Weekend at The Wilds

A (kinda-sorta) Jurassic Park in Ohio

Perhaps the thought of a safari trip has always intrigued you, but you don't have the time or money for a wild African vacation. Well, for a couple hundred bucks or less you can spend a weekend at The Wilds, a Jurassic Park-like conservation sanctuary where giraffes, rhinos, zebras, camels, antelope and cheetahs mingle and (almost) roam free. In Ohio of all places.

The Wilds are located about 20 miles south of Interstate 70 near Cambridge and within a day’s drive of most of the east coast and Midwest. The sanctuary sits high atop a reclaimed strip mine that flattened thousands of acres of southeastern Ohio hill country and left  a plateau of essentially barren soil. Time, Mother Nature and human restoration efforts have terraformed the strip mine into a rolling savannah grassland with the occasional lowland oasis.

A project of the world-renowned Columbus Zoo, The Wilds offers a selection of tour options, activities and overnight accommodations. All of the animals at The Wilds are endangered or in need of an expanded gene pool, and that really describes the facility's first mission. The second point is visitor education and establishing a deeper understanding of the need for animal conservation efforts. On top of all that, it’s an exciting and fun experience that can’t be matched by any zoo or theme park.

We visited the website and planned our trip based on reviews from family and friends who had spent the night and toured The Wilds. We chose a premium yurt, but there are different yurts available as well as a large lakeside lodge that sleeps 12. There are various tour options to suit your interests, timeframe and budget. We took the Wildside off-road tour, but you can choose from tours by zipline, horseback or bus, or fishing excursions. There are also some indoor and small animal observation stations, including butterfly and bird watching areas. The central visitor area has a dining lodge and gift shop, and there are other cafés placed around The Wilds 14,000 acres where tour buses stop between animal observations.

Our three-hour Wildside tour took us throughout The Wilds in the back of a safari-topped, four-wheel drive truck. The bench seats were nicely padded and there were plenty of grab rails, which were appreciated during some of the more bumpy off-road sections.

Tour bus options get visitors plenty close to the animals via the road system, but the Wildside tour drives you right up to wherever the animals are in the fields, close enough to hand-feed lettuce to a giraffe or sweet potatoes to a rhino. Seeing these animals up close and personal gives you a very different impression of their size and their sensibilities. A 16-foot tall male Masai giraffe is fairly shy and very sensitive to movement and noise. After we fed him he walked over to his four-month old son and kissed him on the top of the head. A one-horned rhino had the feeding routine down and begged treats off us like a house pet. I know it's shallow to place value on wild animals simply because they display human characteristics or act like pets, but that didn't enter my mind when we were up close. The experience was spellbinding.

We saw so many animals it was hard to keep track of them all. The galleries below show some of them, including Asian dholes (a fox-like dog from Vietnam), bison, cheetahs, ostrich, Asian deer, Persian onagers (wild horses), zebras, and white rhinos.

While The Wilds are expansive and many of the animals are free to roam, it only makes sense to keep predators and prey separated. A network of gates and enclosures keep the animals safe and contained within the 21 square mile area.

At the end of the day we retired to our yurt and got cleaned up for the evening. Our yurt package included dinner and breakfast at the dining lodge. The menu was not overly fancy but was entirely civilized. Beer and wine were available for an additional charge.

There are 11 yurts available. Each has a small deck attached, but they all share a large central deck with great views and a fire pit. As the sun set we watched the bison herd slowly move along a distant ridge. Then some excited Persian Onagers ran through the valley while Pe're David's deer vocalized from below the deck. We took all this in, had a couple of beers and socialized with the yurt guests - friendly people from all over the Midwest and beyond - and all eager to share their experience The Wilds.