Whether you’re a California resident or a simple tourist, you may have difficulties identifying the various types of snakes roaming the local wilderness.
It’s understandable, given the wide diversity among the reptile family in the region.
Fortunately, I’m here to bring some light to the discussion. Today, we will look into 9 of the most widespread Californian snakes you’re likely to encounter in the wild. Let’s begin with the most popular one:
Gopher snakes can reach up to 7 feet in the wild, although they exhibit an impressive size variety. Many specimens could stay as small as 4 feet, depending on their genetics, available food, and environmental conditions.
The snake is fairly easy to identify by its yellowish coloring and square markings on its back. This is a non-venomous species, which you can easily tell by the snake’s small head and round pupils.
Gopher snakes are opportunistic hunters, so they go wherever the food is. This means you can find them in woodlands, grasslands, deserts, and even agricultural areas, where they get easy access to a variety of rodents.
They can move fast across rugged terrain and can even climb with ease if necessary.
Gopher snakes are known as solitary animals, which is typical for most reptiles. But they’re also known for their ability to hibernate in groups during the winter season, which provides them with better temperature regulation and improved security.
Gopher snakes rely on their numbers to protect themselves from predators due to them being overall lethargic during the hibernation phase.
Interesting fact: Gopher snakes are notorious for their ability to mimic the appearance and behavior of venomous species like rattlesnakes and copperheads.
They achieve this by flattening their bodies, coiling up, and hissing menacingly, sometimes even shaking their tails, similar to a rattlesnake. This is often enough to scare predators away, which also includes humans.
And it’s a good thing because gopher snakes are actually beneficial to us due to their predilection for rodents.
The coachwhip is difficult to miss, thanks to its intimidating and unique appearance. This species can grow up to 6 feet in length, so the snake is fairly large. The reptile’s body is slim and athletic, and it usually comes in 2 colors: brown and black.
The half side of the body is almost always black, including the head, while the back half is lighter, usually earthy-brown. The snake’s tail is also very long and very thin.
The coachwhip is often mistaken for a venomous species due to its black head and mean look, but it’s actually harmless.
And by ‘harmless,’ I mean it possesses no venom. Because, in reality, coachwhips are notorious for being aggressive and territorial, as well as for predilection for biting instead of running.
They won’t inflict any serious damage, as they lack envenomed fangs and only possess small teeth, but their fairly sizeable reptiles, so their bites will hurt.
This one feeds on anything it can catch, including mammals, reptiles, birds, other snakes, etc. Coachwhips qualify as active hunters, as they rely more on stalking and chasing their prey than on the standard sit-and-wait reptile strategy.
This is because of their impressive speed that makes them one of the quickest snakes on the American continent (up to 7 mph in some cases.)
Interesting fact: Coachwhips are incredibly agile and aggressive, and they use their tails in a whipping motion to replicate the sound produced by a rattlesnake.
They won’t fool those who know what rattlesnakes look like, but their unhinged behavior can deter predators from approaching the reptile. Plus, you’re likely to mistake the coachwhip for a rattlesnake if you only hear but can see it.
And it’s probably for the better.
This is a unique species that you’re quite likely to encounter in Californian ecosystems. Sharp-tailed snakes prefer to dwell in humid habitats like forests, wetlands, and riparian areas.
They enjoy vegetation-rich layouts with a variety of rocks, logs, and thick leaf litter for hiding and setting ambush spots.
Sharp-tailed snakes are small, only reaching 18 inches as a maximum size. Most individuals won’t go past 10 inches, though, which doesn’t make them less cute.
These snakes are typically brown or red, with no other visible markings. Most specimens have white underbellies traversed by latitudinal black bands.
This snake feeds primarily on insects and worms due to its small size, but it’s open to expanding its menu, depending on what’s available. They’re also known to consume slugs in large numbers, which they can secure with the help of their small and curved teeth.
These snakes rely on their environment to maintain a low profile and prefer to flee when sensing predators nearby, including humans.
Interesting fact: The snake’s name comes from its pointy and very powerful tail. The snake uses it as an active limb, climbing and digging with it through the litter in search of food and hiding.
Interestingly, some species have round and dull tail tips, while others have them needle-sharp, looking like they could stab you with it.
California kingsnakes are extremely common in the Californian wilderness, as their name suggests. These snakes are well known for their interesting appearance and impressive variety.
Most specimens come with brown bodies decorated with white or cappuccino bands. But others are red or even white with black bands. And then you have some that are entirely black with a white dorsal line traversing their entire spine.
Kingsnakes are California’s official mascot due to their widespread habitat, which includes deserts, grasslands, woodlands, and even agricultural areas. These snakes go wherever food is, so they don’t mind sharing the same habitat as humans.
This means you can easily find them in urban and suburban areas, their presence being a strong indicator of a potential rodent problem in the area.
Keep your distance if you spot a kingsnake in the wild for 2 reasons: their aggression and their usefulness. These snakes are notorious for their aggressive demeanor and determination to bite first and retreat or hiss later.
Especially when taken by surprise. They are not venomous, but you don’t want to be bitten by a 2-3-foot snake anyway.
Interesting fact: The California Kingsnake is immune to the venom of a variety of local snake varieties, including copperheads, rattlesnakes, and cottonmouths.
This is due to a special protein in their blood that neutralizes the specific components present in the snakes’ venom.
As a result, California kingsnakes have venomous snakes on their menu. This is another reason why you should give them space and welcome their presence.
Western Yello Bellied Racer
The western racer is also known as the coachwhip racer, and it’s a nonvenomous reptile that’s quite notorious in the Californian wilderness and the surroundings.
This species doesn’t mind the humans’ presence that much, which is why you can often find these snakes in proximity to human settlements and agricultural areas where they’re more likely to find food.
Western racers rely on their agility and speed to catch their prey, which includes reptiles, small mammals, insects (when hatchlings or juveniles), amphibians, etc.
Their common dwelling grounds include grasslands, desertic regions, and agricultural zones that provide easy access to families of rodents.
Fortunately, you shouldn’t worry about your safety if you encounter a wild western racer. These animals are generally docile and prefer to avoid humans.
Unless you’re taking them by surprise, they’re likely to use their speed to clear the area and hide.
Interesting fact: Western racers can replicate the sound and defensive behavior of rattlesnakes. They don’t possess tail rings, so they rely on their hissing to mimic the specific rattling sound.
The common consensus is that western racers have developed this defensive behavior as a response to the presence of rattlesnakes in their ecosystem.
They have observed that rattlesnakes have increased their survivability by relying on their patented defensive tactics, so racers have borrowed them.
Striped Racer Snake
Stripped racers possess many of the qualities of the previous racers, but they’re also different in many aspects. These reptiles can reach 4 feet max but look longer due to their slim and streamlined bodies.
Almost all striped racers look the same, with black bodies traversed by 2 yellow lines, one on each side of the body. Some individuals also have yellow underbellies. The snake’s tail is very long and thin.
Stripped racers rely on their speed to hunt their favorite meals, which include lizards, small rodents, birds, frogs, and other snakes. They may also consume insects when very young.
They prefer varied ecosystems like forests, wetlands, grasslands, and agricultural areas, where they’re most likely to find their preferred prey.
While not true semi-aquatic snakes, striped racers can sometimes be observed near various bodies of water, where they hunt some of their main prey. These snakes are very agile and qualify as great climbers.
Interesting fact: Despite their small sizes and even smaller heads, striped racers can dislocate their jaws to eat considerably larger prey.
They owe at least part of their amazing survival rates to this astounding evolutionary adaptation.
This reptile is the smallest on today’s list, as the ring-necked snake can only reach 15 inches in size. Most specimens are black with yellow underbellies, but they can come in a variety of colors, including silver and blue with orange or red underbellies.
You may not use the coloring to identify the snake accurately, but you can definitely use the color pattern since all individuals follow the same style. The most noticeable feature is the ring color present around the neck, which is usually yellow or orange.
Ring-necked snakes are fairly common throughout North America, inhabiting various ecosystems like forests, wetlands, and woodlands.
They prefer areas thick in vegetation that provide them with multiple hiding spots like logs, rocks, leaf litter, animal burrows, etc.
Despite their small size, ring-necked snakes aren’t really fond of insects. Instead, they prefer to consume worms, slugs, frogs, toads, lizards, and even other snakes. The main hunting method is bite, crush, and swallow.
Interesting fact: Ring-necked snakes have an olfactory defense system. They can release an anal discharge when threatened, filling the area with a foul odor, enough to deter anything with a nose.
If that doesn’t work, fleeing might, given the reptile’s agility and speed.
Now we’re stepping foot in dangerous territory because rattlesnakes are venomous and potentially deadly under certain circumstances.
These snakes can grow to 6 feet in length and possess an extremely thick and powerful body with an equally powerful head. You can easily recognize the rattlesnake by its triangle-shaped head and banded tail tip with its visible ring separations.
Most rattlesnakes are dusty-brown with rhomboid shapes spread across the dorsal region.
This species can be found in a variety of environments, including deserts, grasslands, forests, and even near human settlements.
The latter is concerning because rattlesnakes are notorious for their aggression and readiness to bite, including multiple times and including without warning.
Fortunately, you will get a warning in most cases when the snake can detect your presence at a distance. You can’t miss the distinct and loud rattling sound that the snake will produce by shaking its tail.
Rattlesnakes are fond of rodents, so if you have a rodent infestation, mind your steps.
Interesting fact: Rattlesnakes possess heat pits, which are organs situated on the side of the head, usually the face.
These allow the snake to detect any animal’s heat output and sense the presence of prey even in conditions of pitch darkness.
To put it simply, garter snakes are some of the most popular US snakes, widespread throughout North America in habitats like forests, wetlands, grasslands, and even human settlements.
You can easily recognize the species by its standard garter-like longitudinal lines that traverse the snake’s body from head to tail.
Color-wise, garter snakes do show some variation, as they exhibit nuances of brown, black, red, blue, and gold.
While not true semi-aquatic reptiles, garter snakes are notorious for hunting near various bodies of water in search of amphibians and other reptiles. Interestingly, garter snakes are surprisingly social, which is why they are often spotted in groups, especially when basking.
These snakes qualify as great pets for their docile demeanor, hardiness, and widespread availability.
Just make sure you don’t bother, scare, or stress the reptile too much because garter snakes are known to produce some stinking odors in those situations.
Interesting fact: Garter snakes can consume toxic prey like newts due to their bodies’ abilities to cleanse the toxins before any ill symptoms occur.
This makes their presence invaluable in an ecosystem where few predators feed on toxic animals.
If you’re to take away one thing from today’s article, take this point: snakes can be deceiving.
As today’s list has shown, some snakes are capable of mimicking venomous species, which means you never know what snake you’re dealing with.
So, watch your steps, avoid vegetation-rich zones, and consider your next moves the moment you hear any menacing hiss or rattle.