Rattlesnakes have emerged from their winter dens to spend the summer hunting, sunbathing and looking for water. Their favorite spots to do all that? Your favorite hiking trail.
The venomous snakes can be found all throughout Utah, but most human-rattlesnake interactions in the state happen along the Wasatch Front, according to Drew Dittmer, a native species coordinator with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.
In particular, rattlesnakes like to take shelter along rocky outcroppings, which is why they’re often encountered on warmer, south-facing hiking routes, he said.
They can live at most elevations — Dittmer knows of a rattlesnake found near the top of Mount Timpanogos. They’ve also been known to slither into residential areas in search of water or rodents to eat as drought conditions worsen.
The good news? Rattlesnakes won’t bite you unless they feel threatened, Dittmer said. But even running through the brush can set them off.
“From the perspective of a snake, it is very vulnerable,” Dittmer said. “It has no arms and legs.”
What to do if you encounter a rattlesnake
Understanding whether the snake you’ve encountered is a rattlesnake is not the easiest calculation.
The most common snake in Utah is the nonvenomous gopher, and they’re often mistaken for rattlesnakes. The two share similar tan and brown colorings, and gopher snakes will often hiss or vibrate their tails when threatened, according to the wildlife division.
A rattlesnake of course has a rattle. Its tail is also wide and blunt, compared to the gopher snake’s thinner, more pointed one. Their heads differ too. A rattlesnake’s is more broad and triangle-like, with vertical pupils, vs. the longer nose and rounded pupils found on a gopher or other nonvenomous snake.
Regardless, wildlife officials say you shouldn’t get close enough to try and identify a snake. So if you can’t spot those subtle differences, stay back and assume it’s a rattlesnake.
Then, from a distance, you can observe it if you feel comfortable, Dittmer said. Or, calmly walk away.
The more your dog spends off-trail, the more they are at-risk for snake bites, Wynlee Decker, a veterinarian with the North Ogden Animal Hospital, said.
An owner may not see the snake that bit their dog or understand what happened. They’ll just see a dog jump and yelp, she said.
If you think your dog was bitten, get your pet to safety and check for bite marks, Decker said. A rattlesnake bite will start to swell and become very painful, and that pain and swelling will increase as time passes.
The most serious bites are to a dog’s head, where swelling can impact their eyes and airway, she said.
Owners should take their dogs to a veterinarian if they suspect a rattlesnake bite.