Sunday, June 16, 2013

Are There Rattlesnakes In Tahoe?

The high-altitude living of Tahoe offers many benefits if you like to spend time outdoors. Perfect summer weather. Dry enough in the summer to prevent nearly all bugs from taking up residence. Nights that are cold enough to stop the few remaining pesky bugs in their flight paths. Hot sunshine on even the coldest winter days. A high proportion of sunny days. And glorious recreation including uncountable spectacular hiking trails.
But what about rattlesnakes on those trails?
Some time back, we were hiking a couple of hundred miles north of - and 4000 feet lower than - Tahoe, when we came upon a rattler. We later identified it by his beautiful pattern as a Pacific Coast Rattlesnake. He lay coiled on the trail, his head up in the air, his tail up, too, but held a little lower.
He wasn't shaking his rattle. We hadn't gotten close enough for him to go into alarm mode. But he was aware of us. Very aware. Except for the snaking, serpent tongue – stuff of legends and bad dreams alike – he was still. We watched and we stayed as still as possible. But not like this guy. He could do still better than your average rock.
In the end, he won the staring contest. We gave him wide berth and went on our way. For the rest of our hiking trip, every step took on a new weight. We weren't just exploring the Northern California wilderness, we were running the timeless gauntlet, man against nature. And the serpents were out there, ready to take us down.
How can you prepare against something that might slither right up your pant leg? (It would probably never happen, but I'm a writer. My job is to imagine, right?) Add in curved, needle teeth and you can barely stand to visualize what body part into which that guy might decide to inject his venom.
All of which made us glad to come back to Tahoe because, to our knowledge, we don't have rattlesnakes anywhere in the Tahoe Basin.
But is that really true? There are several varieties of rattlesnake to be found throughout the foothills to the west. And to the east of Lake Tahoe – Carson Valley, Washoe Valley and Reno's Truckee Meadows – there are a good supply of legless reptiles with very sharp venom-delivery tools.
A little Google research will turn up a few fish-and-wildlife officials who say snakes could be in Tahoe. But none of them definitively say that rattlesnakes live in the basin. I did find one credible personal account of hikers encountering a rattlesnake near Margaret Lake, which is near Kirkwood but out of the Tahoe Basin.  Margaret Lake is at 7000 feet and, like Kirkwood, it gets a ton of snow, and the territory is similar to Tahoe, so it makes you think...  
It seems as if we should have lots of snakes in Tahoe. On our warmest days, the gophers and other small rodents are numerous enough to feed an army of snakes. Certainly, they feed an army of coyotes.
But even if we allow for the possibility of rattlesnakes in the basin, the fact is that few-to-no sightings means there are very, very few, if any. 
No one posits any thoughtful explanation of why this should be. Maybe our weather is just too cool for too long. Maybe we have enough aggressive hawks and eagles to make it impossible for any snakes to ply their trade here. Death from the sky is a snake's worst nightmare. Any snakes thinking of slithering over one of the passes into the basin might decide that it's too much work only to have to make a return trip before the snow comes back in the fall. 

I asked him if he'd ever seen a rattlesnake in Tahoe, and he said he hadn't. So I asked him, "If Great Basin Rattlesnakes can be found up to ten thousand feet, why don't we have rattlers on our hiking trails?" He said, "Too many tourists?"
If Jim is right, then book your trip to Tahoe now! We need you to keep the rattlers away.

Here is a Great Basin Rattlesnake that Jim photographed on Anaho Island on Pyramid Lake.(Tahoe's water flows down the Truckee River to Reno and then on to Pyramid Lake. Pyramid Lake has no outlet. Its water simply evaporates over time.)

So snake lovers beware. Tahoe ain't your territory. We have lots of bear and coyote. And there have been two mountain lion sightings on the South Shore this year. But there is a disappointing, depressing, deficiency of rattlesnakes in these mountains. Sad as that is, so far we're coping just fine!


  1. Just saw that you'll be at Artifacts near Raley's on
    July 26th! We'll see you there at 4p!

    Amanda and the girls

  2. I stepped on one at blue lakes, near hope valley, then saw one later that day at 9000 ft. Also a buddy said they saw one at donner summit recently.

    1. Sorry for the delayed response.
      Stepped on a rattler?! Yikes! I hope you didn't get bit. From everything I've read, 9000 feet is higher than rattlesnakes are supposed to go. Maybe young snakes aren't listening to their elders anymore. Even Donner Summit is high for snakes. Could be climate change is to blame. I recently read that Carson City's average year-round temp has gone up 4 degrees in the last two decades, which is more warming than almost any place. If so, the snakes will be moving higher as well.

  3. Lots of garter snakes along the Truckee river thru Truckee.

    1. Hi Tracie,

      We've seen a fair number of garter snakes on our hikes. And we saw a small tarantula! But so far, no rattlesnakes. However, Tahoe is warming. Climate change may bring rattlesnakes. Time will tell.
      Thanks for your interest!

  4. Hello everyone:
    The year of 1958; My parents was fishing at Lake Tahoe. My brother and I saw a timber rattler about 4 to 5 foot long and very health condition. The rattle snake moved out of the way of us playing in the area. Color of the rattler was black white and brown, Very pretty snake at the time. Are there rattlesnakes in Tahoe area? The answer is yes, just very far between. Also there are low venomous scorpions in the area. Use caution probing around in the Tahoe basin area.

  5. Interesting! Thanks for the comment.


    There are no Timber rattlers in California unless they were, I don't think so.

    Scorpions? LOL

  7. Ive seen many scorpions on the south shore also rubber boas

  8. I am planning a hike during summer along the Tahoe rim trail and was wondering what dangerous animals my dog and I might encounter.