The 20 Types of SNAKES That Live in California! (ID Guide)
There are A LOT of snakes in California!
And what’s interesting is that they are all incredibly unique and have adapted to fill many habitats and niches.
You’ll see that the snakes that live in California are very different from each other.
For example, some species are venomous, while others use constriction to immobilize their prey. Or the fact that certain snakes are rarely seen because they spend most of their time underground, but others are comfortable living EXTREMELY close to humans.
Today, you’re going to learn about the 20 types of snakes in California!
Also, if you enjoy this article, make sure to check out these other guides!
9 FROGS Found in California! (ID Guide)
8 Types of TURTLES in California! (Both aquatic and land)
#1. Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnake
- Crotalus atrox
- Adults typically grow to about 4 feet in length.
- Coloration ranges from brown, gray, brick red, pinkish, and chalky white. Look for the darker diamond-shaped blotches down its back, outlined by white scales.
- Broad, spade-shaped head with a black mask over the eyes. Elliptical pupils and pits between eyes and nostrils.
- A rattle on the tail alternates between black and white-colored bands.
This famous VENOMOUS snake lives in southern California!
You might spot them in deserts, grassy plains, forested areas, rocky hillsides, and river bottoms. But your best chance to see one might be on a rural road in the evening because of the heat the pavement retains.
Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnake Range Map
The Western Diamond-backed feeds on small mammals such as squirrels, chipmunks, gophers, prairie dogs, rabbits, mice, and rats. They also consume birds that fly within reach. Like other pit vipers, they ambush their prey and track them while the venom takes effect.
When threatened, these snakes typically stand their ground. They rattle and coil, lifting themselves off the ground to prepare to strike.
If you hear their characteristic rattle, make sure to leave the area slowly! Due to their specialized fangs and large venom glands, these snakes can deliver a lot of venom in a single bite! Untreated bites have a 10 – 20% mortality rate, so make sure to get to the hospital quickly if struck!
#2. Terrestrial Garter Snake
- Thamnophis elegans
- Adults range from 18 to 41 inches in length.
- Most adults have three yellow, light orange, or white stripes; one down their back and two down their sides.
- Coloration is widely variable. Individuals may be brownish or greenish. Some have red and black spots between the stripes, and occasionally all black individuals are found.
This snake can be difficult to identify in California!
Even trained herpetologists have issues! Its coloration varies widely, and there are believed to be 6 subspecies, although scientists still debate this.
Terrestrial Garter Snakes occupy various habitats, including both grasslands and forests. They can even be found in mountainous areas up to 13,000 feet above sea level. As the name suggests, they’re primarily found on land. But interestingly, these garter snakes are great swimmers!
This species is the only garter snake in California with a tendency to constrict prey! Most garter snakes grab their prey quickly and just swallow, rubbing their prey against the ground if necessary.
Terrestrial Garter Snakes aren’t aggressive or dangerous, but they do possess mildly venomous saliva! It can cause a muscle infection or even kill some muscle tissue. Most bites on humans just cause pain and some swelling.
#3. Valley Garter Snake
- Thamnophis sirtalis fitchi
- Adults range from 18 to 55 inches in length.
- Coloration is brown to black with three yellow stripes: one down the back and one down each side.
- Pronounced red bars between the yellow stripes. Yellowish chin, jaw, and belly, and a black head, which often has red sides.
- Subspecies of the Common Garter Snake.
Valley Garter Snakes are found in various habitats, including forests, wetlands, scrublands, fields, shorelines, and rocky areas. They’re also well adapted to humans and are often found in urban areas.
Look for these snakes in California under rocks, logs, and other objects, which they use for cover and thermoregulation. During the winter, they hibernate, often communally, below the frost line. They will use a variety of underground cavities, including mammal and crayfish burrows, rock crevices, ant mounds, and manmade spaces such as foundations and cisterns.
When disturbed, Valley Garter Snakes try to escape into the water and are excellent swimmers. If captured, be prepared for them to release musk and feces onto your hands! They may also strike, but only if they feel extremely threatened.
The Valley Garter Snake is considered a species of low risk. They are quite common and adapt well to human-modified habitats. However, they are frequently killed on roadways and are sometimes killed out of fear.
#4. California Kingsnake
- Lampropeltis californiae
- Adults range from 36 to 48 inches in length.
- Most individuals are black or brown, with whitish bands running down their bodies.
These snakes are widespread across many types of habitats in California.
Look for them in woodlands, grasslands, deserts, marshes, and even suburban areas! Most of the year, these California Kingsnakes are found out during the day, except during cold weather when they retreat underground to enter a hibernation-like state called brumation.
California Kingsnake Range Map
Do you know how kingsnakes got the name “king?”
It refers to their ability to hunt down and eat other snakes! Incredibly, California Kingsnakes will even go after venomous rattlesnakes.
This species has the incredible adaptation to constrict its prey. In fact, California Kingsnakes have the strongest squeeze when compared to the size of their body! It’s thought they evolved this trait since their main diet consists of other reptiles, which don’t require as much oxygen as mammals.
#5. Mojave Rattlesnake
- Crotalus scutulatus
- Adults range from 2 to 4 feet in length.
- Coloration is green, gray, brown, tan, or yellow with darker diamond or diamond-like markings down the back.
- Heavy-bodied, triangular head, elliptical pupils, heat-sensing pits between the nostrils and eyes, and a black and white banded rattle at the end of the tail.
Sometimes called the Mojave Green, these venomous snakes are generally found in arid habitats. They prefer desert flatland with sparse vegetation, high desert, mountain slopes, grassy plains, Joshua tree woodlands, and scrub brush areas.
Mojave Rattlesnake Range Map
The Mojave Rattlesnake is one of the most venomous snakes in California!
Their venom contains both neurotoxins that attack the nervous system and hemotoxins that attack the blood. These snakes are ambush predators and use their camouflage to wait unseen for unsuspecting lizards, rodents, toads, and snakes. Their potent venom means that you should give them distance and respect. If someone is bitten, chances of survival are good so long as medical attention is sought immediately.
Interestingly they are sometimes confronted by California Ground Squirrels. These ground squirrels are resistant to snake venom and adept at dodging strikes. They will defend their pups from the Mojave Rattlesnake with vigor!
#6. Red Diamond Rattlesnake
- Crotalus ruber
- Adults typically range from 39 to 59 inches in length. Size varies widely over their range.
- Reddish coloration with diamond-shaped blotches down the back and alternating black and white bands on the tail.
- Thick body, large triangular head, elliptical pupils, heat-sensing pits between the eyes and nostrils, and tail rattle.
These moderately sized venomous snakes can be found in southern California. They occupy coastal and mountainous habitats as well as deserts. They prefer dense chaparral areas, cactus patches, and areas with a lot of boulders and brush.
The Red Diamond Rattlesnake preys on a variety of small mammals, including rabbits and ground squirrels, as well as birds, lizards, and other snakes. Please note, they are also commonly called Northern Red Rattlesnakes in California.
Compared with other rattlesnakes, this species has one of the least potent venoms. They’re also considered to have a mild disposition and are unlikely to bite. However, they should still be treated with respect, and if bitten, you should go directly to the hospital.
#7. Speckled Rattlesnake
- Crotalus mitchellii
- Adults typically don’t exceed 39 inches in length.
- Coloration is a faded tan or light brown. The end of the tail has white coloration with narrow black rings that end in a rattle.
- Large triangular head and heat-sensing pits between the eyes and nostrils.
Look for this venomous snake in southern California inhabiting rocky, arid country, including canyons, rocky hillsides, and rock ledges. Their color usually matches the color of the rocks and soil in their habitat.
Speckled Rattlesnakes spend most of the daytime in the shelter of rocks and burrows to avoid the heat of the desert during the day. They’re mostly nocturnal and spend their nights hunting small mammals, though they’ll also consume birds and lizards.
Like other rattlesnakes, this species gives birth to live young. Mating occurs in the spring, and in late summer, the females give birth to litters of up to 12 young.
#8. Panamint Rattlesnake
- Crotalus stephensi
- Adults range from 23 to 52 inches in length.
- Coloration varies, and snakes can be mixtures of tan, yellow, off-white, gray, or brown with vague or distinct speckled banding.
- Thick body and neck, large triangular head, elliptical pupils, heat-sensing pits between the eyes and nostrils, keeled scales, and a tail rattle.
The Panamint Rattlesnake is a venomous ambush hunter and primarily waits by rodent trails for prey to pass by. They also feed on other small mammals, lizards, and birds and use their heat-sensing pits to help locate food. Once they strike, they let their victim run away, only to track them once the venom takes effect.
Panamint Rattlesnake Range Map
These venomous snakes will rattle when threatened. If you encounter an agitated one, make sure to back away slowly and leave the area. If pressed, these Panamint Rattlesnakes will strike, and bites require immediate medical attention due to their potent venom.
During the spring breeding season in southeastern California, males engage in what is known as the “combat dance.” Neither male is hurt, but they twine together and try to wrestle the other to the ground to determine who will get to mate with the desired female.
- Crotalus cerastes
- Adults are small and range from 17 to 30 inches in length.
- Coloration may be cream, buff, gray, yellowish-brown, or pink with dark blotches down the middle of the back and smaller dark blotches down the sides.
- They have distinctive supraocular scales, which look like horns over the eyes. Also commonly called Horned Rattlesnakes.
These venomous snakes are most active in southern California at dawn and dusk.
Sidewinders have a habit of submerging themselves in the sand with a practice called “cratering.” They shift their body from side to side to bury themselves. If you see “J” shaped tracks leading to a depression in the sand, be careful as there may be a dangerous snake buried underneath!
While buried in the sand, the Sidewinder waits to ambush unsuspecting prey. They feed on small mammals, lizards, and birds. Juvenile snakes may use caudal luring with their tail tips, mimicking the movements of moths. The young snakes feed primarily on lizards, while mature snakes feed more on desert rodents.
Sidewinders get their name from their unique form of locomotion, where it appears they are slithering sideways! This adaptation allows them to travel quickly over loose sand (up to 18 mph) and also helps them stay cool in the desert heat. This movement leaves a characteristic “J” shape in the sand.
Sidewinder Rattlesnakes have moderately toxic venom and a relatively low venom yield compared to other rattlesnakes. Symptoms of a bite include pain, dizziness, necrosis, weakness, and discoloration. However, fatalities have occurred, and these venomous snakes are known to be somewhat aggressive. They should be treated with caution, and bites should be handled as a medical emergency.
#10. Western Rattlesnake
- Crotalus oreganus
- Adult size varies widely over their range, with the largest individuals being 6 feet in length.
- Three subspecies live in California – Northern Pacific, Southern Pacific, and Great Basin.
- Triangular head, heat-sensing pits between the eyes and nostrils, dark stripe with white borders that runs from the eye towards the jaw.
You can find three different subspecies of the Western Rattlesnake in California, and they look completely different. The Northern Pacific and Southern Pacific varieties look similar and are dark brown or black with lighter-edged blotches. Great Basin Rattlesnakes are typically pale yellow, light gray, or tan, with brown and blackish blotches, and are found in the northeastern part of the state.
This venomous species occupies a wide range of habitats in California. They can be found in mountainous areas, woodlands, and grasslands. They also often occur in close proximity to humans.
These snakes may be active during the day or night and are often curled, waiting to ambush a variety of prey. They’ll feed on small mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians. They may also eat bird eggs, and young snakes often feed on insects.
#11. San Francisco Garter Snake
- Thamnophis sirtalis tetrataenia
- Adult snakes can reach up to 36 inches (sometimes even more) in length.
- Burnt-orange head with a slender turquoise-blue body featuring bold stripes.
- The stripes run down the snake’s side in a black, orange-red, black pattern.
Considered by some to be the most beautiful snake in California!
This striking creature is a subspecies of the Common Garter Snake. They are extremely shy and difficult to locate and are only found in a small area in California. The best places to find San Francisco Garter Snakes are near densely vegetated ponds with nearby open hillsides. Areas with cattails, bullrushes, and spike rushes are used for cover, and open grassland areas are essential for basking.
San Francisco Garter Snakes are in danger of extinction in California.
Unfortunately, they are often illegally collected because of their incredible beauty. They also face habitat loss due to commercial and agricultural development.
Interestingly, these garter snakes can eat California Newts, which are extremely toxic to most other animals.
#12. California Red-sided Garter Snake
- Thamnophis sirtalis infernalis
- Adults range from 25 to 39 inches in length, with the females being larger.
- Prominent yellowish to bluish stripes. Red and black-barred stripes run in between.
- Slender garter snakes with a red or orange head.
- Subspecies of the Common Garter Snake.
These beautiful garter snakes occupy various habitats near the coasts of California. Look for them near bodies of water such as marshes, streams, ponds, and ditches.
Red-sided Garter Snakes are primarily active during the day. They feed on a wide range of prey, including frogs, newts, fish, birds, eggs, small mammals, reptiles, earthworms, slugs, and leeches. In addition, they can feed on adult Pacific Newts which are poisonous to most predators.
When disturbed, they typically try to escape into the water if available. If captured, you can expect them to bite and defecate on your hand!
The California Red-sided Garter Snake has been listed as endangered since 1967. They face habitat loss due to commercial and agricultural development in California.
#13. Checkered Garter Snake
- Thamnophis marcianus
- Adults are typically 18 to 24 inches in length.
- Coloration is typically greenish. They have three yellow or orange stripes; one down the center of the back and one down each side.
- Look for a distinctive black checkerboard pattern on its back.
- Cream or yellow crescent marks on each side of the head are followed by a dark blotch on the neck.
The Checkered Gartersnake is most commonly found in the southeast corner of California in desert and grassland habitats. Look for them near water sources, such as rivers, lakes, wetlands, cattle tanks, canals, and ditches. Living in arid conditions, these garter snakes are incredibly good at finding water sources.
Checkered Gartersnakes are opportunistic predators who feed on a wide variety of prey. They typically consume frogs, salamanders, toads, earthworms, small fish, lizards, snakes, slugs, and crayfish. However, they’ve also been reported to eat mice, raw horse meat, and other snakes of their own species in captivity!
Their populations are not currently threatened. Luckily, they tolerate human development relatively well, although draining wetlands and other water sources harm their population. These garter snakes are also able to co-exist with introduced species like the American Bullfrog.
#14. Sierra Garter Snake
- Thamnophis couchii
- Adults range from 18 to 38 inches in length.
- Coloration is widely variable and may be olive-brown, dark brown, or blackish. Darker blotches on the back and upper sides, which may be obscured in individuals with darker coloration.
- A light stripe on the back and sides may be present but isn’t distinctive except on the neck.
Sierra Garter Snakes are found in California in oak woodlands, coniferous forests, chaparral, pine juniper, and sagebrush. They are almost always found in association with a water source such as creeks, rivers, meadow ponds, or small lakes. They are typically located at elevations between 3000 and 8000 feet above sea level.
These garter snakes primarily feed on fish and amphibians and their larvae, including frogs, tadpoles, trout, and salamanders. This species has been observed eating adult Pacific Newts which are toxic to most predators.
They are not believed to be a threatened species. However, the introduction of non-native fish and American Bullfrogs to their range may hurt their population. Scientists are currently monitoring the situation.
#15. Giant Garter Snake
- Thamnophis gigas
- Adults are LARGE and typically reach at least 64 inches in length.
- Coloration is brownish to olive.
- A yellow stripe down the back and a light stripe down each side.
This species is the LARGEST garter snake found in California!
Look for Giant Garter Snakes in and around wetlands and waterways such as irrigation and drainage canals, ponds, sloughs, small lakes, and low-gradient streams. Unfortunately, much of their original habitat has been lost, and they can now frequently be seen in flooded rice fields.
During the winter, these snakes move to higher elevations out of flood zones. They hibernate from early November to April in small mammal burrows and other underground crevices.
Sadly, Giant Garter Snakes are threatened. Experts believe that they may soon be in danger of extinction. They face threats from habitat loss and fragmentation, water pollution, road mortalities, predation from introduced species, and changes in agricultural and land management practices.
#16. Aquatic Garter Snake
- Thamnophis atratus
- Adults range from 18 to 40 inches in length.
- Coloration varies greatly depending on location and subspecies.
- They may be pale grey with alternating rows of dark blotches on the sides, dark brown with less distinct borders, or nearly all black.
- May have a yellow stripe down the back or on the neck.
The Aquatic Garter Snake occupies various habitats in California, including brushlands, woodlands, grasslands, and forests. But, as the name suggests, they are always near a water source such as a pond, marsh, stream, or lake.
These snakes prey on fish, salamanders, toads, and newts. They don’t constrict their prey but may use their body to encircle it in shallow water and then strike to prevent it from escaping.
Aquatic Garter Snakes feel the safest in the water. If they feel threatened or need to escape, they flee as quickly as possible to the nearest source of water!
There are THREE subspecies of the Aquatic Garter Snake, and they are named for the approximate location they can be found; Santa Cruz, Oregon, and the Diablo Range!
#17. Two-striped Garter Snake
- Thamnophis hammondii
- Adults typically range from 18 to 30 inches.
- Coloration is variable – dark gray, drab olive, or brown with a light stripe on the neck.
- Some individuals have yellow to gray stripes down each side, while others have two rows of dark spots down each side and typically lack a light stripe.
This highly aquatic snake prefers habitats close to permanent or semi-permanent water sources in California. They can be found up to 7,000 feet of elevation above sea level.
Two-striped Garter Snakes typically hunt in water and prey on fish, fish eggs, tadpoles, newt larvae, small frogs and toads, leeches, and earthworms. They even have the interesting behavior of holding themselves underwater using their tail while lunging for passing prey!
Interestingly, when the Two-Striped Garter Snake is threatened, they will sometimes mimic a venomous snake by flattening their head into a triangular shape. Then, when picked up, they use the same tactics as other garter snakes, releasing musk, defecating, and striking.
#18. Northwestern Garter Snake
- Thamnophis ordinoides
- Adults average between 12 and 24 inches in length.
- COLORATION IS HIGHLY VARIABLE. Individuals can be blackish, olive, brownish, bluish, or gray, sometimes with a reddish tint.
- Typically has three stripes, one down the back and one down each side. The color of these stripes can be red, yellow, orange, tan, white, greenish, or blue; however, on certain snakes, the stripes may be dull, narrow, or absent!
The Northwestern Garter Snake prefers damp areas in northern California with lots of vegetation and open sunny areas. They may be spotted near houses and are often found when moving boards, logs, or other objects that they use for cover.
This species is predominantly terrestrial. However, these garter snakes can swim, and some local individuals have been observed hunting in the water! They feed mainly on slugs and earthworms, but they also prey on snails, small amphibians, and possibly fish.
The Northwestern Garter Snake will typically flee into dense vegetation if disturbed. One study found that individuals with stripes usually move away quickly because their stripes make it difficult for predators to determine their speed. But plain or spotted individuals frequently freeze while fleeing because their excellent camouflage helps them blend in while they’re motionless.
#19. California Mountain Kingsnake
- Lampropeltis zonata
- Adults typically range from 20 to 50 inches in length.
- Coloration is bands of black, red, and off-white or grayish-white. Red bands, bordered by black bands are the widest.
- The snout is typically black but may have some red.
The California Mountain Kingsnake is a habitat generalist. They’ll occupy various habitats, including coniferous forests, pine-oak woodlands, riparian woodlands, chaparral, manzanita, and coastal sage scrub. They prefer wooded areas near streams, rocky outcrops, or rotting logs that provide cover.
These snakes are constrictors that feed on a wide variety of prey. Lizards, amphibians, nesting birds, bird eggs, and other snakes (including their own species) make up most of their diet.
These secretive snakes spend much of their time in California under objects like logs, underground, or in rock crevices.
Though brightly colored, they are non-venomous.
#20. Coast Mountain Kingsnake
- Lampropeltis multifasciata
- Adults range from 20 to 50 inches in length.
- Coloration is bands of black, red, and off-white or grayish-white. Red bands, bordered by black bands, are the widest.
- The snout is generally black but may have some red.
This snake species is found ONLY in California!
Coast Mountain Kingsnakes occupy various habitats but are generally found near streams in areas with good cover. So if you find one, which is rare, have no fear because they are NOT venomous!
They are nocturnal during hot, dry weather and spend most of the day underground, in rock crevices, or under logs or other cover objects. However, in cooler weather in the spring or fall, they may be diurnal or even crepuscular, meaning they are active during twilight hours.
Do you need additional help identifying snakes in California?
Try this field guide!
Which of these SNAKES have you seen before in California?
Leave a comment below!