Colorado Adventure: Zip Line the Royal Gorge

June 24 2014, 8:30 AM

Not all who migrate to Colorado are thrill-seekers. Take me, for example: I never learned to ski or snowboard, don’t like roller coasters, and was once accused of trying to break fingers when I sought comfort in a hand-squeeze during a plane takeoff. More often than not, I avoid the stomach-drop that adrenaline junkies chase; it’s simply too much for my nervous system. Which is why zip lining has never been on my agenda. 

It’s amazing what a GoPro will make you do, though.

When an opportunity to play with 5280’s new camera arose, I took up the challenge. Zip lining, which may be more closely identified with leisurely Costa Rican vacations than Colorado’s list of daredevil hobbies, hardly qualifies as extreme. But, for me, it was the perfect test for the shiny, new piece of equipment and my nerves.

I made a reservation with Royal Gorge Zip Line Tours in Cañon City, a two-hour drive for a late Sunday morning “classic” tour, their most basic zip line course. I rose early Sunday morning, packed a day bag, dressed myself in the recommended attire (jeans, sneakers, and a T-shirt), and even talked a friend, who shares my hatred of heights, into coming with me. Minutes after I’d completed the last pen stroke on my waiver, I found myself strapped into a harness that stretched from my shoulders to thighs. My palms started to sweat.

“Has anyone ever died?” I half-joked with one of our two tour guides, Quinn, as he tightened my harness’ straps. “I’ve only lost three people,” he replied sarcastically.

Funny guy.

Fortunately, Royal Gorge zip line tours do not actually span across the 1,200-foot chasm. The classic tour is made up of nine “courses,” or nine zip lines, with some light hiking in between. The second tour option is an extreme course, which has longer, higher lines, and touts “North America’s fastest zip line course,” (up to 60 miles per hour), as well as a 65-foot drop, where thanks to a quickJump free fall device—you get the sensation of freefalling while remaining in a controlled state. (Ummm, no thank you.)

Newbies like me—and the four other people in my group—start out with a zip lining 101 course on a line just four feet off the ground. Our guides walked each of us through how to grip the cable correctly (left hand on bottom, right on top), how to brake (something no one on our team ever had to do), how to self-rescue, and other basics.

The introductory lesson helped dry my palms. The line was always steady, and there was an instructor on either end to help us mount and dismount. They made it incredibly easy—so that all we had to do was hang back and enjoy the ride. 

From here, each course got a little higher...and a little longer. As the group became more comfortable, the short hikes in between lines became brainstorming sessions for different positions we could contort our bodies into as we flew down the lines. There’s the Superman, the Cannonball, the Board (which all pretty much look like what they sound like). By my third zip line, the process of leaping into my harness, and leaning back to enjoy the skyline felt natural and easy.

The last line is the longest—about 1,200 feet—and is a double, so two people can race each other. The guides insist you make bets; my friend and I wagered a shot of whiskey. We giggled as we leapt off the stage to cover our residual butterflies. Side-by-side the entire way, we approached the end of the 1,200-foot run and my competitive side took over. I rolled up into my trusty cannonball position, and whizzed through the finish just milliseconds before she did. Of course, I’d already claimed the real victory that day—in fact, we both had—by simply strapping on the harness in the first place.


Know Before You Go:

  • The tour lasts about two hours and involves some light hiking. So hydrate beforehand and make use of the two or three water stations that are planted along the way.
  • If you're going on a sunny day, wear sunscreen and sunglasses.
  • If you really want to, you can wear shorts, but if you’re like me and would rather avoid a "Britney moment" (term courtesy of one of our guides), skip the cutoffs. Important note: Wear jeans, not leggings, unless they’re thick. Thin leggings are unlikely to treat you, or your on-lookers, very kindly.
  • Pay the $35 for photos at the end. Memories, people.
  • Bring a little cash—five bucks should be fine—to tip your guide at the end.
  • Leave everything you can in the car. I showed up with a backpack filled with a camera, a smartphone, and a water bottle. I took none of it along, and didn’t miss anything. You can bring a backpack if you'd like—you wear it over the harness once you’re strapped up—but anything in an unzipped pocket—like, say, a cell phone—is liable to be lost. While Royal Gorge Zip Line Tours hasn’t had any human casualties, the same can’t be said for smart phones; plenty have perished here.

Watch my compilation of GoPro footage below. Note: This video is personal and not a 5280 production. 

Follow digital assistant editor Jerilyn Forsythe on Twitter at @jlforsyt.