Mountain laurel is blooming right now in our part of West Virginia — in the part we call the Eastern Panhandle. Morgan County has its share of mountains, which means lots of places to look at this wild flowering shrub as its blooms open up.
This week I’ve been on laurel patrol in Morgan County. A few days back, I took a short hike on Widmeyer Wildlife Management Area (near the Panorama overlook across Great Cacapon) and found the forest dotted with full-bloom laurel bushes.
One spot I know for sure puts on a big show of flowering laurel — the top of Cacapon Mountain in Cacapon State Park — so I headed up the Ziler Trail with high hopes this morning.
The northern loop of the Ziler Trail branches off the Central Trail. I parked along the paved roadway that leads to the park’s upper cabins and took a park gravel road to catch the Central/Ziler intersection. From there, it’s a winding hike up to the top of Cacapon Mountain along a rocky trail. For most of us, it’s a steep climb. You’ll likely need to stop and catch your breath more than once during the mile haul up to the top. There are a few places in spring and summer where you can look east and see neighboring Sleepy Creek Mountain and the valley in between.
In the upper third of the trail to the top, wild blueberry bushes line the Ziler loop. Today, the berries are green, but it won’t be long before they ripen to dusty purple. Bear and people enjoy them a lot then.
Once you’re through the blueberry section, the Ziler trail starts to twist a little tighter, and takes you right through a dense patch of mountain laurel. The blooms are anywhere from ankle-height to towering overhead. As the trail finally turns south on the last gentle climb to the top of Cacapon, you’re hiking (or running or biking) through a shady green tunnel with mountain laurel on both sides, plus the overhang of forest limbs. After a sweaty climb in May, the shade is heavenly.
(Some hikers will take this loop to the intersection with the Ziler Trail, which hangs left and heads straight down the east face of Cacapon. You can also keep going and take the southern Ziler loop down — a more gradual descent, but not for those who are in a hurry.)
Watching the blooms form and open on this native West Virginia bush are a great part of my May hikes. Weather can swing pretty wide in May, and that can affect how long the laurel show goes on. Some years I’ve missed it entirely, but I try not to. Something about the delicate star-shaped buds and open-faced blooms puts me in mind of bridal bouquets. It’s a lovely time when this evergreen shrub, always present in the woods, puts itself out front with showy style.
If you’re not up for a hike but want to see the mountain laurel, drive over the top of Sleepy Creek Mountain along Hampshire Grade/Shanghai Road. Both sides of the roadway are dotted with white and pink blooming mountain laurel. Go ahead and pull over if you see a spot. You’ll want to get a closer look. Luckily, both sides of the road on the top of the mountain are part of the Sleepy Creek Wildlife Management Area, so you’re free to tromp through the woods and get up close to the blooms. (But watch your step. Late May is also when snakes start being more active in our woods.)