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Marla Hardee Milling
zorbing in pigeon forge Climb inside a giant inflatable globe that’s tucked inside a larger ball and roll down a hillside. It’s called Zorb and it’s one of the newest adventure sports out of New Zealand. Pigeon Forge, Tenn., boasts the first Zorb site in North America. There are some choices here – you can be strapped in a safety harness inside a dry ball known as a Zorbit or you can spin and slosh your way down the mountainside in a Zydro ball that’s partially filled with water. Strapped participants careen down the slope solo while the water balls can carry up to three people at a time. If you stand at the top of the run and lose your nerve, they’ll give you a refund. The daredevils who do accept the challenge can relive the experience on video. A camera is tucked inside the ball to record all the fun. The Pigeon Forge site offers a straight track and a more challenging zigzag course. The Zorbit travels only the straight path. Check it out at zorb.com. ~Marla Hardee Milling
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BRRRRR! A Polar Plunge contestant is caught in an extreme moment before hitting the icy waters of Chetola Lake. Jumping in the freezing water is part of a charity benefit during January’s Winterfest at Blowing Rock, N.C.
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Helen Moss Davis
HOLD ON TIGHT: Hiking can be extreme when using ladders to climb rocks in the mountains. Here, hikers tackle one of the difficult trails at Grandfather Mountain, N.C.
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Distl Public Relations
Beech Mountain Resort
HIGH FLYER: A mountain biker takes off on the mile-high-elevation trails of Beech Mountain Resort at Beech Mountain, N.C.
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Wilderness at the Smokies
WHOOSH! A rider takes off on the Wild Vortex, an extreme water ride in Sevierville, Tenn., at Wilderness at the Smokies.
Well, pretty extreme. Here’s your guide to four seasons full of zip lines and white water, biking and hiking and a whole lot more.
Jack sharp, jr., never intended to make Sky Valley Zip Tours an easy course in North Carolina’s High Country. This civil engineer harnessed nine ziplines, a controlled truss-jump and a walk across a 120-foot cable bridge over a waterfall.
Sharp set up drops purposely to provide a pump for your adrenaline at Sky Valley (SkyValleyZipTours.com), perched on the outskirts of both Boone and Blowing Rock, at an elevation of 3,760 feet above sea level.
“You feel like you’re a flying squirrel,” says zipline rider Tim Cable of Jonesborough, Tenn., “because you’re flying around in the trees all the time.”
That’s the intent: Go extreme, says Sharp. “You’re out in the middle of a canyon where the wind blows. You’re up in the trees, and you feel the trees swing. And, we had a hawk who would fly by and fly next to people on one of our lines.”
Open since 2012, Sky Valley is among many zip line operations hanging from the tall trees in the mountains of the south. Among others:
• Hawksnest: ride above a grassy mountain plain during summer, as well as winter above snow-tubers, at Seven Devils, N.C. (800-822-4295).
• Chattooga Ridge Canopy Tours: soar above a lake in South Carolina’s upstate (864-482-0164).
• Fire Wire Zip Lines: follow down a steep 1,800 feet at Blue Ridge, Ga. (706-946-1010).
“A lot of people want to be involved in high-adventure outdoor sports,” Sharp says. “And I think zip-lining is that perfect mix between going on a hike and going rock climbing or hang-gliding.”
Going extreme can range from wild to mild It all depends on your personal level, Sharp says.
For skiing or snowboarding, hit a black diamond slope at Sugar Mountain Resort, like Whoopdedoo and Boulder Dash, in Banner Elk, N.C. “It’s the steepness that makes them extreme,” says Kim Jochl, Sugar’s marketing director. “Whoopdedoo is long and wider but it’s straight down the fall line.”
Now, get out your bike. This is spring, going on summer, and it’s time for the challenge of riding a lift and riding back down the mountain. That’s what’s going on at ski-slopes including Sugar Mountain (800-784-2768) and Beech Mountain Resort (800-438-2093) when grass reappears.
“And we’ve had international competitions here at Sugar,” Jochl says. “The cross-country (cyclists) rode to the top of the mountain three times. It was over 25 miles, and it was 1,200-foot vertical climbing per lap. And then the downhill started at the top of the mountain, and it was as fast as you can to the finish line.”
The USA Cycling Gravity Nationals has been held on the mountain biking course at Beech Mountain Resort. “Have you seen the guys mountain bike off this mountain? Holy cow,” says Beech Mountain’s Candi McClamma. “Unbelievable athleticism.”
Bike riding, you’ll see, just ain’t what it used to be.
Thousands take the shuttle from Damascus, Va., to the top of the Virginia Creeper Trail and ride 17 miles, going downhill. It’s fun. Take the family. But, even that’s a little mild.
For a real challenge, find Lawrence Dye, the man who has cycled more than 167,000 miles on the Virginia Creeper in all kinds of weather, sunshine or snow. This retired teacher leads occasional rides that start in Abingdon, ride uphill to Whitetop Station and then roll back to Abingdon on the Virginia Creeper, all in a single day – for a total of 66 miles (VaCreepertrail.us).
Just over the border in North Carolina, you can grind through more extensive biking bonanzas, such as:
• Blood, Sweat & Gears, a 100-mile loop cycling ride beginning and ending in Valle Crucis Elementary School on June 22 (BloodSweatAndGears.org)
• Assault on Mt. Mitchell, held on May 22, with cyclists starting in downtown Spartanburg, S.C., and pedaling over 100 miles, with over 10,000 feet of climbing to reach Mount Mitchell, the highest mountain east of the Mississippi (www.FreeWheelers.info/Assaults).
But if you can’t make those dates, or following a stream of cyclists just does not fit your style, go pedal among the bumpy rocks and roots of nature: The new Rocky Knob Park (ExploreBooneArea.com) features 10 miles of the mountain bike challenges near Boone, N.C., zooming through rhododendron tunnels, along U.S. 421, and consistently luring avid cyclists from nearby Appalachian State University.
“I would call this trail system advanced, for sure,” says Eric Woolridge, director of tourism planning for Watauga County, N.C. “It’s just because of the terrain, the rock, the grunt factor.”
NOTHING BEATS a good hike. Just ask anyone who has gone to the extreme of walking the entire length of the Appalachian Trail – more than 2,100 miles – or just the length of the AT in Virginia: about 550 miles.
Smaller challenges include the strenuous Pine Mountain Trail, stretching 44 isolated miles along the Kentucky-Virginia border. Along the way, you’ll pass Birch Knob, a nearly unknown overlook atop a boulder bluff in the Jefferson National Forest (www.DickensonCountyVirginia.org).
Atop Beech Mountain, N.C., the Emerald Outback trail system (www.EmeraldOutback.com) follows 10 miles at up to 5,400 feet in elevation. “It’s an aggressive topography at an aggressive elevation. You’ve got the double whammy,” says McClamma, owner of Archer’s Inn on Beech Mountain. “If you’re at 5,000 feet or above, you reach those blood doping levels.”
Just off the Blue Ridge Parkway, and right around the corner from the famous Mabry Mill, look for the DeHart Botanical Gardens along US-58 (VisitPatrickCounty.org). At this remote site in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Highlands, visitors are asked to sign in and grab a map before taking off in the woods. Known for its wild bears, the area includes a 14-foot-high waterfall, a cave-like cliff and the ruins of an old home place.
To see the gardens, prepare for a gut-grinding hike, as you lose about 1,000 feet in elevation — and then, gasp, climb practically straight up the mountain as the roundtrip trail spans about five miles and shows little mercy, having a lack of switchbacks.
“This is the most strenuous hike I’ve done in Patrick County,” says 62-year-old John Reynolds, a local historian. “But I guess you get there quicker because it’s a direct route, going straight up, instead of zigzagging.”
Of course, we also have what your grandfather wants to do but maybe cannot do anymore: climb the ladders and take on the challenging cliffs of Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina (GrandFather.com). Trails include navigating rugged terrain by ladders and cables at this classic destination, just off the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina’s High Country.
“There are a lot of rocks. And if it’s the least little bit damp, those rocks are slippery,” says Penn Dameron, president of the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation. “It’s a moderately difficult hike to get to the first ladder. Then it gets to be just difficult. It’s very strenuous. It’s become a rite of passage for a lot of people to do that climb.”
PUSHING YOURSELF does not mean hurting yourself – physically or mentally, says Rick Bayes, the visitors services director at Ace Adventure Resort (AceRaft.com) at Minden, W.Va., one of the many one-stop shops for going to the extremes.
“Part of the initiative is to get people outside of their comfort zone, especially if they keep building,” Bayes says. “But we don’t push them where they’re so uncomfortable that they’re not happy anymore.”
Ace provides challenges for practically all ages on ziplines; rollicking rides on four-wheelers; rock-climbing; a high ropes course; horseback riding; and, yes, still more. This rustic resort is also one of the primary outfitters for braving the sun and the waves on the Class IV-V rapids of the New and the Gauley, two West Virginia rivers that have proven to be a real rush since the first commercial rafting business cast off in this rugged region in the late 1960s.
More than West Virginia, of course, boasts wild waters.
Along the Kentucky-Virginia line, the Breaks Interstate Park (276-865-4413, BreaksPark.com) features Class V rapids on the Russell Fork of the Big Sandy River when water is released from the Flannagan Dam during weekends in October.
Kentucky’s border with Tennessee is known for the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, with one rapid famously known as the Washing Machine on the Cumberland Plateau (606-376-5073, NPS.gov/biso/index.htm).
We also have many extreme possibilities for rafting in Tennessee, including a couple sections of the Nolichucky River at the North Carolina border. Here, rafting guide Ben Elrod hops on shore near Erwin, Tenn., and exhales as he caps another classy cruise for USA Raft (866-872-7238, MyUSARaft.com).
“With the gorge, I can use the rocks and currents,” Elrod says. “But you’re definitely paddling. Those rocks can be your best friend or your worst-est enemy.”
Paddling the gorge means navigating a technical obstacle course over Class III-IV rapids called On the Rocks and Rooster Tail. Depending on water levels and how fast the river is running, floating the gorge can take as long as six hours or as little as 55 minutes.
“It’s an inherently risky activity,” says raft guide Les Lollar. “The day you think you’re going to go down and not have a chance to fall out, that’s the day it’s going to bite you.”
IF YOU WANT a different kind of classy adventure, and getting wet is not really your style, try this: Chattanooga’s River Gorge Explorer, a floating outpost of the Tennessee Aquarium (800-262-0695). This Catamaran runs as fast as 50 mph, giving an adventure through what trip narrator John Dever calls the “grand canyon” of the Tennessee River.
It is no casual cruise. Wakes splash on the sides of the 70-passenger boat, producing a thrill ride that doubles as an educational journey.
While you’re in Chattanooga do not forget to test your stomach on Lookout Mountain’s Incline Railway. And keep your seat; all you have to do is ride “America’s Most Amazing Mile.” Just before reaching an elevation of 2,100 feet above sea level, keep in mind that the rails do lean at an incline of 72.7 percent, giving this a claim as one of the steepest passenger railways in the world (RideTheIncline.com).
Upstream and across the mountains, the Tennessee Smokies is known for its growing number of water-themed rides. For 2013, Dollywood’s Splash Country is adding RiverRush, Tennessee’s first water roller coaster (Dollywood.com).
Nearby, Wilderness at the Smokies (WildernessAtTheSmokies.com) of Sevierville features a couple of indoor thrill rides at the Wild WaterDome: Runaway Canyon and the Storm Chaser. Outside, you’ll find a twisted tube, pulled into what looks like the shape of a pretzel. That’s the Wild Vortex – also known by its nickname, “Xtreme Slide.” The Wild Vortex chutes riders out a trap door and pushes them down a 39-foot vertical free-fall drop at speeds up to 40 mph. Whew!
A few other spots and stops that shake up the adventure meter:
• Go rock climbing. Try Table Rock State Park of Pickens, S.C., where you can climb by permit during fall months on the southeastern face of Table Rock Mountain (864-878-9813). Brave the sheer rock cliffs of Whiteside Mountain, with rises as much as 750 feet, in North Carolina’s Highlands District of the Nantahala National Forest (828-652-2144). Alabama’s Lookout Mountain area near Fort Payne features more opportunities to climb rocks and rappel at Little River Canyon National Preserve (256-845-9605).
• Want to try a triathlon? Well, there are many in the mountains, including the Adventure Rush Adrenaline Race on May 11 at Virginia’s Shenandoah River State Park and the Culpeper International Triathlon on Aug. 3 at Culpeper, Va. (TriFind.com).
• Maybe grinding the dirt and mud puddles on a four-wheeler is more your style. If so, check out the Hatfield-McCoy Trails of southern West Virginia (TrailsHeaven.com), featuring more than 500 miles to explore through ATV-friendly towns.
while we’re in West Virginia, you could also get ready and start training for the extreme sport of base-jumping during Bridge Day on Oct. 19 at the 876-foot-tall New River Gorge Bridge near Fayetteville (OfficialBridgeDay.com).
“Base-jumping is jumping with a parachute,” says Cindy Dragan, the assistant director of the New River Gorge Convention and Visitor Bureau. “To be a base-jumper at New River Gorge Bridge Day, you have to have had 100 parachute skydive jumps out of an airplane.”
If you’re really brave, and trustworthy, you could simply strap on to an experienced jumper and do tandem base-jumping - without all that high-flying action.
“That’s really a cool thing,” Dragan says. “Base-jumping and tandem base-jumping are starting to get to be more popular all the time. And, that’s pretty extreme.”