Over 50 snake species inhabit California, but only a few are dangerous to people. The Golden State’s 155,779 square miles of land and almost 8,000 square miles of water area host very different habitats.
The northern areas are cooler, and there are fewer snakes. Southern California is warmer and much more hospitable for those scaly rodent-eating animals. Of the snake species in the state, most of them aren’t venomous, and only the rattlesnakes are dangerous to people and pets.
Before you decide to handle an unknown snake, remember that California is home to at least seven venomous rattlesnake species.
Rattlesnakes (Crotalus spp.)
It’s always wise to begin any snake identification by ruling out the danger noodles. Rattlesnakes evolved in North America. Some scientists believe the rattle was a direct response to the bison’s large and indiscriminate gait. They didn’t want to get stepped on any more than the bison wanted to get bitten, so an uneasy truce began.
Far from being the ”big-bad, out to bite you” snake, rattlesnakes are quite shy. They don’t want to encounter you any more than you want an encounter with them.
There are about nine rattlesnake species in California, and all of them are dangerous to people. A bite from any rattlesnake requires a tripe to the hospital, even though as many as 25-50% of bites are dry, where the snake doesn’t envenomate you.
Rattlesnakes have big, triangular heads with a heat-sensing pit between each nostril and eye, and skinny necks. Their eyes have vertical pupils, and to make them look that much more intimidating, there’s an extra scale over each eye. That extra scale makes their eyes nearly impossible to see when you’re standing above the snake, looking down. Obviously, no one wants to get that close, so there are other identification methods too.
Look for the rattle or rattle nub if it’s a small snake. This is usually easier to spot because when a rattler feels threatened, it rattles its tail. However, the rattle segments are brittle and break off frequently. It’s fairly rare to see a really long rattle, but they get a new segment every time they shed – up to three times per year.
Rattlesnakes are chunky snakes with thick bodies for the length – they’re not long and thin like a racer or kingsnake. Don’t be fooled by a kingsnake that just ate, these guys look stout and have keeled scales with a rough appearance.
Northern Pacific Rattlesnake (Crotalus oreganus) and Southern Pacific Rattlesnake (Crotalus helleri)
By far the most common rattlesnakes in California, the northern and southern Pacific rattlesnakes cause more bites than any other rattlesnakes in the state. The northern pacific rattler occurs throughout northern California all the way south to Santa Barbara, and the southern Pacific picks up the rest of California near the coasts, coastal valleys, and on a couple of the islands. Both species range between two and about five and a half feet long as adults.
These two species occur in more heavily populated areas, leading to more encounters and more bites.
Northern Pacific rattlesnakes’ base color is more variable and can be olive-green, gray, reddish-brown, or tan; the southern Pacific rattler is more olive-green or tan. They both have dark blotches outlined in black with a white border down the front 2/3 of their bodies. The blotches turn into black and white bars as they approach the tail. Like most rattlesnakes, they have dark stripes on the side of their heads that cross through their eyes.
Like most rattlesnakes, they don’t move very fast and rely on their camouflage for nearly everything. All things being equal, they typically rattle a warning because they don’t want a confrontation any more than you. However, when that fails, they escalate the warning to raising the front portion of their bodies off the ground in an ”S” shape — rattling the whole time.
If you step back slowly, the snake will most likely scurry away. However, young snakes are more prone to biting because they haven’t figured out the world yet. Babies also have less control over whether they envenomate when they bite, making a hospital stay more likely.
In the same areas as the southern Pacific rattlesnake, there are two others that could find their way into your garden: the red diamond rattlesnake and speckled rattlesnakes. They’re not as common as the others, and the red diamond is a smaller species that averages about three feet long and doesn’t usually wander into yards.
Garter Snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis ssp.)
California has at least eight garter snake species and several subspecies. They’re difficult to distinguish from one another because within each subspecies, there are intergrades — natural hybrids.
Range maps that show the approximate range of each species and subspecies are helpful, and California Herps is one of the best places to look for these maps. They’ve helped us identify many snakes in California.
Common garter snakes are well-named — they’re very common. The two main garter snakes in California are the valley garter snake and the California red-sided garter snake. It’s easy to see why they’re among the most common snakes. They breed easily and in large numbers, and there’s a garter snake species for nearly every corner of North America that supports snakes.
Notable about common garter snakes is their long and thin body with largish eyes. They have round pupils and are quite comfortable hunting for frogs and salamanders during the day, either in the water or on dry land. Garter snakes move quickly, and the biggest ones can reach about four feet long, but most average between two and three feet. Most common garter snakes have yellow stripes over a background of green, brown, or black. The red-sided garter snake varies in that it also has red spots over the black background in a checkerboard pattern. Valley garter snakes have the same red, but not as extensively. Their spots are evenly spaced along the lower edge of the dark background.
Scientists are only just discovering that some garter snakes have extremely mild venom that specific to the prey they consume. In fact, it’s so mild that we always believed they were nonvenomous. So, a bite from a garter snake might cause a little local irritation, but no severe reactions have been recorded.
Their defensive behavior is, well, a little stinkier than venom. That’s right. These snakes will musk you right from the beginning. Musk is a nice way of saying they pooped on you. If the stench doesn’t make you drop them, then the snakes hope that their false bravado will do the job. They thrash around like mad and will try to bite you, and it will sting—a little.
Gopher Snakes (Pituophis catenifer ssp.)
Gopher snakes are almost as adventurous as rat snakes. While we haven’t seen one of these climbing up a brick wall like the snake world’s version of spider-man (rat snakes), gopher snakes still find themselves in places that they probably shouldn’t.
California is a big state, so if you thought that it might have a few different types of gopher snakes, you would be right. However, at this point, they’re all subspecies and aren’t considered separate species.
This species and all of its subspecies have a lot in common:
- They’re all big, muscular snakes with heads that look a bit smaller than you’d expect.
- Gopher snakes have a modified epiglottis that allows them to make their trademark scary hiss to bluff predators.
- Their scales are keeled, and they rub coils together during their impressive defensive display that makes a somewhat shrill sound.
In general, gopher snakes have a lighter background color that ranges from light tan to dark brown or gray. Their markings are darker and consist of blotches down the length of their backs with smaller spots on the sides; their markings become bands toward the tail, and their bellies are usually lighter colored. Younger snakes are brighter colored, but they often darken with age. Most gopher snakes have a darker line that sort of wraps around their heads, starting at their jaw, going through their eyes (which have round pupils!), across their snout, and back down the other side. Sometimes the line across their snout fades with age.
Gopher snakes get big, and some subspecies can reach nine feet long, but most average between five and seven feet long. They don’t move overwhelmingly fast, but they’re quick enough to beat a hasty retreat to avoid you.
When you manage to corner a gopher snake, they put on an impressive defensive display. Gopher snakes puff themselves up, hiss loudly, rub their scales together, and rattle their tail against the ground or in leaf litter (no rattle, of course). They try to make themselves look like the biggest, baddest guy on the block — until you ignore their bluff and pick them up. At that point, most gopher snakes stop the display and just try to escape. They can bite, and it would hurt because they do have some teeth, but they’re not at all dangerous.
Gopher Snake Subspecies in California
California Herps has a terrific range map of all the gopher snake subspecies. It’s extremely valuable when trying to determine which subspecies you have in front of you.
- Sonoran Gopher Snake (Pituophis c. affinis): Southeast California, it’s also widespread into Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas.
- San Diego Gopher Snake Pituophis c. annectens): Southern California, mostly from the inland valleys to the coast from Santa Barbara south into the Baja peninsula.
- Pacific Gopher snake (Pituophis c. catenifer): Its range begins roughly where the San Diego gopher snake’s range ends and continues north into Oregon.
- Great Basin Gopher Snake (Pituophis c. deserticola): These snakes occur in the eastern half of California, continuing into several other states.
- Santa Cruz Gopher Snake (Pituophis c. pumilus): Only on Santa Cruz island.
Kingsnakes (Lampropeltis californiae)
California is home to three nonvenomous kingsnake species. While you’d think it would be easy to identify each one, they found a way to be different. California kingsnakes are by far the most common kingsnake in the state. They’re more likely to be found on the outskirts of town and not right in neighborhoods, but like other snakes, they follow the food.
Their pattern is simple — dark and light alternating bands. Most of the time. In a couple of regions, this species often throws genetic mutations in color, so you could find a solid black California king; then, a half-mile later, find one with longitudinal stripes and splotches. However, in most areas of the state, California king snakes exhibit bands that range from dark brown to black, alternating with white to yellow.
California kingsnakes are smooth and shiny, and their head is barely wider than their neck. Their heads are somewhat spoon-shaped, and they often have significant amounts of white or yellow under their jaw and around the snout. These muscular snakes are immune to rattlesnake venom and sometimes eat the venomous buzztails, helping keep populations balanced. However, they’re opportunistic feeders that will eat whatever they can overpower. California kingsnakes most often range between two and a half to three and a half feet long, but exceptionally large snakes can reach four feet.
Other kingsnakes in California include the coast mountain kingsnake (Lampropeltis multifasciata) and California mountain kingsnake (Lampropeltis zonata).
Other California Snakes
- Rosy boa (Lichanura orcutti)
- Northern & Southern rubber boas (Charina bottae and Charina umbratica)
- Baja California rat snake (Bogertophis rosaliae)
- Several glossy snake species (Arizona spp.)
- Shovel-nosed snakes (Chionactis annulata and Chionactis occipitalis)
- Racers (Coluber constrictor ssp.)
- Coachwhips (Masticophis flagellum and subspecies)
- Sharp-Tailed snakes (Contia longicauda and Contia tenuis)
- Night snakes (Hypsiglena spp.)
- Ring-necked snakes (Diadophis spp.)
- Leaf-nosed snakes (Phyllorhhynchus decurtatus)
- Long-nosed snakes (Rhinocheilus lecontei)
- Patch-nosed snakes (Salvadora hexalepis ssp.)
- North American groundsnakes (Sonora ssp.)
- Black-headed snakes (Tantilla hobartsmithi and T. planiceps)
- Lyresnakes (Trimorphodon lambda and T. lyrophanes)
- Yellow-bellied sea snake (Hydrophis platurus)
- Threadsnakes (Rena ssp.)
Dealing with Snakes in Your Garden
When in doubt, assume it’s venomous and don’t touch the snake. This seems like common sense, yet most rattlesnake bite victims are young men between the ages of 18-25 under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Most of the bites are on the face and hands, which gives you a pretty good idea of what they were up to when they got bit.
If you worry about snakes, have the phone numbers for local removal services handy. That way, if you find a rattler that needs removing, you’re ready. The single best way to avoid having snakes in your garden is to remove the prey and places for the prey to hide.
That means picking up leaf and debris piles, moving wood piles away from your home, and keeping things trimmed. Even though snakes might scare you, they’re really not out to get you. They’re often just as afraid of you, as you are of them! Give the snake time to move along, and usually, they do so.
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