Laurel Ridge State Park offers lovely blooms

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Mountain laurel
Mountain laurel has blooms ranging in color from soft white to light rosy pink in color. Even the buds of the flowering plant are beautiful to look at resembling perfectly formed tips of frosting. (Julie Geiss photo)

My husband and I strongly prefer state parks to theme parks. Thankfully, social distancing mandates have had little effect on our summer plans. He wanted to hike; I wanted to see floral blooms. Laurel Ridge State Park was the perfect compromise for us.

The Laurel Highlands Hiking trail is 70 miles along the ridge of Laurel Mountain. It passes through four counties in Pennsylvania. Many people, like us, hike shorter sections of the trail to see glorious mountain laurel blooms.

Lovely blooms

Mountain laurel has blooms ranging in color from soft white to light rosy pink in color. Even the buds of the flowering plant are beautiful to look at resembling perfectly formed tips of frosting. When opened, the flower petals are fused together creating a bowl-shaped blossom with symmetrical maroon specks. Rhododendrons also add to the forest foliage.

Mountain laurel typically blooms in June and rhododendron blooms follow in late June and early July. Both plants border the trail along with white pine and hemlock trees. In many places the mountain laurel and rhododendron delightfully form a floral tunnel over the trail.

Even for experienced hikers, the trail was difficult at times. It changed from a dirt path to a rocky obstacle course. It had rained the day before making the rocks and moss slippery under our hiking boots. I wanted to look around more at my surroundings but I had to focus on my footing.

Prickly discovery

The trail began to slope downward leading to a picturesque split log footbridge. As I was navigating the path, I spotted movement off to my right. At first, I thought it was a raccoon. My mind was processing, trying to identify the creature, when my oldest daughter said, “It’s a porcupine!”

Mesmerized, we stood frozen in place while the quill covered creature scuttled closer to a tree and slowly began to climb.

Each of us had a comment about its appearance. “Its nose looks like a koala.”

“It climbs like a koala too!”

“No, it’s shaped like a sloth.”

Some people may have been rendered speechless at the sight of a nearby porcupine, but not my family. As we walked off, my youngest son continued to comment, saying that in cartoons and movies he had seen porcupines shoot their quills.

Through our experience, he realized that could not be true. The North American porcupine is the largest of the more than two dozen porcupine species. It can have over 30,000 quills, but it does not shoot them at its predators. Instead, the quills stand out when a porcupine is threatened, making it appear larger. The quills detach easily into its attacker. Sharp tips and barbs on the quills make removing the quills painful and uncomfortable.

We continued to hike, enjoying the display of mountain laurel blooms the length of the trail. I was surprised when my son handed me a large green and orange blossom. Having grown accustomed to the soft pink mountain laurel blooms, I was puzzled by the neon colors. I searched around the trail hoping to see more green and orange flowers. Instead of looking down, I should have looked up. My husband was first to realize it was a flower from a tulip poplar tree.

High point

Our favorite part of the trail was also the highest part of the trail. We reached Beam Rocks near mile 40. They can also be reached by hiking a quarter mile from a parking lot on Laurel Summit Road. The weathered sandstones tower 90 feet above their surroundings creating the perfect spot to view Somerset County. We enjoyed the scenery while reclining on the rounded rock summit.

Rattlesnakes are commonly seen sunning themselves on the rocks; thankfully, we did not see any. We refueled with snacks while being cautious around the sudden drop-offs and cliffs. Our hiking trip was out and back along the same trail.

We reserved an Adirondack shelter for the night through the park system. Falling asleep on a wooden floor was challenging, but slowly waking up to the songs of birds and the call of a great horned owl was heavenly. The experience was physically exhausting but ultimately made exhilarating by the ostentatious show put on by nature. Instead of waiting in lines at a theme park, we climbed mountains and observed wild animals.

The metaphorical cherry on top was a stop at Ligonier Creamery for two scoops of All My Joy ice cream. Almost achieving a balance of calories out and calories in, we were on our way back home.

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Julie Geiss lives with her husband and four children in Unity Township, Ohio. Faith and family are first in her life, but she also loves hiking, biking and camping. You can contact Julie at juliegeiss1414@gmail.com.

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