Natural gas futures are down Wednesday after rising sharply in early trading.

Natural gas for July delivery recently traded down 2.1 cents, or 0.48% higher, at $4.367 a million British thermal units on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

The benchmark contract rose 7.1 cents Tuesday after sliding lower the previous six sessions. In early Wednesday trading the contract built on Tuesday's gains, climbing as high as $4.444/MMBtu, but the market backed off and moved lower.

Despite the drop, traders and analysts expressed optimism that the discount would prompt buying and propel prices on a run higher, as has been the pattern for several months.

"If we see prices dip here, we would expect to see good buying return to the market, and we would expect to see prices launch an assault on the $5.00 levels," energy consultancy Cameron Hanover said in a research note. "Since each move higher has given us new highs, this one should give us an actual print of $5.00 or more."

Weighed by strong production, prices in recent months have bounced between $4/MMBtu and $5/MMBtu as traders look to cash in on fluctuations in demand.

A run to just below $5/MMBtu earlier this month was prompted by the early arrival of summer temperatures to many parts of the country. Natural gas accounts for about a quarter of U.S. electricity generation, and gas use usually rise with air conditioning needs during summer.

While more moderate temperatures helped bring prices down last week, forecasters' current outlook calls for above-normal-heat to return to many major power markets this weekend and last through the July 4 weekend.

"The forecast took another step in the hotter direction today through much of the central and eastern U.S.," meteorologists with Maryland-based MDA EarthSat said Wednesday. "This next round of heat should be quite impressive for parts of the Plains and Midwest, as strong upper level ridging combines with warm southerly flow."

Meanwhile, natural gas for next-day delivery at the benchmark Henry Hub in Louisiana recently traded at $4.44/MMBtu, according to IntercontinentalExchange, up 7 cents from Tuesday's average. Natural gas for Thursday delivery at Transcontinental Zone 6 in New York traded at $4.88/MMBtu, up 3 cents from Tuesday's average.