Rattlesnakes: Scary or Just Scared?

The sign at the trail head warned us, and we even warned each other. So in a way, it wasn’t a surprise when I almost stepped on a rattlesnake. Fortunately, the snake was completely calm, just lying along the edge of the trail flicking its tongue, which is the only reason I saw it. It didn’t move when I jumped away from it or as we stood there taking its picture. Really, the ideal rattlesnake — alive and wild, but not at all scary.

Rattlesnake on edge of trail; photo by Kit Dunsmore
Even after tweaking the photo, it’s hard to see the rattlesnake I almost stepped on. (Photo by Kit Dunsmore)

Having seen a snake, we were more diligent. And yet, the second snake surprised us, because we surprised him. He was lying on a bare patch of dirt next to the trail when Kurt startled him, and his response was both reassuring and a little unnerving. He shot off into the long grass, then rattled emphatically at us. We couldn’t see him at all, but you knew he was there and he was terrified.

Close-up of a rattlesnake; photo by Kurt Fristrup
Rattlesnake staring us down. It never moved, even though I almost stepped on it. (Photo by Kurt Fristrup)

After seeing the second snake, Kurt joked that “three’s the charm.” We had seen rattlesnakes in the wild before, having hiked in many parts of the American West but never two in one day. We were already had a new record for rattlenake sightings.

Foothills in summer, Black Powder Trail hiking trail with hiker; photo by Kit Dunsmore
Kurt Fristrup on the Black Powder Trail (Photo by Kit Dunsmore)

We walked up along the ridge top, which was surrounded by thick grass but had a definite trail to follow. The views were great. We saw wildflowers and colorful birds (Western Tanagers and Lazuli Buntings, to name a few). There were little spatters of rain and clouds overhead, but no thunder or lightning, so we were fine.

Black Powder trail, foothills with lake; photo by Kit Dunsmore
Another great view from “Rattlesnake Ridge” aka the Black Powder Trail (Photo by Kit Dunsmore)

Kurt saw the third rattlesnake from about eight feet away. The snake was halfway across the trail and apparently froze when he saw us approaching. He was the biggest snake of the day, at least three feet long, and he had a cold eye, but also common sense. After we had stopped and he had time to size us up, the snake did a 180 and went back into the grass. Then he curled up and started rattling at us.

Coiled rattlesnake half-hidden by grass; photo by Kurt Fristrup
Rattlesnake coiled under in the grass. (Photo by Kurt Fristrup)

The third time was the charm. I was now seriously scared. I knew the snake was scared too. His rattling sounded angry, but it’s really fear that makes them act that way. Rattling is a defensive behavior that they use to warn others they’ve gotten too close, and it works well. It took a lot for me to get the nerve up to walk past him, even though he was far off the path and unlikely to strike as long as I left him alone. I carried our miniature poodle Dory; her eyesight isn’t as good as it once was, and I couldn’t be sure she’d steer clear of the danger.

I went past Kurt with Dory in my arms then stopped dead.

“Snake,” I said. There was another rattlesnake lying halfway across the trail not ten feet in front of me. We were maybe ten feet from the last snake, so I was trapped between them.

Rattlesnake ready to strike; photo by Kurt Fristrup
A scared rattlesnake doing a great job being scary. (Photo by Kurt Fristrup)

Snake number four was much smaller than the others we had seen, and therefore much more terrified. He stayed right in the middle of the path and set up rattling, giving us a great show, but shredding my already tattered nerves. By waving his sunbrella around, Kurt was able to convince the snake he should head into the grass.

Just as he was getting out of our way, a strong wind threatened to blow us off the ridge. Kurt took Dory and raced off. I got up my courage to pass the last snake and tore off down the trail, watching as far ahead as I could in case yet another snake should appear.

Fortunately, we had seen our last rattlesnake for the day. I saw more rattlesnakes in the wild that day than I had seen in my entire life before then. As a result, we now refer to that trail as Rattlesnake Ridge.

While we hadn’t really been in any danger, getting scolded by rattlesnakes does put you on edge. The sound of their rattling is nerve-wracking, and it is worse when you can’t see them, because you aren’t really sure where the noise was coming from. Are they five feet from the trail, or only two? Hard to tell.

Fortunately, the old saying that they are more afraid of you than you are of them is more or less true. All that rattling was a warning, and came after several other defensive moves on the snake’s part. I read up on rattlesnake safety after we got home. People usually get bit because they actually touch the snake. Staying alert and keeping your distance keeps you safe. All that rattling is good, because it’s telling you what to do: stay away.

Be Snake Awake trail head sign, photo by Kit Dunsmore
Good advice! (Photo by Kit Dunsmore)

When we got back to the trail head, we collapsed on the bench there and caught our breath. I looked at the red sign warning hikers about rattlesnakes. If I’d had a Sharpie with me, I would have scribbled “They’re not kidding!” on it.

Have you see rattlesnakes in the wild? What wild creature scares you the most?

4 thoughts on “Rattlesnakes: Scary or Just Scared?

Add yours

    1. I know snakes aren’t everyone’s favorites. I actually like them most of the time. But the venomous ones are harder to like. And the area where they are had bad wildfire in 2012, so I’m not sure burning would do it. 😉

      Every place has something. California has earthquakes, Oklahoma has tornadoes. You just have to pick the thing you don’t mind so much and live there. So I guess I’m in the right place, and apparently you are too.

  1. Great story and writing, Kit! I haven’t heard of a foursome ever… have you looked up rattlesnake as a totem? Just curious. They seem to be diligent about getting a message across. Happy trails…lol!!

    1. Thanks! I haven’t done that, but I will. They don’t feel like a totem animal to me but you never know.

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