A Trek to The Wilds + Donuts, Coffee, & Ice Cream

September 30, 2020

Even though we’ve long been Columbus Zoo members, we still had never been to The Wilds in Cumberland, so near the end of summer we just picked a date and bought tickets. When it comes to traveling, even small day trips, we can never do just one thing, so after ordering tickets I immediately set out planning a small itinerary around the tour.

With an 11 a.m. tour booked, we left Columbus around 8 and made a very important stop at Donald’s Donuts. You can read more about the long-running and much-loved Zanesville donut shop here.

Post-donut frenzy, we wanted a little coffee. I had looked up info on a couple shops in Zanesville, and found one called BrewBaker Cafe just down Maple Avenue from Donald’s. We almost drove by it because the signage is so small, and because it’s located in a large, historic home. The shop itself is a tiny cafe at the back of the building. We ordered a dirty chai and an almond croissant.

And then it was off to The Wilds!

The Wilds is located in Cumberland, still a good 30 minutes southeast-ish of Zanesville, through rolling hills and small towns. I had in my mind the pomp and circumstance of the Columbus Zoo’s signage and parking and entryways, so I was a little taken aback to find a small sign and simple gravel lot awaiting us at the entrance.

We booked the Open-Air Safari tour, which is The Wilds’ standard tour, running multiple times daily. It’s $30/person, or $15/person if you’re Columbus Zoo members. You have to reserve tickets ahead of time, so do that online, and pre-pay your $6 in parking, too. After you park, an open air bus will take you from the lot to the main building.

The Wilds is built on nearly 10,000 acres of reclaimed mining land. An AEP subsidiary strip mined it for coal from the 1940s through the 1980s, and in the late 70s a non-profit partnership was formed to create a preservation area on the land as mining wound down. (Fun fact: the mining there was performed by the absolutely massive Big Muskie dragline excavator. Big Muskie was dismantled in 1999, but you can visit his bucket at a park outside McConnellsville, Ohio, about 20 minutes south of The Wilds.)

The land was contoured, topsoil added, and erosion control plants placed, then eventually animals were introduced. There are now close to 300 animals – many of which are endangered – roaming the land.

The Open-Air Safari takes you on a bouncy, two-hour bus ride over the hills of The Wilds. Our wise-cracking guide Rosie was incredibly knowledgeable.

Throughout the tour I kept humming the theme from Jurassic Park, partly as a joke, but also because you felt fully immersed in these animals’ habitats. I can’t even tell you everything we saw, but it was a number of species from around the world.

We kept passing a couple of the Wildside Tours as well. These are smaller tours in a truck that roll you right up – and even let you feed – more of the animals. We first spotted them as they said hello to a snoozing rhino and her kiddo.

The tour includes a couple stops as well, so you have the opportunity to get out, stretch your legs, use the restroom. The first stop put us at the aviary, where Will and I fed the noisy birds. There’s also a small walking trail amongst wildflowers leading to a small lake, where you can feed the giant catfish.

And then we kept rolling, with Rosie telling stories as we saw more and more animals running wild.

Our second stop brought us before cheetahs roaming their large enclosure. There’s an elevated wooden walkway (see the upper right of the above photo) that puts you in the center of their habitat.

Normally there’s a small restaurant that operates here, too, although it’s currently closed due to COVID safety precautions.

Remember how I kept humming the Jurassic Park theme? Well, at the cheetah enclosure we spotted a lab where they’re messing with amphibian DNA!

And there are funny signs throughout the park, too, including ones reminding you not to get eaten by the animals, because it could make them sick.

The Wildside Tour feeding ostriches. Hilarious to see them bolting across the fields toward the truck.

And my favorite part: seeing giraffes striding across the fields. We saw them toward the end of tour.

And that was it! The tour dropped us back off at the visitor’s center, which enjoys spectacular views of the park, and has a small cafeteria, indoor and outdoor seating, restrooms, a gift shop.

Once we were done, we hopped the bus back to the front parking lot and were off! Fun tour, for sure, and we hope to do the Wildside Tour sometime in the future.

Our tour finished in the early afternoon and we were plenty hungry, so I planned a stop at another Zanesville institution: Tom’s Ice Cream Bowl.

I love places like Tom’s. They’re important landmarks for a community. Generations of families have visited it or worked there. Getting to see them is a peek into a city’s history.

Tom’s first opened in 1948 and has been in its McIntire Avenue location since 1950, and has all the benchmarks of a mid-century eatery: formica floors, tiled walls, rows of stools along the counters, display cases of candies and fresh-roasted nuts.

Tom’s makes me think of Schmucker’s Restaurant in Toledo, Yesterdog in Grand Rapids, Kostas Restaurant in Hamilton, Bill’s Donut Shop in Centerville.

Ice cream takes center stage at Tom’s, but they serve a full (and inexpensive) menu of burgers, sandwiches, fries, hot dogs, you name it.

We dug into burgers, fries, onion rings, and tots.

I was feeling daring, so I ordered the Barnyard Burger: a burger with fried egg and slice of fried bologna.

The server gave us permission to snap a photo!

And you can’t skip the ice cream at Tom’s Ice Cream Bowl, right?!

We ordered a root beer float, ice cream cake roll, a sundae, and an absolutely towering banana split.

Will, our resident sweet tooth, was in heaven. He attacked that banana split with gusto, but after a big lunch – and even with our twist-my-arm assistance – he wasn’t quite able to tackle it all.

All in all, Tom’s makes some quality ice cream. One bite and there’s no doubt why they’ve been in business for 72 years.

And before we left, we picked up a couple bags of roasted peanuts and cashews. For the road.

A big bowl of ice cream wrapped up the day’s adventures… almost. I’m all for finding weird landmarks, and had to see Zanesville’s Y-Bridge for myself.

The Y-Bridge is a long-time landmark of the city, where Main Street (which is part of the Route 40 national road) splits over the confluence of the Muskingum and Licking rivers. It’s one of the only structures of its kind in the world, and Amelia Earhart apparently called Zanesville “the most recognizable city in the country” because of the bridge’s helpfulness in wayfinding.

You can get a good view of the bridge and the city from Putnam Hill Park. There’s a small dedicated overlook to viewing the curious bridge.

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FOOD + TRAVEL WRITER

I go by Dr. Breakfast, but in addition to restaurants and recipes, I write about family travel, breweries and distilleries, the arts, outdoor fun, and so much more.

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