A Rattlesnake on Dragon’s Back

Ed Domain

September 4, 2020



I had a friend visiting New Mexico, and we wanted to get in one more hike before he left, so we chose what looked like a good hike for sunrise: Dragon’s Back.

The Dragon’s Back trail is located on BLM land. The White Mesa Bike Trails are here, and some thrill seekers do the Dragon’s Back via Mountain Bike; my friend and I thought it best to hike on two feet. Dragon’s Back is about 1,000 feet up, and narrow- there are several places on the trail where it is three feet wide and has a very long drop off the edges.


Breaking Dawn

We arrived just before dawn- the BLM White Ridge Bike Trails are located just outside San Ysidro, and takes about an hour of driving from either Albuquerque or Santa Fe. You travel along Rt. 550, and then turn off onto Cabezon Road, four miles of rutted, bumpy nastiness. A few times I had to slow to 5 mph, as my car was rattling so bad from the ruts I thought it would shake apart.

After a rather long and slow four miles, we reached the parking area, and hiked up to the trailhead.

“You may have seen a rattlesnake at a distance, you may have seen them on Nature shows on TV; you have never experienced a rattlesnake until its rattle goes off six inches from you.”

Dragon’s Back is in the open. Rising approximately 1,000 feet, the whole trail is exposed to the elements, has a long drop off the sides and when viewed in its entirety looking back from the elevation of the Dragon’s Head, it absolutely looks like the spine of a dragon, waiting for an excuse to rise.

The surrounding terrain was starting to glow with a not quite dark, not quite grey light, and we started off. The only sounds around us were the crunch of our boots on the trail- there was no wind, and it was silent.

Twenty minutes in, the hills began to glow, and we stopped to watch the sun break the horizon. It was every bit as awe inspiring as it looks in my pictures. The landscape looks like another planet, with dramatic cliffs and ancient hills poking into the sky. In the distance, shadows were chased across the landscape by the rising sun, while distant mesas beginning to glow in the dawn hinted at further adventures to be had.

Over the edge

While the trail is a bit up and down, it’s near the end where the greatest elevation gain is made, and the view…. the view is stunning. We stood in the morning sun, feeling it warm our faces even as we were sweating from the exertion to get there. Far below us, the Rio Puerco wound its way unhurriedly through the landscape, a brilliant, sparkling blue in the sun’s rays.

Rio Puerco

Behind us, we could see why it’s called “Dragon’s Back.” Stretching back the way we came, it is easy to imagine a giant beast taking a breath, flexing its spine, and roaring into the sky. We took our time, feeling lucky to be seeing everything we were, and noticed an abandoned ruin down at the base of the Dragon’s Head. We had to go check it out. Carefully, very carefully, we scrambled down the Dragon’s Head without incident, and checked out the ruin. We loved it. I don’t know how old it is, but I never get tired of these old structures. Clearly visible was a second room further in (I’m guessing the bedroom, we didn’t go inside as we didn’t want to damage it more than it was in its current state).

The Past

Peeking into the past like this is incredible; you can see the stone fireplace is still intact, and as I rested my hand on the wall, I could imagine this place 100 years ago; no electricity polluting the sky with lights, stars everywhere in a giant sky, and a small, merry fire crackling in this small home that must have felt very far away from the rest of the world. We briefly wondered and discussed who might have lived here.

Curiosity satisfied, we humped it back up Dragon’s Head, which was a mostly vertical climb, but we powered through it quickly enough and then took a few more moments to appreciate the views, and started the return trip.

Hello, Rattlesnake, Please Don’t Murder Us

A half hour later, we were into a rhythm, moving at a good clip, having a great conversation about life, what’s important, what isn’t, some entrepreneurial stuff about people we know, and how absolutely incredible New Mexico is (it’s new to both of us).

My right foot hit the ground and then I saw it. You may have seen a rattlesnake at a distance, you may have seen them on Nature shows on TV; you have never experienced a rattlesnake until its rattle goes off six inches from you.

Trail Boss

I’m not exactly sure what sound I made, but I think it was something like, “Wha- ohhhhhh… yeeaarowph” or some other crazy noise, and I ran forward about twenty or thirty feet and turned around to see the biggest snake I’ve ever met in the wild move to the middle of the trail and rise THREE or FOUR feet off the ground. It was easily five feet long in total, and its body was thick. This snake had lived a life and was not impressed.

It was ignoring me, as I’m guessing watching me yell and run convinced it I was no longer a threat. As it kept its body in the air, it stared down my friend. The problem was twofold- on the one hand, every time my friend tried to move, the snake turned its head to watch and seemed very interested, while on the other, he needed to move to get away from the snake standing in the middle of the trail, and Dragon’s Back doesn’t have much room to maneuver. Luckily for us, we were on a wider portion.


Dragon’s Back at Dawn

Calmly, my friend stepped off the trail and walked in a wide semi circle around the snake, and it watched him go. When he made it over to me, it lowered itself back onto the trail… and stayed put. We laughed, because clearly this rattlesnake was quite confident, and it sure as heck wasn’t about to be moved from its sunning spot by us or anyone else.

Thankfully, the rest of the hike went without incident, and we agreed the trail is incredible. It’s hard to do justice to the awe you feel looking at the magic around you on top of the ridge, like you are on top of the world and looking back into time. I’ll be back soon- it’s a great workout, and the impact the scenery makes on you will stay long after.

On top of the Dragon’s Head