Colorado is a beautiful place to hike and enjoy nature. While its a blast to head down the trail and leave your worries behind, it is important to remember that we share the natural areas of Colorado with three types of venomous snakes. The three types of venomous snakes in Colorado are all rattlesnakes. These snakes are named the Prairie Rattlesnake, the Massasauga Rattlesnake, and the Midget Faded Rattlesnake. Although you may hear people call all types of rattlesnakes in Colorado “Diamondbacks”, there are no Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes in Colorado.
There is one type of snake, the Bull Snake, that is often confused for a rattlesnake. Bullsnakes are very large and can be quite scary looking, but Bullsnakes are friendly and they help to keep the rodent population down. Bullsnakes eat so many rodents, they can actually help manage the dangerous Rattlesnake population.
The Prairie Rattlesnake
The Prairie Rattlesnake is the most common type of rattlesnake found in Colorado. This Diamondback has small scales covering most of the top of its head with one large scale over each eye. They have a pattern of 30-55 dark grey or brown blotches on their back and dark bands on the tail. Their head, body, and tail are greenish-grey to brown and their belly is greyish or white. The Prairie Rattlesnake prefers to live in areas that have rocky canyons, open prairies, and an abundance of small mammal burrows; which sustain their regular diet. During the spring and fall, Prairie Rattlesnakes tend to sun themselves on south-facing hillsides that feature large rocks. During the summer, they will roam in open prairies. They are mostly nocturnal.
The Massasauga Rattlesnake
The Massasauga Rattlesnake is small, ranging from 18-30 inches in length. They are usually grey in color. Their pattern consists of a row of large rounded blown and black blotches down the middle of their back and three smaller rows of alternating blotches down its side. Typically these snakes are found in sandy areas, sagebrush, and grasslands.
The Midget Faded Rattlesnake
The Midget Faded Rattlesnake, AKA Western Snake, is found on the Western Slope of Colorado.Their color pattern consists of a pinkish, pale brown, yellow-brown, straw-colored, reddish or ground color that is overlaid with a series of brown elliptical or rectangular dorsal blotches. Some are grey or silvery. In juveniles, the pattern is distinct but their marking becomes faded in adults, almost to the point where it is indistinguishable from the ground color.
The Friendly (but scary looking) Bullsnake
Photo Credit: Mack Hitch Plants and Animals of Northeast Colorado
The Bullsnake is yellowish and has reddish-blow to black blotches on their back. Their belly is cream with brown or black blotches. Their tail has a more bold color which is banded with black (dark brown) and tan rings. They are generally 50-72 inches in length. They are much larger than rattlesnakes. They can vibrate their tail, which can be confused for a rattlesnake, but if a Bullsnake is handled gently, they will become tame.
Snakes would prefer to avoid humans rather than to bite. If a rattlesnake is rattling its tail, it wants to scare you away, not bite you. Be cooperative by slowly moving away. A snake is most likely to bite if it is surprised or cornered. Give it enough room, and it will probably slither away. Rattlesnakes are not aggressive; however, they are quick to become defensive. Some even say that it is rather courteous that a rattlesnake rattles at all. The rattle is a friendly notice that it is best if you and the snake do not meet. But keep in mind, rattlesnakes might not rattle before they strike.
Even an uncoiled snake can bite. If you surprise a snake, it may not have time to coil, but it may still strike out to bite you.
Juveniles are typically more aggressive and more dangerous than adult snakes because juveniles do not have as much experience hunting and they are still learning learn how to strike. Since juvenile snakes are still in a learning phase, they will inject more venom than an adult snake would. Also, juveniles are less experienced so they might be overly anxious about you. If this is the case they might risk an unnecessary encounter with you where an adult snake would have enough experience to know to just slither away.
Rattlesnakes are cold-blooded. This means that they move more slowly in cool weather. Since they need heat, they are likely to lay on sun-warmed pavement or rocks to absorb heat. If it gets too hot (over 100 degrees), snakes need to get into the shade (under a bush, rock, or log) to avoid overheating.
Rattlesnakes spend most of their time hiding, the other majority of their time is spent in ambush waiting for a rodent, bird or lizard to come by. They see differences in heat, so on a hot day, you might blend into the background heat of the day better than you would in the evening or early morning. They also can sense fast movement, So, If you see a rattlesnake, stay calm, and move away slowly.
Snakes don’t have great eyesight, so they rely on of their sense of touch. This means they will most likely feel you coming before they see you.
What does the rattle sound like?
Lots of nature and insects sounds can be confused for a rattlesnake. So, what does this rattle sound like anyway? It’s louder than the locusts you hear around you on the trail. It also starts slow and speeds up. Watch this video to hear the actual sound.
Rattle Snake Activity Changes With The Seasons
Rattlesnakes are active from early spring through mid-fall. They hibernate in winter. Rattlesnakes are most active and aggressive in spring and early summer, shortly after emerging from hibernation.Rattlesnake young are born in August through October. Then the young and the adults hibernate together through the winter. Each mother can have from 1 to 25 babies at a time! But, the typical number is from 4 to 12. When all these rattlesnakes emerge from hibernation in the spring, there is a flurry of activity. This is known as Rattlesnake Season and it is a time to be extra vigilant because the young ones can be particularly aggressive when they first emerge from hibernation.
During the summer, rattlesnakes tend to spread out and venture on their own. They won’t be as concentrated in a particular area during the summer.
During late Summer and fall, you may see another flurry of activity as the rattlesnakes scurry to find a warm place to hibernate for the winter. During this time, you are more likely to find snakes making their way indoors, or in barns.
During the Winter snakes hibernate in deep dens that keep the snakes alive through the cold. Snakes hibernate in groups, so they are more concentrated during this time but it is unlikely that you will see a snake during the winter unless you uncover a den or burrow, which is rare. A rattlesnake that is away during the winter may be desperate for food and may be likely to bite you out of confusion.
Also, although it is unusual, a warm winter day can wake up snakes prematurely. Snakes that wake from hibernation early will be sluggish and at a heightened sense of danger because of confusion and deprivation.
Where You Are Likely to Encounter Rattlesnakes
Rattlesnakes can be found in many places. Snakes love to hide in tall grass, inside rocky caves, inside barns, under rocky outcrops, around rocky stream courses, under bushes, in thick brush, under ledges, near the shaded wall of a building, in leaf piles, and under corrugated metal. Be extremely vigilant if you before you reach into or under anything that a snake might like to hide in or around. Reaching into an area where a snake is hiding is a very common way that people get bit.
Watch for rattlesnakes out on the trails. They will regularly slither across a trail as they move from one place to another. It is also common to see a rattler laying across a paved trail to soak up some warmth.
Snakes will often be in grasses and other vegetation beside a trail, so keep an eye out. The most common way that people get bit is by stepping on a rattlesnake. Keep an eye on what you are about to step on, especially while you are running. It might be fun to have your headphones blasting ‘Eye Of The Tiger’ while you sprint down the A Trail in the early morning, but you might put yourself in the ‘Danger Zone’ if you do not see a Rattler ahead.
The weather affects where Rattlesnakes hide. On cloudy and overcast days, during the early morning, and the evening are the times you are most likely to encounter a snake out in the open. During the heat of the day, rattlesnakes are most likely to be in a shaded area.
Vigilance is Key – How To Prevent A Snake Bite
The most common way that people get bitten is by stepping on a snake. Be aware of your surroundings and keep an eye on where you are placing your feet. Be extra cautious when you are running down a train in a snake prone area during snake season, explained in the previous sections of this article.
When you see a snake, move slowly away from it. If it is going across the trail, stand still and wait for the snake to move away. Snakes do not see well, but they perceive sudden movement as a threat. If you move away slowly, the snake may not be as likely to see you or feel threatened by you.
Never reach under a rock, log, or onto a ledge unless you can clearly see that there is no snake there. Look on the other side of logs or rocks on the trail before stepping over them. Do not pick up any corrugated steel, reach into a pile of leaves, bushes or anything similar. They like to hide under stuff like that.
Snakes are especially difficult to see in tall grass. Be particularly careful in watching for snakes if tall grasses are growing next to the trail. On a wide trail, stay near the center of the trail to reduce the chances of surprising a snake in the grass. Be sure not to go on any trails that are not mowed. Keeping grass cut low around buildings fences can keep snakes away because it removes the cover that snakes like.
Control the rodent population in your area. If you have pets or other animals that live outside, prevent their food from being assessable to mice. It’s like a chain. If the mice have something to eat, the rattlesnakes have something to eat.
You can protect yourself with a variety of snake bite protection. See our list of protection below.
Call a professional Snake Wrangler. A professional can come to your home to break up dens and treat the area around your house so snakes are not around where you live. In the Northern Colorado area, I recommend: A All Animal Control.
Dogs are more likely to die from rattlesnake bites than humans are. Dogs tend to get stung in their face because they go right down and sniff the rattlesnake! The best way to prevent your dog from getting stung is to keep your dog on a leash. Keep your dog close to you so you will be able to see the rattlesnake before the dog does. This way you can stop the dog before he gets close to the snake. Dogs roaming free are more much more likely to be bitten by rattlesnakes than leashed dogs.
Also, be sure train a solid “leave it” cue. This way you have something to fall back on when a dog is extremely interested in the oh so interesting murderous snake den!
What To Do If a Rattlesnake Bites You
Slowly move away from the snake and remain calm. It is important to get medical care soon. Find a safe place to sit down, you may become dizzy and faint due to low blood pressure caused by the venom.
If you are alone and have no cell phone, walk calmly, DO NOT RUN, to an emergency telephone and call 911 for help. Exertion causes the heart to pump blood faster, making the poison spread faster. Therefore, running is worse than walking.
Remove any jewelry, watches, tight clothing. The limb was bitten will most likely to swell and a lot of damage from snake bites comes from failing to do this. Don’t make tourniquets because you will cut off blood supply and this is how people lose limbs.
The only effective treatment for snake envenomation is the right antivenin to neutralize it.
The calmer you are, the more information you will be able to reliably give the field and medical personnel about your location, condition, and preexisting conditions.
Know your local poisonous snakes. Reference the pictures above again if needed. But, if you can’t identify the snake and you can take a picture, get at least 10 feet away (out of strike zone) before attempting a picture.
If you are not able to take a picture of the snake that bit you, take a detailed mental picture of the snake’s colors, pattern, head shape, and length, so an expert can help you to identify.
Do not take any sort of blood thinners, like Advil, or aspirin. Do not drink alcohol. The venom will travel faster through your body and do damage a lot quicker.
Carry a sharpie. Assess yourself from top to bottom and document and significant findings and the time you found are observing it. Circle the bite and write the time next to it. Draw a circle around the border of the swelling or if the bite is on a finger or toe then draw a line at the edge of the swelling as it moves up the limb, and once again write down the time. Write down all the things you are experiencing right now that are not normal next to or within the circle, be clear about what time you are experiencing these.
Take note of your 5 senses and be sure to include the following:
* Metallic taste in mouth
* Changes in sense of smell
* Sudden loss of vision
* Double vision
* Visual disturbances
* Ringing in the ears
* Nausea and vomiting
* Bleeding from anywhere
* Shortness of breath
* Tremors, twitching, cramping
* Pain, numbness, tingling, burning, electric shocks
* Loss of bowel or bladder control
* Excessive secretion of saliva, tears, snot, sweat
* Droopy eyelids that feel heavier and heavier to keep open
* Can’t shrug shoulders
* Can’t stick tongue out
* Feelings of impending doom
* Developing a 6th Sense
Creating a timeline like this as it occurs is critical information to medical professionals so they know what stages of poisoning you are at and the appropriate steps that need to be taken to stay on top of the developing situation. Reassess your body ever 15 to 30 minutes, things can change quickly. The great thing about writing a timeline on your injured limb with a sharpie is that this gives you something to focus on that will play a large part in saving your own life and limb, and having a task will help you keep calm and get things done.
If bitten by a rattlesnake:
* Do not make incisions over the bite wound.
* Do not restrict blood flow by applying a tourniquet.
* Do not ice the wound.
* Do not suck the poison out with your mouth or any other device
* These methods can very well cause additional harm and most amputations or other serious results of a rattlesnake bite are a result of icing or applying a tourniquet.
* Stay calm, move a safe distance away from the snake, sit down.
* Call Dispatch via radio or 911.
* Wash the bite area gently with soap and water if available.
* Remove watches, rings, tight clothing etc., which may constrict swelling.
* Immobilize the affected area.
* Keep the bite below the heart if possible.
* Transport safely to the nearest medical facility immediately.
Snake Protective Gear
Snake gaiters can be a preventative measure. Here are a few links to various protective gear:
Protection using polycarbonate plates
Snake proof boots
“Coping With Snakes – 6.501.” Extension, CSU, extension.colostate.edu/topic-areas/natural-resources/coping-with-snakes-6-501/.
Johnson, Doug. “What Do Rattle Snake Dens Look Like?” Sciencing, 30 Apr. 2018, sciencing.com/do-snake-dens-look-like-6370802.html.
Paules-Bronet, Ileana. “7 Things You Should Never, Ever Do If You’re Bitten By A Venomous Snake.” LittleThings.com, LittleThings, 13 June 2017, www.littlethings.com/how-to-handle-snake-bites/.
“Rattlesnakes || City of Fort Collins.” Election Results || City of Fort Collins, Department of Wildlife, www.fcgov.com/naturalareas/rattlesnakes.php.
“Snakes of Colorado.” Colorado Herping, www.coloradoherping.com/species-guide.html.
“Snakes.” US Forest Service, www.fs.fed.us/visit/know-before-you-go/snakes.