Tennessee mountain coaster is hell on wheels
Anakeesta’s newest attraction delivers smooth thrills, spectacular views
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4 (out of 5)
I’ve been on gazillions of roller coasters, but I’m something of a mountain coaster newbie. My first experience with alpine coasters was about a year ago, aboard Rail Runner at Anakeesta. The mountaintop adventure theme park in Gatlinburg, Tennessee recently opened a second coaster, Hellbender, and I returned to the delightful spot to give it a whirl. I’m happy to report that the exceptionally smooth ride through the forested mountainside is wonderful and exhilarating.
As with most (all?) rail mountain coasters, passengers board single-car vehicles. Hellbender’s sleek cars sport an orange and black color scheme and comfortably seat one passenger. They can accommodate two riders, although their combined weight can’t exceed 375 pounds. It’s a bit of a tight fit for two large adults, but kids (who meet the 38-inch height requirement and are at least three years old) would likely find the inline seating comforting during the sometimes frenetic ride.
A single over-the-shoulder restraint comfortably tethers passengers. Just before dispatching the vehicle, a ride operator gives a brief safety and operations spiel, including instructions about operating the onboard brakes. Pushing the two handles forward releases the brakes, while raising them activates the braking. The brakes are responsive and variable; riders can brake a lot, a little, or just let their vehicle fly.
Leaving the station and soaring down the first drop, I felt a brief–and the ride’s only–pop of airtime at the bottom. Sitting in the low-slung car and racing headlong through the lush tree canopy, it felt much faster than its somewhat modest top speed. There is no structure per se; the track is mostly low to the ground and hugs the mountainside. Whipping past the trees and plants gives the illusion of speed.
There is a 90-degree turn as well as 270-degree and 360-degree helices that deliver some nice lateral Gs. Many of the straightaways actually include little sideways zigs and zags to help keep the ride experience spicy. There is a total of 3,300 feet of track, with 2,700 of it spent racing downhill and the final 600 feet climbing back up to the loading station.
With Mount LeConte and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park looming in the distance, the views along the route are spectacular. I was there just past the peak foliage colors in early November, and the orange and red hues lighting up the scenery were especially lovely. Taking in the sights, breathing the crisp mountain air, and rocketing through the woods on the whisper-quiet track makes for a heady ride. At night, with the car’s headlights piercing the inky darkness, Hellbender offers a wholly different and perhaps even more intoxicating ride experience.
I gently activated the brakes just to try them, but quickly determined that a brakeless ride was the way to go. It turns out that the cars automatically and gently activate their internal magnetic braking systems at dicey points along the course anyways. Despite warnings on the track to maintain a safe distance from the car in front of you, the vehicles have onboard sensors to detect proximities and prevent collisions.
Thrill freaks like me (and you?) will let it rip. But the beauty of mountain coasters is that passengers have control over the ride experience. Alas, my lovely wife is not a coaster fan (sigh) and has not boarded one in years. She got on Hellbender, however, and had a ball. Granted, she braked it to the point of a slow crawl, but hey, she loved it.
In addition to being able to control the speed, I suspect my wife adored the ride because it is crazy smooth. Wiegand, the German company that manufactures many of the industry’s mountain coasters, has seemingly perfected the process. Anakeesta’s other ride, Rail Runner, is a fairly rare single-rail alpine coaster. That felt less stable, rougher, and more out-of control. I did activate the brakes on Rail Runner to rein in the ride. In comparison, the experience aboard Hellbender felt assured and rock-solid.
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By the way, a hellbender is an especially large salamander that is native to the Smokies. Anakeesta plans to add themed elements to the ride.
“We take an anthropomorphic view of it,” explains Bryce Bentz, Anakeesta’s president. “You are a salamander and you are racing down the Greenbrier Gran Prix.” He says that there will be news clippings of past race winners and other artifacts in the queue and loading station. “On the lift hill at the end, you’ll take a victory lap. We’ll have trophies and a champagne toast.”
The new coaster is part of an expansion at Anakeesta that welcomes a new land, Stone Village, to the park. It also includes BirdVenture, a colorful, fanciful play area that invites guests to tour three oversized birdhouses and have fun on climbing structures, rope bridges, and other adventure challenges. The area features seven zippy, worm-themed slides that include intriguing light effects and send folks careening over 50 feet down the hillside. According to Bentz, it is the first “slide farm” in the U.S.
Hellbender is one of a number of mountain coasters in the Smoky Mountains region. There may be more of them there than anywhere else in the world. As Bentz notes, there aren’t many places that have the mountainous terrain and the level of tourism of the hugely popular Tennessee getaway to support so many alpine attractions. With its gorgeous setting and deliriously smooth ride, the Anakeesta coaster shines among its peers.
Have you been on any of Tennessee’s many mountain coasters? What do you think makes for a great mountain coaster experience?