Mary Ann Bonnell had a hunch that warm temperatures this past Sunday would result in a rattlesnake sighting on North Table Mountain. It didn’t take long for her suspicion to be confirmed.
Bonnell, who is the visitor services manager for Jefferson County Open Space, has studied rattlesnakes for two decades. Many Jeffco Open Space parks are located in prime rattlesnake territory. Given a string of warm days last week — and the near-record high temperatures that were predicted for last weekend — Bonnell headed for North Table on Sunday expecting rattlesnake activity.
“I was on patrol, and I was passed by a trail runner on North Table Mountain Loop,” Bonnell said. “She stopped and turned and said, ‘Hey, did you know there’s a rattlesnake people are seeing up on top of the mesa? It’s about 6 feet off the trail.’ When she reported it to me, I tweeted that they’re out.”
Rattlesnake season really begins in early May, but sightings aren’t unusual this time of year. Being cold blooded, rattlesnakes spend most of the cold weather months in their dens with greatly depressed metabolisms. When warm spring weather arrives, they begin to emerge to bask in the sun, which warms their bodies out of their winter torpor.
“I can’t get into a rattlesnake’s head, but I like to think I can,” Bonnell said. “It seemed to me like we’d had enough warm days in a row where we wouldn’t just have basking immediately next to the wintering den, we might have a rattlesnake venturing a little further away. That why Sunday felt like a day when we might see a rattlesnake where visitors might be, as opposed to being tucked away close to a hibernation den.”
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Prime rattlesnake territory in the Front Range is located where the plains meet the mountains, meaning hogback ridges and the first foothills immediately west of metro areas. That includes North Table Mountain, South Table Mountain, Apex Park, Mount Falcon Park, Dinosaur Ridge, Matthews/Winters Park, Red Rocks Park, Deer Creek Canyon Park, South Valley Park and Roxborough State Park.
At this time of year, Bonnell said, encounters are most likely to occur early in the morning. That’s because nights are still cool, so rattlesnakes look to bask in the sun when morning comes.
“Snakes avoid people,” Bonnell said. “It’s the first runners of the day that are going to encounter those snakes basking on the trail. It doesn’t mean you can’t run into a snake in the middle of the trail in the middle of the day, it’s just less likely because snakes avoid people, they avoid dogs. I give extra caution to that early morning hiker, first trail runner. If it’s been a chilly night, and it’s going to be a nice toasty sunny warm morning, you’ve got to be game on. You’ve got to be paying attention to what your surroundings are.”
Conversley, in the heat of summer rattlesnakes seek the cover of shade because it’s too hot for them to be in the sun. Sometimes hikers and mountain bikers return to their cars and find a scary surprise waiting for them.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people with that story, ‘I came back to my car and there was a rattlesnake underneath my car,’” Bonnell said. “That is a snake that is trying to find thermal cover from super-hot summer temperatures that are too hot for snakes..”
For those recreating in rattlesnake territory, Bonnell recommends dressing accordingly (including long pants and boots that protect ankles), keeping your dog leashed and keeping one ear bud out if you’re listening to music. If you’re running or hiking on the trail early in the morning or late in the afternoon, she thinks it’s a good idea to wear a hat with a brim, in addition to your sunglasses, so you can see the trail in front of you when facing sun glare.
“Anticipate the possibility of seeing a rattlesnake, either on the trail or next to the trail,” Bonnell said. “This goes for climbers, runners, hikers, mountain bikers, equestrians. All visitor groups should anticipate that reality.”
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