A Guide to the Amphibians
and Reptiles of California

Narcisse Snake Dens

observation link

narcisse dens sign
The Largest Concentration of Watchable Snakes in the World
Red-sided Gartersnakes in Den Red-sided Gartersnake Red-sided Gartersnake Red-sided Gartersnakes in Den

The Narcisse Snake Dens Wildlife Management Area is 6 kilometers (3.6  miles) north of Narcisse, which is in the Interlake region of Manitoba, Canada about an hour and a half drive north of Winnipeg. The site is a well-developed wheelchair and stroller-accessible attraction with no entrance fee, a picnic area, benches, restrooms (no drinkable water), fences around the dens, viewing platforms, interpretive signs, about 3 kilometers (1.8 miles) of flat well-maintained trails, volunteers to answer questions during the peak season, and, on a good day, lots and lots of snakes.

The dens are managed by Manitoba Conservation with the assistance of the Narcisse Snake Management Advisory Group which is made up of local community representatives, wildlife advocacy groups, an agency that promotes regional tourism, and various government agencies.

Red-sided Gartersnakes have evolved to congregate in enormous numbers at winter dens such as these. After emerging in spring from their hibernation down in the dens, the snakes spend a week or two breeding during the day and returning into the dens at night, before they leave the dens and crawl off to their summer territory. Large numbers of snakes can be seen at the dens in spring typically from late April to mid May, sometimes earlier, sometimes later, depending on the weather. Sunny days bring out the most snakes. They are also visible throughout the rest of spring and summer, although not in the large numbers as they are during spring emergence.

Late August and September is also a good time to see lots of snakes at the dens. After feeding and doing whatever else snakes do during the summer, they return to the dens in fall where they congregate once again before spending the winter down in the dens.

This is the only place in the world I know that has been developed into an attraction to encourage watching snakes in the wild.
If you know of any other places that have been developed in any small way to help people watch reptiles or amphibians, please email me!  It might help me plan my next vacation.

For information about conditions at the dens and the best time to visit each year, visit NatureNorth's Narcisse Snake Dens Page.

Also Visit, Manitoba's Online Nature Magazine, for information about all of the Herps of Manitoba, and just about anything else involving nature in Manitoba.

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Thousands of people often visit the dens, especially on sunny weekends. A picnic or a barbecue at a snake den has been a Manitoba tradition since at least the late 1800's. When the dens are active, big yellow school busses line the parking lot.
(I hope these kids realize how lucky they are - my school field trips just went to places like bakeries and factories - we never got to see thousands of snakes.)
You are allowed to pick up and handle snakes if you are careful not to hurt them, but you can't take them home with you.

Watching all the excited boys and girls trying to catch snakes, I wondered how many Manitobans held their first snake ever during a spring visit to the dens, and how that first hand experience has helped contribute to all of the local and provincial efforts now in place to protect the snakes.

Fortunately for most of these kids, male gartersnakes during the breeding period are not as likely to bite or musk someone who picks them up as they are after breeding. I picked up a few snakes but didn't get musked once. I was surprised (and a little disappointed) to leave not smelling like a gartersnake.
Red-sided Gartersnakes in Den narcisse dens sign narcisse den photographer narcisse den photographer
Number of snakes: TMTC
("Too many to count" in the jargon of fieldherpers - people who enjoy observing, and counting, wild reptiles and amphibians.)
The floor and immediate surroundings of the fenced-off dens are off limits to visitors, but it is possible to get a permit to enter the den bottoms for photography and research.
Does this National Geographic photographer know he has the best job in the world, or is he wishing right now that he had gone into fashion photography? In any case, he must have gotten better pictures than I could while standing above the action on the viewing platform in the middle of a crowd of excited snakewatchers.
statue statue statue Red-sided Gartersnake
A visit to the Inwood Garter Snake Statue (Sara and Sam) is part of the fun. Inwood is about 26 km (16 miles) south of Narcisse and is on the way north from Winnipeg. Manitobans love their big statues. This one was completed in May, 1985 - built by community volunteers to promote tourism by making people aware of the gartersnake dens in the area. The rocks under Sara and Sam are also home to slightly smaller gartersnakes.
Red-sided Gartersnakes in Den Red-sided Gartersnakes in Den Red-sided Gartersnakes in Den Red-sided Gartersnakes in Den
Mating balls are formed when a single female is swarmed by many males.
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prairie crocus prairie crocus squirrel narcisse squirrel
The Prairie Crocus is the floral emblem of Manitoba. These were near den 1. Its bloom is eagerly welcomed as the beginning of Spring in the province. (I can't even begin to imagine what it must be like to live with all of that winter snow and sub-zero temperatures.) 13-lined Ground Squirrels are found around the dens, too. This Douglas Ground Squirrel was eating a dead snake it found in den 3.
Red-sided Gartersnake Den Red-sided Gartersnake Den Red-sided Gartersnake Den Red-sided Gartersnake Den
Den 1 (not very active) Den 2 (near peak of activity) Den 3 (nearing peak of activity) Den 4 (not yet active)
The karst topography of the Interlake area promotes the creation of underground caverns which make perfect snake dens. Limestone bedrock is worn by water then caves in to create pits with cracks that serve as entrances to caverns below the frost line where snakes can survive the winter freeze. The snakes find these entrances and move in. There are four large snake dens at the Narcisse Wildlife Management Area site. A sinkhole is also forming which might become a den some day.

narcisse dens sign tshirt birds U-haul Snake Dens Art
There is no gift shop at the Dens or anywhere nearby that I could see. The only souvenir I saw for sale was this t-shirt sold at a gas station in Narcisse. Narcisse is in the nesting range for many species of birds that migrate there during the spring. You probably won't see "150,000" snakes or "feeding rituals," but this U-Haul truck art has been a good advertisement for the dens for years.
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The Narcisse gartersnakes follow scent trails to help them find their way to the dens during their bi-annual migrations.   Humans use visible signs.
Interpretive Signs

Signs with information about the dens and the life history of the garternsakes are put up at the entrance and at each of the snake dens. You can read some of them below.

narcisse dens sign narcisse dens sign Narcisse Info Sign Narcisse Info Sign
Narcisse Info Sign Narcisse Info Sign Narcisse Info Sign Narcisse Info Sign
Narcisse Info Sign Narcisse Info Sign Narcisse Info Sign Narcisse Info Sign
Fences and Tunnels to Help Save Migrating Snakes Outside the Narcisse Snake Dens
narcisse snake fences

Concern over the many thousands of snakes killed during spring and autumn migrations by traffic on highway 17, which cuts across one of the major migratory paths to and from the Narcisse snake dens, led to the creation in 2000 of a partnership between the Narcisse Snake Mortality Advisory Group, Manitoba Hydro (the electric power and natural gas utility in the province of Manitoba), Centra Gas, and other businesses, organizations and volunteers. They worked together to dig a series of small tunnels under the highway and to erect barrier fences to guide migrating snakes into the tunnels so they can travel under the highway and not across it. Signs are also put up during the migratory season urging motorists to slow down to avoid running over snakes. Snake mortality has been reduced by almost 75 percent (fewer than 1,000 per year, according to Wickipedia 6/07/14.)  [From Wild Animals of Manitoba - Red-sided Garter Snake Fact Sheet.]

Also, check out the "Red-sided Garter Snake Mangement Plan" from 1991 that helped get things started.

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narcisse snake fences narcisse snake fences narcisse snake fences Red-sided Gartersnake
As I was walking around looking at the fences and tunnels along the higway outside the entrance to the dens I saw a snake that ran into a fence on its journey west. I watched as it made its way along the fence to the tunnel and crawled inside. (See the video below.) Afterwards I saw another snake crossing the pavement. The system is not perfect, but it has saved many thousands of snakes from getting squashed. In this short video we see a Red-sided Gartersnake leave the dens and run into one of the fences put up to divert the snakes into tunnels under the highway so they don't crawl over the road where they might get crushed by traffic. The snake crawls along the fence until it finds the tunnel  and crawls inside.
Short Videos
Red-sided Gartersnake Red-sided Gartersnake Red-sided Gartersnakes Red-sided Gartersnakes
Thousands of Red-sided Gartersnakes wrestle for breeding opportunities down in the Narcisse dens. A mating ball of Red-sided Gartersnakes flows down the hill.
Red-sided Gartersnakes Red-sided Gartersnakes Red-sided Gartersnakes  
A female Red-sided Gartersnake is pursued by several males. A Red-sided Gartersnake mating ball in one of the Narcisse snake dens. A Red-sided Gartersnake mating ball in one of the Narcisse snake dens.  

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