Natalie stands at the edge of a platform built around a towering oak. In front of her hangs a horizontal rope ladder she must cross to reach the next landing. Beneath her is a 15-foot drop to the ground. "No," she says, shaking her head. "I can't do it."
We're at Holiday Valley Resort's Sky High Adventure Park in Ellicottville, N.Y., and though Natalie, 7, is the youngest in our group, she must go first so I can help her with lanyards that connect her to the safety line. One of the park's guides offers to go with her, and she makes it across. Smiling, she is ready to go forward on her own.
My children and I traveled to Holiday Valley for a challenge and we've found it. The adventure park opened in 2011 with eight courses in 4 acres of forest on the side of a mountain. Each course features a series of "bridges" to traverse as well as two or three zip lines. It's been so popular that courses have been added every year, and there are now 12, including two devoted exclusively to zip lines.
There is also the mountain coaster, which takes riders 283 feet up the side of a hill. And just this summer, the park's new climbing forest opened. The only one of its kind in North America, it features 10 trees fitted with climbing holds that take harnessed adventure-seekers up to 45 feet.
But we haven't come here just for the thrills. We've also come for the beauty. Holiday Valley opened as a ski resort in 1957 and is set in rural Cattaraugus County. There are no traffic snarls, malls or swaths of suburbia to ruin what have been dubbed the Enchanted Mountains.
We drive just down the street and find the heart of Ellicottville at East Washington and Jefferson streets. Narrow Victorian-era storefronts are home to shops and restaurants, and the flower-filled sidewalks invite strolling through the village.
For dinner, we settle in at the Ellicottville Brewing Co., which just doubled in size and added an expansive outdoor patio with a fire pit, tables and a bar. The fire takes the chill out of the air and it's easy to imagine it filled with skiers who aren't afraid of the cold — especially when there's beer involved.
After all the action at Sky High yesterday, we are in need of some relaxation. We could golf on Holiday Valley's recently redesigned par 70, 18-hole golf course or even hit the spa, but our little pack likes to swim. Fortunately, the Tamarack Club, where we're staying, built its pool with all four seasons in mind. You enter the water indoors, but can swim through a narrow passageway to the outdoor pool, which is kept at 86 degrees. Once outside, you're surrounded by ski slopes. The air is crisp, but the pool is warm enough to stay comfortable.
We lounge away much of the day this way, but keep returning to the memories of our adventure the day before. The hardest obstacle had us walking uphill on a tightrope while holding onto a horizontal log that dangled above the rope. I lost my balance as I approached the platform and started to fall backward. I barely caught myself and avoided a fall. I admit that I was scared.
My 9-year-old, Audrey, on the other hand, wanted to do the toughest course her age permitted her to do. She asks if we can come back next year, when she will be 10 and allowed to try a course that's harder and higher off the ground. "You'll do it with me, right, Mom?" she asks.
Of course I will. There are still courses — and fears — left to conquer. We'll be back to enjoy the beauty of the forest at its fall finest and the rush of a new challenge.
» Go Local. Set the clock back at DJ's Restaurant, an old-fashioned diner packed with golfers who go for hot coffee, eggs, good service and reasonable prices. 34 E. Washington St., Ellicottville, N.Y., 716-699-8966
» Embrace Fall. Holiday Valley Resort's Fall Festival (Oct. 12 & 13) offers chairlift rides for spectacular views of fall foliage, live music and food. Find a carnival, food court and 400 arts vendors in downtown. ellicottvilleny.com/fall-festival
» Eat. Order gourmet pizzas, duck a l'orange or a caprese salad at Dina's Restaurant, which serves breakfast, lunch and dinner in an elegant, yet casual setting. 15 Washington St., Ellicottville, N.Y., 716-699-5330, dinas.com
» Play. For an indoor thrill, the Seneca Allegany Casino & Hotel is just 10 miles away in Salamanca and offers table games, slots, the Western Door Steakhouse and a spa. 777 Seneca Allegany Blvd., 716-945-9300, senecaalleganycasino.com
» Stay. With its wrap-around porch, The Jefferson Inn, located in the heart of the village, looks the part of the classic Victorian bed-and-breakfast. Enjoy the hot tub at night and the blueberry-stuffed French toast in the morning. 3 Jefferson St., Ellicottville, N.Y., 1-800-577-8451, thejeffersoninn.com