The Wilds: Escape to an African savanna in southeast Ohio

Go on an African safari in southeast Ohio

A lone yellow oil pump stands out in a spacious, green valley in southeast Ohio, a reminder that this 10,000-acre swath of land was once drilled for oil and mined for coal by a dragline called Big Muskie.

But the land now known as the Wilds has been reclaimed, and most of the heavy equipment has been replaced by a collection of wild animals. Indeed, giraffes now move like cranes through the recovered meadows of the largest wildlife conservation center in North America. Rhinos, too, plow through tall grass, as do antelopes, zebras, camels and more than two dozen endangered species.

It seems like another world, but only because it’s so close to home in Columbus. For animal lovers and conservationists, the Wilds in Cumberland, Ohio, provides a bounty of adventure and education, as I recently learned while attending a weekend campout with my daughter, Rosie, and her Girl Scout troop.

The non-profit park opened in 1994 and began a partnership with the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in 2001. Options include guided safari tours, horseback riding trails, fishing ponds, mountain bike paths and zip-line courses on 2,000 acres of pastures and lakes. There’s also a 27-acre Carnivore Conservation Center, which houses African wild dogs, cheetah and dholes.

We stayed overnight at the Robert W. Teater Conservation Education Camp, which accommodates 48 people in four yurts. The comfortable and modern camp is available for school groups and families, too. Otherwise stay at the family-friendly lodge or glam it up on a romantic getaway at Nomad Ridge – high-end yurts for adults only.

Our guide, named “J,” took us on bumpy tours in an old school bus and led us on night hikes, where we called for barred owls and encountered a snapping turtle.

We saw that spots where seams of coal were removed are now high cliffs. Places that had been bulldozed and flattened are now meadows. Native aviary species have returned, making the area a haven for bird-watching.

The best part, though, was seeing animals we’d only seen at the zoo seemingly roaming freely in Ohio. Oh yeah, and petting a rhinoceros was pretty cool, too. “It felt like a hairy rock,” Rosie said.

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