For many visitors to the Blue Ridge and Great Smoky Mountains, even mentioning the word snake results in results in an immediate reaction of fear, disdain, and "heebie-jeebies". Snakes seem to cause a negative reaction in many that just can't be explained.
Some reactions are due to bad experiences, others due to lack of knowledge and fear, and others just an unexplainable phobia.
On the contrary, though, snakes in the Blue Ridge Mountains are generally not something to fear and are non-aggressive and just want to be left alone. In this article, we'll explore the various types of venomous and non-venomous snakes you'll find in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and we'll teach you how to identify them.
While we may not remove your fear of snakes, we'll at least help you with your snake knowledge so you go on your Blue Ridge Mountain adventures with a bit less fear and more confidence.
Snakes in the Blue Ridge Mountains
Snakes are an important part of the Blue Ridge Mountains ecosystem. They help to control populations of rodents and other small animals, and they are also a valuable part of the food chain. However, as mentioned, many people are afraid of snakes, and some people even kill them on sight. This is unfortunate, as snakes are generally harmless and play an important role in the environment.
We are very much pro-wildlife, and believe strongly in the principles of leave no trace and that even it applies to snakes, venomous or not.
All snakes play an important role in the ecosystem by helping to control populations of rodents and other small animals. They are also a valuable part of the food chain, as they are preyed upon by birds, mammals, and other reptiles.
If you encounter a snake while hiking or camping in the Blue Ridge Mountains, it is important to remain calm and avoid making any sudden movements. Most snakes will not attack unless they feel threatened.
If you are bitten by a venomous snake, it is important to seek medical attention immediately. See our tips below for dealing with a snake bite if you were to be bitten (which is incredibly rare by the way).
But, how do you know if a snake is venomous or not? That is the whole reason we wrote this guide, to help YOU educate yourself on the various kinds of snakes in the Blue Ridge Mountains, so you can identify and know the snake you encounter when out on the trail or exploring waterfalls.
This guide covers the entire Blue Ridge Mountains, and includes snakes in Georgia, snakes in North Carolina, snakes in Virginia, and snakes in Tennessee as well. This also includes snakes found in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The Two Venomous Snakes in the Blue Ridge Mountains
There are a variety of snakes found in the Blue Ridge Mountains, including both venomous and non-venomous species. But there is some good news, there are only two venomous snakes in these mountains, and the rest are relatively harmless and non-venomous.
While it's difficult to be able to learn and recognize all of the snakes in the Blue Ridge Mountains, what's really important is being able to quickly recognize these two, as the others are harmless. Fortunately recognizing these two venomous snakes is very easy.
The two venomous snakes that you'll find in the Blue Ridge and Great Smoky Mountains are the Copperhead and Timber Rattlesnake.
The two venomous snakes that you need to be aware of, and know how to recognize are the timber rattlesnake and the copperhead.
While the timber rattlesnake is the most venomous, it is the least aggressive of the two snakes. In fact, timber rattlesnakes only bite if they feel very threatened or are provoked. They generally try to move away from you and go on their way.
The timber rattlesnake is the largest of the two venomous snakes and can grow up to 72 inches long. It is a thick-bodied snake with a triangular head and a series of dark crossbands on its back. The timber rattlesnake is easily recognizable by using the following tips and traits:
- The head is large and triangular, with a narrow neck.
- The eyes are large, with vertical pupils. Non-venomous snakes in the Blue Ridge Mountains do not have vertical pupils
- The body is thick and heavy, with a series of dark crossbands on the back.
- The tail is short and ends in a rattle. The snake will frequently use this rattle to make a loud and easily recognizable sound to warn you of its presence.
The Timber Rattlesnake has many different colors and phases, so using color alone is not a great way to identify it. They can be anywhere from dark black to light tan in color.
Timber Rattlesnakes are pit vipers, meaning they have two large pits above their mouths and at the front of their head, that resemble large nostrils.
Seeing a Timber Rattlesnake while out in these mountains is rare. In fact, we have been hiking for over 20 years here in these mountains and we haven't seen one on the trail or near waterfalls yet. However, if you do see one, just give it space, and it will eventually move off the trail and go about its business.
While far less venomous, the Copperhead is the venomous snake you need to most be worried about. They are generally very hard to see, very fast, and fairly aggressive. Fortunately, they are not common.
The Copperhead is smaller than the timber rattlesnake and has a copper-colored head and hourglass-shaped markings on its back. It is very easy to recognize by the copper and brown colors of its head and body. They are generally about 2-3 feet in length, and less thick-bodied than a Timber Rattlesnake.
Tips for recognizing Copperheads include:
- The head is coppery or reddish brown, with a distinct "V" shape on the forehead.
- The body is brown or reddish brown, with hourglass-shaped markings on the back.
- The tail is short and ends with a blunt tip.
When threatened, they will often produce a strong musky odor and "wag" their tail in the leaves or dirt to mimic the sound of rattlesnakes, as a warning.
How to avoid getting bitten by a snake in the Blue Ridge Mountains
Being bitten by a venomous snake in the Blue Ridge and Great Smoky Mountains is incredibly rare. But, even being so rare, they do happen. With only two venomous snakes found in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and both of those snakes being reclusive and timid, you would literally have to be at the perfectly wrong place and at the wrong time.
Here are some tips for avoiding snakebites:
- Wear boots when hiking or camping in snake-infested areas. This is one of the reasons we prefer boots over shoes.
- Make noise when walking through tall grass or brush.
- Carry a stick or hiking pole, and use it to move brush and grass out of the way before you step forward.
- Look carefully before putting your hands or feet in places where you cannot see.
- When stepping over fallen trees or rocks, always look where you will be stepping before you step.
- Do not handle snakes, even if they appear to be dead.
If you are bitten by a snake, it is important to remain calm and seek medical attention immediately. Do not attempt to capture or kill the snake that bit you. The sooner you receive treatment, the better your chances of recovery.
While the chances of being bitten by a venomous snake are very very low in the mountains, it does happen. If you are bitten by either a Copperhead or Timber Rattlesnake, here is what to do:
- Stay calm. Panicking will only make the situation worse.
- Remove any jewelry or constrictive clothing from the area of the bite. This will help to prevent swelling.
- Wash the bite with soap and water. This will help to remove any venom that may be on the skin.
- Apply a cold compress to the area of the bite. This will help to reduce swelling and pain.
- Elevate the bitten area above the level of your heart. This will help to slow the spread of venom.
- Seek medical attention immediately. The sooner you receive treatment, the better your chances of recovery.
Here are some things you should not do if you are bitten by a venomous snake:
- Do not cut the bite area. This will not help to remove the venom and will only increase the risk of infection.
- Do not apply a tourniquet. This will cut off blood flow to the area and could lead to tissue damage.
- Do not drink alcohol. Alcohol will speed up the absorption of venom into your bloodstream.
- Do not attempt to capture or kill the snake. This is dangerous and will not help you.
If you are bitten by a venomous snake, it is important to remember that you are not alone. There are many people who have been bitten by snakes and survived. With proper medical treatment, you have a good chance of making a full recovery. In fact, deaths from venomous snake bites in the Blue Ridge Mountains are incredibly rare.
Non-venomous Snakes in the Blue Ridge Mountains
The Blue Ridge Mountains are home to a variety of non-venomous snakes, some of which are commonly encountered by hikers and other outdoor enthusiasts. While many people fear snakes, non-venomous species pose little threat to humans and are an important part of the ecosystem.
The Blue Ridge Mountains contain over 20 different varieties of non-venomous snakes, but there are 6 that are the most common and they are the ones you'll most likely run into while out on the trail or exploring waterfalls.
Important Note: The two venomous snakes in the Blue Ridge Mountains are both pit vipers. They both have vertical pupils, large pits on their noses, and triangular-shaped heads. Non-venomous snakes have round pupils, no pits, and more rounded heads.
Black Rat Snake
Black Rat Snakes (Pantherophis obsoletus) are a non-venomous species of snake that are commonly found throughout much of the eastern United States, including the Blue Ridge Mountains. These snakes are named for their tendency to prey on rats and other rodents.
Black Snakes are incredibly common here in the Blue Ridge Mountains and are the snake that you will most likely come across when exploring these mountains.
We see black snakes here in NC often in our yard and around our property. We also encounter them on the trail more frequently than an other snake in this guide. Black snakes in NC are very common.
Black Rat Snakes are large snakes that can grow up to six feet long, although they are more commonly found in the three to four-foot range. They have shiny black scales that can sometimes have a bluish tint, and a white or cream-colored chin and throat. Young Black Rat Snakes often have a pattern of blotches or stripes on their back, but as they mature these markings tend to fade, leaving a solid black color.
These snakes are excellent climbers and are often found in trees, where they hunt for prey such as birds and their eggs. However, they are also commonly found on the ground in wooded areas, fields, and around human habitations. Black Rat Snakes are active during the day and are often seen basking in the sun on rocks or logs.
If threatened, Black Rat Snakes will usually try to flee rather than attack. However, if cornered or provoked, they may hiss, vibrate their tails, and strike in self-defense. They will often "bluff" charge, in an attempt to scare you, but are completely harmless.
Black Racers (Coluber constrictor) are a non-venomous species of snake that are commonly found in the Blue Ridge Mountains and throughout much of the eastern United States. These snakes are named for their fast movements and can be difficult to catch or observe in the wild.
Black Racers have a sleek and slender body that can grow up to six feet in length, although they are more commonly found in the three to four-foot range. They have shiny black scales that can have a blue or green tint under certain lighting conditions, and a white or cream-colored chin and throat. Unlike some other snake species, Black Racers do not have distinctive markings or patterns on their bodies.
These snakes are diurnal and are most active during the day, when they hunt for prey such as small mammals, birds, and insects. Black Racers are fast-moving and can reach speeds of up to 8 miles per hour, making them one of the fastest snake species in North America. They are also excellent climbers and are known to climb trees and shrubs in search of food or to escape predators.
If threatened, Black Racers will usually try to flee rather than attack. However, if cornered or provoked, they may hiss, vibrate their tails, and strike in self-defense.
Eastern Milk Snake
The Eastern Milk Snake (Lampropeltis triangulum) is another non-venomous species found in the Blue Ridge Mountains. These snakes are often mistaken for Copperheads due to their similar coloration but can be distinguished by the presence of a light-colored band between their darker bands. Eastern Milk Snakes are also constrictors and feed primarily on small mammals, but will also eat birds and reptiles.
Eastern Milk Snakes (Lampropeltis triangulum) are a non-venomous species of snake found in the Blue Ridge Mountains and throughout much of the eastern United States. These snakes are named for their tendency to consume milk from cows and other mammals.
Eastern Milk Snakes have a patterned appearance that can be quite variable, but they are typically characterized by a series of reddish-brown blotches or saddles on a gray or tan background. The belly of the snake is typically cream-colored or yellow with black markings. They can grow up to four feet in length, although they are more commonly found in the two to three-foot range.
These snakes are typically found in wooded areas, fields, and around human habitations. They are active during the day and are often seen basking in the sun on rocks or logs. Eastern Milk Snakes are excellent climbers and are often found in trees, where they hunt for prey such as birds and their eggs.
Ring-necked snakes (Diadophis punctatus) are a small and non-venomous species of snake that can be found in the Blue Ridge Mountains and throughout much of North America. These snakes are named for the distinctive orange or yellow ring around their necks, which contrasts with their otherwise dark gray or black bodies.
Ring-necked snakes are small, typically growing to be no longer than 1-2 feet in length. They are primarily nocturnal and are often found hiding under logs, rocks, and other debris during the day. They are also known to climb trees and shrubs in search of insects, spiders, and small invertebrates, which make up the bulk of their diet.
One interesting fact about Ring-necked snakes is that they have a unique defensive behavior. When threatened, these snakes will often curl up into a tight ball and hide their head under their coils, exposing their brightly colored neck ring to any potential predator. This behavior is thought to confuse predators and make the snake seem larger and more intimidating than it actually is.
Ring-necked snakes are relatively docile and are unlikely to bite humans unless they feel threatened.
Eastern Garter Snake
Eastern Garter Snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis) are a common and widespread species of snake found in the Blue Ridge Mountains and throughout much of North America. These non-venomous snakes are known for their slender bodies and distinctive stripes that run down the length of their bodies.
Eastern Garter Snakes can range in color from green to brown or gray, but they are most commonly recognized by their yellow or green stripes that run down their backs. They are relatively small, typically growing to be no longer than 2-3 feet in length.
These snakes are active during the day and are often found basking in the sun or hiding in vegetation in search of prey. They are opportunistic hunters and will consume a variety of small prey, including insects, earthworms, frogs, and small rodents.
They are generally harmless and will only bite in self-defense. If threatened, these snakes will often try to flee rather than attack.
Northern Water Snake
Northern Water Snakes (Nerodia sipedon) are a species of non-venomous snake that can be found in the Blue Ridge Mountains and throughout much of North America. As their name suggests, these snakes are often found near bodies of water, including streams, rivers, and ponds.
These are the snakes we most frequently run into when at waterfalls or swimming holes. They are very very common, and because of their markings, are frequently mistaken as copperheads and/or water moccasins (there are no water moccasins in the mountains).
Northern Water Snakes are typically brown or gray in color and have dark blotches on their backs that may form stripes. They can grow up to four feet in length, although they are more commonly found in the two to three foot range. These snakes are powerful swimmers and are known to be excellent climbers as well.
Northern Water Snakes are primarily active during the day and are often found basking in the sun on rocks or logs near bodies of water.
Like all snakes, Northern Water Snakes will defend themselves if they feel threatened. If cornered or provoked, they may hiss, vibrate their tails, and strike in self-defense. However, they are generally not aggressive towards humans and will usually try to flee rather than attack. They are incredibly fast and will strike when approached.
What do you do if you see a snake?
If you see a snake, it's important to stay calm and avoid startling or provoking it. Most snakes are not aggressive and will not attack unless they feel threatened or cornered.
Here are some steps you can take to stay safe:
- Keep your distance: Stand back and give the snake plenty of space. Do not attempt to touch or handle the snake.
- Identify the snake: If possible, try to identify the species of snake from a safe distance. This can help you determine whether the snake is venomous or not. Use our tips and information above.
- Retreat slowly: If you are in the snake's immediate area, slowly back away while keeping an eye on the snake's movements. Do not turn your back on the snake.
Remember, snakes are an important part of the ecosystem and play a vital role in controlling rodent populations. If you encounter a snake in its natural habitat, it's best to leave it alone and let it go about its business.
The Blue Ridge Mountains are home to a variety of snakes that play important roles in the ecosystem. While some people may fear snakes, they should be respected and admired for their unique characteristics and contributions to the natural world.
By learning more about non-venomous snakes in the Blue Ridge Mountains, we can better appreciate and protect these fascinating creatures.