If an Indiana Jones-style rope bridge over a 450-foot chasm gives you pause, hold onto your hat, Dr. Jones: You might not like what comes next.
At the newly reopened Seven Falls in Colorado Springs, a new zip line course promises to propel adventurers hundreds of feet above the namesake attraction – all while canyon walls zip past and a waterfall crashes beneath their dangling feet.
“You’ll finish with a 1,100-foot zip line and then a 1,800-foot zip line,” said Johnny “JT” Turman, a former arborist and high-rise construction worker who combines those skills in his work for Bonsai Design, the Grand Junction-based company that built The Broadmoor Soaring Adventure at Seven Falls.
The attraction will eventually offer two, five-zip line courses that can be ridden separately or together. Adding to the thrill are a pair of rope bridges that will span the canyon, giving visitors an extra dose of adrenaline as they trek from one descent to the next.
“Then there’s a 60-foot rappel that gets you down to the ground,” Turman added.
While the project at Seven Falls is only half finished – the part with the steel cable-supported rope bridges and mandatory rappel is still several weeks from being complete – it marks a splashy entrance into a booming nook of Colorado’s adventure sports industry.
Once the province of summer camps and boot camps, zip lines have become an increasingly popular thrill ride in Colorado, where they have popped up in cities along the Front Range and beyond, mirroring a nationwide surge.
Although designs vary, riding a zip line generally involves strapping on a harness secured to a pulley, then using a hand brake to control speed on the way down.
“Zip line purveyors point out that they’re fun, not too expensive to construct, and safe,” according to the 2013 El Paso County Parks Master Plan, citing a National Public Radio report about the rise of zip lines and aerial adventure parks across the Northwest.
El Paso County has at least two other zip line adventure courses.
Adventures Out West in Manitou Springs offers zip lines along with Segways and hot-air balloon rides; RushCube in Ramah, northeast of Colorado Springs, includes zip lines on a long list of custom adventures, including hang gliding and learning how to fly a plane.
In May, a 1.5-mile-long zip-line course opened at Phillip S. Miller Park in Castle Rock, the latest amenity in a lavish megapark that also boasts a 7-mile running and mountain biking trail, a miniature version of the Manitou Incline and an expansive, $21 million fieldhouse equipped with a trampoline center, video golf, artificial sports fields and a pool with a miniature water park.
Some of the oldest zip lines in the state include Captain Zipline’s Lost Canyon Zipline Tour near Salida and Soaring Tree Top Adventures in Durango, which both opened in 2005.
When it comes to sheer thrills, it’s hard to top the Royal Gorge Zipline Tours, which offers 20 zip lines encompassing what it bills as “three miles of exhilarating adventure.”
On the company’s “classic tour,” which is $89 per person, riders can achieve speeds of up to 45 mph during a two-hour guided tour, according to its website.
The company’s Extreme Zip Line Tour, $139 per person, boasts a single zip line spanning a third of a mile 1,700 feet off the ground.
Contributing to the boom in zip lines in Colorado was a 2014 change in Forest Service guidelines, which encouraged summer use of ski areas for concerts, biking trails and zip lines. Copper Mountain, Crested Butte Mountain Resort and Vail and Breckenridge are among the ski areas that have installed zip lines.
Increasingly, zip lines are being paired with other seasonal tourist attractions as a way of diversifying business, as at Colorado Adventure Center, of Idaho Springs and Glenwood Springs. Six years after adding zip lines and aerial adventure parks in each of its locations, the attractions now account for 40 to 50 percent of the company’s revenue, said Kevin Schneider, the president and chief operating officer.
“It’s just a great, exhilarating experience,” he said, adding that customers use zip lines for an adrenaline fix when the water is too tepid for a satisfactory trip on the rafts. “It’s overcoming fears they never would have before.”
Seven Falls had initially planned to build its zip lines in tree tops – as part of what’s known as a “canopy soaring experience” – but they decided against it because the forests are susceptible to insect infestations. Instead, steel rods were drilled into the rocks and secured with grout, said Turman.
Aside from the rope bridges, the second half of the course “involves a bunch of cliffside platforms,” raising the bar on perceived risk.
“It’s just a lot more exposure to heights,” he said. Some treetop platforms were built for guides to hone their rescue protocols, and for guests to learn the basics of their harnesses and brakes before heading onto the zip lines.
Keeping customers safe at Seven Falls is the priority, and thrills were designed with safety in mind, Turman said.
“Our goal in this industry is to have a higher level of perceived risk than actual risk,” said Turman. “It’s a safe way in which people can push their adrenaline while still maintaining a high level of risk management.”
At least six people have been injured riding zip lines in Colorado since August 2012, when the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment’s Division of Oil and Public Safety began supervising the industry, according to figures provided by the agency.
In October 2014, a zip line rider at Arkansas Valley Adventures in Idaho Springs west of Denver suffered 11 broken ribs, a collapsed lung, kidney damage and hemorrhaged liver after hitting a tree at full speed. The company did not report the accident as required, agency documents show.
The zip lines were shut down and the company was assessed a $5,000 fine and ordered to perform a number of corrective actions. Arkansas Valley Adventures reopened its zip line tours, receiving a permit to operate after paying its fine and making the necessary changes, said Greg Johnson, public safety program manager in the Division of Oil and Public Safety.
But with thousands of riders and what Bill Thoennes, a spokesman for the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, called “a few” accidents, it’s likely that many zippers will forgo worst-case scenarios in their pursuit of speed, height and a one-of-a-kind experience.
On that score, Jack Damioli, president and CEO of The Broadmoor, is convinced that Seven Falls might just have an edge on the competition – at least, that was Damioli’s verdict after braving a few wild rides last week with former CEO Steve Bartolin.
“To soar over the canyon above midnight falls and to see some of the rock formations there, it’s just spectacular,” Damioli said.
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