My husband is just the best – he spoils me rotten! This past Christmas, my present was an April zip line adventure at Historic Banning Mills complete with a stay in a tree house! Having a tree house was a dream of mine as a little girl and I’ve loved every zip line I’ve been on, so I’ve been incredibly excited about this adventure for months. This past weekend, it was finally time.
Historic Banning Mills is a family-owned retreat and adventure center in Whitesburg, Georgia, just west of Atlanta. The Holder family bought the overgrown and neglected land on the “lost gorge” of Snake Creek in 1997. In 1998 they started a bed and breakfast and then built on Mike Holder’s background as a 35-year facilitator for high element team building and mountaineering, including a stint in US Army Rangers, to build the Screaming Eagle Zip Line Canopy Tour. In 2006 they survived a devastating fire in which they lost pretty much everything, but they rebuilt within a year and now are a booming business on 1200 gorgeous and protected acres.
We had reservations for Saturday night in the tree house, and a 1:00 Eastern zip line slot so we planned on leaving the house early Saturday and driving straight there. It’s a 3 to 3.5 hour drive from the Huntsville. We took I-65 to Birmingham, then I-20 east towards Atlanta to exit 11 in Bremen, Georgia. From there, it’s a bit of winding through rural and small town Georgia, but Google Maps did a fine job of getting us where we needed to go. They recommended that you arrive about 30 minutes before your slot to get yourself checked in. This was good advice. There were a lot of people there checking in at the same time and I think only one staff member at that desk. Even with the line, though, it didn’t take very long to fill out the paperwork and get our wristbands. Then it was a short wait for our guides to come collect us and walk us all up to the safety training area.
Banning Mills is run by the same company as the zip line at Lake Guntersville State Park, so they have the same continuous closed belay system and high ultimate tensile strength cabling, making this a very very safe operation. The guides all seem like very laid-back young kids, but they are all CPR, Wilderness First Responder, and High Rescue Techniques trained. They ran us through the safety briefing, handed out our gear, answered questions, showed us how the belay system worked, demonstrated what to do if you didn’t quite make it all the way to a platform, and then took a group picture and we were off.
Our group was 11 people, ranging in age from maybe 10 to, well, I’m pretty sure Chet and I were the old farts in our group. However, the other group right behind us included a woman doing the course by herself — for her 81st birthday present! She explained that every year she does an adventurous thing in celebration of her birthday. Last year was riding elephants. Other years she’s gone up in a hot air balloon, parachuted out of a plane, and gone paragliding. This is who I want to be when I grow up!
The very first thing we had to do was walk across a “sky bridge” that led from a pavilion, over the parking lot, and to our first tower. A “sky bridge” is just any one of a number of different ways of walking from point A to point B, but waaaaayyyy up in the air. More on these later, but this one was a pair of cables strung about 2.5 feet apart, with boards the width of 2x4s attached across them for treads. There were gaps of about 2 feet between the boards, we were probably 15 feet in the air, and the tower-end got pretty steep, but as these things go it wasn’t too bad. Then we climbed up the first tower and headed down our first zip line.
The whole group made it over, eventually. I didn’t brake well enough and came in pretty fast, as did a few others in the group. The youngest kid in the group started braking too early and didn’t make it all the way to the platform. The guide ended up going out to “rescue” him – which was more embarrassing for the kid than anything. Our group was apparently fast learners, though. I don’t think anybody had any issues for the rest of the tour.
After the first zip line, Level #1 included 8 more zips that zig-zagged us through the forest about 60 feet above the ground. A group of horseback riders passed under us at one point, which reminded me that Banning Mills offers more than just the zip lines. They have horseback rides, kayaks, a pool, obstacle courses, a climbing wall, a free-fall tower, and hiking trails too. One of our last zip lines our guides introduced as “Sing or Swing.” We had to sing a song as we zipped along, or he’d help us to “swing”. At this point, we were all seasoned zip liners, and I think we only had one singer!
Chet had signed us up for level #3, aka “Flight Pattern PLUS Zip Line Canopy Tour.” There are four adventure packages you can take and they all build on one another. Level #2 is Level #1 plus stuff. Level #3 is Level #2 plus stuff, Level #4 is Level #3 plus stuff. There are also several “Add-On” options, including the 3400 foot Flight of the Falcon and the half-mile-long Screaming Eagle. These can only be added on if you’ve already bought the Level #3 or Level #4 package, though. Basically, this means that if you go to Banning Mills, you’ll always have to start at Level #1 and work up through the levels in order to get to where you can “add on” the longer zips. This is the only thing I didn’t like about the whole experience, honestly. They have a great setup, a beautiful location, really really fun stuff to do, but they’re priced in a way that discourages frequent repeat visits.
Back to the zipping after a water and potty break, Level #2 starts off with us pairing off for a race down parallel zip lines. I raced Chet (of course) and won! I’m not sure I should be happy about that, but he gallantly explained that he got turned around backwards part way down the line, which killed his aerodynamics. I didn’t see that, actually, as he was turned back around by the time he got to the end, but I’m choosing to believe him. After the fun of the zip line racing, though, Level #2 turned into lots and lots of sky bridges. Nine sky bridges, to be exact. We went over some just like our first one, then advanced to the kind where you just had a single cable to walk on, then progressed to the kind with a single cable and a freaking tree in the middle you had to navigate around, ARGH! Of course we were cabled in the whole time and safe as could be, but it was still nerve-wracking, and not helped by the guides playfully asking what kind of music we liked so that they could bounce the bridges to various rhythms. Their favorite was hip hop. Of course. After the sky bridges there was one last zip line that took us across the Snake Creek Gorge, which was beautiful!
After another water and potty break, Level #3 started with the 1500 foot Big Daddy zip line, where we were told we’d reach speeds of up to 50 mph. I have no way of knowing if we did, actually, but I can say we went DANG fast. It was a blast! After a short zip back down to ground level and a hike through the woods, we came to the last zip line and my very favorite one, Swoop. This one is a 900 foot long line that takes you right down a length of Snake Creek. It is an absolutely gorgeous setting!
All too soon, the zip line adventures were over. We’d been zipping and sky bridging for about 3 hours. We thought about adding on one of the longer zips, but honestly we were a little tired, plus I was eager to see my tree house, so we skipped it this time. We packed more into this adventure than would fit in a single blog, so the rest of the story will have to wait until next time. Stay tuned, and in the meantime, be sure to check out the links in this blog for videos of our adventures.