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Searching for winter wildlife

Now is one of the most rewarding times to hike. Silent and silvery, winter reveals animals you might ordinarily miss.

A wild, wonderful habitat
Ancient sandstone canyons, rushing water and thick foliage create a unique ecosystem: the New River Gorge. According to the National Park Service, it’s also a “globally significant forest.” You can find 65 mammal species, more than 100 species of birds and many amphibians and reptiles. It’s a wonderful place to search for wildlife.

The gorge may be quieter now that it’s winter, but that doesn’t mean everybody is hibernating.
Some animals are very much awake. In fact, scarce resources make normally shy critters more active.

Here’s where you’re likely to encounter wildlife during your hikes:

Fayetteville Trails
Deep woods and marvellous river vistas are minutes away from “America’s Coolest Small Town.” So are those animals! During winter, you’re likely to find songbirds like cardinals and chickadees. Small mammals are also out and about: squirrels, chipmunks, opossums and raccoons.

Ready to start that search? Burnwood Trail has gentle grades, moderate length, and varying habitats. The 1.2-mile loop is mostly wooded, although it opens upon a field, too. With luck, you might see deer.

To reach Burnwood Trail, drive north on Route 19 past Fayetteville. Park at the Burnwood Day Use Area; it’s across from the Canyon Rim Visitor Center.

Craig Branch Trail offers a more strenuous workout. It’s 2.4 miles long with occasional steep sections. Hang in there for dazzling canyon overlooks, views of the New River and some animal friends along the way.

To get there, drive south on Route 19. Turn into Fayetteville and follow Route 16 south until you see Gatewood Road. Turn left and drive 2 miles until you see Kaymoor No. 1 Road. Turn left and drive for a mile until you reach the intersection. Turn left again. You’ll see a parking lot; the trailhead starts .25 miles on the right.

Also near the Craig Branch trailhead is the Fayetteville Trail. The 4-mile-long path is challenging and hilly. It’s scenic, though, with thick evergreens and several streams.

Cunard Trails
With its rumpled mountains and quiet roads, this region feels miles from civilization. Yet it’s just outside Fayetteville.

Start your wildlife search on Brooklyn Mine Trail. The 2.7-mile-long road used to lead to an active coal site. Today, the wooded path threads through natural— and manmade— habitats. Ruins mingle with occasional views of the New River. Hushed and atmospheric, it creates an appealing setting for native wildlife. Maybe you’ll see a gray tufted titmouse or chickadee flitting among the rusting equipment. Note: some sections are steep.

To get to Brooklyn Mine Trail, head south on Route 16 through Fayetteville. Go left on Gateway Road and drive for 4.6 miles. Turn left at the sign for Cunard and drive another 1.8 miles. Turn left at the sign for the river access road.

Southside Trail should be on every hiker’s itinerary. Tracing along the New River, the easy 7-mile path constantly draws the eye— and camera. It also has intriguing ruins. Long ago, the area used to echo with industry as miners hauled coal from the earth. Abandoned communities and old train tracks are all that remain today. As you walk, keep your eyes peeled for deer, foxes, turkeys, and squirrels.

Thurmond
With a population of 5 (plus a dog), this tiny community is almost a ghost town— almost. At times, you can be the only visitor! Historic and silent, Thurmond is perfect for a daytime hike.

Begin your outing on the Rend Trail. It’s easy, flat, and wonderfully picturesque. Peaceful river views, creeks, and mining artifacts follow the path. In fact, Thurmond used to be a major depot for coal trains. You’ll see several trestles along the way.

As for wildlife, you might find some tree swallows; these songbirds have creamy chests and metallic teal heads and backs. They appear towards the end of winter. The New River also attracts eagles and ospreys.

To get to Rend Trail, take the Glen Jean-Thurmond exit on Route 19. Turn left and drive .5 miles to Glen Jean. Then, turn right for Thurmond (WV Route 25). Drive for 5.1 miles until you see the trailhead.

Note: Rend Trail is usually 6.4 miles long (round trip). However, a trestle on the trail is being repaired. Only 1.94 miles from the trailhead are open to hikers.

Have fun! What winter trails do you recommend for watching wildlife?

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