One day in late August, a sort of diamond-shaped rock, painted to look like the head of a snake, appeared at the Atascadero Lake Park with a sign that read, “This is a Rock Snake. Add your painted rocks, and let’s see how long it’ll grow.” For the past seven months, the snake has continued to grow and now stretches over 1,200 feet, but its origin has remained a mystery until now. 

The sparkling, twisting, curving collection of rocks down by the lake began as a way to spread positivity, beauty, and, really, in a way, relaxation. The Rock Snake was started by local Atascadero resident Wanda Kohl, who had taken up an old hobby she used to do with her kids while looking for something to do during the COVID-19 pandemic. The hobby, of course, was finding interesting rocks of all different shapes, sizes, colors, and contours and turning them into fun works of art. 

“Well, Covid had been happening, and we were all stuck at home. I was going crazy, so I started painting rocks,” Kohl explained. “I mean, I would get up in the morning, and before breakfast, I would sit down and paint some rocks. It was really comforting to me; it became something I liked to do. I have some painted rocks from my kids when they were little. So, I just thought maybe I will try it and see if people like it. Maybe they will want to get involved.”

Kohl made her sign, painted her snakehead, as well as a few other rocks, and went to the lake with no expectations, just a longing to spread positivity to those in her community through her art. The Atascadero artist follows the popular rock snake community Facebook group “SLO Painted Rocks” and a few other fun pages such as “Rocks Behaving Badly,” where people hide rocks around the neighborhood but had never seen one that continued to grow.   

Getting through this together, Paso Robles
Wanda Kohl with her dog Sonny standing with the rock that began the Rock Snake. (Photos by Connor Allen)

After placing her first few rocks, Kohl waited a week to return and suddenly found 20 more rocks added to her snake. Today, the Rock Snake is over 1,200 feet long and contains upwards of 3,500 stones, each one representing a small piece of the person who made it. It has grown into a fantastic attraction that brings many people to the lake every day to see what new rocks have shown up and, most importantly, to find their rock and make sure it is still in the in the spot they left it.  

“I never really thought about it growing all the way around the lake, but over time, I did,” Kohl said through a smile. “Sometimes, I will just walk around the lake and listen to people talk about it and just watch the little kids pick them up. I have seen kids come and place rocks, and it is totally a community art project. I couldn’t be happier that it is going like it is.”

What started with just a few painted rocks that mostly looked like Easter eggs has now grown into a living piece of art. Those in Atascadero that have chosen to add to the Rock Snake have made it their own, and the creativity has exploded. 

There are now rocks for sports teams, superheroes, favorite movies, declarations of love, messages of faith, even advertisements for businesses, and ways to get help if you are struggling through the pandemic. 

There are rocks painted by professionals, amateurs, babies, and the elderly. It has truly become something that belongs to the City and all of the people within it. 

Perhaps the most interesting part about the Rock Snake is that it also keeps a chronological timeline with each of its scales like the rings inside a tree. If you start at the head, which is positioned at the bridge that crosses the overflow, and walk along the path, you will see where the snake was during holidays like Halloween, Christmas and Valentine’s Day as the rocks reflect the themes. 

The art project that started with a humble beginning now has more aspirational goals in mind. In August, it was preposterous to imagine the snake of painted rocks could make it all the way around the lake, but with it about a quarter of the way there already, it’s beginning to seem possible. 

The Atascadero News, along with the help of some community members, the City of Atascadero and the Friends of the Atascadero Lake, have set a goal even higher than anyone ever thought possible. 

The City released the following statement on Tuesday afternoon. 

“The City is excited to see that our residents and visitors have taken an interest in the Rock Snake. Due to this level of participation, we have been asked to look into what it takes to be considered for the Genius Book of World Records. While we check on what that means, keep creating and adding to the Rock Snake!”

Is it possible that the Atascadero Rock Snake could not only be the longest snake on the Central Coast or America but the entire world? It is not certain if the Rock Snake is eligible for the Guinness Book of World Records, but it could be as it meets the criteria. To qualify, the record must be measurable, breakable, standardizable, verifiable, based on one variable, and, obviously, the best in the world. 

Atascadero is not the first place in the world to have an extensive collection of painted rocks. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the current record for the largest display of painted rocks is in the United Kingdom in memory of a young girl, Isla Tansey, who passed away (click here)

The Tansey collection of “painted pebbles” has 8,500 rocks but does not have them positioned into a long trail but rather in a display. 

However, it turns out that Atascadero might not be the only City trying to break this record during the pandemic. It has been reported that the town of Paignton, England, is also aiming for the record and was nearing 3,000 rocks in June. 

It is unclear if Paignton has applied for the record, but one thing is clear, Atascadero is making its push and needs more painted rocks from its residents if we want our place in the history books.