Aerial Adventures: Flying High Over The Northwest

Photo © Kenmore Air

By Nancy Mueller

My first flight over the beautiful Pacific Northwest made a lasting impression. After descending through thick cloud layers on approach into Seattle, our plane lowered over lush forests, beyond which snowcapped mountains rose from the deep blue waters of Puget Sound. I have been hooked on flying high over the Northwest ever since. My hunch is that after discovering any one of these six aerial adventures, you will be, too.

Teton Balloon Flights (Drigger, ID)

For an hour of flight time, Idaho adventurers can live the romance of man’s earliest form of sky travel: floating aloft in a hot air balloon.

Visitors gather for liftoff at Teton Balloon Flights 30 minutes before sunrise when winds are mildest. Far from a roller coaster ride, the multicolored, nine-story airship lifts passengers airborne, then drifts with calm winds across the skyscape. Eyes closed, you would hardly know you are off the ground. But travel with eyes wide open to revel in vistas spanning the Rocky Mountains, perhaps the Grand Teton herself, to bird’s eye views of farmlands, valleys, waterways and wildlife. You might even catch sight of a rare 360-degree rainbow as lucky passengers did in flight last summer.

Naturally, passengers cap off their captivating air voyages with a champagne toast in the French tradition to celebrate what for many will be an unrivaled lifetime event. tetonballooning.com, tetonvalleychamber.com

Tree to Tree Aerial Adventure Park (Gaston, OR)

Ready to release your inner Tarzan or Jane among towering Douglas firs? At Tree to Tree Aerial Adventure Park visitors can play in the sky on wobbly bridges, rope swings and balance beams while progressing through obstacle courses of varying heights and difficulty designed for all ages and skill sets. Certified guides, safety harnesses and helmets ensure a safe, secure environment for walking, leaping, climbing and zipping in the treetops.

The brainchild of operations manager Marissa Doyle, this family-run attraction, located an hour west of Portland on 26 acres, is the first of its kind on the West Coast. Besides offering a unique outdoor activity away from smartphones, laptops and tablets, Tree to Tree inspires participants to stretch their comfort zones, gain confidence and discover new perspectives flying high over Oregon.

Additional activities include a 1200-foot Super Zip, Tween’s Course, Corporate Challenge and Zip, Sip and Stay package. tree2treeadventurepark.com, oregonswashingtoncounty.com 

Apex Helicopter Tours (Florence, OR)

How about an aerial whale watching or dune viewing adventure? Apex Helicopter Tours offers an intimate way to experience the rugged Oregon coastline and Williamette Valley Wine Country on scenic trips and packaged tours.

Hovering at an altitude between 300 and 500 feet, passengers have first-class views of the region. Owner Byron DeVries assures guests, “You can’t pick anywhere wrong to fly!” Former Air Force helicopter pilot, passenger Dale Sutherland agrees: “I wish everyone could experience the very special beauty of the Pacific Northwest from this perspective.”

Recognizing that even mild air shifts feel foreign to people unused to riding in small aircraft, DeVries exudes a calm demeanor balanced with irrepressible enthusiasm for the fun of flying.

Flight times average 30-minutes for a 40-mile flight, covering locations from Astoria in the north, south to Crater Lake. Sights include the Sea Lion Caves, Heceta Lighthouse and Old Town Florence. apexheli.com, eugenecascadescoast.org

The Seattle Great Wheel (Seattle, WA)

Nothing stirs memories of carefree childhood days like a Ferris wheel. To experience the joy of a lift to the heavens, hop on The Seattle Great Wheel, the city’s waterfront wonder that draws visitors to Pier 57 seven days a week year-round.

For the price of admission, riders receive at least three rotations on the 175-foot-high observation wheel while watching ferries cross Elliott Bay with the Olympic Mountains in the distance. Enclosed gondolas circle at a leisurely pace of 2 miles per hour, providing smooth, silent rides with plenty of time for sky gazing.

With 500,000 LED lights as his palette, general manager Gerry Hall designs the Wheel’s dazzling light shows celebrating local sports teams, holidays and non-profit causes.

To splurge for a special occasion, reserve the 4-person VIP gondola with leather seats, glass bottom, stereo system and champagne toast. Cheers! seattlegreatwheel.com, visitseattle.org

Kenmore Air Scenic Flight Tours (Seattle, WA)

For a thrilling aerial adventure over Seattle or farther north to the San Juan Islands, a scenic seaplane tour defines the ultimate Northwest experience. At its Lake Union hub, Kenmore Air relies on a fleet of de Havilland Beavers to fly passengers off the water into Seattle’s airspace.

Leaving the terminal to board the dockside six-seater plane makes for a fast, easy getaway. You’re skyborne before you know it. From an altitude averaging 800 to1000 feet, the 20-minute flight loops around the downtown core to Lake Washington. Below lie the city’s iconic floating bridges, University of Washington Husky Stadium, lakeside estates and the City of Bellevue. Continue toward the waterfront for expansive views of Puget Sound, reminiscent of my first flight to the Northwest. Only this time the plane lands gently over water, just as the pilot has assured it would. kenmoreair.com/Scenic-Flight-Tours

Goldbelt Mount Roberts Tramway (Juneau, AK)

From downtown Juneau, the gentle 5-minute narrated ride ascends through rain forest before reaching a pinnacle of nearly 1,800 feet.

Gaze at the waterfront below from a viewing platform. Enjoy panoramic views of the Chilkat Mountains and Gastineau Channel. Look for eagles, black bears or Sitka black-tailed deer grazing the mountain slopes.

Spend time exploring Mountain House (Shaa Hit), a complex of art and recreational activities. The 120-seat Chilkat Theater presents a free 18-minute award-winning film on Tlingit culture, also available for purchase in upscale Raven Eagle Gifts.

Learn from native artists and naturalists who engage visitors through art demonstrations and slide shows. goldbelttours.com/mount-roberts-tramway, traveljuneau.com