Hiking season is upon us in Oregon and with this seasonal evolution, should come some caution. The first areas in Oregon to reward hikers are of low elevation. Low elevation riparian areas, specifically in the high desert regions of Central and Eastern Oregon are home to the indigenous Western Rattlesnake which tend to awake from their winter somnolence in Early May.
As a child, I grew up in a snake filled part of the US. I had a law-mowing business which made me cross paths with snakes on a daily basis. In general, snakes don’t bother me.
Rattlesnakes are a different story! There is something very primal and unsettling about hearing a the warning of an angry rattlesnake and not knowing where it is.
I encountered the big Western Rattlesnake you see at left while hiking and photographing along the Lower Deschutes River, near its’ confluence with the Columbia River Gorge.
I mention this location because it typifies rattlesnake terrain in Oregon…riparian areas, east of the Cascades and at lower elevations.Western Rattlesnakes have a long period of inactivity during Oregon’s long winters. Over my two decades of scouting landscape photographs in Oregon, I’ve noticed a distinct pattern in the seasonal emergence of Rattlesnakes in Oregon. When Balsamroot begin to bloom, Rattlesnakes become active.
I captured the image you see to the right on the same morning that I had the run- in with the rattlesnake you see above. Please notice the large yellow flowers in this image. They are the aforementioned Balsamroot, whose bloom season seems to correlate quite accurately with the seasonal emergence of Oregon’s Western rattlesnakes.
I was, unwisely, hiking off trail, near the river when I heard the snake’s rattle, warning me to keep my distance. My stomach dropped as if I’d crested a huge hill in the front car of an amusement park roller-coaster because I couldn’t see the snake. This non-snake -fearing landscape photographer was terrified! The snakes natural camouflaged pattern was betraying both of us. Moments later( seemed like an eternity) I saw the snakes movement. I shrieked like a frightened child, jump as high as my old knees carrying 45 pounds of camera gear would allow and dashed off! As my heart rate slowly dropped back to a sustainable level, I could hear the rattlesnake still warning something even though I was well out of threat-range. I realized my tripod had fallen off of my photography backpack and landed right next to the Western Rattlesnake, who was VERY ANGRY! Click the link below to see a quick video of the rattlesnake in question. Please excuse the low video quality from my iPhone shot at long range!
A couple quick notes about this interaction. I would never knowingly agitate a rattlesnake or any other animal. This was an accidental encounter and my tripod was the culprit which raised the snake’s ire. The Photo of the rattlesnake that you see at the top of this page was shot from a LONG way from the snake. I would never intentionally get that close to a rattlesnake. Shortly after I retrieved my tripod, the snake settled and moved on, as did I.
Some Important tips for traveling through Rattlesnake Habitat
1. Stay on established trails! On well trodden trails, identifying Rattlesnakes is much easier and they choose to avoid heavily traveled terrain.
2. Wear Boots, the higher the better.
3. Wear long, loose fitting pants. No leggings, no shorts.
4. Keep your dogs on a lease or better yet, leave them at home. Dogs tend to be intensely curious about rattlesnakes which leads to trouble. If you do take your dogs with you in Western Rattlesnake terrain, I highly advise that you first get your dog a series of rattlesnake vaccines. I have seen several dogs whose lives were saved because they had been previously vaccinated.
5. Be very cognizant of children. They tend to put their hands and feet in places that rattlesnakes spend time.
6. Avoid rocky terrain with poor visibility.
7. Travel with a friend.
8. If you encounter a rattlesnake, keep your distance. They are Not aggressive unless provoked, so keeping your distance promotes your safety and theirs.
9. If you see blooming balsamroot flowers, beware, as you might be in active rattlesnake habitat.
Some rattlesnake terrain in the Bend and Central Oregon Region: Smith Rock State Park, Alder Springs/Lower Wychus Creek, Lake Billy Chinook, the Lower Deschutes River, Prineville Reservoir, Any riparian area that is below 3,000 feet in elevation.
Have fun, hike safe, be respectful, be cautious and be aware in Oregon’s rattlesnake terrain!
Awesome article. Thanks
Years ago, as a kid, I was fishing in the upper Umatilla River’ I was wading across to a high brushy shoreline so I could see into the water better. There were some tree branches covering a high rocky point I was heading for. I brushed the tree branches aside with my fishing pole and I was looking head-to-head with a rattlesnake. I jumped backward into the river. As I calmed down, I thought rattlesnakes can’t swim so I used my pole to throw him into the water. When the rattlesnake hit the water he would swim back toward me and I would throw him back. Finally, I had to throw the rattlesnake on the shore ground and kill him. I felt bad about that so I buried him. Years later, there was a girl swimming in the Umatilla River that got into a fight with a rattlesnake and was bitten a couple of times before she killed it. Rattlesnakes can swim.
Thank you for the article. I had no idea about the flower you mentioned.
Hmmm was going to go on a hike off trail in shorts and keen sandles but changed my mind. Thanks.
Gosh you aren’t kidding about it being angry. That is scary.
No kidding, it was surly! I suspect she would not have cared at all if my tripod hadn’t fallen close to her!
As a geologist in southern California, I’ve come across rattlesnakes many times in both the coastal region and the Mojave desert, but I’ve never seen one raise so high as the one in the video. I can certainly relate to your description of that heart-palpitating moment when you suddenly hear rattling, but don’t know where the snake is and which way to go. It’s not fun.
Thanks for the comment! That fearful and indecisive moment when you hear a rattle but can’t appropriately apply your “flight” skills is hard to explain to someone who doesn’t live in rattle snake territory, isn’t it! I suspect you see lots of rattlers in Southern California. Where I live in Bend, we do not have them but we are close to several lower elevation riparian areas that are laden with them.
Hi. We went for a short walk up the Dechutes River yesterday (6/11 2018) . We encountered a rattle snake crossing the trail not too far from the parking . It was a big one too!! I assume it was on its way to the river. it was not coiled up, still it was giving the warning and shaking it’s rattle as it moved across the trail. I recognized the snake and The sound right away. !!! Everything was ok ( thank goodness) but I was surprised to see that there were no signs posted on the park reminding walkers to be aware of rattlers.
I lived in eastern Oregon for years and encountered too many of these guys. The sound of a rattlers warning is deeply imbedded in my unconscious. It is a terrifying sound . Your primal brain engages in survival mode.
I saw people walking their dogs, their children and very few of them were wearing any sort of legg protection. I don’t think they were aware of the possibility, the very strong possibility of encountering a rattler.
A rattlers bite is not a thing to taunt .
Ticks, rattlers, wasps and nasty grass . Hikers be careful!
Thanks so much for the note. Were you hiking on the Lower Deschutes near the Columbia River? A rattle is indeed a primal sound, gets my heart rate elevated! Thanks for visiting my website.
Very relevant story and video. A strike takes less than 0.3 seconds, from coil to recoil, often victims are not certain they’ve been bitten until the pain/marks become apparent. The human threshold for movement is 0.3 seconds. Kevlar leggings are available and I noticed worn by some trail runners in the Columbia River Gorge, East side. Levi’s also offer some protection by apparently reducing envenomation by about 50% according to literature, the mechanism is not understood. 90% of bites are sustained because they are tormented by someone who has been drinking alcohol. Don’t screw with the snakes!!!
I have lived in Central oregon most of my life. A horse rider, and have only seen one rattle snake. . . I think if you are in a pine tree area, you are high enough and wet enough to avoid rattle snakes. It is when you get into juniper/sage areas that they are more common. I live in Sunriver now, and have never seen a rattle snake. . . But caution is always a good idea I guess. . . Walking in long grass along a river could be a problem. Stay on trails you can see where you are walking, and make a little noise. If they hear you coming they will be gone by the time you get there. .
That you for your insightful comment, it is appreciated! Your advice is very helpful. There seems to be a magical elevation above which rattlesnakes can exist efficiently. I’ve never seen rattlers in Bend or Sunriver, both of which are above 3,600 ft. I’ve seen lots of them in the Terrebonne area as well as the Crooked River National grassland both of which are below 3,100 ft. I agree with you regarding pines. For the most part Ponderosa’s=No rattlesnakes.
Thanks again for your Feedback,
Was the balsamroot photo taken from the Ferry Creek trail there? I did that trail this morning, it’s great and not as tough as I thought it might be. Did you run into the rattlesnake up there or further down below? I’m fully loaded with my camera and two fully charged batteries. I’m fascinated by their behaviour and would love to capture one or two on my camera from a safe distance, of course. Thanks