CUMBERLAND: Mountain bikers can enjoy hidden lakes and rolling terrain where coal was once mined at the Wilds in east-central Ohio.
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 is about two hours from Akron, convenient for day trips.
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.
To get there from Akron, take Interstate 77 south to I-70. Head west toward Columbus. Exit at state Route 83/Cumberland (Exit 169). Go south 12 miles on state Route 83 to Cumberland. Turn right and go west to state Route 340. Proceed to International Road which will take you to the entrance. For information, call 740-638-5030 or check out www.thewilds.org.
15 miles of trails
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.
The trails generally flow well and are short and tight, and lots of loops are possible. There are many short, steep uphills and downhills. It’s rolling terrain, rough with rocks and roots and a wild feeling, he said.
Parts of the mountain-bike area are grassy with waist-high weeds. The trails are soft in places. Be careful because you may find yourself airborne on built-in jumps. The area needs more riders to help compact the trails and increase the flow, Boedeker said.
He likes the four-mile Beaver City loop at the eastern edge of the tract because it offers “a decent flow and a varied terrain,” he said.
A new beginners’ loop of two to three miles is planned, he said.
The trailhead is six miles west of Cumberland off state Route 146 at Zion Ridge Road. You won’t see any Wilds animals on the mountain bike trails. They are in enclosed areas a long way away.
The trails are marked with signs and numbered poles at intersections. But download a map before you go at www.joinomba.org/aoa/trails. There are no facilities to speak of, just a parking lot and the trails.
The Big Muskie is, well, bigger than big. The empty bucket weighs 240 tons and could hold 220 cubic yards of dirt when it was chewing up the Ohio countryside to get to coal seams from May 1969 through January 1991 for AEP’s Central Ohio Coal Co.
The bucket was big enough to hold 325 tons of rocks and dirt in a single bite. A 12-car garage, two buses or a two-story house could fit easily inside. A 1969 photograph shows the local high school marching band standing together in formation in the bucket, 35 strong including six members with tubas.
The Big Muskie has been called one of the seven engineering wonders of the world, and was once the world’s largest earth-moving machine.
From the back of its housing to the tip of its 310-foot boom, the electric-powered Big Muskie was 487 feet long, 22 feet high and 151 feet wide. It could reach coal topped by 180 feet of dirt and rocks that smaller machines could not. It could move 39 million pounds of rock and dirt per hour and lift each load 33 stories high.
It removed an estimated 483 million cubic yards of rock and soil to uncover 18 million tons of coal from the Meigs Creek No. 9 seam. It cost $45 million to build and weighed 13,500 tons. A crew of five took 60 seconds to fill, lift, swing and dump the Big Muskie’s bucket.
The slow-moving surface-mining giant was dismantled for scrap. Its demise resulted from more efficient mining methods and tighter environmental controls, AEP says.
Today the Big Muskie’s bucket is the centerpiece of Miners’ Memorial Park off state Route 78 in northeast Morgan County. It is 11 miles northeast of McConnelsville and gets more than 8,000 visitors a year.
The park overlooks what AEP calls its ReCreation Land, a 60,000-acre tract of reclaimed lands in Morgan, Muskingum, Noble and Guernsey counties.
More than 60 million trees have been planted. The lands contain 640 lakes and ponds and 380 campsites. The Buckeye Trail winds through the tract. Areas are open for hunting, fishing, hiking, mountain biking, riding horses and birding. Use is free but a permit is required.
For Big Muskie information, contact Dave Dingey at AEP, 59 W. Main St., McConnelsville, OH 43756, 740-962-1205, www.aep.com/environment/recland/index.html. You can also get permits and maps at local bait shops and stores.
Burr Oak State Park near Glouster covers 2,593 acres and includes a 664-acre lake. There are 30 cabins, camping, a marina and swimming beach, 28 miles of trails and picnic areas. The 60-room lodge was closed last fall.
The park features a 22-mile backpacking loop and is home to sections of the Buckeye and North Country trails.
Bob Downing can be reached at 330-996-3745 or firstname.lastname@example.org.