For the ultimate first-time paragliding experience, try launching from high up in nosebleed territory in the Colorado Rockies, off a bluff at 9,000 feet. After soberly considering that, then realize you can choose to do it first as a tandem ride-along. The beauty of going tandem means that no experience is required: There’s no need to study wind conditions, or thermals, or even steering, for that matter. An expert pilot rigs your harness to his, and, for greater stability, uses an extra-large wing – the self-inflating nylon canopy that keeps the two of you aloft. We flew with a seasoned local operation, Vail Valley Paragliding, last September, when the fall foliage was just starting to take hue.
After a short drive up 8,800-foot Bellyache Ridge, seven miles west of Vail, we hiked a few hundred feet to the takeoff point on the edge and admired the mind-blowing 270-degree mountain views all the way to the toothy Continental Divide. The pilots unloaded their backpacks and fit us with a harness and helmet. Their instructions on how to take off (jog toward the edge until the ground starts to disappear from under you, then sit back in your harness and enjoy the ride), and how to land (either on your feet or skidding on the harness’ butt pad, depending on the wind conditions) were brief, but clear. (And, more importantly, accurate, it turns out.)
Once airborne, it was a smooth 15-minute soar with our pilot over the bright yellow aspens, orange scrub oaks, evergreen pines, and the Eagle River, which winds along the valley floor 1,000 feet below. We shared the air with eagles and hawks, and soaked up the bird’s-eye view of the craggy 12,000-foot Gore Range, grandiose Vail Mountain, and the four peaks of Beaver Creek Ski Resort. One tip: If you’re feeling daring, ask your pilot to scratch – a term for skimming the two of you a mere 20 feet above the treetops on the ridge side. It’s a bit scary, but it’s the definition of exhilarating. [Price starts at $175; vailvalleyparagliding.com]