Out of the Malls, Into the Trees: Oakland County Ecotourism?

Kids these days. They're always at it with the cellphones and the video games and the SnapChat. Why don't they go outside and climb a tree once and awhile, amIright? 
Scoffing at digitally-focused youth is becoming a bit of a national pastime, but increasingly, the response to that question is another: "What tree?"
It's a fair question in Oakland County. Visit the Oakland County Visitor's Guide's "Attractions" page, and you'll find The Detroit Zoo and Cranbrook Gardens as the only outdoor options. Search for amusement parks at Michigan.org and a skate park in Farmington Hills is the only outdoor suggestion within 20 miles of Pontiac. So, other than Metro Parks a few cider mills, where is that Pure Michigan outdoor tourism can-do spirit? 
Thomas Knuth has an answer in the form of four acres of trees engineered specifically for climbing, navigating, zip-lining and more. Knuth is the park manager at the new West Bloomfield Adventure Park , which offers ten aerial obstacle courses suspended high in the trees.
"What we have is basically an obstacle course that is amped up. It's hung in the trees by wire, and the challenge is to go from tree to tree," he says. "It's a totally different experience for people. It give you an idea of what it would be like to defy gravity." 
West Bloomfield Adventure Park is actually one of about 20 like it around the country. Connecticut-based Outdoor Ventures Group brought the aerial forest park model to the US from Europe. In fact, it's Michigan's second such park. The first opened late last year in Frankenmuth, perhaps an obvious choice as one of the state's most popular tourist destinations. 
So how did such a place end up in Oakland County, a destination famous for its wide selection of shopping malls? According to Knuth, that's part of what made the location such a great fit. 
"There is nothing like this down here," he says. "You might have trampoline parks and climbing walls, but there is nothing close to this in the area. This is a rock wall times ten. It's not just climbing; it's balance, it's coordination, it's confidence." 
It's also super nature-y. In an area known for sprawl and suburban lifestyles, the West Bloomfield Adventure Park offers people the opportunity to not simply be around nature, but to interact with it. 
"We're a company full of environmentalists," Knuth says. "We're willing to do whatever it takes to bring that environment to the public. You can walk through the forest and appreciate things, but if you climb through a forest, it's a totally different experience."
The ecotourism angle isn't just greenwashing. Though the trees are connected by wires, bridges and zip lines and are adorned with platforms meant to support humans, no part of the courses penetrate the tree. Everything is held in place with tension and gravity. The wires are even incrementally expanded to make room for the growing trees. 
"The purpose of this is so people can climb living trees, so we don't want to hurt any part of it," Knuth says. 
The ten environmentally mindful obstacle courses vary in height from 12 to 20 feet off the ground, as well as difficulty level. Similar to a ski resort, each course is rated from beginner to expert. As park hours extend past sundown, each course takes on a new form when lit by, of course, eco-friendly night lighting. 
"We have a low voltage LED system that lights each one," says Knuth. "It doesn't allow for any light pollution like a flood light would. It just illuminates the wires. It is a totally different atmosphere. You can even see the ground below."
Ecotourism and Oakland County has turned out to be a pretty good match so far. Though not yet open a month, Knuth has been surprised by how many visitors have already found them, not only locally, but from across the state. 
"We have seen people travel and stay overnight in hotels to get a chance to climb in the morning," he says. "Every person we've spoken with who has climbed on the course has been amazed with experience." 
That doesn't mean local isn't the park's primary market. Being an active part of the community is a priority for the West Bloomfield Adventure Park, which partnered with the Jewish Community Center to bring the obstacles to the organization's property. Knuth plans to offer regular themed events for the community, and the park is open for businesses, schools and other entities to schedule special events. 
"Our company would like to help rejuvenate the community," says Knuth. "We've partnered with the community to bring this here, and we'd like to build [West Bloomfield Twp.] as a destination." 
With ziplines instead of shopping lines and an open sky rather than another indoor activity, it seems the West Bloomfield Adventure Park has an opportunity to truly become a unique Oakland County destination, both for locals and for those browsing the region, trying to find an interesting attraction. 
"Our goal is to give families something to do that is different. To give them a reason to get off the couch or out from behind that computer and get outside," Knuth says. "It really doesn't click until you're up in the trees. You have to experience it to see how truly unique it is."

Natalie Burg is a freelance writer, the development news editor for Concentrate and a project editor for Issue Media Group.

All Photos by David Lewinski Photography