Comparing elevational gradients across a wide spectrum of climatic zones offers an ideal system for testing hypotheses explaining the altitudinal gradients of biodiversity. We document elevational patterns of lizard and snake species richness, and explore how land area and climatic factors may affect species distributions of lizards and snakes. Our synthesis found 42 lizard species and 94 snake species known from the Hengduan Mountains. The lizards are distributed between 500 and 3500 m, and the snakes are distributed between 500 and 4320 m. The relationship between species richness and elevation for lizards and snakes is unimodal. Land area explains a significant amount of the variation in lizard and snake species richness. The cluster analysis reveals pronounced distinct assemblages for lizards and snakes to better reflect the vertical profiles of climate in the mountains. Climatic variables are strongly associated with lizard and snake richness along the elevational gradient. The data strongly implicate water availability as a key constraint on lizard species richness, and annual potential evapotranspiration is the best predictor of snake species richness along the elevational gradient in the Hengduan Mountains.