Track Star: Wisp's All-Season Coaster

The Wisp Coaster: Just the Facts. Total length:4,800 feet; Total vertical drop: 350 feet; Maximum speed: 26 mph; Number of major turns: 3
The Wisp Coaster: Just the Facts. Total length:4,800 feet; Total vertical drop: 350 feet; Maximum speed: 26 mph; Number of major turns: 3 (Wisp Resort)
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By Elissa Leibowitz Poma
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, February 13, 2008; Page C02

The banana-colored car careened on an angle around the first curve of the outdoor mountain coaster track on Maryland's Wisp Mountain, and I momentarily forgot something important: I'm afraid of heights. My cheeks were flushed, but not because of nervousness. I heard myself shriek, but not from fear. I gripped the hand brakes tightly, but my knuckles didn't turn white. The ride was exhilarating, actually.

Until I looked down.

Bad move.

Twenty feet below was a snowy and icy expanse of sloping mountain, separated from the coaster track by a chain-link-fence-like barrier. Above me, snowboarders and skiers made the slow climb up the mountain on a ski lift, their skis and boots dangling right over my head.

Just as quickly as the pang hit, though, my stomach left my throat, the acrophobic moment passed and I found myself getting into the two corkscrew turns that came next. I even released the brakes a little more. That's living on the edge.

Thrill seekers probably will find Wisp Resort's year-round mountain coaster tame. After all, it's suitable for riders age 3 and older, so how hard-core could it be? But it's not often you find an outdoor roller coaster open during wintry months, and in such a lovely setting. In fact, there are only three other mountain coasters in the United States, with this one, near Deep Creek Lake in Garrett County, Md., the closest to the Washington area. (It's a three-hour drive from downtown D.C.) Taking the quick coaster ride is a nice break from more strenuous ski resort pursuits, especially for children and non-skiers.

But it's not entirely mild. Releasing your brakes all the way, you could reach speeds of up to 26 mph. I probably didn't go that fast, even during my second, more daring ride, but I sped up enough that the stinging wind whipped the tears right from my eyes.

The course runs 4,800 feet and is billed as a cross between an alpine slide and a roller coaster. The 52 independent cars look like the go-carts you'd find at an amusement park, except there are no foot pedals. Two spring-loaded hand controls are positioned on each side of your legs. Pull them back to brake, and push down to release.

During the first part of the ride, you sit back and enjoy the view as your car is pulled up 1,300 feet. Daredevils, take note: The tow seems to take forever. Even I wanted more speed than that.

During my second trip, I wasn't as impatient. The surroundings were peaceful and worth soaking in. Snowboarders swooshed around a curve on the Boulder Ski Trail below. Melting ice dripped from the branches of trees. Skiers on the lift that runs parallel to the coaster chatted quietly with their seatmates. I stretched as far as my seat belt would allow to take in the valley view behind me.

As soon as I passed the shingled shack at the top of the mountain, gravity took over. I slowly started descending, picking up momentum with each turn, forgetting how cold my feet were. I became bolder, releasing the brake a little more with each turn. I heeded the caution lights. And then, in a flash, it was over.

In total, the ride took about six minutes. It can be as short as four minutes or as long as eight, depending on the speed of the person in front of you. Is the coaster alone worth the three-hour drive to Wisp Resort? Probably not. The price (starting at $9.50 for one ride) seems steep, and if you're stuck behind someone pokey, it's no fun at all.

But if you're at the resort for an afternoon of skiing, snowboarding or snow tubing, or if you're not much into athletic pursuits, the mountain coaster is one cool ride.

Just don't look down.

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