Get ready for spring with these seasonal staples

Those balmy, carefree days are right around the corner. Just head to the New River Gorge, where special events and activities make the season even sweeter.

 Color in the mountains

The Gorge reaches the height of its powers as winter wanes, revealing springtime gems. For this reason, no hike should be without a camera.

Wildflowers are the easiest, most rewarding surprises to spot. Nothing stands out against greenery like sprays of color, and the Gorge abounds in blooms. There are star chickweeds, which resemble spiky fireworks; crimson cardinal flowers; frilly Culver’s root; and many more intriguing plants. If you’re especially lucky, you might find a lady slipper orchid.

Rhododendrons are especially showy. The “great” variety, which reigns as West Virginia’s state flower, has extravagant white clusters from June to July. There’s also the Catawba rhododendron. Its magenta blooms really pop! Expect to see them in May.

Mountain laurel, another shrub, looks just like a rhododendron. But rising above its stubby, dark green leaves are lovely crowns of frilly pale pink or white blooms. These flowers appear from May to June.

That’s just the tip of the bouquet, too! In fact, so many colorful plants flourish here, there’s an annual celebration: the New River Gorge Wildflower Weekend. Local state parks also have special hikes throughout spring.

Wild animals

The New River Gorge attracts animals, too. Its deep, remote canyon provides a sheltered corridor for a host of mammals, reptiles, and birds.

While you’ll find critters any time of year, spring is prime time. People aren’t the only ones who appreciate warmer weather! More than 60 mammal species live in the Gorge. Mink, deer, coyotes, bats and river otters are just some of the residents you’ll spot in this neighborhood.

Numerous reptiles and amphibians live here, too. You might find five-lined skinks, common map turtles, eastern worm snakes and hellbenders. Timber rattlers and copperheads are the only venomous animals in the Gorge. They’re reclusive and shy, though.

Last but definitely not least: birds. The vast region forms the perfect habitat for hundreds of migrating and local species. Naturalists and visitors from across the country flock here for the flashy warblers, glorious bald eagles and dazzling tanagers. In fact, the New River Birding & Nature Festival is an annual highlight. This year’s gathering is May 1-6 and will feature hikes, scientific presentations, cabin hangouts and hot meals.

Wild rapids

For locals and rafters across the country, spring marks the return of world-class whitewater. Some rivers are particularly rambunctious. Melting snow and rain engorge the rapids, creating one feisty ride after another.

Outfitters start guided trips on the New River in April. If you’d like to give this thrilling sport a try, now is one of the best times! The tranquil Upper section is great for beginners; it has calm pools and lively (but not scary) waves.

For an adrenaline rush, there’s nothing like the Lower. Its Class III-V rapids, muscular currents and looming boulders will wake you up for sure!

Closer towards summer, the Gauley River comes into its own. Hailed by rafting fans as the “Beast of the East,” it boils with more than 100 rapids, complex hydraulics and tricky chutes. You must be 15 or older on some guided trips, and outfitters recommend prior rafting experience. But if you’re game, there’s nothing like a ride on a world-famous whitewater river.

Wild ice cream

Well, sort of! The Stache in Fayetteville serves Hershey’s ice cream, but not the kind you usually find in stores. Ever tried Play Doh, Graham Central Station, Cappuccino Crunch or Superman? It’s also the only place in West Virginia where you can order the mysterious Blue Moon.

Try flavors like these in a cone, or transform one into a milkshake or sundae. The Stache makes fresh smoothies and iced coffee, too. Locals also gather here at noon for bag lunches. You can have BBQ, hot dogs or chicken salad with chips and a drink— all for less than $6!

Old-fashioned ambience is another reason to visit. The Stache’s tiny interior is crammed with whimsical toys, vintage candy and craft kits. Talk about a trip down memory lane!

The Stache opens in April— the earliest you can get a scoop of summer pleasure.

What’s your favorite rite of spring in the Gorge?