When our Navitat Canopy Adventure began at about 11 a.m. on a June day, the sky was clear, the sun was warm and the air was still. A perfect day for ziplining high above lands bordering the Angeles National Forest near Wrightwood.
Now, two hours later — well, two out of three ain’t bad.
It’s still sunny and the skies clear, but the wind is gusting at about 35 miles an hour, according to our guide, April Scott.
“It can get windy up here,” she says, “but this is the first time I’ve seen it this windy.”
That’s why my husband, Jerry, four other zippers and I are huddled on a platform attached to a sugar pine at 120 feet above the ground. I look out over the terrain and see the Jeffrey, Ponderosa and sugar pines bending with the wind, and can’t help hugging our tree as it sways in the turbulence.
“Bending is good,” Scott reminds us. “We don’t want to be in trees that are going to snap.”
For sure, I think, and remind myself that although zipping is a thrill, we also are perfectly safe. We’re twice-tethered with industrial-strength clips to double overhead cables that have a 16,000-pound test, so we’re not going anywhere until we want to.
When the wind takes a break, each participant, in turn, sits in the harness, gets the ol’ heave-ho from our guide, then flies across the canyons and trees for a take-your-breath-away ride.
This is fun — a lot of fun.
Five hours later (the course usually takes 3.5 hours), we’ve conquered 10 ziplines, three rope-and-timber “sky bridges” and three rappels.
This is the first full season for Navitat, located just outside Wrightwood (about 90 minutes north of Escondido just off Interstate 15). It’s quickly becoming a destination for those who want some safe, exciting outdoor activity. If you are afraid of heights, zipping is not for you, but you don’t need to be a super-athlete to participate. You must be between 90 and 250 pounds and able to walk about a mile. (There are two short hikes on the course at 6,500 feet elevation.) Groups are limited to eight and always have two guides.
“We have a guy in his 70s who is a ‘frequent zipper,’” says our other guide, Mike Navas, a 29-year-old Army veteran who also teaches rappelling from helicopters. “He’s been on the course a lot and loves it.”
Attracting repeat visitors is the whole idea, says Ken Stamps, CEO of Navitat (the word is a melding of “navigation” and “habitat”), who made a mid-life career change in 2008 to start the company.
“We find a significant number of guests tell their friends and family and some have been out eight, nine, 10 times.”
The Wrightwood zipline is the second Navitat course in the country; the first is near Asheville, N.C. Both courses include mini-nature classes.
“We wanted an educational component to the experience,” Stamp said from his office near Asheville. “It’s not just a tree-based amusement park. It’s thrilling, but as we thrill, we depart knowledge about the environment.”
The zipline elements are designed and built by Bonsai Design, which prides itself on its tree-based platforms that cause no harm to the trees.
Our adventure done, we decided to stay in Wrightwood overnight. The mountain community of 5,000 is better known as a ski destination, but don’t discount summer. At 6,000 feet, the night air is cool and there are several boutiques, restaurants, bars and live music. We enjoyed pizza at Mile High (offers gluten-free pizza; breakfast at the Grizzly Café, (new menu with easy-to-read, gluten-free offerings); fabulous ice cream at Applewood Court; and apple-cherry pie at Joe Mudd’s (features “coffee, pie, donuts and guitars”).
Come Friday afternoons, Wrightwood stages its weekly farmer’s market.
“Mingle with the locals at the farmer’s market,” advises Chamber of Commerce treasurer Kathy Carroll. “Try the tamales; they’re great.”
Carroll and her husband, Chuck, own Eagles’ Nest and Orchard View lodges. Both are roomy, comfortable, offer free wi-fi, and ideally located close to town. They each have two bedrooms, decks, accommodate six guests. Eagles’ Nest features a full kitchen. Make reservations here first and get a discount on the zipline adventure. Visit wrightwoodlodges.com. For Navitat reservations, visit navitat.com (adults $109; youth $99).
E’Louise Ondash is a veteran, award-winning journalist who was an investigative reporter, feature writer and columnist for the Times Advocate and the North County Times. She has written travel features for The Coast News since 2003.