Ohio scenic byway: Wild and big in Appalachia
Giraffes are among the at-risk animals kept at The Wilds near Cumberland, Ohio. (Bob Downing, Akron Beacon Journal, MCT / August 26, 2011)
Thirty miles to the south sits the biggest bucket you've ever seen: The Big Muskie, a reminder of Ohio's coal-mining past.
Linking the two sites is the Morgan County Scenic Byway, one of 27 state-designated byways in Ohio. It stretches 39 miles from Burr Oak State Park north through Ohio's Appalachian foothills to its northern terminus near the Morgan-Muskingum County line near the Wilds.
The Wilds is one of my favorite places in Ohio, although it is not even on the radar of most people.
The facility, covering 14 square miles, has been hailed as the largest wildlife conservation center in North America. It is part drive-through zoo and part Noah's Ark for endangered animals. It also wants to be a major tourist attraction, although that hasn't happened yet.
The complex is between Zanesville and Cambridge and near the hamlet of Cumberland in Muskingum County.
It opened to the public in 1994 and sits on 10,000 acres of strip-mined lands donated by American Electric Power. It was initially a venture of zoos in Akron, Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati, Toledo and Pittsburgh. Today it also has an agreement with the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium.
The Wilds is a breeding facility for endangered species from around the world. It houses about 400 animals representing about 30 species. They range from dholes (Asian wild dogs) to cheetahs, giraffes to zebras, bison to rhinoceros.
It also houses little-known animals with names that might have been created by Dr. Seuss: Sichuan takins, Bactrian camels, Przewalski's wild horses, bantengs, gorals, common elands, Persian onagers and scimitar-horned oryxes.
About 75 percent of the animals at the Wilds are extinct in the wild or threatened. Most are on loan from zoos.
The Wilds' main mission is conservation and research, though it needs tourists to survive. But it emphasizes its work, not exhibits. It offers a two-hour tour with three stops, beginning at the visitor center. You can tour in open-air vehicles or air-conditioned buses.
The Wilds — known officially as the International Center for the Preservation of Wild Animals — gets about 80,000 visitors a year and is adding facilities and offerings including workshops, classes and even day camps for kids.
Visitors can spend the night in one of 10 upscale yurts at Nomad Ridge or a small 12-person lodge. Meals are provided. Last year, more cabins were added, along with a guided Animal Encounter for youngsters.
There is a birding station; the grasslands at the Wilds have been hailed for aiding at-risk birds.
Concessionaires operate a zip-line course and offer horseback riding. The Wilds offers fly-fishing excursions on the ponds. It is open weekends in May and October and daily from June through September, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Tours range from $20 to $27 for adults, with discounts for senior citizens and children. There are also sunset tours with buffet meals.
For information, call 740-638-5030 or check out http://www.thewilds.org.
You can mountain bike for free on 15 miles of trails at the northern end of the Wilds' property off state Route 146. The trails have names like Bumpy Hollow, High Wall, Chutes and Ladders, the Playa Trail, West Nile, Green Trail and Grassman.
The trails are maintained by Appalachia Outdoor Adventures, a grass-roots group that also manages bike trails at Dillon State Park and other areas in east-central Ohio. The area is designed for intermediate to advanced cyclists, said trail steward Heath Boedeker.