Walking on Air
By Sam Boykin
Posted: Thursday, Oct. 31, 2013
If you like the idea of flying some 100 feet in the air at more than 60 mph, or walking across a shaky rope bridge over a gaping gorge, then Historic Banning Mills is the vacation destination for you.
The retreat and conservation center is located about 50 miles west of Atlanta along the winding Snake Creek Gorge, a tributary of the Chattahoochee River. The area was first inhabited by Creek and Cherokee nations, who lived in lodges made of pine poles and mud plaster. Later, starting in the mid-1800s, white settlers built a textile and paper mill village along Snake Creek, remnants of which are still there today.
For decades the historic site sat largely forgotten. But then, responding to an ad in the newspaper, Mike and Donna Holder bought the overgrown property in 1997. At the time, the couple was living in nearby Kennesaw, Ga., where Mike worked as a pilot and Donna a nurse. While Donna was doubtful about the purchase, Mike, a former Airborne Mountaineering Army Ranger who had years of construction experience, saw it as an opportunity to do something special.
Over the next several years the couple, with the help of their kids, cleared brush, made repairs, and eventually built a country inn and adventure center with an expansive eco tour zipline course. Then, on Thanksgiving night 2006, much of it burned to the ground. While they were tempted to just leave it all behind them after such a devastating loss, the Holders decided instead to rebuild.
Today, they oversee Historic Banning Mills, a nonprofit that caters to adrenaline junkies and folks who love the outdoors. The 1,200-acre site is state and federally recognized as a protected conservancy, with proceeds used to subsidize its educational and nature programs.
The retreat boasts the worlds tallest climbing wall (140 feet) and, at 41,000 linear feet, the worlds longest continuous zipline course, where visitors can reach speeds of up to 60 mph as they cruise through dense hardwood forest and over the beautiful Snake River Gorge. Theres also a new zipline and aerial obstacle course designed for children 4 to 9 years old.
Altitude lovers can also enjoy more than 50 sky bridges, including one thats more than 600 feet long and 300 feet in the air. And if you really want to tap into your inner Tarzan, you can stay at the new tree house lodges. These stand-alone, two-person suites, accessible by rope bridge, are made of heart pine logs, and feature a king bed, jetted tub, bathroom, mini fridge, and back deck with panoramic forest views ($189 per night).
When youre ready to return to earth, theres a new 7-mile network of mountain biking/hiking trails that wind along old town roads and across bridges. And Georgia Trail Outfitters (www.georgiatrailoutfitters.com) offers 7-mile kayak trips down the roaring Class IV Chattahoochee River, as well as the more serene Flint and Cartecay Rivers. Other adventures include horseback riding, golfing at the local championship course, swimming pool (in season), putt-putt golf course, tennis/basketball courts, and weekly birds of prey educational shows.
In between adventures, indulge in a relaxing massage at the day spa, and refuel at the main lodge, which serves a big country breakfast and a variety of lunch and dinner items, including picnic-style baskets and romantic candlelight dinners on the terrace that overlooks Snake Creek Gorge.
In addition to the tree house lodging, Historic Banning Mills offers cabins, cottages, and lodge rooms, many of which have fireplaces, Jacuzzis, and private decks overlooking Snake Creek Gorge, starting at $99/night. RV hook-up sites and camping sites are also available starting at $15 a day.
www.historicbanningmills.comFlying High Again
Grab some air at these other zipline attractions.U.S. National Whitewater Center
Charlottes USNWCs zipline canopy tour is a great way to explore the woodlands along the Catawba River and portions of the Historic Tuckaseegee Ford and Trail. Cruise along at up to 60 feet in the air from platform to platform on a series of zips, sky bridges, rappels, and other high-adventure challenges that run through hardwood trees, and over deep canyons and riverbanks. www.usnwc.comHawksnest Zipline
Located near Boone in Seven Devils, Hawksnest Zipline has a 4-mile course with 20 ziplines, including several more than 2,000 feet long and 200 feet in the air. Here you can zoom along at up to 50 mph over trees, lakes, and creeks, and enjoy panoramic views of the Blue Ridge Mountains. www.hawksnestzipline.comThe Beanstalk Journey
Spend the day playing in what looks like a life-size Ewok village at The Beanstalk Journey in Morganton. Offering an adventurous and fun combination of ziplines and sky bridges, Beanstalk transports you through a labyrinth of tree houses that serve as rest stops some 50 feet in the air. You can also challenge your climbing skills on the 32-foot Beanstalk Climbing Tower. www.thebeanstalkjourney.comSky Valley Zip Tours
With 10 ziplines, a cliff jump, swinging bridge, and sweeping mountain views, Sky Valley Zip Tours in Blowing Rock offers an exhilarating and unforgettable experience. The course is located on 140 pristine acres thats bustling with diverse flora and fauna and a beautiful waterfall. www.skyvalleyziptours.com