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Summer Living: Aerial Adventure on Hilton Head

WHEN it comes to all-day outings with the kids, it's reasonable to expect some whining, and maybe a few tears.

I just didn’t think they would be mine.

We’d set out on a day trip for a visit to Aerial Adventure Hilton Head Island, the sky-high obstacle course built into the tree canopy along sparkling Broad Creek. Everyone was slathered in sunscreen and wearing the required closed-toed footwear.

The short orientation went well, and we eagerly donned our helmets and harnesses. Above us, people were already bounding through the trees via a web of nets and cables, emitting gleeful shrieks.

I let my two children enter the course first, in case they needed help. But somewhere between the first rope bridge and a climbing wall 30 feet off the ground, I was the one sniveling like someone just took away my sippy cup.

My 15 year-old son showed no sympathy.

“Mom, why are you crying? You’re perfectly safe,” he called as he leapt across a series of logs to the next platform. “You just have to trust the system.”

Like most teenagers, he knows everything. In this case, he was actually right.

The latest attraction at Zipline Hilton Head’s sylvan creekside complex, Aerial Adventure allows even the most grounded middle-aged mom to suspend her fear of heights and climb like a ninja among the loblolly pines.

Designed by the veteran ropes course engineers at North Carolina-based Challenge Designs Innovations, the two-hour course utilizes heavy duty rock-climbing gear and can handle up to 25,000 pounds of stress at a time.

Patented “safe rollers” glide through the continuous belay system, which means you’re always connected to the main cable.

“If you get scared, just sit down. You’ll see there’s no way you can fall,” counseled Aaron Huffman, Zipline’s sales director and seasoned obstacle conquistador.

“It’s all about trusting, relaxing and balance.”

Easy for him to say. A seasoned backpacker, whitewater rafter and skydiver, Huffman has been working for Zipline Hilton Head since it opened in 2012. The self-described “adrenaline aficionado” welcomed another outdoor opportunity when Aerial Adventure opened last summer.

“These kinds of high ropes challenge courses are all the rage in Europe, and this is a phenomenal complement to the ziplines,” he says, referring to the maze of suspension cables hidden on the other side of the wooded property.

This pristine acreage almost became a block of condos until the 2009 real estate crash saved it from that concrete fate. Instead, owners Roger and Pam Freeman saw an opportunity to tap into Hilton Head’s recreational needs while showcasing its natural beauty.

“It turned out to be a blessing in disguise,” Roger told Connect in 2013. “We’ve highlighted the best aspects of the area and have become a tremendous asset for the island itself.”

Open all year round, both park activities are appropriate for ages 5 and up and maintain top rankings on TripAdvisor.

The Aerial Adventure side boasts a network of six courses of varying intensity, radiating from a roomy, three-story platform overseen by encouraging employees known as “rangers.” The two green courses hover closest to the ground, and anyone over the age of seven is welcome to walk it alone. Ten to 13 year-olds can shimmy the blue courses without parental supervision, and anyone under 16 needs accompaniment on the super high, super hard black courses.

All in all, there are 50 unique “elements” to challenge your skills and strength, including a Tarzan swing, osprey nets and a slide that launches you across a chasm of pine needles. A hands-down favorite is a 50-foot high ride in a small boat dubbed the “Skyak.” (We renamed it the “Cryak” after my mid-air whimpering issues.)

Huffman reports that the adventure park is hugely popular with corporate team building and military groups, including the 160th Nightstalkers special operations regiment.

He also offers that people with developmental and physical challenges shouldn’t necessarily exclude themselves from the fun.

“We treat any and all disabilities on a case-by-case basis,” says Huffman, recounting numerous sessions with hearing- and visually-impaired clients as well as those on the autism spectrum.

“As along as someone has full mobility, they’re capable here. We just ask to know in advance so we can match them with the best guides.”

He advises that the best time for locals to visit is on the weekends, when most Hilton Head visitors are on either on their way in or out. It’s an easy one-hour drive from Savannah, and birthday party packages, weekly passes and discounts for active military sweeten the deal.

You don’t even need to move the car to grab lunch or dinner at the compound’s Up the Creek Pub, a tremendously helpful perk since you’ll be famished after swinging through the courses for two hours.

After both my kids’ and Huffman’s promise that all would be well, I relaxed and enjoyed leaping through the trees. It didn’t take long to get comfortable, by the second green course I was dancing through the obstacles like a real American Ninja Warrior. The single black course definitely put my twice-a-week workouts to the test, though I skipped the double black course so I could ride the Skyak again without screaming.

Afterwards, over jalapeno-cheese-stuffed pretzels and tasty chicken wings at Up the Creek, we discussed the importance of pushing oneself out one’s comfort zone.

“People are usually surprised at how well they do,” nodded Huffman. “It can be intimidating at first, but once you realize you’re safe, you find out what you’re made of.”

“See?” I said to my son. “I don’t know why you were so scared.”

Like most teenagers, he just rolled his eyes. But he’s already asked when we can go back again this summer.