Interested or just curious? Get information on the Shawnee Bluffs course at 855-386-9477 or online at www.shawneezip.com.
Interested or just curious? Get information on the Shawnee Bluffs course at 855-386-9477 or online at www.shawneezip.com.
MAKANDA, Ill. — A zip-line course in southern Illinois is taking the craze to new heights — and new lengths.

Shawnee Bluffs Canopy Tours boasts one of the longest and most scenic courses in the Midwest. Though only a year old, it quickly is gaining a reputation as the destination for those looking to sail through the woods with the greatest of ease.

The hobby has gained popularity in the past 20 years, with courses springing up all over. But the natural beauty of Shawnee Bluffs brings adventurers from hundreds of miles away.

Owner Marc Miles is unabashedly proud of the course. He operates it along with his wife, Candy.

“Everyone who sees our venue is blown away by the build,” he said. “The really neat thing about it compared to a lot of others is it is in a very pristine location. You’re not zipping over a parking lot or getting a view of a mall or a highway. It’s out in the solitary forest. There are no artificial structures other than the platforms. We have no telephone poles, no concrete, nothing like that.”

The course is comprised of eight zip lines — steel cables stretched between platforms on which people wearing safety harnesses soar through the air via pulleys and gravity. It is situated on 83 acres in deep southern Illinois surrounded by the Shawnee National Forest, the state’s only national forest.

After donning gloves, helmets and other safety gear — and following a brief “flight training” session — participants hook up and glide on all eight lines, one at a time. There is some short hiking involved, but Miles said octogenarians have completed the course with no problem.

Fear of heights usually is not an issue. Gliders are never more than about nine feet above the ground.

“Most people with a fear of heights after going through this say, ‘Wow, I didn’t even look down!’” Miles said. “They’re totally focused on going down the cable and looking at the guide on the other side.”

Safety is one thing that shouldn’t be a concern.

“There’s probably a 1,000 percent better chance of having a wreck on the interstate than something happening out there,” Miles said.

The genesis of the business began about 20 years ago for Miles, who is an equine veterinarian. He made a small zip line for his children when they were young. The idea never left him.

“It took about 3½ years of planning to find the right location and right builder — which is a must — and that’s what we did,” he said.

The lines are comparatively long. One course in Ohio — heralded by a national publication as the best in the country — has no line longer than 500 feet. Four of the lines at Shawnee Bluffs are longer, including one that stretches 1,016 feet.

“We have some of the longest lines in the industry for a true canopy tour that’s based in the trees,” Miles said.

It takes 26 seconds to zip through the longest one, with speeds exceeding 40 mph. Miles recently added a radar gun that displays one’s speed during a glide.

“It’s probably the only one (on a zip-line course),” he said.

Since the course opened last April, the word has gotten around in a hurry. And repeat business has been encouraging.

“I’ve been very surprised by the local support,” Miles said. “People come, and the next day they come back and bring somebody with them. One lady has been here five times already. People who zip like to do it again and again. We’ve had people drive from Kansas City, Mo., and Chicago to do this and nothing else.”

The course also is used by companies who use the experience as a team-building exercise or just a nature outing. But first and foremost, it is fun.

“In this day and age, it’s a great way to get out there and get away from the cell phones, iPads and everything,” Miles said. “You don’t have another thing on your mind.”