OCALA — It's a bold move, calling your attraction "the Canyons" in a flat state like Florida. But this strange find, a 94-acre abandoned limestone quarry off an Interstate 75 exit in Ocala, is indeed like a cluster of deep canyons. Rocky cliffs, wide blue lakes and towering trees look untouched since the limestone miners walked away in the 1930s.
What better way to explore this scenic terrain than dangling from a harness and zipping across hundreds of feet of suspended cable lines?
I've been wanting to try zip lining since it became the rage a few years ago. It's not quite as extreme as bungee jumping, yet more adventurous than hiking, and somewhat safer than rock-climbing. Zip lines remind me of those playground "flying foxes" from my childhood, which require jumping from a 10-foot platform and hanging on to a pulley car that rolls along a rope.
Ocala's Canyons Zip Line tours use the same kind of contraption, except strung from more terrifying heights. The $89-per-person tour is almost three hours and has nine lines that cover a mile-long course going from ancient oak to ancient oak and over ponds, pits and canyon-like cliffs.
The course opened in November 2011, and it seemed perfect to company owner Traci Walker. Having worked at other zip line tours and seeing how popular they were, she and her husband Dave "decided we needed our own," she said. The Naples couple searched Florida before settling on the old mining tract, which they are leasing to own. The company that owns the land had a few requests: No mining or digging, and don't mess with its native Florida beauty.
"We wanted to keep it in a nice, natural state," Walker said. The property was a little overgrown when Canyons Zip Line moved in, but other than that, it was ecotourism heaven. When builders came in to hang lines and construct platforms from the trees, they spotted alligators in the ponds and bobcats in the brush, and they became friendly with a barn owl that watched their work.
I went one overcast morning, pulling up to a big red barn marking the entrance. I was grouped with five others, including a man claiming to be an expert hang glider who was terrified of heights.
Others in the group also admitted a fear of heights. What were we doing here?
The two guides who greeted us were 20-something guys who liked to joke around, but we never went anywhere even slightly treacherous without them making sure that our metal hooks were fastened tightly to cable.
The first stop was a short, low line that looked like the playground ones I remember. The practice run ensured that we knew how to stop or slow down, using a gloved hand on the overhead line to brake. At our fastest, we'd be zipping about 45 miles per hour.
We passed the test and took a short hike to the first line, one of the shortest, stretching about half a football field from tree to tree.
A few from my group leaped before me and reached their destination safely, then I stood at the end of the wooden platform as a guide secured me to the pulley car. On shaky legs, I jumped.
By the third line, all of us were laughing and leaping like old pros. Zip lining, for the record, requires almost no physical skills or strength. You can just hang there and do nothing, since you're strapped up to the pulley to stay in place.
The course progressively got higher and more daring, with 100-foot lines spanning sparkling water. We saw swooping hawks and a Kingfisher.
The course never got dull, with fun additions such as a long Indiana Jones-style rope bridge. It ended with a 30-foot rappel to safe ground.
Oddly, the short drop seemed scarier to all of us than flying hundreds of feet above rock pits. At the end, I dropped off my equipment, collected my "diploma" for completing the course and walked away feeling like an accomplished daredevil.
It was the closest thing to a canyon that I'll probably ever see in Florida, and the only one I'll ever see while hanging from a rope.
This story was first published on VISITFLORIDA.com.