While California is a great destination for hiking, camping, fishing, and all things outdoors, there are some natural dangers you’ll need to look out for even in a place so close to paradise. After all, the beautiful weather and varied ecosystems that make California such a great place for humans, also make it a great home for animals, including a few species of venomous snakes.
The good news is that out of the 33 native species of snakes in California, only six of them are venomous snakes. All of the venomous snakes in California are also rattlesnakes, which makes it a bit easier to tell the venomous ones from harmless native snakes. From this you might guess that some areas of California are safer from venomous snakes than others and you’d be right!
Snakes in Northern California vs. Southern California
In fact, it’s pretty rare to encounter venomous snakes in Northern California. Most people who deal with venomous snake bites in Northern California actually get bit by the Yellow-Bellied Sea Snake, which is not native to California, but sometimes washes ashore.
Yellow-Bellied Sea Snakes are native to tropical waters, but climate change and especially the increase in El Nino weather patterns have brought more and more of them ashore in California. The only native species of snake in Northern California that is venomous is the Pacific (or Western) Rattlesnake.
In Southern California, though, you’ll find many native species of rattlesnakes. And rattlesnake bites live up to their reputation — they can be difficult to treat, painful, and in some cases life-threatening. For every species active in Southern California, however, an anti-venom has been created and will be available at most emergency clinics. EMTs in the area are also likely to carry anti-venoms for venomous snakes native to Southern California.
The important thing is to make sure you’re able to reach medical care quickly if you do suffer a snake bite. Of course, the best situation is to avoid rattlesnake bites in the first place. So, we’ll cover a few tips for avoiding snakes in a bit.
But first, how can you tell the difference between a dangerous rattlesnake and the species of snakes that try to mimic rattlesnakes despite being non-venomous. Species of snakes like this are more common than you might think, and in California, they include species like the Kingsnake and Gopher snake. A Kingsnake bite won’t feel good, but it’s not nearly so serious as rattlesnake bites can be.
How to Spot Rattlesnakes
So how can you differentiate between venomous snakes in California, like the Mojave Rattlesnake or the Red Diamond Rattlesnake, and their non-venomous cousins? Coloration may be the most obvious thing to look out for, but a lot of these native snakes vary greatly in color, and some non-venomous species have colorations very similar to venomous ones.
So, let’s look at a few other key features that you can look out for to identify any rattlesnake, and then we’ll go into some more detail about each of these species of snakes and how to tell them apart from common look-alikes. Perhaps the easiest way to spot rattlesnakes is by the distinctive “rattle” at the end of the tail, which can produce a rattling sound, and appears as a solid single scale, rather than being made up of several scales.
While this can be an easy way to tell a rattlesnake from other species of snakes, it’s not fool-proof. Adolescent rattlesnakes may not have formed a working rattle segment yet. This is because the rattle forms from repeated shedding and young snakes may not have shed enough yet to form a working rattle segment. Besides, rattlesnakes can survive losing their rattlers and are just as venomous without it.
Look Closely at the Head
Next, you want to look at the head shape. Rattlesnakes have a wide, triangular head while non-venomous snakes have smaller and rounder heads. One good rule of thumb is to look at where the head meets the neck. If there’s a great difference in width, you may be dealing with a venomous snake. Still, this isn’t foolproof though. Some non-venomous snakes can flatten their heads to look more like the triangular head of a rattlesnake or coral snake.
Thankfully, most of the venomous snakes in the US are pit vipers, and this includes the rattlers in California. This means there’s another easy tell on their heads: pit vipers have two “pits” on their snouts which look a little like nostrils. These are actually infrared sensors used for detecting prey, but they’re a surefire tell for which species of snakes are venomous.
Finally, you can also look at a snake’s pupils to differentiate between venomous and non-venomous species of snake. Venomous snakes have thin, vertical pupils that look a little like a cat’s eye. Non-venomous species have rounded pupils instead.
Don’t Get Too Close!
Now, these tips can be great for identifying a snake if it’s already bitten you or appeared unexpectedly, but you should keep your distance from any snake you see while hiking or camping, no matter how safe you think it is. Obviously, finding details like pits on the snout or pupil shape requires getting closer to the snake than is advisable.
So, you should use these tips if you come upon a snake unexpectedly or are bitten, but you should not approach or disturb snakes in the wild, especially if they look similar to the venomous species that are present in California. Some non-venomous snakes are really good at mimicking poisonous snakes in California, so it’s better to be safe than sorry.
Species of Snakes in California: Non-Venomous Snakes
Of the 33 species of snakes in California, some of the most common non-venomous snakes include Gopher snakes, Kingsnakes, Garter snakes, and Racers. Garter snakes are common across the US and usually have two or three light stripes which make them fairly easy to identify. They’re a smaller species and the head will only be a bit wider than the rest of the body.
One of the California snakes most commonly mistaken for a venomous rattlesnake is the Gopher snake. Gopher snakes have a larger head and they can flatten it a bit to give a more triangular appearance like a rattlesnake. Garter snakes will do this if threatened as well, but Gopher snakes are more successful in looking like a rattler.
Thankfully, behavior can be a helpful clue here as well. Rattlesnakes are ambush predators, and so will often be very still and hidden, and are very unlikely to approach or attack unless you disturb them first. Gopher snakes are a bit more outgoing and are more likely to move towards you.
They also move in smaller curves than rattlesnakes. So a snake making many, tight motions, is probably a Gopher snake trying to scare you off. If they get very close or bite you unexpectedly, look closely at the tail. Gopher snakes have a smooth, pointed tail.
While a juvenile rattlesnake may not have a full rattle yet, they will have a rounded, hard “button” at the end of the tail. Again, you can also look for the telltale “pits” on the snout. You can also look at the scale pattern. Gopher snakes have more textured, ridged scales than other species, and so if a snake looks very smooth, that’s an indication it might be a rattlesnake.
Kingsnakes are another common California species, and these are easier to distinguish from rattlesnakes. They have smooth scales unlike the ridged scales of Gopher snakes, but many species of Kingsnake have colors and patterns meant to mimic the other venomous snakes common to the US: coral snakes.
Some Kingsnakes have stripes like a Garter snake, but most have bands of white or yellow on black or brown. These guys actually eat rattlesnakes and are an important part of the unique ecosystems found in California.
Species of Snakes in California: Rattlesnakes
With some of the lookalikes out of the way, let’s look at some of the key identifying features shared by the poisonous snakes in California. Since they’re all rattlesnakes, we can generalize a bit. Of course, there’s the triangular head and “pits” on the snout. But all of California’s rattlesnakes have some similarities in coloring and body shape as well.
Rattlesnakes, as ambush predators, need to blend in with their surroundings. So, most rattlesnakes are brown or tan, with blotches along the back. Some, however, are green, and many other snakes (like Gopher snakes!) show similar color patterns.
So this isn’t a great way to identify a rattlesnake definitively. Rattlesnakes also tend to be wider and flatter than more active species. So a Gopher snake will be a bit thinner and rounder. Let’s dig into the specifics of the California rattlesnakes, though.
1. The Western Rattlesnake (Crotalus Oreganus)
Western Rattlesnakes are the only truly dangerous snakes in Northern California. Their range extends across the whole state, with the exception of the Southern deserts. They’re often mistaken for Gopher snakes by hikers and campers and may not make a rattling sound if they’re too young.
There are three subspecies: Crotalus oreganus lutosus (Great Basin Rattlesnake), Crotalus oreganus oreganus (Northern Pacific Rattlesnake), and Crotalus oreganus helleri (Southern Pacific Rattlesnake). Colors can range from pale yellow to dark brown, but all subspecies have dark blotches on the back and sides with an uneven white border. Particularly, you should look out for a similar dark blotch on the snout.
2. Western Diamondback (Crotalus atrox)
The Western Diamondback, or Crotalus atrox, is the most dangerous of all the poisonous snakes in California. Western Diamondbacks live in the Southeast corner of the state — think San Diego — as well as across the border in Mexico.
They’re dangerous because they’re larger and more aggressive than most rattlesnakes, growing up to six feet or more at the larger end of the spectrum. Western Diamondbacks are usually gray-brown with darker, diamond-shaped blotches along their back. While they can be light pink, yellow, or red, the distinctive diamond-shaped blotches on the back are an easy way to identify this dangerous species of snake.
3. Panamint Rattlesnake and Southwestern Speckled Rattlesnake (Crotalus Mitchell)
These two related subspecies are common throughout Southern California, up to the Mojave River in the north. The Panamint Rattlesnake (Crotalus mitchelli stephensi) and Southwestern Speckled Rattlesnake (Crotalus mitchelli pyrrhus) are a bit harder to identify than the ones we’ve covered so far.
Depending on their habitat, coloring can vary widely, matching the color of the dirt in the region. Look out for a vague pattern of darker bands and speckles, but the best way to identify these rattlesnakes is by their rattle or the infrared “pits” on the snout.
4. Sidewinders (Crotalus Cerastes)
Primarily found in the deserts of California, the Sidewinders’ range extends into Mexico, as well as through southern Nevada into Arizona, and even Utah. Sidewinders get their name from the distinctive way they move. They can “throw” raised loops of their body to the side in order to move in a kind of wiggling “S” shape.
They’re smaller than other species, reaching only about 30 inches in length, but they’re easy to identify when moving. If you encounter one that’s still and coiled, they also have a distinctive horn-like scale above each eye. Together with the infrared “pits” on the snout, these are two clear signs to stay away.
5. Mojave Rattlesnake (Crotalus Scutulatus)
Mojave Rattlesnakes or Crotalus scutulatus, generally live in the Southeastern part of the state, and especially in the Mojave desert. They can also be found north and east of the Sierra mountains, though, in Inyo county, and possibly even farther west.
Mojave Rattlesnakes are usually between three to four feet as adults and can range in color from yellow to tan to olive green and even light brown. They also have dark diamond-shaped blotches on their backs though and will have narrow, darker rings towards the tail.
6. Red Diamond Rattlesnake (Crotalus Ruber)
The Red Diamond Rattlesnake, or Crotalus ruber, generally lives in southwestern California, from about the Morongo Valley west, and then south along the coast into Baja California. This is one of the few venomous species present in Los Angeles.
Although there are plenty of harmless species, like Gopher snakes and Kingsnakes in the area surrounding Los Angeles as well. Red Diamond Rattlesnakes are similar in shape and size to the Western Diamondback (Crotalus atrox), although as the name suggests, they’re red, red-brown, or pink. Again, you’re looking for dark blotches on the back, a triangular head, and a wide, flat body.
While hiking or camping where rattlesnakes are present can be dangerous, this guide can help you steer clear of danger. Remember, rattlesnakes are going to be larger, flatter, and less active than other species of snakes in California.
This means they’re also pretty easy to avoid and will do their best to avoid you. So if you see a snake or hear a rattle, just go around the area and try not to disturb the snake. It’s also a good idea to carry a walking stick, which can be used to move a snake out of the way if it’s impossible to go around it.
Dealing With a Snake Bite
Okay, so now you know what kinds of snakes are common in California, how to tell a rattlesnake from common lookalikes, and what kind of behavior to expect from snakes in California. Ideally, with this information in mind, you should never have to deal with snake bites in the first place. But let’s say you step into a snake’s resting place without realizing he’s there and get bitten. What should you do?
Rattlesnake bites can be nasty, but most of those active in California will only cause a mild reaction. Since all poisonous snakes in California are rattlesnakes, a type of pit viper, the same antivenom will be used no matter which species of snake you were bit by. This makes it relatively easy to deal with snake bites in California.
You should not attempt to treat the bite yourself or capture the snake responsible. Since the same antivenom will be used no matter what, the most important thing to do is to stay calm and get to an emergency room. You can wrap the bite in gauze to keep it clean and help with the pain, but there’s very little you can do on your own. Just call an ambulance, or get to an emergency room yourself if the reaction is mild.
Common Snake Bite Remedies
In fact, many common snake bite “remedies” are actually dangerous themselves and should not be tried. Unlike in the movies, you can’t effectively suck the venom out of a bite. So don’t try to do that, or make incisions with the intention of sucking out the venom. All you’re doing is further damaging the skin and blood vessels around the bite.
Some people believe that giving a snakebite victim alcohol, caffeine, or other drugs can help, and some try to ice the bite as well. None of these approaches will do anything for the snake bite itself and may exacerbate the reaction to the venom. So, just get to an emergency room as fast as you can, tell them what you remember about the snake that bit you, and they’ll assess whether you need an antivenom treatment or not.
So, with all this in mind, you should be set to avoid the most poisonous snakes in California, and deal with a bite if it does happen. The big takeaway is that most snakes, venomous or otherwise, won’t bother you if you don’t bother them.
Plus, the more aggressive ones you might encounter tend to be the least dangerous. In fact, you may be more at risk from Black Widow spiders, which can theoretically deliver almost 15 times as much venom as California’s rattlesnakes!
Bonus tip: Check out this awesome video on how to treat a snake bite!