The High Country boasts some of the best autumn views in the Southeast: Every fall, flocks of folks drive up for slow cruises of oohs and ahhs to see the blazing colors and feel the crisp mountain air.
But if it's a bird's-eye view – and a more adrenaline-filled experience – you want, I've got just the place.
Scream Time Zip Line crisscrosses about 100 feet above a former Christmas tree farm that's nine miles outside Boone. Hawk's Nest, Sugar Mountain and the top of Grandfather Mountain perch on the horizon, and a valley of lazy cows and country churches makes a picturesque view below.
On a quiet Sunday morning, I met a group of other thrill seekers yearning to fly through the air like Tarzan at Scream Time's pick-up point on U.S. 421. We piled into the company's 14-passenger Swiss Pinzgauer military vehicle, which took us to a horse barn where we signed our lives away and donned rock-climbing harnesses and helmets. Our guides were two college-age rock climbers who made zipping across the valley look as tame as Tarzan's chimp, Cheetah.
One by one, each adrenaline junkie inched up to the side of the valley where the guide attached the heavy steel hook on our harness to a steel cable stretched straight across the hillside.
The first step off into thin air isn't for the squeamish. But once the line dips and I realize it's going to hold, I relax and enjoy the ride on what feels like a horizontal roller coaster. The steel cable emits a high-pitched “zzzzzziiinggg” and – in just seconds – I'm on the other side of the valley … smiling and ready to go again. I can't help but give a yee-hah of glee. (OK, and maybe of yee-hah of relief.)
Scream Time, which opened this year, offers six zip lines across the valley ranging from 450 feet to 800 feet. One three-man Super Zip line runs 2,000 feet down the length of the valley. Cost is $89 for six runs and an additional $29 for the Super zip. You can also do the Super Zip alone for $47.
“We've had people on the zip line from 15-month-olds – riding tandem with the moms – all the way up to 90 years old,” said Scream Time owner Monie McCoury. “We really didn't know what our demographics would be, but it has turned out to be singles, couples, families … anyone looking for a fun, low-impact adventure. They're all looking for that thrill and sense of flight.”
That held true in my group, which included a father and his teenage son, a married couple, a trio of middle-aged sisters and five college students from the Czech Republic.
Sharon Mathas of Hickory recruited her sisters Diane Kale, also of Hickory, and Sandra Johnson of Hudson to try zip lining. Calling themselves “The Yahoo Sisters,” the ladies also have gone parasailing in the Bahamas, ridden horses on the beach in Jamaica and trekked down into the Grand Canyon on donkeys.
“I wanted to see what it would be like to fly like a bird,” said Mathas, the most adventurous sibling. “I made them come with me.”
“She's trying to relive her youth,” Kale deadpanned. “Sharon is the oldest, but she's a kid at heart. She thinks this is the coolest thing she'll ever do until she finds the next adventure for us to try together.”
Caleb Davies of Atlanta discovered Scream Time when he and his family moved his daughter into a dorm at Appalachian State University. He thought it would be a fun activity to try with his son Ethan, a high-school senior, while the girls unpacked back on campus.
“I liked the speed, flying over everything and looking out at the mountains,” said the elder Davies.
“It was cool leaning back while you're riding across the line,” added Ethan. “Anytime you can get some wind and some speed, it's fun.”
Seasonal surge expected
Many people envision zip lines running through the jungle, whether it's from “Tarzan” or the Sean Connery movie “Medicine Man.” Canopy tours are a popular tourist attraction in the rainforests of Hawaii, Belize, Costa Rica and some Caribbean islands.
McCoury had never been on a zip line or even seen one in operation when he dreamed of zipping on a cable across the High Country.
“As a kid, we'd use a bar to slide on a cable between two trees,” he said. “When I had my own children, I built a rinky-dink one in the backyard. But here I envisioned an elaborate path with long runs zipping across the sky.”
McCoury teamed with Experience Based Learning, of Rockford, Ill., to design, engineer and inspect the course, as well as train the staff. The course was built last fall and opened in January.
“We were hugely busy this summer, but it slowed down in mid-August when kids went back to school,” he said. “We expect the next surge when leaf season arrives and again in December when people come up for the holidays.”
Scream Time will close January through late March.
Folks who've zipped in Central America or other rainforests can expect a few differences at Scream Time. All but one of the lines run across or down the valley, offering panoramic views of mountain scenery.
At Scream Time, only one line zips through the woods, similar to the tree-filled experience I had in Belize.
Staffers at Scream Time also “brake the line” – slow you down at the end of your flight. In Central America, you do it yourself by grabbing the steel cable with a heavy leather glove.
The 2,000-foot-long Super Zip is especially fun – and worth the extra bucks. The longer run builds more speed and gives you plenty of time to spin around and check out the scenery as you fly down the hill. An added plus: three riders can race at one time.
“It's the total feeling of flight,” McCoury says of zip lining's allure. “You're above the ground, suspended in the air and it sounds like you're on your own private Lear jet. You don't really realize how high up you are because you're focused on getting to the other side. But once you relax, you look around and enjoy it. It's the best view in the High Country.”