Rattlesnake sign1
A sign warning hikers about rattlesnakes at the Upper Springs trail where it cuts down from Skyline, above South Park Drive. Photo: Catherine Rauch

Hikers, runners, and bicyclists along Tilden Park’s popular Skyline Trail have been greeted by something new in the past several days: a large, white poster-board sign scribbled with an unusual warning.

“Rattlesnakes seen on this trail — use caution,” says the handwritten sign, mounted on an A-frame style roadblock on Upper Springs Trail where it cuts down from Skyline, dropping steeply to South Park Drive.

To many aficionados of the East Bay’s extensive network of trails, rattlesnake warnings might not seem unusual. Snake sightings in say, Black Diamond Mines or Sibley Volcanic Preserve are common, say naturalists at the East Bay Regional Park District, which manages both areas, as well as Tilden Park.

And occasional rattlesnake bites are reported in these drier, warmer areas, including one last year, said Emily Hopkins, public information officer for the park district.

But Tilden is another matter.

“I’ve been here 18 years, and personally, I’ve seen only one rattlesnake myself,” said Bill Kaminski, acting supervisor of Tilden. “They are here. But very infrequently do people run into them, or report them to us.” 

And so, he said, when a hiker reported seeing a rattlesnake sunning itself near the top of the Upper Springs Trail about a week ago, park officials took it seriously and decided to put up the sign right away.

“We thought it would be a good idea to alert the public,” Kaminski said, adding that he doesn’t want to panic people, but raise awareness. The last thing Tilden users would expect is to be bit by a rattlesnake, he said.

However, Katie Colbert, the district’s go-to person for rattlesnake information, and a naturalist at Sunol-Ohlone Regional Wilderness, said no-one should be surprised at rattler sightings in the hilly parklands bordering Berkeley, Kensington, El Cerrito and Richmond.

“There are rattlesnakes in Tilden. There’s been rattlesnakes there forever.”

Hikers in Strawberry and Claremont canyons, to the south of Tilden, talk of encounters with the potentially deadly reptiles fairly regularly, at least over the past couple of years, as reported in Berkeleyside in September 2011.

Berkeley resident Beatriz Calderon-Rivera, who hikes the Claremont canyon fire trail often, said she had seen several rattlesnakes this year alone.

The Northern Pacific rattler is the only species found in the Bay Area. Colbert, who grew up in Berkeley, is a passionate defender of rattlesnakes who believes that if people leave them alone, their potential to harm is minimal.

A rattlesnake on the Claremont Canyon trail. Photo: Tracey Taylor

“As a general rule, populations of humans are a great deal more of a threat to populations of other living things, she said.  I just don’t think we should lose sight of that. Rattlesnakes are fascinating animals – and beautiful in their own way. They exhibit parental care; are highly specialized predators; are, in their turn, food for other predators; and although their species is in decline, in some parts of the country, rattlesnakes have been around longer than humans have.”

For hikers not used to rattlesnake caution signs, or the venomous reptiles themselves, their appearance in the region’s damper, cooler fog-drenched lands triggers curiosity. Could something like drought or development be pushing the critters west?

But Colbert, who did her master’s thesis on Pacific rattlesnakes, says she isn’t ready to draw such conclusions, citing a lack of data. “There haven’t been any population studies on rattlesnakes here,” she said.

Rattlesnake habitat isn’t well understood, she said. “There’s more diversity of rattlesnakes in the drier parts of the state; and it appears there are more rattlesnakes in the eastern part of the park district, but I don’t know enough about it to venture an explanation.”

The bottom line, say Colbert and other experts, is to be mindful of rattlesnake safety in all Bay Area open lands. Fear of rattlers doesn’t need to curtail outdoor enjoyment, they emphasize. Common sense dictates being vigilant about keeping your dogs on leash if you think there’s a chance of rattlesnakes being in the area.

“Remember that it’s very rare that someone gets bitten by a rattlesnake,” said Hopkins. “The thing to remember is to be alert.”

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife rattlesnake web page has excellent safety tips.

Colbert’s top tips include:

  • Always look first before placing hands and feet, rear and gear anyplace – on a rock, over a log, under a picnic table.
  • Do not mess with a rattlesnake.
  • Do not attempt to pick up a rattlesnake with a stick, with gloves, or with bare hands.
  • Do not try to kill it – all wildlife is protected in the parks, and any attempt to kill snakes also puts you at risk of injury.
  • There is NO safe way to pick up a rattlesnake with bare hands – even by the tail – regardless of what you see on TV.
  • If you see a rattlesnake in a regional park, contact a uniformed staff member, admire it from a distance.
  • If it’s on a trail in front of you, walk around it, or take another trail.
  • If bitten, call 911 in order to reach an emergency room asap; keep calm (if you can!); loosen clothing and remove jewelry near the bite site; a rattlesnake bite requires advanced medical care.

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Freelancer Catherine "Kate" Rauch has been contributing to Berkeleyside for several years. Her work as a journalist has encompassed everything from 10 years as a daily news reporter for the East Bay Times,...