Can’t exactly remember how the conversation wound its way around the bend to the subject of snakes. (Yes, it was one of those kinds of hazy-recollection evenings … blame the venomous effects of tequila.) But wind its way it did. There were four of us, all with substantial long-distance-backpacking resumes. And all with snake-based tall tales to share. Close calls. Phobias. Misidentification. (What’s the rhyme regarding whether a coral snake is a coral snake?) Efficacy of snake vaccine for dogs. Disputes regarding what to medially do if the fanged nightmare manifests itself.
Despite the occasional differences of opinion, there was unanimity on one major point: One of the best aspects about the Colorado High Country is that it is relatively snake free. In the minds of many — especially those hailing from the American Southwest or the humid heart of Dixie, this is a major selling point — to the degree that it is near-bouts inconceivable that local marketing departments and professional purveyors of real estate do not make this biological reality a page-one selling point. “Sure, it’s expensive as hell here, but we don’t have snakes!”
(And, by invoking those attention-grabbing syllables, it will cause potential homebuyers and visitors to lose track of the fact that hereabouts can be found an increasing number of attack moose.)
For those of us who cut our backcountry teeth in snake-infested realms, this is not an inconsequential point. Hereabouts, when stepping across logs while hiking, one does not have to worry about getting bitten by a 12-foot timber rattler reposing on the other side of said log. When crossing a mountain stream, one’s thoughts need not be dominated by visions of the horrific water moccasin scene in “Lonesome Dove.” Nothing against snakes, which have as much right to health and happiness as any other creature, but, overall, these are Good Things.
But there are indeed snakes in the High Country. As a matter of fact, the highest-dwelling snake in the U.S. makes its home in the land of snow and ice. The western terrestrial garter snake (Thamnophis elegans) counts as its regular habitat territory that goes up to 11,000 feet. This non-venomous snake has actually been found as high as 13,100 feet in San Miguel County. (Doubtless this was the Lou Dawson of snakes.) Its range includes literally every mountain county in the state.
Adult western terrestrial garter snakes reach a length of 24 inches to 42 inches — long enough to make an unwary passerby jump and/or soil his/her quick-dry shorts if one slithers close by. They are brown to gray, with gray and light-tan checkerboarding conspicuous in juveniles. They have light stripes down their sides, which become less prominent with age. These hardy snakes survive the frigid temperatures of the Colorado Rockies by finding shelter under rocks and in small mammal holes that extend down below freezing zone — to a point where the temperature does not go below 50 degrees.
Though it is the most-prominent species in the mountains, the western terrestrial garter snake is not the only snake that calls the High Country home.
• The night snake (Hypsiglena torquata) reaches elevations of 7,900 feet in the southwestern part of Colorado.
• The milk snake (Lampropeltis triangulum) reaches 8,000 feet, primarily in the southern part of the state.
• The coachwhip (Masticophis flagellum) has been found as high as 7,700 feet in the Wet Mountains of Custer County.
• The striped whipsnake (Masticophis taeniatus) has been found as high as 8,100 feet in San Miguel County.
• The smooth green snake (Opheodrys vernalis) has been found as high as 9,000 feet in Custer, Eagle, Hinsdale, La Plata, Park, Pitkin and Routt counties.
• The gopher snake/bullsnake (Pituophus catenifer) is found as high as 8,500 feet throughout Colorado.
• And, well OK, there is the prairie rattlesnake (Croatalus viridis), which is the only venomous snake to venture into the High Country. Though uncommon at altitude, the prairie rattlesnake — which is more aggressive than most of its Croatalus-ian compadres — has been found as high as 9,500 feet in Alamosa, Boulder, Chaffee, Clear Creek, Custer, Dolores, El Paso, Garfield, Gilpin, Huerfano, Jefferson, La Plata, Routt, Saguache and San Miguel counties. This snake can reach 48 inches in length and its bite assuredly requires medical intervention and appropriate pants soiling.
Maybe the marketing and real estate people ought leave that last part out of their promotional materials.
RFWJ Editor M. John Fayhee is the author of 10 books, including “A Colorado Mountain Companion,” from which this column is excerpted.