Jonathan Simmons knows a lot about trees.
He’s built his career on it, in fact, and has lived in various places across the country, immersing himself in the intricacies of earth science and the pivotal role trees play in nourishing our world and ourselves.
Now he’s gone to great lengths — and even greater heights — to share that passion with Greenville.
Simmons is the owner of the new aerial adventure course Flying Rabbit Adventures, which is set to open soon to the public in Holland Park, the new 12-acre mixed-use development off Laurens Road that will also be home to Home Team BBQ and Double Stamp Brewery.
While some might think of Flying Rabbit Adventures as a “ropes course,” Simmons tends to avoid that term.
“I try to steer away from ‘ropes course’ as a term because everybody thinks back to summer camp, doing those ropes courses as a kid,” Simmons said. “These elements we’re putting together are pretty different from that.”
The course has already received permits, and construction is well underway, with an opening date set for late May or early June.
With direct access to the Prisma Health Swamp Rabbit Trail, the aerial course will be an entirely new concept for Greenville. Those walking along the trail will be able to look up at the canopy of mature-growth trees and see people jumping and climbing more than 50 feet in the air.
For the people actually up in those trees, the sensation will be even more realistic and visceral. Unlike typical ropes courses, which offer the sense of being roped-in and tethered at all times, the Flying Rabbit will utilize a continuous belay that disappears behind each participant. Once participants are locked into the belay at the main 52-foot observation deck in the center of the course, they never have to hook and unhook themselves as they traverse the 60 elements across six different routes that make up the course.
And because the rope is always disappearing behind them, participants face each new challenge with a sense of being totally free and untethered.
“You don’t really feel like you’re attached,” Simmons said. “If there’s an element where you need to jump or swing across a gap, you won’t feel the safety of it trailing you. It makes for a better experience.”
Once participants reach the end of the route, they zip-line back to the observation deck, where they can start all over again on a different route.
Simmons is well aware that for some, the sensation of having to jump across a gap, swing from ledge to ledge, tiptoe across a balance beam or traverse the many different elements that make up the course might be more fear-inducing than fun — especially when those elements are at incredible heights with a sensation of being untethered.
But even those afraid of heights need not worry. At any moment, participants can simply sit down and put their weight on the cable and be able to pull themselves across any particularly tough obstacle.
For Simmons, the goal isn’t to create the most daredevil-friendly course in the world. Sure, the course is meant to be both physically and mentally challenging, and those who get a kick out of swinging from great heights will feel right at home, but it also acts as an opportunity to steer a younger generation toward a greater connection with nature.
Flying Rabbit is uniquely situated in a grove of mature old-growth trees, which Simmons has taken great care to preserve. While participants get the feel of swinging from tree branches, the trees are actually untouched and grow just as they’ve always done, which was a deliberate choice on Simmons’ part.
“When I was a kid, you’d spend most of your time going out into the woods,” Simmons said. “Raising my son here in Greenville now, there are still some continuous woods in the city limits, but it’s less common now than it was back then.”
Simmons’ early love of nature led him to earn a degree in forestry from Clemson University, and he later went on to work all over the nation as a tree expert of sorts. The federal government tasked him with maintaining the trees in Washington, D.C., including on the Capitol Building grounds and at the WWII memorial. He has since gone on to consult and design numerous aerial course across the country.
With Flying Rabbit Adventures, his first course that he personally owns, Simmons wants to create a place that can replicate the sense of excitement over nature that he felt as a kid.“It’s a place where kids can come out, feel that adrenaline rush on the course, but also be in the woods where it’s peaceful,” he said. “They can see some different trees, form a foundation of knowledge that will hopefully build in the future.”
Simmons, who is on the board of TreesUpstate, a group that promotes the planting and protection of trees in Upstate South Carolina, already has plans to use the course and the grounds just as much as an educational site as an adventure site. He is working to create courses in tree identification, tree-planting and earth sciences with local schools once COVID-19 concerns are more manageable.
“I’m looking to turn the whole thing into an arboretum” — a botanical garden made exclusively of trees — “to see Southeastern trees that can’t be seen elsewhere,” he said.Especially after a year of COVID-19 lockdowns and children stuck in front of e-learning computer screens, Simmons wants to bring things back to the way they were before everything was so digital, a way for kids to “get up there and get out there,” he said, and explore the world for themselves.
“So many kids couldn’t see their friends, couldn’t get out there,” Simmons said. “I just see so many people wanting to get outside and do something that’s physical and entertaining, and that’s what we’re here to do.”