Ranger Kathryn's Arches

June 30, 2016

It rattles me

Filed under: Hikes,wildlife — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 3:41 pm
Tags: , , ,

Lexington Arch, Great Basin National Park — and Kathryn

My last blog post described the realization that I live pretty close to sometimes-dangerous animals out here in the wilderness. It’s not something I give much thought to; it just is the way life works. I’m in the territory of wild creatures and I need to be aware.

On our days off, Chris and I recently headed to Nevada to visit a place new to us: Great Basin National Park. It has mountains and ancient bristlecone pines and a higher elevation (read: cooler during heat wave). With only 120,000 visitors annually, this out-in-the-middle-of-nowhere park seemed just right for us.

That is, until we decided to hike to Lexington Arch.

No one told us that three years ago a large wildfire burnt that trail area. Subsequently, a particularly violent flash flood re-arranged the road to the trailhead, washing it out in several places, leaving gullies and ravines behind instead of pleasant walking trails. The trailhead kiosk was burned to bits, too.

Large cairns had been built, however, to help us get to the start, and we felt confident. It was warm, but we had plenty of water and snacks and were protected from the sun. Up we headed, winding our way between blackened trees.

Chris stepped into one of the washed-out gullies and headed toward the other side. I stepped down, right where he had, and a menacing buzz burst on my ears. Let me just say that, when I heard it, my feet did that cartoon-like thing where they are spinning in mid-air trying to gain traction. A loud sound (possibly a shriek) escaped from my mouth as I sought to put great distance between me and the source of that rattling buzz. I nearly knocked Chris over in my startle-ment.


Great Basin Rattlesnake. Head on right — moving away from us.

The 42-inch-long Great Basin Rattlesnake had been silent as he passed by. Chris calmly took my iPhone and snapped its photo while I went far, far away. Now, normally I love snakes. They are beautiful creatures and occupy an important niche in ecosystems. But the concept of sharing a gully with a venomous friend had me slightly undone.

Snake retired to another ravine without any fuss, but something changed as we continued walking. Every clatter of grasshopper wings sounded to me like my next appointment with slithering venom. Every cicada buzz brought elevated heart rate. My sympathetic nervous system has fight-or-flight dialed in. Vigilance plus.

We made it to Lexington Arch and back without any further ado. No other reptiles appeared, all gully crossings were uneventful, and peanut M&Ms awaited us at the car.

To all my concerned friends: I do not live on the brink of death most days. I have encountered two rattlesnakes in two weeks, but these brushes with exotic creatures actually enrich my existence.

Have you had close encounters with wild creatures? Comment below, please!


  1. I live in San Diego on a canyon and get rattlers in my yard periodically. I know they are there because I hear a sound like sprinklers going off, which never happens during the day in San Diego anymore because of the drought. My cat finds the snakes, and then sits and stares at them from (hopefully) a safe distance. Fortunately Julius comes when he is called, so I get him in the house and then call my friend Jay, who collects the snakes and rehomes them in the canyon. That sound really does trigger some primeval part of your brain to jump into action!

    Comment by moru13 — June 30, 2016 @ 4:04 pm | Reply

  2. For the past 10 years we have lived in the desert of west Texas, and have called this our favorite place for many, many more years. In all that time, I’ve seen more mountain lions in the wild than rattlesnakes. True. They’re here, but I have always seemed to miss them. As for close encounters, the most recent one was a few weeks ago when, out on my bicycle south of town, I was nearly run over by a javelina. A big one came flying out of the tall grass along the roadway and would have T-boned me had I not hit the brakes. I was also surrounded by them in my back yard only a few weeks earlier. They’re not really dangerous, but I’d rather not be run down by one.Thanks for your post.

    Comment by texasflashdude — June 30, 2016 @ 7:18 pm | Reply

    • The picture in my head makes me smile. I’ve never seen a wild javelina but would not care to encounter one while bike riding!

      Comment by Kathryn Colestock-Burke — July 1, 2016 @ 9:17 pm | Reply

  3. Kathryn,

    I momentarily did a similar dance to yours last weekend when I was on a hike at Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP and a snake crossed the trail in front of me. But then I realized it was a Gopher Snake and went from on alert to very happy. Still, let it not be said their patterning doesn’t work!

    Comment by Julia — June 30, 2016 @ 10:32 pm | Reply

    • I can relate to the swift change of emotions! Gopher snakes are so beautiful — one of my favorites — glad you got to get up close to it. Miss you!

      Comment by Kathryn Colestock-Burke — July 1, 2016 @ 9:16 pm | Reply

  4. While I was a park ranger in Minnesota, I cared for and
    interpreted a timber rattler on display in a glass fronted
    In the off season I took the snake to my high school
    classroom for the winter months. After 12 years, I
    retired and sent the snake back to the park with a

    Comment by Gary Russell — July 1, 2016 @ 6:58 am | Reply

    • I honestly don’t think a school would allow a venomous room pet in this litigious day. Thanks for telling your story!

      Comment by Kathryn Colestock-Burke — July 1, 2016 @ 9:14 pm | Reply

  5. It is truly a sound that rattles, like no other. I totally appreciate your reaction. It is definitely a primal/uncontrollable reaction to the sound of a rattle snake. I had the same reaction (including scream and cartoon legs scrambling an exit). It was a cool autumn evening almost 40 years ago at Island in the Sky. We had camped there and were hiking the rim to see/photograph the sunset. We passed a small creosote bush. I heard the un-mistakeable sound. My reaction was automatic, but I couldn’t speak to warn my husband. Luckily, he was following and reacted to my antics with his exit in the opposite direction. When we regained our composure, we carefully/respectfully approached the bush to see the coiled snake rattling its warning. We enjoyed seeing the snake and took a photo. The next day we told the ranger of our encounter only to be told that there “are no rattle snakes on Island in the Sky.” Well, there was at least one. We have been fortunate to see many other wild creatures, but that is the only rattle snake we have ever seen in over 20 adventures in canyon country.
    Enjoy all of your posts! Thanks for sharing your adventures and perspectives.
    Joyce from Overland Park KS

    Comment by Joyce Moulis — July 1, 2016 @ 8:18 am | Reply

    • Oh, most definitely there are rattlesnakes in Island in the Sky! They are regularly seen in every district of Canyonlands, and Arches, and the two nearby National Monuments. I’ve seen about one per year so the fact that you’ve gone two decades with just one is… well… let’s just say you’re due. Thanks for sharing!

      Comment by Kathryn Colestock-Burke — July 1, 2016 @ 9:13 pm | Reply

  6. I have not encountered one yet but have very keen snake eyes whenever I’m off cement. So far only non venomous. A friend who is surveyor and spends a lot of time in the field gave me these words of advice. First, walk heavy footed so they have a chance to hear you. Second thing he mentioned was that usually the first person walking in line startles them, the second pisses them off (the rattle) and the third person in line is most likely for an encounter.

    Comment by Andrew McAllister — July 1, 2016 @ 9:21 am | Reply

  7. I live in southern Arizona so rattlesnakes are always on my mind. Last summer we had a big rattlesnake living in a hole under our back wall. We didn’t realize that though until we we started filling in the hole and he came slithering out. Eek! On another note…we were in Great Basin earlier this week and camped and hiked near Wheeler Peak. Did you make it that far up the mountain? It was absolutely beautiful and we enjoyed waking up to 50 degree weather.

    Comment by The Road We've Traveled — July 8, 2016 @ 9:09 pm | Reply

    • It’s gorgeous up there! We camped at the very lovely Strawberry Creek remote campground, woke up to 36 degrees, and found it quite delightful. Thanks for your rattlesnake story ~ now I need to know how it ended!

      Comment by Kathryn Colestock-Burke — July 8, 2016 @ 9:28 pm | Reply

      • We gave him space (after I freaked out) and he left our yard. He was a beautiful snake, although I much prefer seeing them from afar!

        Comment by The Road We've Traveled — July 9, 2016 @ 9:08 am

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