RICHWOOD - Summer vacation plans are made during long winter evenings when warmer days are a unturned calendar pages away.
Fortunately in West Virginia, a short drive in any direction can provide a bevy of scenic beauty and seclusion.
Diana Stull, director of the Cranberry Mountain Nature Center, recommends the Cranberry.
The boardwalk at the Cranberry Glades is a half-mile loop where visitors get an up-close view of the cranberry bogs.
It's a popular stop with tourists traveling through the Monongahela National Forest where the federally protected Cranberry Backcountry and the Cranberry Wilderness areas are located.
The Cranberry Mountain Nature Center is 22 miles east of Richwood on a hill overlooking where the Highland Scenic Highway (West Virginia 39/55) becomes the Highland Scenic Parkway (West Virginia 155).
The nature center is open from 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Thursday-Monday through Oct. 18. It is closed Tuesday and Wednesday.
If You Go
* Location: 22 miles east of Richwood at Highland Scenic Highway (West Virginia 39/55) and the Highland Scenic Parkway (West Virginia 150).
* Hours: 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Thursday-Monday, closed Tuesday and Wednesday
* Phone: 304-653-4826 (Nature center) or 304-846-2695 ext. 0 (Gauley Ranger District Office)
Stull estimates around 35,000 people will visit the center.
"But we don't have any idea how many people (pull into the parking area) don't come in, or who come on days we're closed," she said.
The center opened for the 2014 season on April 10 and, according to Stull, got off to a great start.
"We had perfect weather on the 10th and a really good crowd," Stull said.
The crowds slowed until Memorial Day weekend and business picked up after school ended for the summer. Stull said most people stop for information about the forest's many attractions, such as the Falls of Hills Creek, Summit Lake or the Cranberry Glades.
The nature center is an attraction in itself. It includes an exhibit hall with interpretative displays and has a section where live animals, including snakes, are available for viewing. It also includes one of the best selection of nature books and related items.
"You'd have to go to a bigger place to find a larger selection of nature-related items," she said.
In addition, there are two short loop nature trails with interpretative signs identifying several different types of wildflowers and other plants. A walkway in front of the center offers views of the scenic highway and a native wildflower garden.
While there are many things to see, Stull recommends visitors first stop at the center if they have the time.
"We try to encourage people to stop here so they can plan out their trip," she said.
Many people want to see the Falls of Hills Creek with its three waterfalls, including the lower falls which is the second-largest waterfall in West Virginia.
Hills Creek is a small stream and in drier times, the three falls can be more of a trickle than a torrent, which could be a disappointment for hikers into to the lower falls.
By far the biggest attraction in the area is the 750-acre National Natural Landmark Cranberry Glades Botanical Area. Stull calls the glades a "must see" for everyone traveling in the area.
The biology of the glades is unique and features plants more common to parts of Canada than this part of the country. It consists of four bogs, acidic wetlands left behind as the glaciers that once covered the continent during the last Ice Age began their retreat back north. A half-mile boardwalk winds its way through two of the glade's larger bogs allowing people to get a close-up view of the bogs.
Stull said the bogs are beautiful in the spring when the wild orchids begin to bloom.
"It seems this year the wildflowers are brighter, bigger, bloom longer, and there are more of them," she said. "There's nothing more beautiful than the Cranberry Glades covered with purple."
Stull said she enjoys working behind the center's information desk and answering questions about this part of the Monongahela National Forest. Many of the people are those who return each summer and stop at the nature center a regular part of their vacation.
"We get a lot of return visitors," she said. "Some people have been here in the summer months and they want to come back at another time of the year, or many are people that stop every year on their way to Watoga (State Park)."