I couldn't take my eyes off those olive green tails jutting from beneath a maple leaf. They were in a vernal pool along the Shenandoah Mountain Trail, passionate proof that spring had sprung. The two newts wiggled their tails in the murky water, stopped, then shimmied again. It was like hearing the bed squeaking in the next room.
Located all along the 23-mile Shenandoah Mountain Trail (especially the trail's southern end) and in the forested areas throughout the Appalachian Mountains, vernal pools are rich aquatic breeding grounds that fill with snowmelt and rainwater as early as February, then slowly dry up in the heat of summer. But during the spring months, these pools-little more than glorified mud puddles that keep amphibian eggs out of the reach of predators-offer hikers a peek into the life cycles of tiny creaturesall in the name of science, of course.
Take I-81 to Staunton, and pick up US 250 west. Drive 25 miles to the parking lot at the Confederate Breastworks. The less-crowded southern section of Shenandoah Mountain Trail starts as a gravel road across the street.
Late February through mid-June.
The Trails of Virginia, by Allen de Hart (University of North Carolina Press, 919-966-3561; www.uncpress.unc.edu; $19.95).
Deerfield Ranger District, (540) 885-8028; www.fs.fed.us/gwjnf.