Discover Washington State’s Only Rattlesnake Species

Written by Kellianne Matthews
Published: April 16, 2022
© Rodolfo Ayala Plata/Shutterstock.com
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Washington is not a state known for its abundant snake population, even though it is home to more than 11 species of snakes. Snakes in Washington are generally shy and quiet, avoiding humans as much as possible, which is why you don’t see them all that often. Only 1 type of snake in Washington is dangerous: the northern Pacific rattlesnake (often referred to as the western rattlesnake). Let’s look closer at this rattlesnake, as well as a few of the other nonvenomous snakes in Washington.

Washington’s Only Rattlesnake: The Northern Pacific Rattlesnake

rattlesnakes in california
The longest Northern Pacific Rattlesnake on record was 64 inches long.

©Ryan M. Bolton/Shutterstock.com

Northern Pacific Rattlesnake
RangeEastern Washington; some areas of central Washington
Length18-48 inches

The northern Pacific rattlesnake lives mostly in eastern Washington. They have been observed somewhat in central Washington as well, though less frequently, near the Columbia River gorge and Ellensburg. Northern Pacific rattlesnakes emerge from their dens in April and May and return once again in the fall.

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These snakes are easy to identify by the rattle at the end of their tails, their triangular-shaped heads, and the two “pits” between their eyes and nostrils (they look like small holes). Northern Pacific rattlesnakes have a base color that is gray, olive, tan, or brown, with large dark blotches along their backs. These snakes are generally 18-48 inches long in Washington. They often have black and white stripes just before the rattle at the end of their tails.

Although rattlesnakes can appear frightening at first, they do not pursue humans. In fact, northern Pacific rattlesnakes will often stay quiet when humans walk by to avoid discovery. They are ambush predators, so they are good at sitting and waiting, especially when they are waiting for a rodent to scurry by. If you do happen to see a rattlesnake, never try to move it from the trail yourself. Most rattlesnake bites occur when people are trying to move, scare, or kill these snakes. If give a rattlesnake a wide berth and leave it alone, it will leave you alone as well.

Other Common Snakes in Washington

In addition to Northern Pacific rattlesnake, there are 10 or more other kinds of non-venomous snakes that live in Washington. Take a look at just a few examples of Washington state’s other snake species.

Pacific Gopher Snake

Pacific Gopher Snake
Pacific Gopher Snake mimic rattlesnakes to scare away predators.

©Eric Isselee/Shutterstock.com

Pacific Gopher Snake
RangeEast side of the Cascade Mountain Range in Washington
Length48-66 inches

Many Pacific gopher snakes live on the east side of the Cascade Mountain Range in Washington. These snakes look a lot like rattlesnakes, with similar colors and patterns. Gopher snakes even mimic rattlesnake behavior to trick their predators. When they feel threatened, gopher snakes coil up like a rattlesnake and hiss loudly. They even shake the end of their tail, although there is no rattle there. Even with all these similarities, however, gopher snakes are not venomous or dangerous. Nonetheless, gopher snakes can be defensive, so it is best to leave them alone.

Garter Snake

Garter Snake
Garter snakes don’t have fangs and aren’t venomous. However, they do have a few rows of small teeth and they can bite.

©K Quinn Ferris/Shutterstock.com

Garter Snake
RangeEast & West sides of the Cascade Mountain Range in Washington
Length18-54 inches

Garter Snakes are one of the most common types of snakes living in Washington. There are several different types of garter snakes found in Washington, like the common garter snake, northwestern garter snake, and western terrestrial garter snake. Most of Washington’s garter snakes are found east of the Cascade Mountain Range, although there are some that live in the western portion of the state.

The Northwestern garter snake lives more on the west side of the Cascade Mountain Rage. This snake is usually gray or brown, with a vertical stripe along its back that could be yellow, tan, red, green, or turquoise. It is a smaller species of garter snake, ranging from 17-27 inches long on average (although there are many that are longer). Garter snakes are not dangerous to humans.

Northwestern Ring-Necked Snake

Smallest Snakes: Ringneck Snake
Ringneck Snakes will play dead when threatened.

©Michael K. McDermott/Shutterstock.com

Northwestern Ring-Necked Snake
RangeEastern slope of the Cascade Mountains, & Western parts of the Snake River
Length10-15 inches

Northwestern ring-necked snakes (or Ringneck Snakes) are harmless, small snakes usually around 10-15 inches in length with very smooth scales. This snake is usually found along the east slope of the Cascade Mountains, as well as along the eastern parts of the Snake River. Like its name, the ring-necked snake has a brightly colored “ring” marking around its neck. The top half of the snake is one solid color, typically gray, olive, or black.

The underbelly of the northwestern ring-necked snake is bright red, orange, or yellow, an especially vibrant contrast to its solid-colored back. In some snakes the belly is all one color, while in others the belly may change color from the head towards the tail, beginning with yellow and ending in red. Only the top of the northwestern ring-necked snake can be seen while it is moving along the ground. When the snake feels threatened, it will curl the end of its colorful tail into a coil to show off its bright colors as a warning.

Desert Striped Whipsnake

Desert Striped Whipsnake
The Desert Striped Whipsnake lives in the western United States and northern Mexico.

©Randy Bjorklund/Shutterstock.com

Desert Striped Whipsnake
RangeDry areas in the central Columbia Basin in Washington
Length30-72 inches

The desert striped whipsnake is one of the rarest snakes living in Washington, found only in some of the dry areas in the central Columbia Basin. It is also Washington’s longest snake, measuring from 30-72 inches long. The desert striped whipsnake is usually gray, red-brown, olive, or black, with two lighter vertical stripes running along both sides of its body. These snakes have excellent vision and are quite fast. The desert striped whipsnake is considered a “Species of Greatest Conservation Need” in Washington.

Northern Rubber Boa

Snakes in Montana - Northern Rubber Boa
The Northern Rubber Boa uses its head-like tail as a decoy when threatened.

©yhelfman/Shutterstock.com

Northern Rubber Boa
RangeAll of Washington
Length14-33 inches

The northern rubber boa lives all throughout Washington, usually in cool and moist areas. This is a unique snake that looks like a long, living rubber tube. Rubber boas do not like the heat, so they spend their time in cooler areas when possible. These snakes are very docile and do not strike. When they feel threatened, they exude a smelly musk.

Northern Desert Night Snake

Northern Desert Nightsnake
Desert Night Snakes primarily eat frogs and lizards.

©Jason Mintzer/Shutterstock.com

Night Snake
RangeCentral & Eastern Washington
Length12-26 inches

Northern desert night snakes live in the central and eastern parts of Washington. These snakes can be mistaken for rattlesnakes when seen from far away. They have light brown or light gray bodies with two rows of darker blotches along their backs. A night snake also acts like a rattlesnake when it feels threatened. It will coil up its body, shake its tail, and hiss at the threat. Unlike rattlesnakes, however, night snakes are gentle and are not dangerous to humans. These snakes are quiet and secretive, coming out primarily at night to hunt for food.

Western Yellow-Bellied Racer

Norther American Racer Snake
Racer snakes are identifiable by their long, thin bodies with darker colored backs and light-colored bellies.

©Michael Chatt/Shutterstock.com

Western Yellow-Bellied Racer
RangeEastern half of Washington
Length20-48 inches

The western yellow-bellied racer lives in the eastern half of Washington, usually in dry areas with protective covering (although they are sometimes found in bogs and marshes as well). Like its name, this snake has a creamy yellow belly with a smooth blue-gray, blue-green, or brown body.

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Rattlesnake Close Up
© Rodolfo Ayala Plata/Shutterstock.com

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About the Author

I have been a professional writer for 10 years with a particular focus on nature, wildlife, anthrozoology, and human-animal relationships. My areas of interest include human-animal studies, ecocriticism, vulnerable species, pets, and animal behavior. I graduated from Brigham Young University with a master’s degree in Comparative Studies, focusing on the relationship between humanity and the natural world. In my spare time, I enjoy exploring the outdoors, watching movies, reading, creating art, and caring for my pets. Nothing brings me greater joy than a day spent in the company of animals.

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