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New park course lets Durhamites get in on a high-wire act

Author’s note: This post was updated May 29 to add one area high ropes course and to mark hyperlinks clearly. 

The city Parks and Recreation Department is about to enable Triangle residents to taste adventure in an otherwise sleepy neighborhood. 

Construction of the new Discovery High Ropes Course at Bethesda Park wrapped up this spring. The amenity graces a 21-acre facility that already featured covered and lighted tennis and basketball courts, a disc golf course, a playground, an open play field, walking trails and restrooms when it debuted just last fall. 

The park is located at 1814 Stage Road, its entrance tucked between homes on a quiet residential street. But the new feature is noteworthy. Google indicates that Bethesda Park will have just the third second high ropes course in the Triangle to be open to the general public. (The other is others are at Cary’s Fred G. Bond Metro Park and Efland’s Chestnut Ridge Camp and Retreat Center. In addition, at least one area Girl Scout camp has a course.) 

While the official opening of the ropes course is scheduled for June 8 at 4:30 p.m., staff and visitors have been trying it out for some weeks. The department recently let a few reporters test the course’s towering array, which exceeds 50 feet. 

Kim Oberle manages adventure programs for Parks and Recreation. She’s climbed high ropes courses on and off for more than 20 years, and she helped bring the new course to Durham. 

“Some like it because they have this little thrill bone that likes going up high, because you don’t really get to do that,” Oberle said. 

Others find these courses rewarding in other ways. In Oberle’s words, some older climbers say: “I really can do these things still. I’m not old.” 

Purveyors also promote so-called challenge courses for team-building. And there’s evidence that high ropes facilities and their cousins do improve self-esteem and group dynamics. A 2005 survey by N.C. State professor Aram Attarian found that challenge courses can boost self-esteem, decision-making, group cohesion and family dynamics. 


~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Each visitor to Durham’s course is outfitted with an adjustable helmet, a climbing harness and a pair of “lobster claws,” a Y-shaped heavy rope contraption. The claws’ single arm loops around the harness. The other branches’ lengths are adjustable. Also, each ends in a snap hook, a carabiner that must be squeezed on both sides in order to detach it from a wire. 

A climber’s entire weight is easily supported by the lobster claws, even with just one hook attached to a safety wire. A visitor can lose his grip and his footing and still fall no more than a foot or so. 

But it’s one thing to know about the safety rig and something else entirely to trust it. When I stepped on a wire or plank suspended 25 feet above the ground, I definitely didn’t want to fall. 

The one time I lost my balance came early in my climb while traversing a single wire and clinging to a guide rope. Despite keeping my feet on the wire, I struggled to lift myself high enough to regain proper footing. (This was humbling evidence of my puny biceps and my extra weight.) My sense was that a spill could cause a bad bruise or possibly a torn muscle or tendon. 


Despite all the safety precautions that I knew would prevent serious harm, I still found the prospect of falling terrifying. 

For me, the high-altitude crossings were definitely harder than they looked. I was unnerved several times by the amount of sway on both the obstacles and some higher platforms. The course made me much more appreciative of mountaineers and circus aerialists. 


~ ~ ~ ~ ~

That said, the ropes course was great fun — guaranteed to get most anyone’s pulse racing. 

On the first few obstacles, simply taking a first step required heavy doses of concentration and courage. I felt a sense of accomplishment each time I completed a crossing. I was even proud each time I managed to take a step without flailing wildly on difficult traverses. 

“This is one of the situations where it would be great to have big clown feet,” I said as I stepped along the dual-wire crossing known as shaky legs. “Or maybe grippy bird feet.” 



Over the course of more than 90 minutes, I crossed most of the features. A couple I skipped, and one defeated me — the bosun, a.k.a. footloose. 

But I enjoyed getting a bird’s-eye view of Durham. The course’s peak, the crow’s nest, is even with or above all but the highest trees. 

And the two rapid descent options are pretty exhilarating, as the videos above and below show. 

Ryan Sailstead, the adventure facilitator for Parks and Recreation who guided me through the Discovery course, called the new facility’s open, varied plan an asset. 

“A lot of other courses are very linear — people are forced to go in one direction,” he said. “This allows them to customize the experience for themselves.” 

The course was definitely a workout for me; I soon knew that I’d be sore the next day. And I later wished that I had worn gloves. 

Apply sunscreen in advance and bring sunglasses. The staff had water on hand for visitors when I tried the course, but you’d be smart to bring your own. Don’t drink too much before climbing, though — the park restrooms are a fair hike from the ropes course.

(See below for more information about using the course.) 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~


It cost about $200,000 to build the new ropes course, part of the $3.1 million overall price for the park. Funding came from a 2005 bond. 

The city has yet to peg the course’s annual operating expense; they should come in well under $100,000. Because Durham self-insures, there aren’t any insurance premiums that might be affected by potential liability concerns. 

The Discovery High Ropes Course will mainly be open by appointment. Groups of at least eight people will be able to reserve four-hour slots on the course. The city’s fee schedule is located here. There should be no more than six climbers per facilitator at any one time. 

Department of Parks and Recreation facilitators — there are currently nine — will be recertified annually. 

Protocol calls for the course to be inspected thoroughly prior to each use for frayed ropes or wires. (Those components are expected to last 10 and 20 years, respectively.) Each inspection should include facilitators climbing the poles anchoring the zip line system to check for kinks and other issues. The builder, Challenge Towers Inc. of Todd, is expected to conduct an annual check of the facility. 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Durham will hold occasional “discovery days,” in which members of the public may be able to try the course for free, depending on demand. The June 8 grand opening will be such an occasion; department officials warn that only some visitors will likely be able to get on the course. 


The Discovery ropes course should become even more accessible to the public in the fall, when staff will be trained to accommodate users with a variety of physical issues. 

Can the city maintain a spotless safety record and stay on budget with the ropes course? If so, then I’d say that this new ropes course gives Durhamites an excellent new opportunity to live the DPR motto and play more. 


Ross Grady

FWIW, there's also a high ropes course at Bond Park in Cary, which is open to the public, albeit with a fee, and a prerequisite of taking their low ropes course first.

Michael Bacon

I had no idea this was going in. What a great addition!

John Davis

How much will it cost the taxpayers? Even if they charge a fee the insurance must be high. To put it another way if this was a good financial idea the private sector would have already done it.

John Davis

Correction: I said insurance not liability. All I see is potential claims for injuries.

Michael Bacon

John: Just out of curiosity, do you think all public parks should be provided by the private sector? If not, how is this one different?

Mark Critzer

I visited the park today. Just three people were there, probably because it's still unknown and out of the way. Nice course, but not much of a zip line. It doesn't interest me much as I'm not afraid of heights to get a thrill out of it. I really liked the covered tennis and basketball courts for when the weather is poor. There is also a Frisbee golf course in the woods which looks like it's still under construction. I don't know enough about the sport, but one would need to bring along a machete to make par given all the undergrowth.

I'm also very concerned about the cost of liability to the city, as the rope course really should be a private sector activity, and there are places in the Triangle one can go to do these "risky" (from a lawyer's point of view) things. Insurance and disclaimers aside, do we really think there will be enough interest locally to keep a couple of supervisors busy all day? I'll have to wait and see if it becomes a money-loser. We had a lot more money in 2005 to build these things, but today is far different. I hope the bond covered salaries and maintenance going forward at least 10 years.

Mark Critzer

Oh, and definitely DPR needs one of those attractive new signs pointing the way to the new park from Ellis Rd and from Angier Ave. They're very eye-catching.

I'd like the see the number of visitors rise significantly before I pass judgement on the cost/benefit. Again, I don't know anyone who knew about the park, except me when I read it on this blog.

Mark Critzer

Michael: I think it's pretty obvious this rope course is a very different addition to a public park. No one is making an argument that public parks with the more traditional set of offerings should be built and maintained by the private sector. I believe John is just pointing out that a rope course would be better suited for a private facility. I tend to agree for reasons already stated.

Michael Bacon

Mark: The article states that the course doesn't officially open until June 8, so I'm not sure that judging attendance right now is a great metric.

There's a good bit of daylight between, "this is too high a risk for the City to take on," and "if this was a good financial idea the private sector would have already done it." The former implies a concern about liability, and I can see that as debatable, the latter that park projects should be judged on whether they can return a financial investment. The high ropes course that I've been on was built by the YMCA of Asheville, and I'm pretty sure it wasn't built as a profit leader. (The YMCA is, of course, a non-profit.) I don't think the city should be looking to make money on this course -- I think that's beside the point. I think that having a high ropes course available for use in the city is a public good that improves quality of life and allows a wider range of the public to have these experiences. Of course the city should charge for it to cover some of the costs -- it's too expensive and risky an undertaking to simply have open to the public. However, if it can operate the course at a moderate loss, I think this is a good public investment and improvement to our city that never would have happened in the private sector. I don't see this as that different than the city-operated Hillandale golf course or Chapel Hill's climbing wall. I'm frankly thrilled to see Parks and Rec really starting to expand what Durham parks can be beyond aging picnic shelters, playgrounds, and tennis courts, and I find this sort of libertarian harumphing tired and sad.

Matthew E. Milliken

Everyone, I appreciate the readership and the comments! Some responses:

Ross, I updated the story to mention Cary’s Bond Park, which was not prominently featured in the Google searches I conducted. If there are other area high-ropes courses that I've missed, please let me know and I'll add them.

John and Mark, Parks and Recreation hadn’t figured out all the budget details when I visited the high ropes course. Clearly if this facility runs significantly in the red, that will be a major problem.

Since the high ropes course will mostly be run on an appointment-only basis (excepting those "discovery days" I mentioned), it's conceivable that the course won't lose much money at all even if it receives little traffic. The facility should be locked up any time it's not in use, so I assume no supervisor will be needed if there are no bookings.

And yes, safety issues are also potentially significant. The fact that the city insures itself could minimize that matter, especially if the facilitators can keep the course injury-free.

Mark, I agree that Bethesda Park might benefit from some extra signs pointing the way! Maybe those will come once the high ropes course officially opens...?

I didn’t look at the disc golf course, but I thought the covered courts were nicely done and should make it easier for folks to play in different types of weather without the expense of completely enclosing the facility. On the other hand, I wonder how playable the basketball and tennis courts might be if winds carry the water onto the playing surfaces. (But that's another story!)

Thanks all for reading and commenting!

mark d

Homestar Runner? Nice sound byte. Looks fun. Thanks for trying it out for us.

Just saying

frankly i think this is a great addition to Durham and i don't know why people are hatting on this? As someone who worked with Charleston Parks and Rec for 12 year i can tell you Durham parks and rec has stepped ups its game. i am glad to see Durham is thinking outside the box to get people active.
offering it on a for hire bases there really should be no lost.
As for safety high ropes course operate on "persevered risk" your more likely to be hurt doing any traditional sport with the city than on any ropes course.
this will cover its own cost and provide something really cool to Durhamites. i am sure Raleigh parks and rec is kicking them self right now wishing they had something like this.

Wondering if anyone knows what is going on

Speaking about Parks and Rec. Does anyone know why they built a very nice sidewalk from the Mangum House to the picnic shelter at West Point, Then a few weeks later they tore it out? This is where the waste of money comes in. One would think that many people in the City Government knew about this. So what went wrong Parks and Rec? And how much was wasted?


Frankie's Fun Park (3.5 miles away from this site) opened their "Sky Trail" last year.

Subcomandante Beaver

The Durham Coalition for Urban Beaver demands a public meeting!

Sean Hartung

The private sector of Durham would never even dream of doing something like this, and it has nothing to do with cost. I LIKE IT!!

Trudy Lonegan

I like it! Good for Durham! Anyone know the age requirement?

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