BRADENTON — I was suspended about 50 feet in the air when I looked at Tampa Bay Times sports video producer Rachel West and started contemplating all of my life’s choices.
I had missed breakfast that morning, I hadn’t been to the gym since I canceled my membership last year and I hadn’t climbed a tree since, well, ever.
We were harnessed to thick, wired cables up in pine trees tackling suspended obstacle courses at Bradenton’s TreeUmph! for our latest outdoors adventure.
For a little more than three hours, we moved from course to course, testing the upper-body strength neither of us had — yet needed every ounce of — and learned just how much smarter and nimbler fifth graders were as they zipped past us on suspended rope ladders and wired bridges.
“Come in with an open mind,” said Jason Pitsas, TreeUmph!’s director of operations, “because whatever you thought it was going to be, it’s going to be a little bit different.”
The course itself is nestled in the trees just outside of Lakewood Ranch, about 10 miles off Interstate 75.
Having ziplined through the Great Smoky Mountains on multiple summer vacations growing up, I didn’t have a fear of heights or suspension by a wire. But I was curious how Florida could put its own twist on a similar experience. And I was surprised.
“We have no elevation, obviously, so the terrain is a challenge for us, but we think the natural landscape of Florida can be beautiful other than just beaches,” Pitsas said. “And that’s the expectation. So being able to get people out into the woods, into the wilderness here and show them that there’s a little bit of a different side of Florida than what they were expecting definitely surprises people.”
Upon arrival, Rachel and I were guided through appropriately dressing in our harnesses. Our tickets included all five courses, the “Triumph” zipline at the end and access to water coolers along the 14-acre campus.
An instructional video prepped us on what we could expect throughout the afternoon and the many dos and don’ts, then a guide showed us how to work our gear.
TreeUmph!’s ClicC-iT and saferoller technology keep thrill seekers attached to the course from the moment they start to climb into the trees until they come back to the ground. With the help of a magnetic system TreeUmph! guides call “shazams,” at no point on the course can a person remove both safety connectors from the wire.
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The demo area starts at just 3 to 4 feet off the ground before jumping to 10 feet at the “Climb On” course. The final course, “Summit,” is built on 60 feet poles with the platforms elevated at around 45 feet and higher.
We maneuvered through “Climb On” with some ease; the biggest challenge was trying not to get stuck in the V-net walkway. Otherwise, it is a playful course with easy ladder bridges that — for the most part — don’t sway with every step.
We did, however, stumble on the second course, “Scramble.” We tested our rock climbing skills to reach the platform before embarking on the twisted bridge, balancing on a combination of wooden planks and 1-inch thick cable wires.
By the time we reached the third course, “Ascend,” we were ready to call it quits, especially after we tackled the swinging suspended logs — which were held up with thick rope on both sides and moved with the wind. Rachel took the “Leap of Faith,” jumping off a platform and swinging Tarzan-style into a suspended cargo net.
“The biggest (piece of advice) is to listen to the guides,” Pitsas said. “Everyone thinks that they know the easiest way to do it, and then they realize pretty quickly that the guides who have done it for a while know what to do.”
The final two courses — “Lead” and “Summit” — would have to wait for another day after three-plus hours of climbing. Our arms and shoulders screamed “No more!”
The course builds up to the campus’ final reward: a coast down the “Triumph” zipline, which measures 500 feet long and even allows you to race a friend or family member right to the end. (While some riders made it across successfully, you should prepare for possibly having to pull yourself in for the last 10 feet or so, if you’re as unlucky as we were.)
Pitsas said the campus can host more than 350 people during peak times and more than 250 on the weekends. And for the annual pass holders who love hiking in the sky, they have their own little clubs, too.
To keep things fresh, the course changes up every year, with bridges moving around. Sometimes other adjustments are needed, too, in case a tree dies or a storm impacts the course.
If you’re up for a challenge, Pitsas said their fastest guides can navigate through all five courses and the zipline in about 25 minutes.
“They’re quick,” Pitsas said. “They’re fast. They have to run when they get on the ground in between each course to hit that speed.”
Notables for first-timers
• Don’t expect to complete all five courses on your first try. Pitsas said fewer than five percent of first-time climbers make it all the way through. Plan on spending at least 3.5 hours at the course.
• If you have a spare pair of gloves around the house, bring them. While TreeUmph! offers fingerless gloves for purchase, a pair that covers the backs of your fingers will help prevent some discomfort later.
• Leave your water bottle in the car and splurge on a $5 water pass. It’s less you have to worry about carrying and you can drink all the water you want on the trek, with large coolers located at the start and end of every course.
• Leave the Chacos behind and wear comfortable closed-toed shoes (which are required). Climbing through the trees, you’ll want a pair with soles in decent condition to prevent slipping.
• If you can wear shorts or pants with pockets, that’s best. It’ll give you a place for your cell phone (so you can take all the selfies you want) and car keys if you decide you want to keep those on hand instead of leaving them up front when you check in at the desk.
Know before you go
• TreeUmph! offers multiple ticket packages depending on the adventure you’re looking for. Year-around access through an annual pass starts at $249. Florida college students can purchase a day ticket for $39 while children between the ages of 5 and 8 can climb around for $23. Not up for tree climbing and just want to coast on the zip line? You can purchase a QuickZip ticket for $21. Seniors 65 and older can receive a 15 percent discount with a “SENIOR” code.
• Adults who want their kids to enjoy the course can watch from the ground as family members navigate the campus.
• There’s no additional parking fee, so don’t worry about extra costs if you’re meeting a friend and can’t carpool.
• There is plenty of shade and areas to relax when you’re feeling a little worn out.
• The park has a weather policy. Plan accordingly when you make your reservation, but if you get stuck with some showers, don’t fret.
Have an outdoor adventure we should try? Curious about the ins and outs of fishing seasons in Florida? Know a cool business or owner to profile? Contact Mari Faiello at email@example.com. Follow @faiello_mari.