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Thu, Aug. 22

Johnson: Rattlesnakes sense you long before you see them
Hiking Arizona

The speaker from Indiana said he had hiked extensively in Arizona but had yet to encounter a rattlesnake. Odd, I thought. I haven’t seen hundreds but I can’t imaging hiking across the Southwest and not seeing a rattlesnake from time to time.

I walked out of the auditorium an hour later and ran into a rattlesnake in the parking lot in Prescott Valley, where lots of young and old were walking around. You don’t have to be in a remote spot to find a rattlesnake and they will sense you long before you see them, if you see them at all.

This was the case with my first encounter with a rattlesnake. I was eight years old, hiking near the summit of Miller Peak in the Huachuca Mountains.

Passing through a meadow filled with wildflowers. I noticed a ladybug in the middle of the trail. I stooped to pick it up when I noticed a snake within two inches of my boot, hidden in the foliage. The first question that popped into my head was, “Is that a rattlesnake?”

Looking closer, the answer became obvious, not because it rattled but because its head and tail gave it away. I simply stepped ahead without any need to be concerned about this venomous reptile. I have encountered several other “silent” rattlesnakes, usually hiding under brush on cross-country hikes. More often than not, however, they will sound the alarm if you get too close for comfort. I observed this behavior on Picacho Peak.

An approaching storm with its many lightning flashes helped to drive away the rational hikers from the summit that day. I was on top in time to see a spectacular ring of showers and lightning closing in. The sun was setting. I quickly began my descent, relying solely on the waning sunlight and frequent flashes of lightning to illuminate the path ahead.

One section of the trail threads its way between a huge wall and a broken drop-off. The intermittent lightning flashes illuminated a rattlesnake crossing the trail just ahead, moving toward the rock wall. That would put it very close to the path I was on. As I approached, it rattled. I waited.

How long does it take to crawl a couple of feet to get out of the way? Is a couple of feet enough of a comfort zone for a rattlesnake? For me? I couldn’t answer for the snake, so after a couple of minutes, I charged ahead.

Hiking without a flashlight is the best way for your eyes to adjust to the prevailing conditions. Snakes, of course, have more than eye sight to tell them where you are. They can feel the vibrations from your footsteps. They can feel your body heat, if close enough.

I heard the snake rattle as I passed but saw nothing nor did I feel anything but the pulse of my heart as I hurried up the hill. I did not notice any more snakes that evening.


Rattlesnakes act defensively. They know they can’t eat you. They won’t chase you. Respect venomous snakes by giving them adequate space.

Leave them alone.

Proceed cautiously and pay attention when they are likely to be active.

They don’t always rattle. Nor do they always inject venom. Their bite is probably not fatal but if the snake injects venom, the wound is serious and could result in amputation.

Next: Hiking the Anza Trail along the Santa Cruz River

Ted Johnson is a columnist for The Daily Courier. Reach him by email at

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