Where to Find West Virginia’s Incredible Wildlife

Wild orange mushrooms grow on the Spruce Knob Huckleberry Trail in Monongahela national forest mountains
Wild orange mushrooms grow on the Spruce Knob Huckleberry Trail in Monongahela national forest mountains | © Kristina Blokhin / Alamy
Kristina Gaddy

West Virginia’s tourism motto is “wild and wonderful,” and the state really is. With 1.6 million acres (6,475 square kilometers) of protected land in the state, there are lots of places to get outdoors and enjoy the wildlife, from nature preserves and parks to wildlife refuges and the forests. Check out these five unforgettable areas with wild animals in natural and contained habitats.

1. Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge

Park

White tailed deer odocoileus virginianus, fawn, Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Canaan Valley, West Virginia USA.
© D. Trozzo / Alamy

The flora and fauna in Canaan Valley, West Virginia, are truly unique. The elevation and geology of the area allow for plants and animals who normally do not survive this far south to do so and creates an environment more like what you might find in Canada. The Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge was established to protect this special ecosystem, although the process to become a refuge under the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service took a long time. The refuge is currently over 15,000 acres (61 square kilometers) and provides trails for hiking, biking, and horseback riding that total over 60 miles (96.5 kilometers). As an NWR, their job is to conserve the land, which includes hunting and fishing to maintain animal population levels. But they also offer guided hikes and high-elevation birding walks.

2. West Virginia Wildlife Center

Park, Zoo

Buffalo herd resting
© m-kojot / Getty

Run by the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources, the West Virginia Wildlife Center is home to many species of wild animals native to the state. The center is a modern zoo-like facility, where animals such as black bears, coyotes, deer, and owls live in spacious enclosures. There is also an interpretive trail through a hardwood forest. The Center was founded in 1923 as the French Creek Game Farm in Upshur County, West Virginia, just south of Buckhannon. The idea was to raise and reintroduce species that had lost habitat as a result of deforestation in the early 1900s. The attempt to release the captive animals into the wild wasn’t successful, but the Game Farm became a place where locals could come and view wildlife normally hard to see. The facility was updated and renamed the West Virginia Wildlife Center in 1986.

3. Brush Creek Preserve

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A waterfall near Brush Creek nature preserve, spring 2020
© GAVIN MCCARTNEY / Alamy

Although the Brush Creek Preserve only encompasses a small portion of land in Mercer County in southeastern West Virginia, it is a wonderful place to visit to view spring wildflowers and warblers who migrate through the area. There is also a trail that runs northward out of the preserve, where you can see the scenic Brush Creek Falls. The Nature Conservancy protects land around the state, from small places like Brush Creek Preserve to larger tracts of land. All promise to set aside land for plants and animals.

4. Cranesville Swamp Preserve

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Wetlands Preservation. Cranesville Swamp Preserve, a Nature Conservancy Preserve, Maryland and West Virginia, USA.
© Charles O. Cecil / Alamy

The Cranesville Swamp is a unique piece of land on the West Virginia-Maryland border, about an hour east of Morgantown. The surrounding hills capture moisture and cold, creating a cooler climate than areas nearby. The swamp and the forest are home to more than 50 rare plants and animals, including the tiny northern saw-whet owl. The area is open from dawn until dusk year-round, and the trails are not extensive. The Nature Conservancy manages the land, and you can download .mp3 files before you go that explain the wildlife in the area.

5. Monongahela National Forest

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View from Seneca Rocks, Monongahela National Forest, West Virginia.
© Jon Bilous / Alamy
It would be a mistake to not at least go for a hike in the Monongahela National Forest when you are in West Virginia, and it’s a great place to get out into the middle of the forest and view animals. If you’re looking for multi-day hikes with backcountry camping, then the Mon is the best place to check out, and a perfect place to lose yourself (figuratively) in the wilderness of the Mountain State. The Gauley Ranger District offers hiking and primitive camping in the Cranberry Wilderness District, and you might just feel like you’ve entered a fairyland-like escape with mushrooms, rhododendrons, mossy evergreens, and yes, cranberries.

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