As you step off the platform and the world falls away, the balmy Hawaiian air becomes a roar in your ears and the lush, green canopy gives way to a view of the valley floor nearly 100 feet below. It’s a view like nowhere else on earth. Yet for some reason, the scene looks very familiar.
Nestled several miles from the white sand beaches and turquoise waves of Oahu’s Windward Coast, the Ka’a’awa Valley is a surreal setting, where brontosaurus once grazed among the tropical foliage and velociraptors clawed and gnashed their way through one of the best-known adventure parks in modern cinema. The Valley, often referred to as “Hawaii’s Hollywood Backlot,” provided the setting for the original “Jurassic Park” and the most recent sequel, “Jurassic World,” as well as a slew of other films.
Today, visitors to Kualoa Ranch, the Valley’s real adventure park, get some of their thrills courtesy of its newest attraction: an entirely off-the-grid zip line tour. The three-hour Treetop Canopy Zipline Tour is the greenest of the various tours offered by Kualoa Ranch, which include horseback, ATV, and movie site and expedition tours, among others. Consisting of seven tandem zip lines, two suspension bridges, and three hikes that lead guests in a horseshoe path around the valley, it’s one of only two zip line operations on Oahu, and the only one that operates completely on solar power.
A VERY GREEN VALLEY
“We wanted to figure out how to share the valley with our guests without overbuilding,” explains CJ Hughes, zip tour operations manager. “We wanted to build something special so that people could enjoy where they are, and I think that by choosing to do this in a green way, we have added to that experience. The idea is that by the end of the tour, people had fun on the zip lines, but they’ve also had an educational experience and made a connection with a beautiful place.”
The breathtaking valley is part of a 4,000-acre private nature preserve that’s been in company president and CEO John Morgan’s family for 165 years. The initial 622-acre parcel, the first of three, was purchased in 1850 by Morgan’s great-, great-, great-grandfather from King Kamehameha III, who ruled Hawaii from 1825 to 1854.
Despite the long and storied history, it’s been just three decades that Kualoa Ranch has been running commercial outdoor recreation operations. And while the sustainable operation of the zip line tour certainly fits with Kualoa’s brand image (“Natural Beauty. History and Culture. Stewardship and Preservation.”), it wasn’t an entirely environmental decision to take the green route—with the tour’s remote location, it also happened to make really good economic sense.
“Our goal is to preserve [Kualoa Ranch] in perpetuity,” says Morgan. “In order to do that, we need to be economically viable. [The zip line] is far away from any utilities, so being off the grid was a bit of a no-brainer. It’s just what we needed to do.”
Morgan, every bit the island cowboy in boots and hat, who often explores his ranch by horse, explains that the zip tour’s location deep in Ka’a’awa—two miles from the main Kualoa Ranch resort—was dictated by both the ideal topography offered by the valley and the opportunity to create a sense of adventure for guests.
Still, the remote location presented some unique challenges. While zip lines are human and/or gravity powered, the supporting infrastructure would still require water and electricity to operate. Not only would running utilities to the zip line’s headquarters be more environmentally invasive than Kualoa wanted—it is an area that Morgan calls “a bastion of undeveloped pristine beauty”—it would be expensive and time consuming, from the zoning permits to the labor, materials, and ongoing operating costs.
SHAPING THE PROJECT
When Hughes first heard that Kualoa Ranch was looking to staff a new, yet-to-be-built zip line tour, he was working at Tree to Tree Adventure Park in Oregon. Having grown up just down the road from Kualoa Ranch before heading to the mainland for college, he jumped at a chance to return home and pursue his passion for the challenge course industry, which began in the Boy Scouts of America and was honed post college with the CLAS Ropes Course in Utah, and later at Tree to Tree.