After the heat, humidity and general misery of the last few weeks, it was wonderful to have a weekend with milder temperatures, low humidity, and blue skies. It was a weekend where being outside was going to be a pleasure, not a sweaty sticky trial. As I looked over our list of outdoor adventure ideas , the one that sounded best to me for such weather was a return to Guntersville State Park to try out Level II of their Screaming Eagle Zipline. We’d done Level I way back in July of 2016 but always intended to come back once they got Level II up and running, and this was the perfect weekend to go swooping through the air above Lake Guntersville again. Decision made, I hopped on the website and booked us on to the 10 am Level II group for the following morning. We paid online in advance and got an email confirmation so we were good to go.
Just as a recap, Guntersville State Park has partnered with Historic Banning Mills, a zipline canopy tour specialist outfit out of Georgia, to provide zipline adventures in the state park. This includes the use of their patented closed belay system which keeps you safely clipped in at all times while on the course. I really like this feature because there is absolutely zero chance you will ever accidentally fall off the course. That’s very comforting when you are waaaayyy up high in the air on a teeny tiny platform, but more on that later. Chet and I have actually checked out Historic Banning Mills, too, so I can vouch for the fact that the equipment used is identical.
We arrived at the park just a little late, but the staff kindly checked us in anyway and ran us down to meet our group, who were just finishing up their training overview. We had a smaller group this time than we did last time, which had made the training go quicker. They quickly reviewed the safety rules with us, and we proved to them that we knew how to get on and off the belay system and we were good to go. There were three guys who looked to be in their twenties, me & Chet, and our guides Matt and Ashley. Just like their parent outfit, the levels at Guntersville State Park have to be run consecutively so even though we’d already run through Level I last time, we had to repeat Level I in order to reach the start of Level II. This was fine with me, though, because it meant more zipping! Level I has 10 zip lines and 4 suspension bridges. The longest line on the first level is 400 feet, and at the highest you are 80 feet off the ground. Level II includes the first 8 ziplines and 3 suspension bridges from level I, then adds on another 7 ziplines and 4 suspension bridges. I’m not going to go into details about level I (check our our previous blog – if you’re interested) – we’ll just pick up at the start of Level II. Level II starts out with a long zip across a fold in the land nearly above the campground area. Zipping down this longer line, with a clear view of the lake to my left was exhilarating! Most of the lines on Level II are long – several are over 2000 feet long. This first one wasn’t the longest but it was a great introduction to what was to come.
After landing from that first zipline, we came off the belay system and hiked a short way to our next tower. The trail took us through an overlook area with beautiful views down towards the campground and the lake beyond, but the guides promised stunning views ahead, so we didn’t linger long. Next we climbed a tower and headed across a suspension bridge. These bridges consist of a set of parallel cables at foot level, with 2x4s spaced a foot or two apart strung between them. Above that there are two more parallel cables around shoulder height, then a single cable high overhead for your belay system connection. The first time we did Level I last year was the first time I’d ever had to do something like that and I have to confess it sort of terrified me. Knowing you’re safely clipped in is one thing. Looking down through gaps in the bridge to see the ground is 80 feet below is a whole other thing. This time, Chet and I were seasoned zippers and this type of suspension bridge didn’t phase us at all. After another set of two short zips, we came to the second suspension bridge on this level. This one was so steep that we just climbed it more like a ladder, which actually made it pretty easy. Finally, though, we came to my least favorite kind of suspension bridge, “seasoned” or not. It was one of the “tightrope” kinds. These have the same single cable overhead for the belay system, and the two shoulder level (ish) cables to grip onto for dear life, but the base is a single cable that you have to balance your feet on somehow to get yourself across, all the while going uphill because the other end is on a higher platform. These are the ones that can make my old broken ankle injury decide to make itself known. I don’t know why – something about the strain of balancing without having my whole foot flat on something I think – but I made it through this one with only a minor ankle twinge. Check out this video for a peek at what it’s like.
Next up was I think my favorite zip line of the whole course, though it was the one I messed up on the most. Up to this point, I’d been doing pretty well at following the directions the guides gave us about when to brake and that sort of thing. The group decided I was “the best” at all the landings. Until this one, anyway, where I totally blew it. This zip is the longest on Level II at 2100 feet, but it has an uphill section at the end – probably on purpose to bleed off some of the speed you pick up and make stopping possible. The guides told us to do the “Miley Cyrus Wrecking Ball” move and lay back as far as we could while tucking our legs up as close to our chest as we could. Apparently, I’m not very good at this maneuver (I’m sure Miley is relieved). I was not nearly as tucked as I should have been, and then I got turned sideways and had trouble pivoting myself back around without untucking even more. In the end, I slowed and stopped way short of the end of the zip line. Not to worry, the guides are prepared for this and have a pulley and line that they sling out to you so that they can drag you on in. This works well, usually. I saw it working well later on with some of the other zippers. Unfortunately, my brain did not actually catch on that the zipline had started going uphill, so when I stopped I guess I was thinking I would stay where I was. I didn’t grab on to the cable, and next thing I knew I was absolutely flying back up the zipline in the wrong direction! It was very disorienting. I eventually grabbed on to the cable to stop myself, but then had to haul myself hand over hand back uphill in the right direction in order to get close to the pulley. It was exhausting. You know, Chet and I love watching a TV show called American Ninja Warrior, where these absolutely incredible physical specimens – male and female – accomplish seemingly impossible feats of strength and balance. While I know I’d fall and fail in an instant on most of the obstacles those guys face, if I’d seen a contestant having to rest – twice! – while pulling themselves up a simple cable, I’m sure I would have scoffed at them and said something like “even I could do better than that.” Yeah right. Not so much, apparently. At any rate, I made it back to the pulley and the very kind Ashley pulled me on in the rest of the way. Check out this video to see Chet’s experience on this one.
This one was a ground landing, so I threaded myself off the belay system and made my way to a pavilion where we sat and had some water and took a bit of a rest. Soon, though, we were ready to go ahead up the next tower, which was a 250 foot giant. It is a beautifully made spiral staircase around what look to be two telephone poles stacked on top of each other. Since we were on the top of a ridge at this point, the views from the top were truly stunning. We had 360 degree views, most of which were lake. Gorgeous. The next zip line was another long one – probably in the 2000 foot range someplace – and I think was the one where we actually went the fastest. The guides told us that we could hit 55 mph and though I have no way of knowing if they were right, it did feel fast!
This was another one that required the “wrecking ball” configuration with a ground landing at the end, but this one I did better on. I didn’t make it the whole way, but I was closer, and didn’t stupidly go backwards, so that’s progress. Chet, however, fell a little short on his attempt, and I have his permission to include this video so that you can see the mechanics of rescuing somebody when this happens.
Next up was a short hike to our next tower, where we had another set of suspension bridges – a regular one and another tightrope one (yuck), then we zipped back across the valley towards the tall tower again. We had to hike a short ways from the landing zone to the tower, and again we took advantage of there being cold water available to stay hydrated. After a pretty brief rest, it was back up the tower again, this time taking off on a slightly different cable, but from the same platform. Once again – fabulous views! This was my final long zip and I think I finally managed to put it all together for a pretty reasonable landing. I don’t think they had to drag me in at all!
We had another short hike to a shorter tower, one short but fun zip, and a final zip named “Lil Sweet” where we had to brake the whole (short) way down to land on a big rock. After that, we hiked a short ways back to the equipment shack and our adventure was over. Before we went, I was wondering if Phase II would be worth the return trip. After experiencing it, I can tell you that my answer is “YES!”. The additional ziplines are much longer and faster than the first phase, so it’s a different experience, and the views can’t be beat.