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Vacation thrills

Zip lines add excitement to California getaways

By CARY ORDWAY

Zip lines are growing in popularity throughout California as riders discover the experience is exhilarating, yet family-friendly. The lines don't take quite as much daring as say an E Ticket roller coaster, but the thrills are still there and will leave you wanting more.

In recent years, several zip lines have become available in tourist areas around the state. New zip lines have been built in the San Diego area as well as on Catalina Island and in Gold Country at a well-known tourist attraction called Moaning Cavern. What all these zip lines have in common is the wow factor that brings in young and old alike. There is no special athletic skill required -- you just need to be under a certain weight and willing to dangle up to six stories in the air. Here are three California zip line experiences:

San Diego Zoo Safari Park

Visitors who look skyward at San Diego Zoo Safari Park are now seeing more than the usual assortment of exotic birds. Up in the sky about six stories above the brown hillside is a new kind of flying species soaring overhead at about 40 miles per hour, swooping to a sudden stop atop a platform the park has built especially for the species' arrival.

These creatures might logically be called the Smiling, Laughing Zip Line Riders because invariably that's what they do when they finish their breathtaking two-thirds-mile flight from a perch high above the hillside.

The San Diego Zoo Safari Park's Flightline ride is attracting kids and adults of nearly all ages who want to try out the latest tourism craze. Travelers nowadays are -- you might say -- jumping at the chance to fly down a mountain with nothing but a wire and a pulley protecting them from a very unpleasant fall to earth.

The zip lines are part thrill ride, part scenic adventure and can cost upwards of a million dollars to build. But locations that have installed them are finding they have a wide appeal and give visitors just one more reason to visit their particular area.

So what's the Safari Park zip line like? We'd never “flown” before so we visited the San Diego Zoo Safari Park and scheduled the 90-minute experience as part of our day at the park.

As is always the case with adventure rides like this, the first step is signing the waivers -- legal forms that remind you the activity can be dangerous and requiring you to admit that no one is holding a gun to your head to make you go. You also have to be over 75 pounds and under 250 pounds. If you're too light-weight, you won't have enough propulsion and if you're too heavy -- one assumes anyway -- you will be going too fast, which is probably not a good thing.

Then it was onto the instruction phase of our adventure. We were handed our harnesses, which are kind of like big diapers with cables and connectors to hook onto our metal trolley -- the thing that has the rolling wheel that attaches to the wire. Instructions are simple because there are just two positions for you to know -- your soaring position and your landing position. There are hand signals for both and, as you come in for your landing, an attendant will signal to you just the right time to change to your landing position.

Just like skiing, there is a beginner hill for the Flightline beginner -- a kind of warm-up ride to get you accustomed to the feel of flying down the wires. Our ride down the beginner hill was quick and uneventful -- although the one thing that is kind of startling is the braking system that has your trolley hitting a succession of blocks that have been carefully arranged according to your weight. The more you weigh, the further out your braking begins. When you brake there is a loud clanging sound as your trolley hits that series of blocks.

Next the park puts you into a truck and takes you up to the launch platform, which is well to the back of the Safari Park property.

The two-thirds mile Flightline ride is thrilling, but it does go by quickly. You gain speed throughout the first half of the ride before it starts to level off a bit. The whizzing of the pulley against the wire gets louder and louder and you start to sense that even minor changes in your body posture can start to turn you sideways -- so you freeze in your soaring position, legs completely out and apart, shoulders forward. In just a minute or so, it's already time to shift to your landing posture, leaning way back, again with legs spread and apart. And then it's over.

For more information on San Diego Zoo Safari Park, phone (619) 231-1515 or visit www.sandiegozoo.org/park.

Catalina Island

One of the best ways for California residents to pretend they're visiting some far-off, exotic destination -- but save considerable time and money -- is to visit one of California's true gems, Santa Catalina Island.

Just 26 miles off the Mainland, Catalina may as well be in Spain or the Greek Isles because the charm is apparent from the moment your boat glides into Avalon Bay, a panorama of luxury yachts often populated by young, beautiful people, surrounded by the dramatic hills of the harbor where homes and villas are perched almost on each other, almost every single one commanding a spectacular view of the bay.

There are many tours on the island offered by the Santa Catalina Company but the latest and greatest addition to the tours is the Zip Line Eco Tour, one of only a few zip lines in California and, in this case, one of the most scenic. If you've watched reality shows like the Amazing Race, it seems like a zip line is thrown in somewhere along the route every season. That's because riding a zip line is big on thrills, but considered safe because of the extensive safety measures built in.

On Catalina, riders reach speeds of up to 40 miles an hour on a series of five zip lines that take riders across Descanso Canyon more than 300 feet above the canyon floor. Riders also learn something about the unique flora, fauna and history of the island by reading interpretive signs along the way. By all accounts, the Catalina zip line -- which opened spring 2010 -- is a resounding success.

Also on the list of possible Catalina activities are such experiences as Snuba diving where you are able to dive and breathe underwater without heavy diving equipment -- and without any prior diving experience. If you'd rather stay out of the water, the Undersea Tour takes you in a semi-submersible where the windows are below the surface of the ocean and you're able to view sea life much like you would if you were diving.

There are several tours into the island's interior and you can travel in off-road four-wheel-drive vehicles or in vintage buses. On a previous visit we took an informative sometimes hair-raising journey 31 miles into the island's interior. Lasting about four hours, this tour gave us an entirely new perspective on an island we'd never really bothered to fully explore. Spectacular views were just the beginning; the rugged interior holds many surprises for visitors who think the edge of Avalon is where the sightseeing stops.

HOW: Call the Catalina Chamber for a complete list of transportation and lodging options. Phone (310) 510-1520 or visit www.DiscoverCatalina.com.

Moaning Cavern

If you're headed for Gold Country, there's a zip line waiting for you at Moaning Cavern. We love to explore the many historical attractions near Sonora, Angels Camp and other small towns along Highway 49. Between Angels Camp and the Columbia State Historical Park we came across a unique diversion for those who want an unforgettable experience.

We stopped to visit Moaning Cavern, about four miles east of Angels Camp, where you have the chance to walk 100 feet down a spiral staircase into one of the largest caverns in the state. At one time, it was just a hole in the ground that was first discovered by local Indians who would hear a moaning sound coming from the opening. Some would accidentally step into the hole and plunge to their deaths. Today tourists relish the chance to see the beautiful formations far under the California ground.

Moaning Cavern has two 1,500-foot zip lines, plenty long enough to give you a thrill. These twin zip lines allow visitors to "race" each other at speeds up to 40 miles per hour over the treetops. It's similar to canopy tours offered in Costa Rica and other exotic locales.

Visitors cross a 60-foot long sky bridge to get to the launch tower, and then they are strapped into a full-body climbing harness and rigged to the cable. You just step off the platform and you're speeding to the landing tour a quarter mile away. The operators say this thrill ride is available to anyone in good health and between 70 and 280 pounds. All you need, they say, is courage.

For more information on Moaning Cavern, call 209-736-2708 or visit www.caverntours.com.

Photos, from top: Soaring at San Diego Zoo Safari Park; take-off platform at Safari Park; beautiful vistas on Catalina zip line

Photos by Cary and Sandi Ordway; Catalina photo courtesy Catalina Chamber



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