metal clamp directly above my head with one hand over the other, crossed my legs just like I was taught, and in an instant, I was airborne, zipping through the sky at what felt like West Virginia‘s 70 mph speed limit. I screamed and giggled my head off.
I wanted to squirm in my air seat, but gravity kept me in line. I didn’t even turn my head to admire the views around me. My eyes glued to the leaves and limbs doming over me. I was fascinated, thrilled, totally hooked. Again, again, again!
I was grateful to be in a small group of zipliners because “again” never took long at all. After a few zips, I felt like a pro. I wished I could ditch my shoes to be barefoot gliding through a tunnel in the trees. My guides said, unfortunately, that was a no-go, but they did understand the appeal.
I confessed to the group, “This is not exactly how I thought ziplining would be. I kind of expected to just sit and go for a lazy river ride in the sky, arms and legs dangling in the breeze. I didn’t realize I’d have to hold on and brake and—you know, kind of be responsible for my own life.” We all laughed.
I confessed some more that I was afraid J or Cullen might forget to tell me to brake, and I’d kick them and knock them over while coming in for a landing.
They laughed again and assured me that a) I definitely wasn’t going to knock them over and b) they would never forget to give me the brake signal.
In fact, if they ever didn’t give me the signal to brake, it wouldn’t be because they forgot, it would be because I’m petite (4th-grade size, to be specific), and I naturally slowed down enough on my own.
I trusted their judgment completely—it was instinctive. I just knew I was in good hands with my adventure vacation guides.
Trust sure came in handy when we made our way to the first sky bridge. Yes, you read that right—sky bridge. City folks who haven’t ziplined before, these are not like the covered skyway systems of Minneapolis and Chicago.
These are two very long planks of wood (one for each foot) that you walk across to get from one platform to the next in areas too short to zip. There are ropes attached to the planks and handrail cables that run above them somewhere between shoulder and waist height, perfect for steadying your balance.
The first sighting of a wooden bridge in the sky was quite the surprise to me and the zipliner behind me who bravely crossed without a hitch despite his fear of heights.
I have no fear of heights, but still, the sight of this swinging thing should have sparked pangs of fear in me, and somehow, it didn’t. I was excited. I felt safe. I was having a great time.
My brain told me not to look down because it felt like that’s what a brain should do in the given scenario, but I looked down to the left, down to the right, back behind me and there was simply no fear to be found.
I feigned slight nervousness mixed with natural laughter, sympathizing with and encouraging my fellow first-timers, but excitement was the dominant feeling.
Actual fear didn’t set in until I learned about the rappel. Cullen explained it twice, and still, my brain was rejecting this as a viable conclusion to my TreeTops Canopy tour.
“But couldn’t I just—oh—what if I just—” my overactive imagination created all sorts of won’t-be exit strategies. “Ok, Crystal, you’re up!” Phew. Luckily, I’d spent enough time trying to zip my phone back into my sporty fanny pack that I wasn’t picked to go first. Perfect.
Now, I’d get to watch Crystal swing out into the air, take her feet off the platform and descend to the ground below to decide whether I was really going to do this or if someone somehow was going to have to rescue me.
She was as nervous on the outside as I was on the inside, but she did it, and eventually so did I—but not without a little nudge from Cullen. I swung out and let gravity help me down the rope at a snail’s pace.
You sort of let your backside go as low as it will with your feet still on the edge of the platform, and then once your feet are past your face or your teeth are below the platform, or something is somewhere, then you let your feet drop.
And you’re pretty much just dangling there on a rope but totally in control of your speed as you slide down. The rappel really wasn’t so bad, but I know Cullen was probably wondering if he was going to have to kick my feet off for me. I learned to let go and trust gravity.
On our walk out of the woods, Crystal said, “This was scarier than rafting. Awesome—but totally scarier than rafting.” I was shocked and instantly translated this to mean I could totally handle rafting on my next adventure vacation.
I added it to my mental list of must-dos for my next visit, along with rock-climbing, the Gravity Zipline course, the Bridge Walk and more time in the charming town of Fayetteville.
We made our way back to a small school bus that was thoughtfully packed with a cooler full of beverages, and a short ride later, we were back where we began, but different—adrenalized and proud.
I pulled off the oversized gardening gloves I had grown attached to and tossed them back into the bin. I hesitantly placed my orange helmet and my 12-pound harness back where I found them. My mind was still chanting, “Again, again!”
The day had gone by too fast. And while I was already planning to scout out ziplining courses near home, I knew none would ever quite compare to my very first time at adventure vacation-superstar Adventures on the Gorge.
It feels like the equivalent of having front-row seats and all-access backstage passes then taking in a show from the nosebleeds. West Virginia is just where you want to zipline, and Adventures on the Gorge makes it an adventure vacation to remember.
Before hopping back in my sweltering Subaru with blistering black leather seats, I pulled out my map of New River Gorge National Park and asked my guides for their best advice.
“Where should I watch the sunset? Can I make it to Grandview in time? Where can I get the best views of that big crazy bridge?” J and Cullen answered all of my questions and then some. They even gave me turn-by-turn directions with detailed landmarks and fair warning about the extremely narrow one-way road called Fayette Station.
And wouldn’t you know it, they were right about every single detail, from the tiny, rickety bridge I’d drive over to having the best views imaginable of the enormous architectural marvel that is the New River Gorge Bridge.
Thanks to their expertise, I got to see sights your typical tourist wouldn’t see. I explored with the kind of inside scoop one always hopes to find when they meet kind locals.
Of course, my time in wild and wonderful West Virginia wouldn’t have been complete without spending the night in a cabin in the woods. Opening the door to my very own rustic hideaway—almost heaven.
It smelled of wood in its purest, sweetest form. A lovely living room welcomed me with a big comfy couch and what felt to me like a writer’s desk in a quiet corner. The bedroom had the kind of king-size bed you immediately have to dive into and swim around in.
The beautiful bathroom felt like a mountain lodge spa. There was even a private deck with Adirondack chairs. If there wasn’t so much fun to be had outside, I could’ve been content spending a whole day inside.
On my way east to Virginia, I visited New River Gorge National Park highlights, Grandview Overlook and Sandstone Falls. They were spectacular and well worth the detour.
The roads were tree-lined and winding—not always my favorite to drive, but by my second day, they had grown on me. My adventure vacation in West Virginia changed me. It opened me up to new interests, new opportunities, new adventurous pursuits.
I wasn’t expecting to fall for the Mountain State the way I did, but my time at Adventures on the Gorge had everything to do with it. Before I was even back on US-19, I knew I was leaving a piece of my heart in West Virginia.