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Family-owned NC roller coaster draws thousands for its mountain views

Some families open restaurants - Ashley Brown's family opened a roller coaster.

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Jessica Patrick
, WRAL multiplatform producer
BANNER ELK, N.C. — Some families open restaurants. Ashley Brown's family opened a roller coaster.
Nestled in North Carolina's mountains, the Wilderness Run Alpine Coaster is the first of its kind in the state. Brown, whose family is in the military and has been stationed on-and-off at Fort Bragg for the last 30 years, said her parents fell in love with the area while she attended school at Appalachian State University.

That's why her mom decided to bring the Alpine coaster, which the family loved to ride while living in Tennessee, to Banner Elk. "This is my mother's baby," said Brown. "She has always dreamed of having her own business."

After one year under construction and a coronavirus delay, Wilderness Run opened in May after some of North Carolina's restrictions were lifted. The coaster itself was built in five to six months, but inspections were delayed due to COVID-19.

"Our family was out there every day," Brown said. "They were literally working seven days a week from sun up to sun down to get everything done."

The family worked with installation crews to built the coaster around nature.

"We kept as many trees as we could," Brown said. "We only took out trees in the line of the coaster because we really wanted to keep the aspect of the wilderness into the experience for our guests."

Brown said the coaster is thrilling at times and peaceful at others.

Credit: Wilderness Run Alpine Coaster in Banner Elk

"There are definitely hoops and turns, but when you're going slow, it's beautiful," she said. "It's nice and relaxing, and you can take in the scenery. We have wildlife that come through first thing in the morning -- deer or sometimes a bear or two."

When the coaster opened to the public on Memorial Day weekend, Brown said wait times were as long as four or five hours. Since then, her family has implemented a staggered check-in system, which allows them to usher in smaller groups of people in 30-minute intervals to reduce crowding and shorten wait times.

To keep guests safe, the carts are misted with a sanitizing spray between each ride, and families waiting in line are spaced 6 feet apart. Masks are not required of guests, since the coaster is outdoors, but all staff wear them, Brown said.

Credit: Wilderness Run Alpine Coaster in Banner Elk

"A lot of people drive by and think it looks really packed, but it's hard to gauge that from the road," Brown said. "But inside, we have that spacing, and everyone is doing really good job wearing masks."

Brown said the coaster averages around 350 people on a weekend day.

The ride is currently open seven days a week from 10 a.m. until dusk, but once lighting is added around the track, the Wilderness Run Alpine Coaster will offer nighttime rides.

Brown emphasized that the coaster is not a theme park but a fun stop during a road trip. The attraction is meant to encourage tourists to visit the mountains, and Brown and her family send visitors to nearby attractions like Grandfather Mountain and gem-mining town Little Switzerland all the time.

"We love the back country – we love the outdoors, we love supporting local businesses," Brown said. "Our whole goal of doing this was to bring something to support them. They send people our way, we send them their way. It's really great that we can support each other."

To ride with a person over the age of 16, a child must be three years old and at least 38 inches tall. To ride solo, a rider must be 54 inches or taller.

The roller coaster will be open year-round, even in winter, so guests can experience it in all seasons.

"Every time I ride it it's a different experience," Brown said. "I haven't gotten to ride it in the snow yet, but my family has, and they say it's so much fun."


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