The Best Wooden Roller Coasters in the US

Published: June 12, 2014

I may not have been to every park in the US, but I've been to most of the major ones up and down the East Coast.  Naturally, coasters are the main attraction.  And the traditionalist in me goes for the woodies above all.  But not all woodies are created equal!  Poor design and/or poor maintenence can lead to a ride that will have you visiting a chiropractor come Monday. 

My appreciation for woodies came from early exposure.  There was an impression as a nascent coaster-rider that woodies were tamer than the loopy, twisty steel monsters that were taking over parks in the 1980's when I was a kid.  My first coaster memories are of the Scooby Doo coaster at King's Dominion (now The Woodstock Express) and the Comet at Hersheypark.  Even as the more austentatious steel coasters beckoned, I always been more appreciative of the less flashy thrills that woodies offer.  You never know exactly what that ride is going to be till you're on it!

Here's my personal list of favorites woodies that will give you a bit of nostalgia, a bit of a thrill, but not a bit of back pain.

  1. Lightning Racer - Hersheypark

    My alltime favorite woodie is also my alltime favorite roller coaster, bar none.  Equally, yet very differently thrilling in daylight and after dark, when the running lights heighten the experience.  I enjoy just looking at this tangled mess of wood and track, but love riding it even more.  It's smooth and absolutely fast and thrilling!  Much better than it's whiplash enducing neighbor, the Wildcat (which I skip altogether).  It's also a well-planned chain of distinct thrills:  dropping down the first twisted hill, side by side with another train; a fake-out turnaround that suggests an impending collision; a disorienting merging of tracks in a tunnel; the criss-crossing up-and-down stretch before the last turn-around; and of course, crossing the finish line and seeing who won!  I just love this ride.

  2. Thunderbolt - Kennywood

    The Thunderbolt falls squarely between thrills and nostalgia.  Looks like a run-of-the-mill late classic era woodie (I think it's from the '60's), but what you don't see is the first drop that follows the contour of a hillside.  It fakes you out with a relatively tame looking lift hill...then you go over the side and whoa!

    In a park known for it's well-preserved old rides, this one was by far my favorite. 

  3. El Toro - Six Flags Great Adventure

    One of the more modern entries, El Toro is simply top thrills.  It's smooth and vicious - I believe it's essentially steel tracks mounted on a wooden coaster body.  Fast and long, this one is worth the long, long line.

  4. Racer - Kennywood

    The Racer hits for nostalgia.  It's one of the oldest coasters around, and while not as thrilling as Coney Island's Cyclone, it provides the same joys of the Lightning Racer in a tamer package.

  5. Comet - Hersheypark

    The Comet was my first favorite roller coaster.  I never visit Hershey without at least two or three trips.  Highlights include the first two hills "kissing" the creek, the out-and-back bunny hills, and the enchanting running lights at night that turn that entire section of the park into a magical old midway.

    The Comet and Lightning Racer together embody what makes Hersheypark my favorite park anywhere.  There's a desire to preserve old-fashioned experiences by maintaining a coaster like the Comet, but also by building modern rides like Wildcat and Lightning Racer which pay tribute to the feel of the old midway. 

    Most of all, though, the Comet is for me what a ballgame or hunting trop might be for another guy - the quintessential moment with Dad.  Over the course of almost thirty years of Comet-going, my Dad has sat beside me on both my first and my most recent ride.

  6. Grizzly - King's Dominion

    The biggest impression The Grizzly ever made on me is it's location.  Shrouded in woods, the chief thrill here is the unknown.  It's very hard to conceive of the size and length of this great bear of a coaster.  A memorable experience.

    Grizzly's Ohio cousins, Beast and Son of Beasts, get all the acclaim.  And no, I haven't been on those fabled coasters.  But I'd contend that Grizzly can hold his own.

  7. Cyclone - Luna Park, Coney Island

    I always want this alltime classic to be smoother.  I feel like if you sit at JUST the right spot in the train, it's perfect...but I've yet to figure out where that is.  Last time I rode, my arm was bleeding when I got off.  Still, it's an undeniable thrill!

    Beware the imitators!  A lot of parks built tribute Cyclones (Six Flags in Georgia and New England come to mind).  They may be bigger, but certainly not better.

  8. Great White - Morey's Pier, Wildwood Boardwalk

    Great White's sole thrill is the novelty of it's location.  But there's something undeniably unique about creaking up that lift hill and then soaring down into the sand, on the edge of the ocean.  A solid, well-done ride in an era of underwhelming boardwalks.

  9. Gemini - Cedar Point

    In a park known for coasters, steel boys rule at Cedar Point.  However, on my one trip there years ago, the Gemini stood out as a modern-era thrill.  In fact, it was breath-taking enough (literally) that after an early morning ride, I wasn't ready for another coaster till the afternoon.

    I'll also take this moment to mourn the loss of another Cedar Point woodie that I really enjoyed, though almost devoid of real thrills:  The Cedar Point Mine Ride.  To me, it was like a piece of Disney in Ohio.  RIP.

  10. Hurler - King's Dominion

    To make an even ten, I'll add the Hurler.  When I last rode this it was brand new, smooth and thrilling.  I hope it's been well-maintained.  Either way, it's all classic wood - nothing to make you hurl.  Together with The Grizzly and the older Rebel Yell, King's Dominion has a pretty well-rounded collection of woodies.

This list takes me down memory lane, and really has me longing for some classic summertime thrills!  Too bad I'm stuck with Six Flags Over Georgia as my home park.  Their two woodies would make the bottom of any list.

It also makes me realize how many great woodies I've yet given the opportunity to make this list!  Beast and Son of Beast at King's Island.  Mean Streak at Cedar Point.  Thunderhead at Dollywood.  Hercules at Dorney Park.  Gwazi at Busch Gardens Tampa.  Looks like I have some travelling to do!