A pair of feet dangles over a terrain of active volcanoes, spurts of lava seeping out and flowing down the sides. Another pair sails through a thick forest, abundant foliage on both sides, breaking to an open landscape of mountains and streams. The wind gusts against your face, your body gliding smoothly against a backdrop of fuzzy blue and gray skies.
Views like these can be found along some of the world’s best zip lines. Riders, equipped with only a harness and helmet, coast through the sky, glimpsing an unobstructed view of the world below. Originally a kid’s contraption used in playgrounds and backyard treehouses, zip lines have become popular activities for tourists, like the zip line rides long offered to vacationers through Costa Rica‘s rich canopy.
But more recently, a new class of zip lines has emerged, one with steeper, taller, and altogether more intense courses cropping up across the globe — transforming this once basic cable and pulley system into an adventure, speed and suspense to match. The routine is the same: attach yourself to a metal cable and then let the zip line do all the work. Only now the starting point is much higher, like the 918-foot tall zip line in Sun City, South Africa. Surprisingly, these zip lines are still low risk, statistically safer than driving in a car or flying on an airplane.
So, with my nerves slightly settled and harness tightly fastened, I’ve set out to find some of the world’s best zip lines.
World’s Steepest | Adrenaline Junkie’s Delight
WHERE: Sun City, South Africa
From the top, you can barely make out the landing point. At more than a mile long and with speeds of up to 100 miles an hour, this South African zip line claims to be the world’s fastest and tallest. Riders often go down in pairs, gliding headfirst in tandem harnesses as they tear through the sky. But don’t worry: a wing the size of a small kite is fastened between your feet, keeping your legs still and your body straight to land on target.
Canopy Cruiser | Family Affair
WHERE: Monteverde, Costa Rica
Synonymous for its zip line tours since their introduction in the 1970s, Costa Rica boasts a unique opportunity to see rainforest wildlife firsthand. Nestled among some of the country’s oldest trees, these zip lines lift riders high above the forest floor, rising over 200-foot trees as they zip from one platform to the next. Along the way, make friends with the monkeys, toucans, and scarlet macaws who call the woods home. Night tours for views of the forest’s nocturnal creatures and active volcanoes are also available.
Big Island Breezer | Romantic Couples’ Retreat
WHERE: North Kohala, Hawaii
Kohala’s northern coastline offers pristine views of Hawaii’s natural reserves. Enjoy a smooth, relaxing ride above endless mosses, crystal-blue water full of tropical fish, and ohia lehuas, indigenous trees with large, twisting branches and red blossoms. Fresh guava and ginger combine to create a rich, fresh scent, further complemented by bird songs delivered by the island’s tropical inhabitants.
Mountain Climber | Friends in High Places
WHERE: Salida, Colorado
Gather the gang and head to Colorado for sweeping vistas of the high desert and open canyon. There’s a bed of hot springs formations and a healthy supply of colorful boulders — this is the Rockies, after all. And bald eagles, bighorn sheep, and bears are just a few of the canyon residents you’ll pass while traversing 2,000 feet aboard six separate zip lines. It’s a three-hour journey through a region marked by lime kiln ruins from the 1890s and dramatic cliffs, some 300 million years old.
The Great Zip | History and Adventure
WHERE: Simatai, China
It winds up and down, through grasslands and plateaus, over mountain ranges and across deserts. Nearly 5,500 miles long, the Great Wall of China dates to the Qin dynasty in 221 B.C. and remains the world’s largest man-made structure. So, after learning about more than 2,000 years of history, a carefree ride on the zip line complements a visit to this UNESCO World Heritage site. Visitors walking the wall in Simatai whip over a large river, riding from one end of Simatai to the other, snagging views of the Great Wall behind.