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From tipis to Treetops

For nine years, Sandy River Outdoor Adventures in Rice has greeted guests from all over in every season.

About three years ago, it sprouted a host of tipis which visitors can rent for glamping.

“Glamping” is a shortened version of “glamorous camping” wherein the best perks of roughing it and the best perks of a hotel stay are combined.

“There was nothing out here, and then the owner, Mark Smith, started building log homes,” Sandy River’s office manager, Sarah Detrick, said.

“So he built a little log home out here, lived in it, and then built a big log home,” Detrick said, “and they moved into the big log home. Then his wife said, ‘Let’s start renting out the little cabin,’ and then it just all started from there.”

Mark started out in construction, but by virtue of his wife’s suggestion and his own drive to create, ended up owning and running Sandy River.

“He built the rest of the cabins, and then went on to the tipis,” Detrick said. “He’s definitely an entrepreneur dreamer, but he does it. He didn’t just dream it. He is very creative and likes to create things and do things.”

Mark, from Virginia Beach, and Candice, from South Africa, would normally be available to tell the story, Detrick said., but they’re currently in New England, picking up a still. The barn Mark is reconstructing of old wood, which you can see close by when you drive up to the office, will be the site of a distillery they’re adding to the mix.

The six tipis sit spaced along a smooth, green field with a swimming pool Mark designed himself. They’re close enough that you could wander over to say hello to your temporary neighbors if you wanted, but far enough away that it’s not awkward to keep your distance if you’d rather be alone. They have evocative names, like Moon Dance and Thunder Bird, and sport amenities like kitchenettes, fire pits, full bathrooms and Wi-Fi. They also sport homemade booklets about Native American history, both in general and in Virginia, that guests may peruse if they like.

“I would say the tipis are the most popular thing here,” Detrick said. “Basically, in the teepees there’s air conditioning, there’s heat. There’s heated cement floors. They’re all very tastefully done. There’s memory foam mattresses. It’s definitely not tent camping.”

There’s plenty of added things to do and enjoy at Sandy River, including hiking, yoga (twice-weekly classes are free to guests), boating, biking and perhaps most exciting of all, the Adventure Park, a series of six ziplines, starting with a beginners’ level and going up to a thrilling expert challenge.

To reach them, guests are safety harnessed and climb up an aerial obstacle course through the trees, with features like ropes, bridges and catwalks. Then they connect their harness to a zipline and slide down a gradual incline to the ground, flying through the air.

Operations Manager Maggie Brown demonstrated this, putting on zipline gear and showing the basics of ziplining at Sandy River.

“So actually, you’ll have to start on a yellow or green when you first get here,” she said. In the color-coding of the courses, yellow and green are for beginners or those with minimal experience.

“The one that I’m doing is actually considered a yellow course,” Brown said. “Our blue course is actually considered our advanced. The one next to it is the black course. That’s the one that’s slightly higher. That’s considered an expert level.”

Anyone who participates in ziplining has to be at least 40 inches tall and weigh between 60 to 260 pounds, for safety reasons. Most participants have a good idea of what they can handle, but cold feet sometimes happen.

“I’ve had quite a few people back out when they get up there, but typically I like to challenge them to try to finish a course,” Brown said. “If they can’t get through it, we have emergency lowering procedures that we do to get them to the ground, because of course we don’t want to force anybody to do something they’re not comfortable with. And sometimes people will know by about the first obstacle if it’s something they can do or not.”

Brown, however, continued the demonstration with ease as she climbed a tree, made her way deftly through the obstacles of the yellow course and mounted the platform she ziplined from.

She sailed off it, legs extended, sailing by an observer before she made a running stop on the ground that rose to meet her. It looked like a fun and exciting but relatively gentle introduction to the activity, safe but thrilling.

Brown’s grin while ziplining confirmed Detrick’s earlier words.

“This is a really special place,” she said. “It’s just a unique place. It’s easy to sell because it’s fun.”