Canopy Tours

It was probably only a matter of time before some intrepid kid (or kid wannabe) figured out how to combine all of the best elements of childhood -- tree houses, zip lines and the pure freedom and bliss that comes with safely free falling through the air -- and packaged them for sale.

In this case, the package is billed as a canopy tour -- a series of platforms, zip lines and other challenge course and climbing wall features allowing you to literally soar through the canopy of your favorite forest, rain forest, or mountain glade with the greatest of ease. Just like that intrepid man on the flying trapeze.

To date these canopy tours have been just that, “tours” marketed and sold by major travel tour operators to places like Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Mexico, Belize, Jamaica and Africa.

According to Cindy Loose, a staff writer for the Washington Post who covered this phenomenon in her Sunday, November 13, 2005 column titled “What’s That Line?,” around 1 million people have lined up to take an Original Canopy Tour (one of the oldest Costa Rican operators) since 1997 and, in Costa Rica, the experience has become so popular their tourist board now believes 25 percent of all visitors schedule a tour during their stay.

Now, this phenomenon is coming to America. Literally.

Billed as the “Next Big Thing,” manufacturers and operators are targeting ski resorts, parks and recreation departments, children’s camps and schools – organizations who are already experimenting with climbing walls, ropes and challenge courses and zip lines.

The first such installation recently opened at Spring Mountain Ski Area in Spring Mount, Pennsylvania. Their tour (which cost approximately $500,000 to build and install) allows visitors to ride the resorts lifts 420 feet to the top of the mountain, and after a short hike, clip into their climbing harnesses and, with trained guides at their side, shimmy up cargo nets, cross a variety of bridges and follow a series of zip lines across the open space high above the ski run.

Through it all, participants learn about the local flora and fauna and the history of the mountain, turning what could be a pure adrenaline charged experience into something more meaningful. The experience ends with participants working their way up a forty-foot climbing wall and then rappelling to the ground.

Like its precursors, canopy tours are packaged as excellent team building experiences as well as personal confidence builders. And, they can be used to attract a new (or larger) audience to particularly scenic parkland.

At Spring Mountain (a private, for profit corporation), the reason for the canopy tour was strictly commercial (get more people on the mountain during the off-season), but state parks and other public agencies (including forestry conservation facilities) are considering adding canopy tours as a low impact way to get participants into the forest on a regular basis (and possibly raise additional revenue).

If this sounds good and you decide to investigate adding a canopy tour to your facility here are a couple of points to consider:

Only work with manufacturers who build to the Association for Challenge Course Technology’s rigorous zip line construction guidelines

Make sure your manufacturer use a single, galvanized steel line for his/her zip lines (like those found on a ski lift or suspension bridge) instead of the redundant rope line construction you typically find outside the US.

Check references and visit past projects to see if the manufacturer is capable of designing a low impact, aesthetically pleasing tour -- one that promotes the virtues of the forest instead of detracting from them.

In the end, canopy tours may or may not be an opportunity for your agency. Either way, it’s always nice to know about the “Next Big Thing” even if, for you, it isn’t.