Friday, April 14, 2017

Reticulate Gila Monster - 2017

Lightning struck twice. I saw another Gila monster in Estes Canyon, in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, the same canyon I saw my first Gila monster in nine years ago. 

There are two subspecies of Gila monster, the reticulate Gila monster found in the Sonoran and Chihuahuan Deserts of southern Arizona, southwestern New Mexico and northern Mexico and the banded Gila monster found in the Mojave Desert of extreme southeastern Utah, southern Nevada, southeastern California and northeastern Arizona. The total population is guesstimated as "at least several thousand," by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. When you consider that in Arizona they spend 98% of their time underground, it is amazing to see one and I feel very fortunate to have seen two. 

I was walking off-trail up the Estes Canyon wash, not too far from the trailhead from the Ajo Mountain Drive. It was 11:00 a.m. and about 90 degrees in early April. I saw some movement to my right at the base of a rock and my initial thought was a rattlesnake. But the orange color quickly gave it away. I was so excited that my pulse quickened and I started to breathe heavily. I was concerned that it was going down a hole beneath the rock and I wouldn't see it again. But it was just wedged under the rock and I coaxed it out with a hiking stick and was able to take some more pictures before it lodged itself under a different rock where I left it. The area was shaded from direct sunlight by large bushes and small trees. 

I heard some people talking on the trail not too far away, so I called over to them and asked if they'd like to see a Gila monster. They were a couple from Nuremberg, West Germany, and had just arrived in the U.S. that morning. They had hiked up Arch Canyon earlier and caught a brief glimpse of a Gila monster crossing the trail there (not too bad to see two Gila monsters in one morning when many people have spent years in the desert and never seen one). 

The thrill of seeing one of these creatures is palpable. I'm sure if my vitals had been measured they would be off the charts. All of my senses were heightened at the thrill of the sight and the concern not to get bit. I was sweating and out of breath at the end of the encounter. It is scene I will replay many times in my mind. 
Wedged under a boulder where I left it.
These Gila monster encounters rank right up there with any other animal sightings I've had.  


  1. It's saying something that this got your heart racing. Rattlesnakes don't affect you that way. They really are quite beautiful. I love the irregular pattern on its skin and the more regular stripes on the tail.

  2. I didn't know they spent so much time underground. Smart move. It gets hot down there.