California Condor in the Bitter Creek NWR. Credit: USFWS
FeatureAuthor: S. Shaw
When it comes to successful conservation efforts, the protection of the California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus) is a superb example. Condors are an incredible sight. They are North America’s largest bird with a wingspan of more than 9 feet and can soar at altitudes of 15,000 feet. They once flew in skies across the desert southwest and into Oregon but today the California Condor exists only in a few scattered isolated populations. While that sounds precarious, it is actually an astonishing improvement. In 1987 there were only 22 confirmed condors left in the wild. The U.S. government captured all 22 and began a captive breeding program to save the bird from extinction. For the next few years there were no California Condors in the wild. Then in early 1992, reintroduction efforts began - without those efforts, condors would likely not grace skies today.
The birds are carrion eaters, meaning they are Mother Nature’s garbage disposals. They eat the carcasses of dead animals with a preference towards large game. Because of their diet, they are extremely susceptible to lead poisoning from game which is shot and discarded (with the shot left in the meat). Lead poisoning is not the only reason for their population decline. They need room to soar great distances.
Condors are known to fly more than 150 miles searching for their next meal. As development raged and human populations soared in the southwest, condor numbers plummeted. If the odds were not stacked against them already, condors have an extremely slow reproduction rate, they only lay one egg and do not do so every year. After decades of recovery efforts there are more than two hundred California Condors in the wild.
So where can you see them? There are a few places where your chances are actually pretty good at seeing one of rarest animals on the planet. Pinnacles, Grand Canyon and Zion National Parks all have frequent condor sightings and Vermilion Cliffs National Monument has a thriving population. Pinnacles National Park is located about two hours south of the Bay Area in California. The mountainous park is famous for its eroded spires left in the wake of an extinct volcano. More than a dozen condors call the park home. For an even better chance at seeing them get off the road and put your boots to the trail. We recommend the Condor Gulch to High Peaks Loop. The hike is a little more than a five mile loop that leads through the heart of the Pinnacles rock formations. For those looking for an easier hike, try the Condor Gulch Trail. The hike to an overlook with amazing views of the High Peaks is about two miles round trip.
Another great place to see Condors is the remote Vermilion Cliffs National Monument in north central Arizona. The monument is about a half-day’s drive from either Las Vegas or Phoenix. Because of its distance from civilization the area was one of the first condor reintroduction release sites. Today, more than six dozen condors reside in the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument. For the best chance at seeing condors head out on Highway 89A to the west side of the monument then head north on House Rock Valley Road. A few miles up you come to the condor viewing site. The cliffs to the east of the site are where condors were released and the area is in general a great place to view them year round. In the winter, California Condors are often seen around Marble Canyon and the Colorado River just west of the monument on Highway 89A. Pay particularly close attention at Navajo Bridge, condors are frequently observed near the bridge and you may get a close up view. While you are in Vermilion Cliffs area make sure to check out The Wave which is an amazing sandstone rock formation on the slopes of Coyote Buttes in the monument. If time permits, there is opportunity to knock off a few other bucket list hikes like Buckskin Gulch and Paria Canyon. Make sure to check with the Bureau of Land Management for permit information and keep a close eye on the weather as flash floods are common in the canyons.
California Condors are also frequently seen in two of the National Park Service’s crown jewels; Grand Canyon and Zion National Parks. In the spring and summer they are often seen along the South Rim near the Grand Canyon Village. Take a hike down Bright Angel Trail to escape the crowds of the village and increase your odds of seeing a condor, not mention knock off one of the very best hikes in country. If you strike out in the village area head east to Yavapai Point. Relax and soak in the amazing view while scanning the canyon and skies for condors. A little further to the east along the Entrance Road is Yaki Point. You can take in the view from the rim and look for condors or start hiking towards the canyon floor along the South Kaibab Trail which is another bucket list hike and can be turned into an epic backpacking loop when combined with the Bright Angel Trail. Take note, both the South Kaibab and Bright Angel Trails are incredibly strenuous if done in their entirety and can be difficult even if shortened dramatically. Hikers die or require rescue every year in the Grand Canyon, so plan accordingly and use common sense.
Condors may also observed soaring in Zion National Park’s Kolob Canyon, in the northwest corner of the park. The canyon’s 2,000 foot sheer sandstone cliffs make ideal habitat for condors. Kolob Canyon does not see nearly as many visitors as popular Zion Canyon, making it ideal condor watching for those that seek solitude. However, if your visit to the park takes you to Zion Canyon there is still a chance to see condors. The best way is to hike the classic Zion trail Angel’s Landing. Condors are regularly observed soaring over Angels Landing. This hike is tough but is also a classic that rewards with breathtaking views of Zion Canyon.
A few things to remember when viewing condors or hiking in condor country: 1) they are curious of humans so just like all wildlife, keep your distance; 2) don’t forget the binoculars, while condors are huge and generally pretty easy to spot, a pair of binoculars will allow you to see detail; 3) they can be easy to confuse with turkey vultures when not in flight. When in flight, the under-wings of turkey vultures are black with whitish feathers. The California Condor, however, has black under feathers and white under wing patches that kind of look like an elongated outline of the state of Idaho. Leave us comment below and tell us where you've seen condors.
California Condor in the Bitter Creek NWR. Credit: USFWS