One of the greatest parts about being in the mountains is the opportunity to encounter something unexpected, whether that’s a hidden waterfall, a field bursting with wildflowers, or a glimpse of deer across the meadow. While there are plenty of encounters on the trail that are simply amazing, there are also some that can be dangerous, so hitting the trail prepared is especially important. Below you will learn about the common types of animals and plants you can encounter while on the trails around Park City and what you can do to avoid dangerous situations.
The truth is that most animals avoid contact with people whenever they can. Especially if they know that you’re coming and you don’t just startle them. They’re also usually not going to hurt you unless they feel threatened or trapped.
The more noise you make, the less likely you are to startle any wildlife in the area. I regularly take all 5 of my kids hiking by myself, and people always ask me “aren’t you afraid of dangerous animals?” The truth is that my kids are so loud, we’ve never encountered any dangerous animals while hiking EVER. Yes, we’ve seen bears, moose, and elk from a distance, but whenever we do, we keep our distance and they keep theirs. You don’t need to be shouting or clapping the entire time, but it’s a good idea to keep talking, laughing, or even singing while you’re on the trail. If you’ve got kids as I do, you will probably never have the problem of the trail being too quiet. If you’re worried about being too quiet on the trail, buy a bear bell and attach it to your backpack.
When you hike in a group, you’re more likely to make plenty of noise to scare wildlife away (see above). There is also safety in numbers so that if you were to have a problem, someone else is there who can rescue you or get help. There’s no magic number, except that heading out solo is usually a bad idea. We usually invite friends to hike with us since we’ve realized it’s one of the best ways to slow down and connect! Although it’s tempting to let someone rush ahead or another one to lag behind, resist the urge, especially with kids. When you’re alone, you’re more likely to have a dangerous animal encounter.
I know that you’re making noise to let wildlife know you’re there, but also make sure to listen to what’s going on around you. You may be alerted to an animal's presence by hearing a snake's rattle, a bear rummaging through the forest, or even a low growl. If you really must hike with headphones in, stick to just one ear so that you can hear these important sounds that animals give off.
Snacking on the trail is sometimes the only way to make it through the tough miles of a hike (or any hike with kids), but use caution with your food. Although trail mix has lots of energy-packed ingredients, it’s easy to spill it along the trail and attract animals (crumbling cookies and crackers cause this problem a lot). While you probably won’t attract any critters Hansel and Grettel style, if animals always find food on the trail, they will always go looking for food on the trail. For both the protection of the animals and the hikers, we want animals to avoid the trail as much as possible. While dropping food on the trail may not directly impact you, the snacks that someone dropped last week might, so be a good trail citizen and don’t spill!
If you’re hoping to see some wildlife, you’ve come to the right place. Park City is located right in the mountains and you can often see deer, elk, coyote, foxes, osprey, eagles, and red-tailed hawks. Park City is also unique because, at the Swaner Nature Preserve, you can even spot nesting Sandhill Cranes (two of their subspecies are actually endangered so this is a major treat). To see wildlife from a distance, the Swaner Preserve is the perfect place to go since it’s wide-open meadows make spotting wildlife easier. Head up to the observation tower and enjoy their giant binoculars for wildlife viewing.
Whether you are seeing wildlife from a distance or up close on the trail, always remember to give animals plenty of room and never feed or touch wildlife. Wild Aware Utah has a complete guide on human-wildlife interactions and how to manage them.
Park City is also home to several animals that can be dangerous to humans including black bears, moose, mountain lions, snakes, and tiny little ticks.
If you see a bear in the wild, stay calm (easier said than done). Slowly back away while talking to the bear (so it knows that you're a human, not a snack). If you have small kids with you, pick them up ASAP, but do not run.
If you are carrying bear spray, pull it out, and release the safety.
Black bears are the only bears found in Utah, and if one attacks you, FIGHT BACK! Your overall goal is to get to the safety of a car, building, or other structure, but in the meantime, use anything you can to fight the bear such as rocks and sticks. Aim all your attacks at the bear's face and jaw.
If you see a mountain lion in the wild, get as big as you can. If you’re in a group, gather any kids into the middle, and come together so that you seem bigger than you are, and make some noise. Your goal is to let the lion know that they don’t want to mess with you. Keep eye contact with the mountain lion and stand tall as you very slowly back away. Never turn your back on a mountain lion.
If you’re attacked by a mountain lion, you should react very similarly to when being attacked by a black bear and FIGHT BACK! Throw sticks and rocks at its face as hard as you can and make sure to protect your throat.
Moose generally live near streams and ponds, as they love to munch on twigs and small branches. Moose are beautiful but do keep your distance, especially if you run into a mother and her calf. Moose generally appear very docile and calm, but do not be fooled - they injure more people every year than bears do! Imagine a moose as a giant, angry horse that will stomp and kick you if you make it mad.
If a moose starts to charge at you, your best bet is to run as fast as you possibly can. Head for dense trees if there are any nearby that would be harder for a moose to get through and where you would gain an advantage to escape.
Utah is home to five rattlesnake species, the most common is the Great Basin rattler. This venomous snake has a broad triangular head with heat-sensing pits between their nostrils and eyes. The diamond shape pattern along their body which helps them blend in with the ground. The most distinctive feature is the rattle which they use to warn off potential predators. Rattlesnakes tend not to attack unless provoked so do not attempt to shoosh them away or throw things at them to make them move. Snakes are coldblooded, they move in and out of sunlight to regulate their body temperature. On hot days they are most active during dawn and dusk. Keep your eyes on the trail and if you hear a rattle, stand still, identify the location of the rattle and slowly move away.
If you are bitten by a rattlesnake, remain as calm as you can while to proceed directly to the hospital as quickly as possible. Do not attempt to cut or suck out the venom. The key is to get emergency medical attention to administer antivenom as soon as possible.
If you’re not from an area that’s very wooded, you may not be very familiar with ticks and likely have never seen one. Ticks are actually small arachnids that will bite into your skin and eat some of your blood. Most of the time, you won’t even know that you have been bitten by a tick until after the tick has fallen off of their skin and all that remains is a small red spot. Ticks carry many different diseases, the most common of which is Lyme Disease.
To avoid getting a tick, cover up as much of your skin as possible. Hike with long pants and a hat when possible.
After each hike, do a quick tick check and look for any ticks on your skin, taking extra care to examine warm damp areas like armpits, around the ears, and around the ankles and toes.
If you do find a tick on your skin, use tweezers to grasp the tick as close to the skin as possible. Carefully pull the tick straight upward without twisting or crushing it. Squeezing the tick can cause the stomach contents into your bloodstream, which can transmit tick-borne diseases. until the tick releases itself from your skin. Here is a guide on properly removing ticks.
Park City is always changing and the plants that you encounter throughout the year are always a surprise, especially in the summer when the wildflowers are blooming. In the summer, you will commonly see lupine, columbine, yarrow, elephant head, Indian paintbrush, arrowleaf balsamroot, and wild rose. To identify the flowers you see, I recommend grabbing a field guide since what you see from month to month is always changing. This is a good plant guide that’s Utah specific, and here is a link to coloring pages from the U.S Forest Service.
While it’s tempting to pick a bouquet of flowers whenever you see a field full of blossoms, try and resist the urge so that others can enjoy them as well. Also, encourage children to not touch any plants without getting permission first, which will help them avoid dangerous plants (or educate them really well on what NOT to touch.
In the Wasatch mountains, the main plants that you need to be aware of are stinging nettle and poison ivy.
Poison Ivy causes an itchy rash on the skin, which can last up to two weeks. Sometimes people will have an immediate reaction to poison ivy, however, it’s not uncommon for a rash to develop 12-24 hours after touching the poison ivy plant (when it’s too late to do anything about it). Poison Ivy can be identified by looking for almond-shaped leaves that appear in clusters of three (with the middle leaf being the longest), that are a bit shiny. There are also often green or white clusters of berries on a poison ivy plant.
If you do think that you have touched poison ivy, clean the area well with a disinfecting soap and apply calamine lotion or hydrocortisone cream to help relieve the itching.
Another common plant to the Wasatch Mountains that will cause skin irritation is stinging nettle. Stinging nettle is usually about 3-6 feet tall and grows in large clusters. Stinging nettle isn’t actually poisonous, but it is covered in small little hairs that will stick into and irritate the skin. Identifying stinging nettle is quite easy because the plant has a very distinct look. It is a tall singular plant with leaves that are about 2-5 inches long with serrated edges. Most stinging nettle also has small clusters of tiny flowers that are greenish-yellow.
If you do come in contact with stinging nettle, wash the affected area with soap and water thoroughly to try and remove the nettle hairs.
This information is not to scare you away from spending time on the trail, but we are hoping to help you be more prepared for any situation that might come your way. Remember that dangerous encounters with plants and animals are rare, so don’t let this scare you away from spending time outside!