California Snakes Species Identification Guide (Amateur-Friendly)

California snakes range in form from yellow snakes to drab gray or brown species.

Variable ground snake
The variable ground snake is just one of the many species in California.
Image credit: smashtonlee05 (via CreativeCommons.org)
Person holding a garter snake outdoors
The giant garter snake is a rare species, but also the longest in California.
Image credit: u/Lego_C3PO (via Reddit.com)

Some of them are venomous and others are harmless. They range from the useful gopher snakes which control rodent populations to the rattlesnakes with their distinctive rattling sound.

In this article, we’ll take a closer look at:

  • The most common species in the area
  • How to react when you discover a snake
  • How to identify the venomous snakes in the area
  • The basics of identifying California herps (snakes and reptiles)

We’ll also share a set of useful resources at the end of the article. Let’s get into it.

Snake Identification Basics

Whether you’re identifying California snakes, lizards, or frogs there are a few major criteria that can help you find out what you’ve seen.

Below, we’ll discuss each of these identification tools, and the process for identifying these animals.

Length

Length is one of the most defining characteristics when you’re identifying snakes. Most species average at a certain length.

A California kingsnake doesn’t reach lengths anywhere near that of the red racer.

Even before you’ve looked at a snake’s coloration, you could determine that a six-foot-long snake isn’t a California Kingsnake.

Likewise, an eight-inch-long snake is unlikely to be a long species like the Coachwhip.

Locality and Habitat Type

The locality is another essential identification characteristic. Not all Southern California snakes have ranges that extend to the North.

Likewise, not all Northern California snakes have ranges that cover Central California.

Therefore, the snakes in the San Francisco Bay area may be different from those found in the Redwood National Park in Northern California.

Hiking trail
The Redwood National Park in Northern California offers a unique habitat far different from the sandy areas along the coast.

You also need to take note of the habitat type. A water snake won’t live in a dry, sandy area, and a snake that likes sandy regions won’t live in damp leaf litter.

Most good field guides have range maps and photo indexes for the different species.

Head and Pupil Shape

The head and pupil shape of a snake can play a significant role in identifying it. Common species like the California kingsnake often have round pupils.

Desert horned viper
The Redwood National Park in Northern California offers a unique habitat far different from the sandy areas along the coast.

Pit vipers, on the other hand, usually have slit-shaped pupils. Some other snakes have a similar pupil shape, which becomes a distinguishing characteristic.

Different groups of snakes also have different head shapes. The rattlesnakes have broad, robust heads, while species like the California garter snake have longer, narrower heads.

Other snakes like the California kingsnake, have rounder, almost bullet-shaped heads.

Color and Patterning

Coloration and patterning can vary significantly, even within a single species.

Diamondback Rattlesnake scale pattern
The Diamondback Rattlesnake has a distinctive scale pattern.

For example, if you’re looking up black snakes in California it could be a naturally black species, a melanistic individual, or just a darker-than-usual brown snake.

However, the snake’s color is still a useful characteristic. Snakes that are usually black or brown won’t suddenly spout a bright red animal.

Nor will uniformly green snakes suddenly produce animals with large brown patterns.

Alone, none of the identifying characteristics is conclusive. However, if you combine all your observations, it will quickly lead you to accurate identification.

Quickly Identifying Venomous Species

While the reptiles of California include a fair amount of venomous snakes, it’s pretty easy to spot the ones that you’ll find here.

Below we’ll take a look at the telltale signs that you’ve found a venomous snake.

Most of the Venomous Snakes in California are Vipers

Only three of the venomous snakes found in California aren’t rattlesnakes. All of the other dangerous species are rattlers.

Fortunately, it’s fairly easy to tell these snakes apart from other species, and few snakes can be mistaken for a rattlesnake.

You can look for the following signs if you think you’ve found a rattlesnake:

  1. The tail has adapted to form a rattle.
  2. Even if the snake is long, its body is thick and robust.
    Western Diamondback Rattlesnake
    The rattlesnakes are easy to spot, thanks to their distinctive rattle.
  3. The snake has a broad head that’s almost shield-shaped.
  4. The snake’s pupils are shaped like slits, rather than round.
    Western Diamondback
    The slit-shaped pupils and heat pits of the pit vipers are distinctive.
  5. There are heat-sensing pits between the snake’s eyes and nostrils.
  6. The animal relies on camouflage or a disruptive pattern to keep it hidden, instead of trying to get away.

Identifying Seasnakes and Lyresnakes

The other venomous species in the area are relatively easy to identify as well.

Yellow-bellied sea snakes:

  • Only occur along the coast.
  • Have violent black and yellow coloration.
  • Have adapted to sport a finlike tail which helps them to swim.

Lyre snakes:

  • Have slit-shaped eyes.
  • Are semi-arboreal (tree-dwelling).
  • Rely on camouflage to keep them hidden.
  • Have a lyre-shaped pattern on the backs of their heads.

Which Snakes Live in California?

iNaturalist lists 58 species of snake in the California area. Several of those species also have subspecies or regional variants.

The following species are the venomous California snakes:

Rattlesnakes

    • Panamint Rattlesnake – Crotalus stephensi
    • Great Basin Rattlesnake – Crotalus lutosus
    • Red Diamond Rattlesnake – Crotalus ruber
    • Mohave Desert Sidewinder – Crotalus cerastes cerastes
    • Colorado Desert Sidewinder – Crotalus cerastes laterorepens
    • Northern Pacific Rattlesnake – Crotalus oreganus
    • Southern Pacific Rattlesnake – Crotalus helleri
    • Northern Mohave Rattlesnake – Crotalus scutulatus scutulatus
    • Southwestern Speckled Rattlesnake – Crotalus mitchellii pyrrhus
    • Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnake – Crotalus atrox

Lyresnakes

    • Sonoran Lyresnake – Trimorphodon lambda
    • California Lyresnake – Trimorphodon lyrophanes

Yellow-bellied Seasnake – Hydrophis platurus

Most of the non-venomous species in the region fall into one of the following groups:

Glossy Snakes

    • Desert Glossy Snake – Arizona elegans eburnata
    • Mohave Glossy Snake – Arizona elegans candida
    • California Glossy Snake – Arizona elegans occidentalis

Rubber Boas

    • Northern Rubber Boa – Charina bottae
    • Southern Rubber Boa – Charina umbratica

Shovel-nosed Snakes

    • Mohave Shovel-nosed Snake – Chionactis occipitalis
    • Colorado Desert Shovel-nosed Snake – Chionactis annulata annulata

Racers and Coachwhips

    • Red Racer – Coluber flagellum piceus
    • Alameda Striped Racer – Coluber lateralis euryxanthus
    • San Joaquin Coachwhip – Coluber flagellum ruddocki
    • California Striped Racer – Coluber lateralis lateralis
    • Desert Striped Whipsnake – Coluber taeniatus taeniatus
    • Baja California Coachwhip – Coluber fuliginosus
    • Western Yellow-bellied Racer – Coluber constrictor mormon

Sharp-tailed Snakes

    • Forest Sharp-tailed Snake – Contia longicauda
    • Common Sharp-tailed Snake – Contia tenuis

Ring-necked Snakes

    • Regal Ring-necked Snake – Diadophis punctatus regalis
    • Pacific Ring-necked Snake – Diadophis punctatus amabilis
    • Monterey Ring-necked Snake – Diadophis punctatus vandenburgii
    • San Diego Ring-necked Snake Diadophis punctatus similis
    • Coral-bellied Ring-necked Snake – Diadophis punctatus pulchellus
    • Northwestern Ring-necked Snake – Diadophis punctatus occidentalis
    • San Bernardino Ring-necked Snake – Diadophis punctatus modestus

Nightsnakes

    • Desert Nightsnake – Hypsiglena chlorophaea deserticola
    • California Nightsnake – Hypsiglena ochrorhyncha nuchalata
    • San Diego Nightsnake – Hypsiglena ochrorhyncha klauberi

Kingsnakes

    • California Kingsnake – Lampropeltis californiae
    • Coast Mountain Kingsnake – Lampropeltis multifasciata
    • California Mountain Kingsnake – Lampropeltis zonata

Black-headed Snakes

    • Smith’s Black-headed Snake – Tantilla hobartsmithi
    • Western Black-headed Snake – Tantilla planiceps

Gartersnakes

    • Giant Gartersnake – Thamnophis gigas
    • Sierra Gartersnake – Thamnophis couchii
    • Aquatic Gartersnake – Thamnophis atratus
    • Common Gartersnake – Thamnophis sirtalis
    • Two-striped Gartersnake – Thamnophis hammondii
    • Northwestern Gartersnake – Thamnophis ordinoides
    • Western Terrestrial Gartersnake – Thamnophis elegans
    • Marcy’s Checkered Gartersnake – Thamnophis marcianus

The remaining species are all singular representatives of their genera. They include:

  • Rosy Boa – Lichanura orcutti
  • Threadsnake – Rena humilis
  • Long-nosed Snake – Rhinocheilus lecontei
  • Patch-nosed Snake – Salvadora hexalepis
  • Pacific Gopher Snake – Pituophis catenifer
  • Variable Groundsnake – Sonora semiannulata
  • Baja California Ratsnake – Bogertophis rosaliae
  • Spotted Leaf-nosed Snake – Phyllorhynchus decurtatus

California also sports several introduced species, but I’ll discuss those later on.

Most Common Snakes in California

According to iNaturalist, the most common snakes in California include the following:

  1. Gopher Snake – Pituophis catenifer
  2. Western Rattlesnake – Crotalus oreganus
  3. California King Snake – Lampropeltis californiae
  4. Western Terrestrial Garter Snake – Thamnophis elegans
  5. Ring-necked Snake – Diadophis punctatus
  6. Common Garter Snake – Thamnophis sirtalis
  7. Striped Racer – Masticophis lateralis
  8. Red Diamond Rattlesnake – Crotalus ruber
  9. Aquatic Garter Snake – Thamnophis atratus
  10. Sharp-tailed Snake – Contia tenuis

Gopher Snakes

The California gopher snake, AKA Bull snake, is a harmless animal with plenty of attitude.

gopher snake
The gopher snake, also known as the bull snake, is a robust snake with an attitude.

Scientific Name:

Pituophis catenifer

Range:

Throughout California

Adult Size:

Up to 5.75 feet

Description:

Round pupils

Robust snakes with long, slightly flattened heads

Light brown with darker brown markings (chevrons or triangles, usually

Habitat:

Habitat generalists

Venomous/Non-Venomous:

Non-venomous

Garter Snakes

The Gartersnakes are widespread, with many regional differences. One such subspecies is the California red-sided garter snake, a localized variant of the California garter snake. 

California red-sided garter snake
The California red-sided garter snake is a brightly-colored and distinctive species.
Posted by: u/brombinary (via reddit.com)

Scientific Name:

Giant Gartersnake – Thamnophis gigas

Sierra Gartersnake – Thamnophis couchii

Aquatic Gartersnake – Thamnophis atratus

Common Gartersnake – Thamnophis sirtalis

Two-striped Gartersnake – Thamnophis hammondii

Northwestern Gartersnake – Thamnophis ordinoides

Western Terrestrial Gartersnake – Thamnophis elegans

Marcy’s Checkered Gartersnake – Thamnophis marcianus

Range:

Throughout the state

Adult Size:

Up to 65 inches in length

Description:

Round pupils, and elongated heads

Long brown snakes, relatively slender, with two to three light brown bands down the lengths of their bodies

Some species may lack banding altogether

Habitat:

Habitat generalists, found in almost every habitat type

Venomous/Non-Venomous:

Non-venomous

Venomous Snakes in California

California has a fair amount of venomous snakes, most of which are rattlesnakes. Below, we’ll take a closer look at some of the venomous species in the region.

Rattlesnakes and Sidewinders

Rattlesnakes get their name from their distinctive ‘rattle’ which consists of modified tail scales. 

Western Diamondback
The Western Diamondback is the largest species of rattlesnake, and has a distinctive rattle.

Scientific Name:

Genus Crotalus

Species:

  • Panamint Rattlesnake – Crotalus stephensi
  • Great Basin Rattlesnake – Crotalus lutosus
  • Red Diamond Rattlesnake – Crotalus ruber
  • Sidewinder – Crotalus cerastes
  • Northern Pacific Rattlesnake – Crotalus oreganus
  • Southern Pacific Rattlesnake – Crotalus helleri
  • Northern Mohave Rattlesnake – Crotalus scutulatus scutulatus
  • Southwestern Speckled Rattlesnake – Crotalus mitchellii pyrrhus
  • Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnake – Crotalus atrox

Range:

Throughout the state

Adult Size:

Variable, up to seven feet in the largest species (Western Diamond-backed)

Description:

Robust, thick-bodied snakes with broad, shield-shaped heads

These snakes have distinctive rattles and slit-shaped pupils which set them apart from other species.

Habitat:

There’s a species for each habitat

Sidewinders are sand-loving, but other rattlesnakes prefer prairies, marshes, or forests

Venomous/Non-Venomous:

Venomous

Southern Pacific rattlesnake
The Southern Pacific rattlesnake has disruptive patterning which blend well with the forest floor.
Macro of sidewinder rattlesnake
Sidewinders have distinctive horned eyes, which set them apart.

Lyresnakes

Lyresnakes get their name from the lyre-shaped marking on their heads.

Sonoran Lyre Snake hiding on a rock
The Sonoran Lyre Snake has a unique eye color and shape.
Image credit: guppiecat (via CreativeCommons.org)

Scientific Name:

Genus Trimorphodon

Species:

Sonoran Lyresnake – Trimorphodon lambda

California Lyresnake – Trimorphodon lyrophanes

Range:

Southern California, patchy distribution

Adult Size:

Up to 48 inches

Description:

Vertical pupils

“Lyre-shaped” mark on the back of the head

Long, slender snakes with blunt, elongated heads

Brown with darker-brown chevron markings all over the body

Habitat:

Anywhere with sufficient vegetation for the snake to live in

Venomous/Non-Venomous:

Venomous

Yellow-Bellied Seasnake

This black and yellow snake in California spends most of its life in the ocean, feeding on fish.

Yellow-Bellied Seasnake
Seasnakes have fin-shaped tails which help them to swim in the ocean.

Scientific Name:

Hydrophis platurus

Range:

Along the Coastline

Adult Size:

Up to 45 inches

Description:

Fin-shaped tail

Yellow belly and black upperside

Large head with a rounded snout

Habitat:

Pelagic currents on the coastline

May be seen in seaweed and on beaches

Venomous/Non-Venomous:

Venomous

Iconic Snakes in Southern California

If you were to construct a list of Southern California snakes that you simply have to see, what would be on it?

Coast Mountain Kingsnake
The Coast Mountain Kingsnake is similar to the Scarletsnake found in other parts of the US.
Image credit: J. Maughn (via CreativeCommons.org)

Here are a few of our favorite species from the area.

Nightsnakes

Nightsnakes are gorgeous animals with vibrant markings.

Nightsnakes
The San Diego nightsnake is a vibrantly colored species, even though it’s only brown.
Image credit: amdubois01 (via CreativeCommons.org)

Scientific Name:

Hypsiglena chlorophaea

Hypsiglena ochrorhyncha

Range:

Most of California, sparse distribution in Central and Northern California

Adult Size:

Up to 26 inches long

Description:

Long, slender, brown snakes with dark brown spots

Elongated heads with pointed round snouts and slit-shaped pupils

Habitat:

Rocky areas like grassland, woodland, thornscrub, and chaparral

Venomous/Non-Venomous:

Non-venomous

Southwestern Threadsnake

Thread snakes are closely related to wormsnakes and have a similar appearance.

Southwestern Threadsnake
The Western blindsnake or threadsnake resembles an earthworm.
Image credit: ashleytisme (via CreativeCommons.org)

Scientific Name:

Rena humilis

Range:

South and East-Central California

Adult Size:

Up to 16 inches

Description:

A small, pink or brown snake that resembles an earthworm

Tiny eyes and a rounded head and tail contribute to the earthworm-like appearance of this snake

Habitat:

Underground in soft soils

May be found at depths of up to 65 feet

Venomous/Non-Venomous:

Non-venomous

Introduced California Snake Species

The California snakes list includes several species that aren’t native to the region. The following introduced species have been recorded in the area:

  • Florida Watersnake – Nerodia fasciata
  • Brahminy Blindsnake – Indotyphlops braminus
  • Common Watersnake – Nerodia sipedon

Below, we’ll take a brief look at these species. They have narrow distributions, so you’re unlikely to spot them unless you go looking.

The Watersnakes

The distribution of watersnakes doesn’t naturally extend towards California.

Scientists aren’t quite sure how the snakes arrived in California. However, they think that the snakes might have hitched a ride along with vehicles working in the area.

Florida watersnake
The Florida watersnake, as its name suggests, is native to Florida and the surrounding states.
Northern Water Snake
The common watersnake is a widespread inhabitant of large swathes of America, but not native to California.

Brahminy Blind Snake

The Brahminy blind snake is a seasoned traveler that has established populations around the world.

As its name suggests, the species originates in India and has presumably traveled the world in shipments of plant exports.

Brahminy blind snake on soil
The Brahminy blind snake, originally from India, has made itself at home in moist soils around the world.

What You Need to Know

Whether you’re in Northern California, Southern California, or the Mexican desert, there are a few things you should know to help you stay safe:

  • Snakes are as scared of humans as humans are of them.
  • If you leave the snake alone, it won’t harm you (barring accidents).
  • Always walk cautiously, and vigilantly, when entering a potential snake habitat.

There are several excellent reasons why we need snakes. These include:

  • Snakes manage rodent populations and help to control diseases carried by ticks.
  • These animals play an important role in the food web, as a prey item for larger animals.
  • Snakes help to keep small animal populations at a size where the environment can support their numbers.

Snake Safety 101

When you’re trying to keep safe in snake territory, there are a few simple rules you can practice that will help protect you.

  • Wear sturdy hiking shoes when you go on walks, and sturdy running shoes if you’re a jogger.
  • Always stick to the prescribed trails and footpaths when running or walking in snake territory.
  • Never poke, prod, tease, or otherwise interfere with a snake. If it can’t get away from you, it might strike.
  • Keep your pets on leashes and your children close to you when you go on trips to parks and other ‘wild’ areas.
  • Never enter densely vegetated and overgrown areas where you can’t see well. If you have to enter such an area, walk with a hiking cane and check each step carefully.
  • Avoid letting pets and children play unsupervised anywhere within the natural distribution of a venomous species. Snakes often come close to homes because people attract rodents.

About Venomous Snakes

In many parts of the world, venomous snake species flee humans and aren’t much of a danger.

However, most of the dangerous snakes found in California and other parts of the US are pit vipers. This means that they rely on camouflage, rather than flight, to keep them safe.

The danger behind this kind of behavior is that you’re more likely to step on the snake. It’s essential to keep your eyes peeled when you’re out walking in California.

Caution rattlesnakes warning
Rattlesnake warnings are common in regions where these snakes are abundant.

If You Encounter a Snake

In most cases, when you encounter a snake you won’t need to do anything. Simply back away from any snake you find and observe it from a safe distance.

Feel free to take photos of the snake, and try to make observations that will help you identify it.

NEVER try to pick up a snake, or otherwise bother it in any way.

When to Call for Help

There are typically only two situations that lead to your needing to call in reinforcements:

  1. If a snake bites you, someone else, or a pet, call the appropriate medical services.
  2. If a snake is in danger of getting hurt, hurt already, or in a location where it might hurt someone. In this case, call a wildlife officer.
Snake biting finger
Snake bites are often the result of people interfering with snakes.

Useful Resources

I’ve compiled some useful resources for dealing with snakes. From snake removal to medical emergencies, I’ve got you covered.

Emergency Poisoning Advice

  • Poison Control Center’s national hotline: 1-800-222-1222
  • ASPCA Poisoning Hotline: 1-888-426-4435

Snake Relocation Services

Free Snake Relocation Directory on Facebook

The Human Wildlife Conflicts Program helps people to manage their relationships with wildlife, including snakes.

Bear in mind that it’s illegal to relocate snakes in California. If you call in a snake, the animal will be destroyed.

Central American Bushmaster Snake carried by snake hooks
Professional snake handlers know how to collect and remove snakes safely.

Educational Resources

  • iNaturalist – on this site, species lists, range maps, and photographs help to identify snakes. You can also get input from other users.
  • CaliforniaHerps – an excellent website with a guide to the amphibians and reptiles of California.

Related Articles to California Snakes Identification Guide

If you’re interested in other ID guides, have a look at our:

You can also check out our other articles on snakes – we have vital guides that you can learn from!

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