Sky Hike offers adventure at all levels

Stone Mountain Park's new attraction has you tethered in a harness almost four stories in the air, walking a tightrope or a balance beam, while crowds mill around below you and look straight up. This is not the time to show off that mini.

Sky Hike, which opened last week, is a huge ropes course with three levels: 12 feet, 24 feet and 40 feet. Hikers wear nylon harnesses hooked to metal tracks overhead so there is no chance of falling, but it can still be scary to set foot on a rickety, swaying rope bridge four stories above nothing but concrete.

"It was nerve-wracking," said Billy Broadnax, a market manager for Kroger in Snellville. "You know you're not going to fall, but you sort of feel like you're going to. You don't think about the cord holding you when you look down."

From the ground, Sky Hike is a vast array of platforms, ladders, beams and ropes, with people clamoring everywhere, shouting and squealing. But at the top, you tend to focus on what's right in front of you: That rope you're about to walk across, for instance.

Sky Hike is "the largest family public outdoor adventure course" in the United States, said Jeff Greenblatt, the park's director of operations. Partial translation: There are bigger, badder ropes courses, but they're private.

Like in so many cosmic aphorisms, there are different paths through Sky Hike. You can choose your own adventure, making it harder or easier.

The course consists of 62 elements. Hikers stand on a metal platform and usually face two options: crossing something steady, like a two-by-four held firmly in place, or something extremely unsteady, like a series of hanging loops of rope that swing maniacally when grabbed.

"Are you out of your mind?" one woman shouted to her quite mature friend who chose the more challenging rope path.

"The neatest thing for me is who's in line," said Gerald Rakestraw, the park's general manager. "You've got families, grandparents, 7 year olds. Everybody gets to do it together."

Speaking of lines, they sometimes were more than an hour long last weekend. Greenblatt said they are cutting down the wait time by improving how park employees put the elaborate harness on each hiker. Right now, Sky Hike can handle about 300 people per hour, but Greenblatt said that will go up this summer as they refine their process.

Sky Hike will let you go up in a skirt, if you dare, but it's firm on footwear: Closed-toe shoes only. Heather Stockton of Nicholson, Ga., found that out the hard way when all her friends got to climb and she had to sit in the sun and wait, just because she showed up in flip-flops. The park bans them to keep sandals from falling onto people below — and because Sky Hike is safer in good shoes, Greenblatt said.

Kids (and some grown-ups) seem to feel a combination of responses: fear, anxiety, confidence and pride, sometimes all in the same level.

Occasionally applause bursts out from a nearby platform, signifying someone — usually a bit younger or a bit older – has conquered a fear and made it across. Shouts of encouragement drift on the summer breeze: "Way to go, Pumpkin!" from a proud dad.

"I felt like I was in a jungle adventure," said 8-year-old Nayda Torres, visiting with her family from Tampa. "But it was hard. Your hands get sweaty."

There are park workers posted throughout the course on platforms, and they offer everything from a little advice — when walking a tightrope, angle your foot outward — to practically carrying kids who freeze and just can't do it.

Melissa Elliott of Marietta brought her son Andrew, 5, and niece Kaitlyn Rudziak, 8. Andrew eventually needed a lot of assistance to get through Sky Hike. "What was I thinking coming out here by myself?" she laughed nervously as she ventured out on a wobbly rope, holding Andrew's hand and encouraging him.

"I was really scared," confided 6-year-old Connor Jurek, visiting from Knoxville, after he came down from the second level. "My mom and I started, and I got too scared and tried to turn around and get off."

Then his face split into a grin: "But I completed the whole level!"

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