The Southern Pacific rattlesnake lives in the southern half of California, and in the Baja California Peninsula.
Rattlesnakes are venomous snakes in the viper family, native to the Americas from Canada to Argentina. The various species differ in how toxic their venom is, with the tiger rattlesnake, native to Southern Arizona and Northern Mexico, being the most venomous snake in the Americas.
Rattlesnakes are typically no more than four to five feet (1.2 to 1.5 meters) in length. However, I saw one seven feet (2.1 meters) long, and about four inches (10 cm) thick, that was caught by staff at a scout camp when I was eleven years old.
These fascinating reptiles often have amazing patterns, and colors range widely from brown, to grey, to dark green or sometimes pale yellow. Their heads are triangular in shape, making them easy to tell apart from other snake species. They also have a rattle on their tails, which they use as a warning and a threat. There is oddly one species, on an island in the Gulf of California, which entirely lacks a rattle.
They don’t always rattle their tails prior to making a strike. They will bite anytime that you get too close, such as if you step near them or on them. They’re only trying to protect themselves, and don’t go around looking for people to bite. They eat small animals, especially rodents.
The panamint rattlesnake lives in Southern Nevada and parts of the California desert region. This one was photographed in Death Valley, California.
Safety is important when exploring the wilderness
I've seen rattlesnakes dozens of times while hiking in the hills in Southern California, Northern California, and Santa Catalina Island. As someone who knows how to avoid this animal, well enough that I've never been bitten despite being an explorer in areas where they live all my life, I share safety tips below, to help others minimizing chances of being harmed by these beautiful but very dangerous animals.
Hiking is my favorite form of exercise. I love being in nature, although anyone who isn't accustomed to such activities needs to become educated about safety to minimize chances of getting hurt.
There are other things to learn about besides venomous snakes, depending upon where you are exploring. Where I live, I have to avoid poison oak and ticks, for example. And although they’re rarely encountered, it’s good to know what to do about larger animals such as bears and mountain lions.
The South American rattlesnake lives throughout sub-tropical regions of South and Central America. Nine sub-species have been identified.
Advice for rattlesnake safety
Looking for them very carefully helps, although they can be hard to spot curled under a rock, under a bush, or somewhere that their coloration helps them blend in. These tips are all important to know:
1. Wear shoes or boots that cover the ankles, which is where many bites take place. And also, wear pants. These are musts for walking around in nearly all wilderness areas.
2. Hike with someone, and never alone. If there are children, be very careful they are mature enough to know and follow these rules. Even still, they need close supervision.
3. If you see any snake, don’t get closer, and back away quietly. If you think a snake is crawling nearby, such as through some brush, don’t go try and take a look at it.
4. It’s a good idea to carry a walking stick. You can “test” areas you’re about to step or walk through with the stick before stepping there.
5. Be careful around water, such as a stream or pond. Rattlesnakes can swim.
6. Don’t provoke a rattlesnake whatsoever. Don’t yell at it, throw a rock at it, dare anyone to get close to it, etc. Keep in mind that plenty of people who were bitten were trying to be heroic and somehow get rid of the animal.
7. If you’re camping, ensure your tent is 100% closed so nothing can get in.
8. Use a flashlight when it starts getting dark. Summer evenings, when the sun sets, is a rattlesnake’s very favorite time to come out. It’s right when people can’t see so well. The snakes are nocturnal, and are active mostly at night.
9. Be aware that strikes are fast. You can’t dodge a rattlesnake strike. They typically have a striking range of two to three feet (up to about a meter). They may strike multiple times when angry and feeling threatened.
10. In California and other locations with seasonal variations, rattlesnakes are most active in warmer months. In the Northern Hemisphere, this is typically April to October. If it’s very hot, like 100 degrees (38 C) or more, they’ll likely be hiding until it cools in the evening.
11. Know what to do if someone is accidentally bitten. Most importantly, the person needs professional emergency medical treatment as soon as possible. Don’t apply a tourniquet or any kind of restricting band, don’t try to suck the poison out, don’t cut the wound, don’t apply ice, and don’t try to pursue and kill the snake.
12. It’s certainly helpful to have a functioning cell phone in case of emergencies such as a rattlesnake bite.
13. If you’re hiking, do not leave established trails. Practically everyone who ever got lost didn't think they would, and off the trails you’re more likely to encounter hidden animals, including rattlesnakes.