On a recent backpacking trip in the Quehanna Wild Area, I crossed paths with several timber rattlesnakes. Resting on the side of the trail, some of the snakes rattled, a few hissed, and others remained silent as I maneuvered around them with a wide berth. I can respect an animal’s personal space, particularly if it appears annoyed and is capable of injecting life-threatening venom. Despite their fearsome reputation, I’m quite fond of these unique and remarkable creatures.
Timber rattlesnakes are the most common of the three venomous snakes in Pennsylvania (the massasauga and copperhead also call PA home). Still, these beautifully patterned snakes are found among rocky wooded slopes in relatively uninhabited areas. Within rock crevices are winter den sites where timber rattlesnakes may brumate, or hibernate, with other snake species.
Every time that I’ve seen a timber rattlesnake in the wild, they’ve been basking on the side of a trail. The snakes mean no harm to me, they just want to safely warm up so that they can hunt again as the sun sets. Timber rattlesnakes are also a good sign for me and other hikers because they help maintain chipmunk, mice, squirrel, and rabbit populations. These snakes hunt at twilight and night using their specialized sense of smell. This predator service is important for controlling the spread of zoonotic diseases like Lyme and hantavirus.
I also don’t mind bumping into fellow travelers while I’m on the trail. While a timber rattlesnake won’t hike out too far, they do migrate during the year. Males may travel up to 5 miles from their winter den sites while reproducing females tend to stay closer to home. A timber rattlesnake seen in one area during the summer will often move on to forage or find a mate, so there’s no reason to scare them off.
Besides that, most timber rattlesnake bites occur on hands and feet, usually the result of attempted handling of the venomous snake. Only licensed venomous snake handlers should attempt to handle rattlesnakes and only when absolutely necessary.
My several encounters with timber rattlesnakes on the trail were great reminders of the wild nature of Pennsylvania. I had a moment of shock and tread more carefully the next few miles after passing a rattling tail. But, with my heart racing, I also enjoyed each moment spent in awe of the beauty and unique character of the timber rattlesnake.