Because tubular pipe is a versatile material, there is a wide variety of steel roller coasters, but the same can't be said for wooden ones. While there are fewer varieties, and fewer wooden coasters overall, there are some interesting “woodies” to explore. Let’s run down the different types of wooden coasters, starting with the most common. Then go seek them out and ride the rails.
One of the most popular types of wooden roller coasters is a twister coaster, so named because its track twists and turns into itself. Because of all the turns, twister coasters can be built on relatively small plots of land. With all of the twists and curved track, they usually deliver lots of lateral G-forces that can slam passengers to-and-fro sideways. When riders are racing along a twister coaster, it may appear that they might not clear the structure when they enter it. This is known in the industry and among enthusiasts as a “head chopper.” (Lovely imagery, right?)
An example of a twister coaster is Thunderhead (pictured) at Dollywood in Tennessee.
Another popular type of wooden roller coaster is the out-and-back. As the name implies, the track takes passengers out to the halfway point, turns around, and heads back to the station. Because of their configurations, out-and-backs can take up a lot of real estate. They typically do not include many twists or turns, instead offering lots of hills that can deliver sweet pops of out-of-your-seat airtime. Variations include double out-and-back and triple out-and-back coasters.
An example of an out-and-back coaster is Shivering Timbers (pictured) at Michigan’s Adventure. It travels a half-mile out and a half-mile back.
A specific type of twister coaster, cyclone coasters pay homage to the original Cyclone at Coney Island (pictured) in New York City. Built in 1927, the Cyclone is perhaps the most famous coaster in the world. Deemed a National Historic Landmark, it is still operating to great acclaim. Interestingly, the famous ride actually features a steel structure. But it is considered a wooden coaster because of its traditional wood coaster track. All other cyclone coasters reproduce the original's layout
There used to be a number of cyclone coasters. Three remain today, including Viper at Six Flags Great America near Chicago.
In the early 1900s, when coasters first became popular, figure eight track layouts were quite prominent. In fact, many coasters were (unimaginatively) named "Figure 8.” Today, only two wooden figure eight coasters remain: Leap the Dips, which opened in 1902 at Lakemont Park in Pennsylvania, and Swamp Fox (pictured) which debuted in 1966 at Family Kingdom in South Carolina. A number of wooden coasters that are operating include figure eight elements in their layout, but true figure eight coasters are based solely on a figure eight pattern.
Twin coasters have two tracks and typically dispatch two trains at the same time that “race” one another. The two tracks are usually mirror images and they generally follow the same course alongside one another for most of the ride. The Racer (pictured) at Kings Island in Ohio is a classic example. A close cousin of the twin coaster is the Mobius coaster, which features two trains on what appears to be two tracks, but is actually one continuous loop of track. Racer at Kennywood in Pennsylvania is a Mobius coaster.
Most roller coasters send trains through a complete closed circuit of track. Some, however, reach the end of their course and then proceed backwards to retrace the route. There are many steel shuttle coasters operating (a number of which are identical and known as Boomerang models). There is only one wooden shuttle coaster: Switchback (pictured) at ZDT’s Amusement Park in Texas. It includes a 64-foot-tall spike up which its trains soar, come to a halt, and then fall backwards.
The coaster types listed above all focus on track layouts. For this category of wooden coaster, we turn to the track itself. Nearly all wooden coaster tracks incorporate a stack of wooden track pieces with a thin steel rail embedded in the top layer onto which the trains’ wheels run. In 2013, the innovative ride manufacturer Rocky Mountain Construction (RMC) introduced Topper Track. Its coasters feature a thick band of steel rail that completely covers the entire wooden stack. The more robust track allows the coasters to go higher and faster while remaining comparatively smooth. It also allow them to include inversions that turn passengers upside down, which is novel for modern-day wooden coasters.
There are four Topper Track coasters operating, including Goliath (pictured) at Six Flags Great America in Illinois.
Bobsled coasters also focus on the track. Specifically, they do not include any rails, but instead use a trough through which trains race, much like a bobsled. Wooden bobsled coasters were popular in the first half of the 1900s. Today, there are a number of steel ones operating, but the only wooden one is the retro Flying Turns (pictured) at Knoebels in Pennsylvania.
Instead of using a traditional lift hill, launched coasters send trains roaring out of the station using magnetic motors and other means. There are loads of launched steel coasters. There is only one launched wooden coaster, however: Lightning Rod (pictured) at Dollywood in Tennessee. The glorious ride hits a top speed of 73 mph, making it the world's fastest wooden coaster.
Update: Dollywood announced in November 2020 that it would be replacing some of Lightning Rod’s wooden track with steel “IBox” track to help prevent problems that had been causing lots of downtime for the ride. When it reopens in 2021, therefore, it will technically no longer be a wooden coaster. Because it will include two different types of track, it will be a combination of a wooden coaster (with Topper track, see above) and a hybrid wooden-steel coaster (see below). Already a unique ride, Lightning Rod will be even more unique after the makeover.
Hybrid Wooden and Steel
This one is a bit, um, off the rails. Technically, many consider hybrid wooden and steel coasters to be “steel” coasters, because their tracks are entirely steel. It’s tricky though. Another wild innovation by RMC, these coasters feature a wooden structure and a proprietary “IBox” steel track. Most hybrid wooden and steel coasters start with the wooden structure of an aging, overly rough coaster, which RMC invariably transforms into incredibly smooth rides. You can read more about hybrid wooden and steel coasters in our overview. A stellar example of a hybrid coaster is Twisted Colossus (pictured) at Six Flags Magic Mountain.