Trail Safety for Mountain Lion Encounters and Attacks
Article written by Jenna Horiuchi | Photo by biker3 (Adobe Stock)
On a windy Sunday morning in December 2017, our friend Gus hit the trail for a solo run. He reached the summit of his local trail in Southern California and was enjoying the fast descent when he spied what he took to be a dog on the trail about 50 feet ahead.
As he ran closer, he saw that the animal’s tail was really long...like four feet long. That’s when he realized he was looking at a mountain lion.
Gus stopped running, still about 35 feet away from the cat. The mountain lion saw Gus but wasn’t moving off the trail. They were caught in a staredown, and the mountain lion wasn’t breaking eye contact--and neither was Gus.
He stood tall and quiet not wanting to provoke the animal. A seasoned runner, Gus carries a knife on solo runs which he got it out at this point. His phone had been off to save the battery, so he calmly powered it on. He did all this without looking away.
Opening his arms and putting his hands in the air, he made himself look as big as possible. He and the mountain lion stood like this for a couple of minutes, and that’s when a second, larger mountain lion joined the first one on the trail, and following it was a third, smaller mountain lion.
Gus was now standing alone on the trail with three mountain lions in front of him.
The mother feline didn’t pay much attention to Gus and moved off the trail, the third lion still following her. As they moved away, the original mountain lion, likely a curious cub, finally broke its gaze and joined its mother and sibling.
Gus stayed where he was standing, waiting several more minutes to make sure the mountain lions had moved off trail and weren’t coming back. After enough time had passed, he slowly moved down the trail, eventually comfortable enough to jog.
Hikers on their way up were concerned by his encounter, some even turning around, and when Gus reported it to a local ranger, he learned that there had been several recent mountain lion encounters in the area.
Puma concolor aka Mountain Lion
Puma concolor, commonly known as the mountain lion, cougar, puma, or panther, is a carnivorous feline whose habitat ranges through the western half of North America and extends through Central America and into much of South America. Although they are considered extinct east of the Mississippi River with the exception of a small pocket population in Florida, there are occasional claims of sightings on the eastern side of the country, most of which are attributed to escape from captivity.
When it comes to habitat, mountain lions are pretty adaptable. They live in rainforests, conifer forests, and mountain ranges, and are found along coastlines and in hot desert areas. This variety of habitat notwithstanding, it is still rare for a person to see one.
Protect Yourself from Mountain Lions
To avoid an encounter altogether, it’s recommended to hike or run in groups, keep children close to adults, and keep dogs on leash. Read signs at trailheads to learn about recent mountain lion activity in the area, and watch for indications on the trail such as deer or sheep (standard mountain lion prey), cat tracks, scat, or carcasses. Travel the trail without earbuds to maintain the highest level of alertness.
Recommendations for Mountain Lion Encounters, from the National Park Service:
- Stay calm. Hold your ground and back away slowly. Face the lion and stand upright.
- Do not approach a lion. Never approach a mountain lion, especially one that is feeding or with kittens. Most mountain lions will try to avoid a confrontation. Give them a way to escape.
- Do not run from a lion. Running may stimulate a mountain lion's instinct to chase. Instead, stand and face the animal, maintaining eye contact. Keep children from running away.
- Do not crouch down or bend over. Biologists surmise mountain lions don't recognize standing humans as prey. On the other hand, a person squatting or bending over looks a lot like a four-legged prey animal.
If the mountain lion moves in your direction or acts aggressively:
- You do not want to give the mountain lion any reason to think you are prey.
- Attempt to appear larger by raising your arms and opening your jacket. Wave your arms slowly and speak firmly in a loud voice, like this guy does. Bang your hiking sticks together or clap your hands while yelling.
- If looking bigger doesn't scare the mountain lion off, start throwing stones or branches in its direction--without crouching or turning your back.
If the mountain lion continues to move in your direction:
- Start throwing things at it, again without bending down or turning your back to pick anything up.
And if you find yourself in the extremely rare but extremely dangerous situation of the mountain lion attacking you:
- Fight back! Be protective of your neck and throat. Grab a knife, stick, rock, or just use your fists, and aim for its head. Remember that people have fought back successfully and survived.
Finally, if you do see or encounter a mountain lion, many local and park authorities encourage you to report it so they can assess the risk to public safety.
A Nighttime Visitor
When Sonja moved to Yosemite many years ago, she knew she could count on a long, busy summer season and some outdoor adventures with friends, but little did she know just how adventurous it would get.
On one particular evening, Sonja, her boyfriend, and a group of friends decided to explore some caves on the way to Mirror Lake and camp inside one of them. They were enjoying the cool night air and even had a little fire to gather around, just at the cave’s entrance. As the group started to turn in, the fire died down to a glow.
“Everybody else was sleeping inside the cave,” Sonja recalled, “and Brian and I were sleeping just outside of it on a flat rock.”
She guesses it was around 2 a.m. when Brian got up to answer nature’s call. She remembers there was still a glow from the fire. “He got up and went into the woods, and after he returned and laid back down I heard steps following his path back.”
What happened next?
Photo taken by Ben (Adobe Stock)
“I turned my head to look and a mountain lion face was, like, three inches away from mine!” she shrieked, even in recollection. “I just froze!”
Sonja said she and Brian just laid still, hoping and waiting for it to go away.
When I asked her about the usual directions of “get big, get loud” to scare it off, she kind of laughed and replied, “Get big and get loud when they’re far away, but if they’re in your face, stay still! I mean, if you try to scare it off, you might piss it off.”
I kind of see her point. So how did it go?
“It seemed curious. It sniffed us and then went inside the cave and sniffed everyone else, and then it left,” Sonja said. “So I don’t know if it had just eaten or what, but it just sniffed us and took off. It was terrifying.”
Given that they are relatively large animals, mountain lions often travel undetected. A typical female mountain lion measures 5 to 7 feet, nose-to-tail, and weighs 80 to 130 pounds, while a male mountain lion can range from 6 to 8 feet in length and weigh 110 to 180 pounds. In rare instances they have been recorded weighing over 200 pounds.
Mountain lions are considered to be crepuscular and nocturnal, meaning they are mostly active at dusk, night, or dawn, but plenty of encounters occur during the day as well.
Mountain Lion Encounter By the River
Hanna recalled her scary experience seeing a mountain lion next to the Merced River one sunny afternoon she, her sister, and some friends decided to spend swimming. Hanna volunteered to stay on the beach with her sister’s two dogs while the other three swam down river to jump off a fallen tree.
“I was laying down listening to music in the sun and had a good hold on the dogs’ leashes, because deer had been walking through and the dogs kept trying to chase them,” she said. Hanna was soon stirred from relaxing when she felt the dogs pressing against her, shaking uncontrollably. “I knew immediately that was not a good sign, that it was definitely not a deer or smaller critter they were scared of.”
Slowly and steadily, she got up and turned to see what had the dogs so frightened. “About 10-13 feet back from us was a full-grown mountain lion in the crouched pounce pose, staring at us through the tall grass!”
Photo by kwadrat70 (licensed by Adobe Stock)
She tightened her grip on the dogs’ leashes, getting them as close to her as possible, grabbed some sticks, stood up tall, and started yelling and beating the sticks together as loud as possible, never breaking eye contact. The others could tell something was going on and started to splash and yell, coming back upriver to where Hanna and the dogs were.
Hanna knew the riverbank wasn’t far behind her, and she had slowly been backing herself and the dogs away from the mountain lion and toward the water’s edge.
“Once I was close enough to jump, I pushed the dogs off and jumped in, because cats don’t swim, right?” she recalls with a sarcastic smirk. She didn’t know that the mountain lion took off after she jumped in the river, but her sister and their friend saw it bound away through the grass.
(Sidenote: mountain lions definitely swim.)
“A part of me isn’t sure if I should have jumped into the water or just maintained my position,” she wonders. “...staring it down made me feel more powerful and strong as I ever had, and also more scared and helpless as I ever had, all at the same time.”
Realizing how rare a sighting is and how dangerous an attack can be, she’s grateful for the experience and feels very lucky to have witnessed the feline up close and to have walked away safely.
Echoing the recommendations above, Hanna’s advice to others: “Don’t back down. Don’t look weak… I could tell it was waiting for me to break eye contact or turn away and waiting for a chance to attack.”
In spite of the stories here, a mountain lion sighting is still a rarity, and mountain lion attacks even more so. However, as you hit the trails and spend time in the outdoors running or hiking, be mindful of their presence and ready to respond if you happen to catch a glimpse of this beautiful, elusive creature.
Jenna recently realized she has been a ‘struggling’ writer for nearly three decades. This dawned on Jenna when her mom reminded her about winning a writing contest in the 1st grade. The prize for little Jenna was lunch with the author of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. If you’d like to take older Jenna out to lunch, contact her through her dog’s IG @hazeltheherbivore.
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