Overall, Chica and I were surprised by the number of animals we saw during our 6-months on the Appalachian Trail. Maybe it’s because we hiked as a couple and were not very stealthy, but we just didn’t see that many, especially mammals. Four bears, two moose, a few rabbits, a dozen deer, one racoon and a whole bunch of squirrels—that’s it. The same cannot be said of snakes on the Appalachian Trail. We saw an amazing 37 snakes over the course of 179 days and 2,189 miles.
Not that we polled everyone we saw, but it seemed our reptile sightings were much higher than others’. We didn’t get a photo or video of all 37 snakes, but we did of quite a few. I will post them below along with a description and snake identity. There are two photos that are not ours (copperhead and brown water snake), but they are snakes that are common enough on the AT to include.
Venomous Snakes on the Appalachian Trail
There are only three venomous snakes that reside along the AT—the timber rattlesnake, the copperhead, and the cottonmouth water moccasin. Almost all snakes just want to be left alone and venomous snakes would prefer to reserve their venom for prey. Therefore, snake bites are extremely rare and typically only happen when a snake is stepped on (or reached for on a rock scramble) or messed with by some idiot wanting a cool selfie or channeling their inner Steve Irwin.
Cottonmouth Water Moccasin
It is very unlikely that you will encounter a cottonmouth. While they exist in states that encompass the trail, their range along the AT is only the very most southern part of the trail in Georgia. As their name implies, they like water specifically swamplands and river floodplains. Neither of which are common in the early Georgia section.
“Hey Chica, stop walking. Ok, now turn around and look down.”
“You just stepped over a timber rattlesnake.”
That short but exhilarating conversation happened in Virginia’s Jefferson National Forest. The snake Chica stepped over was a juvenile, only 14 inches long and not a single rattle had yet grown on its tail. But that head, with its triangular shape and chipmunk cheeks, there was no mistaking what this snake was.
This rattler would be the first of a whopping 12 timber rattlesnakes we would see on our thru-hike. The reptile’s demeanor was mellow, even as it was bounded over. Things might have turned out a bit differently if Chica would have stepped on, instead of over, the stick-looking creature. But she didn’t. All of the rattlesnakes we saw, except two, were mellow, they did not coil or rattle or otherwise exhibit a defensive posture.
The scariest encounter with a rattler was in Pennsylvania. This one was not mellow at all, it made its presence known with the tell tale (or is it tell tail) maraca shake. We had stopped to get some water. The spring source was up a short rock scramble and while I fetched water to filter Jen sat her pack down against a large boulder.
We filtered and drank, idling several feet from where her pack lay. When we were done, Chica went to pick up her backpack and immediately stopped at the sound of swarming bees. She stepped toward the snake before realizing where the sound was coming from.
In gathering the water, I had walked right by the snake, never seeing it. Maybe it was under a rock and it came out to check me out. Regardless, Chica grabbing her pack set him off. I was far enough away to get a quick video (see above). Chica’s hiking poles were close to the snake, but I was able to retrieve them, and we made an uneventful exit. After leaving we wondered if we should have tried leave a note warning other hikers, but this thought only occurred several miles past the water source as we were in a shock daze from our encounter. We did mention it to several southbound hikers that past us.
Rattlesnakes are large and can be up to six feet in length. They like hiding in rocks and in tall grass. Three of the 12 we saw were laying in tall grass that paralleled the trail, just a foot or so from where people were hiking. Another four were stretched out across the trail in a sunny spot. Like all snakes timber rattlers are cold blooded and need sun to help maintain body temperature and digest food.
We did not see any copperhead snakes on our thru-hike. It’s strange, we ran into multiple hikers who saw only copperheads and no rattlesnakes. The copperhead exists along the trail., mainly from Georgia to New York. They ambush their prey and are masters at camouflage as their pattern and coloring match fallen leaves, and they grow to between 2 to 3 feet in length.
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.com
Non-Venomous Snakes on the Appalachian Trail
There are many varieties of non-venomous snakes you may come across while hiking in any of the 14 states alongth the trail. We saw our first snake in North Carolina and our last snake in New Hampshire. We did not see snakes in Georgia, Tennessee, West Virginia, New Jersey, or Vermont. So, in 8 out of 14 states we came across a snake or two. Below are the non-venomous snakes we came across along with one that we didn’t, but you may very well.
This snake and the next one on the list were the most prolific. They seemed to be always moving. Where some of the bigger snakes would just lay there, look at you and not move, the garter wanted to get away, fast. They come in many color schemes from dull to vibrant.
The most interesting encounter with this snake species happened when we were hiking with a friend. She screeched and came to an abrupt halt. I pulled up beside her and she pointed a few feet in front of her and down. There was a garter snake, head raised about 8 inches off the ground heading right toward us.
I knew the snake was harmless but the way it was moving with its head high, and towards us, was menacing. As it got closer we could see it had something in its mouth. The grasshopper looked like it could get away and, people present or not, that snake was not going to let that happen.
Black Rat Snake
If you thru-hike the Appalachian Trail it is highly likely you will come across a black rat snake.Growing as long as seven feet this black beauty is difficult to miss. As their name implies the snake is fond of rodents. It makes sense then that they are sometimes found around AT shelters. They perform a great service and are harmless, so don’t go getting all Indiana Jones on them.
Eastern Hognose Snake
The hognose snake was by far the most memorable snake we came across on the trail. Like many of the snakes we saw this guy was laying right across the trail catching some rays. For non-venomous snakes that were laying in the trail, we tried to go around them. If there was brush or a drop off or some other obstacle that prevent us from doing that I would touch snake’s tail with my trekking pole and they would nonchalantly slither away.
Not the hognose! It acted offended when I touched its tail, as if I had grabbed it, swung it around my head a couple of times and then set it down. It was pissed. It coiled, hissed loudly, and then inflated its neck so that it looked like a cobra. Then the rest of the body grew as well as it puffed up the main body to look bigger.
It seems this is a common drama played out by hognose when it is threatened. If all this didn’t work, it might have tried a bluff strike whereby the snake strikes with a closed mouth (bites from hognose snakes are very rare). If there was still a threat, then the last line of defense would be to play dead. It would flop over on its back and stick out its tongue to its darnedest to look pathetic and unappetizing. For this one though, after the puffing up it eventually moved on into the brush. What a cool experience.
The first snake we saw on the trail was in North Carolina and was a milk snake. Although the milk snake has the coloring and somewhat the same pattern as a copperhead the diminutive head is a sign that it is harmless. We ended up seeing two other milk snakes along the way and none of them ever seemed to be in a hurry nor were they bothered by our presence.
Brown Water Snake
Another snake that is relatively common (but we didn’t see one) is the brown water snake. The photo below was taken by our friends who are thru-hiking this year. This was snapped at the river that runs through the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC).
Photo credit Barbara Hurne
Eastern Ringneck Snake
A small grass snake with a bright yellow ring around its neck, these are common along the trail (we only saw one though).
The last two I don’t know what they are. If you know let me know in the comments and I will add the info to the blog post. The black one I just love its pattern.
Thanks for joining us on a tour of the snakes we saw on our thru-hike of the AT. I would love to hear your story of snake encounters on the Appalachian Trail. If you have one, comment below.
I loved being a woman thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail last year. Yes, I was with my husband, and that was epic, but I didn’t let that take away from the pride I had for myself as a woman. When I was young, and I first heard of the Appalachian Trail, it was only associated with guys hiking it. But here I was – a girl, a women, a chica – doing it along with the guys, and other women as well! There are more and more female thru-hikers each year, currently about 30%, and I love that it’s on the rise. Who knows, maybe some day we’ll take over the trail? Girl power! (more…)
If you are like me consuming hiking books is like eating after you have been on the trail for a month … you read everything you can get your hands on. Today we provide you with an excerpt from A Walk for Sunshine, Jeff Alt’s memoir of thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail to honor his brother who has cerebral palsy. Buy it on Amazon.
Strange Bedfellows Blood Mountain, Georgia. March 2, 1998. 28 miles from Springer Mountain, Georgia.
AT SUNRISE THE NEXT MORNING, everyone immediately started moving about, and I could finally see the faces of the folks I had intruded on the night before. No one looked like an ax murderer, but then, what does an ax murderer look like? The group consisted of a retired minister and his wife (the Spoons), a retired gentlemen (Bevo), a college student between career/academic paths (Magaroni), and a man of about 50 (Packrat). It turned out that he was attempting a thru-hike for the fourth time and was not retired and hadn’t taken a sabbatical from work. He had just plain quit his job in order to hike.
Everyone had assembled their gear into packs before I finished making coffee. I was moving slowly, and every step I took resulted in jolting pain from my blisters. Everyone said goodbye and good luck and was on the trail by 8 a.m.
My feet were pathetic. I sat there on my sleeping bag staring down at the most important asset for a hiker. My dogs were covered in square bits of flesh-colored moleskin and strips of duct tape. It looked like I had walked through a pile of confetti with glue on my feet. I squeezed painfully into my boots. My backpack was leaning against the side shelter wall, so I sat down on the shelter platform, leaned back, and slipped my arms through the pack straps. I stood up and immediately thought, It’s going to be a long day. I trudged on. The temperature remained low, never breaking 40 degrees. I moved along all day, winding through the Chattahoochee National Forest, going up and down Georgia’s finest mountains. By mid-afternoon, I arrived at a gap in the mountains called Miller Gap. Looking at the map unfolded on my lap, the profile showed a continuous five-mile climb straight up Blood Mountain, the highest peak of the AT in Georgia. This mountain was named after an Indian battle between the Cherokee and the Creek Indians. Supposedly, the battle was so fierce that blood dripped down the mountain.
I began my ascent after energizing myself with a candy bar. Every step challenged my balance. I felt like a roller-coaster car slowly approaching the top of the biggest hill, catching each chain link as I progressed closer to the top. As I approached the summit, it began to snow. The temperature had dropped significantly. Just the day before, it had been 60 degrees and sunny. The thermometer attached to my pack read 20 degrees, and when I stopped to take a drink, I noticed slush forming in my water. I was concerned. The profile map gave a poor indication of how much farther I had to go in order to reach the shelter. I could stop and pitch my tent if the weather became severe, but there would be no water supply.
Eventually, I summited Blood Mountain, which is a respectable 4,460 feet above sea level. The trail led smack into a four-walled gray stone shelter on the summit. Given the declining weather and a tough 12-mile day with raw feet, I decided to stop there for the night.
I stepped into the shelter and found one of the men that stayed with me the night before. His trail name was Bevo, and he was a Texan. Bevo is the name of the mascot of the University of Texas. The shelter had window cutouts but no panes of glass or shutters. The wind had picked up and was blowing snow into the shelter, which had begun to drift onto the sleeping platform. Bevo and I took the plastic ground cloths from our tents and some duct tape and secured it to the southern window, but the tape kept coming off. We collected some rocks from outside the shelter and used them as weights to hold the plastic.
We then cut some slits in the plastic so that it wouldn’t tear in the strong wind. I laid out my sleeping bag, put on all of my winter gear, and began cooking dinner. Since I was no longer walking and carrying a pack, my body got cold quickly. After dinner, I walked outside to answer nature’s call and noticed that I could see the lights of Atlanta. It was too cold to appreciate the view, so I ran back into the shelter. As soon as I could, I climbed into my sleeping bag, pulled out my headlamp and some paper, and began writing in my journal: March 2: 12 miles today, feet are hamburger. The temperature is around 20 degrees. The year of “El Nino” is not giving me the warm weather everyone predicted. Hopefully better weather tomorrow. Heading into Neels Gap for my first resupply.
I turned off my headlamp and burrowed deep into my sleeping bag to keep warm. In spite of the cold, I managed to doze off sometime later, only to be awakened by a heavy object moving across my feet and lower legs. I could hear my heart beating over the sound of an unknown creature moving around on top of my legs. Not knowing what to expect, I cautiously reached out, grabbed my flashlight, and turned it on. A skunk was lying on my sleeping bag! I cautiously nudged it with my foot, and it jumped off the platform, raising its tail. Great. The last thing I needed was a putrid scent on my gear and body, but the skunk didn’t spray me. Instead, it ducked out of sight under the bunk platform, which was about eight inches off the ground.
I took out my candle and lit it. I figured the little critter would leave me alone, being afraid of flames. I was wrong. Twenty minutes later, I felt the weight drop on my feet and legs again, I sat up, and there he was, sprawled out on my sleeping bag again. The candle had given him enough light to precisely place his body between my legs on my bag. I decided that he just wanted to keep warm and that he was going to stay there, so I lay back down. Believe it or not, I actually fell asleep with a skunk on my feet.
The next morning, the skunk was gone. He must have gotten up at first light and scurried back under the platform. I poured some water into my pan and fired up the stove. The temperature had remained below 20 degrees all night. I made some coffee with the hot water and ate a granola bar.
I only had a two-mile descent to Neels Gap, my first resupply point. I packed up my gear more quickly than I had done on the previous day. My feet still hurt, but the cold weather kept me moving fast in order to keep warm. I figured that the quicker that I moved down the trail, the quicker I would warm up.
Biography (from Amazon)
Jeff Alt’s adventures, books, and advice have been featured on ESPN, Discovery Channel.com, Hallmark Channel, in Backpacker Magazine, the AP, Fitness RX for Men, LA Times, Women’s Health, Shape, Scholastic Parent & Child, and more. Alt is a celebrated author and a talented speaker. Alt’s book, A Walk for Sunshine, won the Gold in the 2009 “Book of the Year” awards sponsored by Fore Word Reviews, it took first place winner in the 2009 National Best Books Awards Sponsored by USA Book News and won a Bronze in the 2010 Living Now Book Awards. Alt’s book, Get Your Kids Hiking, won the bronze in both the 2014 Living Now Book Awards and the 2013 IndieFab Award in Family and Relationships. Alt has now created an award-winning children’s National Park series, The Adventures of Bubba Jones. The third book in the series will release in June, 2018. He is a member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America (OWAA). Alt has walked the Appalachian Trail, the John Muir Trail with his wife, and he carried his 21-month old daughter across a path of Ireland.
Gear, gear, gear. It’s easy to get bogged down in the minutia of gear stats when outfitting a long-distance hike. Weight, size, material, multi-use’ness, cost, it seems an unending process to choose what is best. Today’s list is 5 items that can be easily left out, but provide gear solutions to common backpacking problems. Most of these serve multiple purposes and they all are lightweight compared to their utility. (more…)
Some of the resources that a thru-hiker needs or wants are available for free in various formats. Here are my 5 favorites.
1) GPS and in-phone maps:
The Hiker Bot app is a free tool that can take the place of Guthooks. Sadly, it is not yet available for Apple iWhatever products. But, if you are an Android user, check it out, it might save you $70. (more…)
Before we left on our AT journey, several people asked us if we were sure we sure we wanted to hike as a couple, to be together day and night, in the woods, with no regular showers … for 6 months!?? Were we crazy?
Not in the least. When Sunsets and I quit our Dallas jobs and moved to Costa Rica, we went from being apart from each other all day during the work week, to being together all the time, all week long! Yes, it was an adjustment, but now we’re so used to it that it actually feels weird if we are not together. Also, we’ve been married for 23 years and Sunsets is my best friend. A better question might be why would I thru-hike without my partner? (more…)