Visitors to the Grand Canyon in northern Arizona expect to see not just “the giant hole in the ground”, but also some of the native animals that make this incredible landscape their home.
Creatures like elk, bighorn sheep, rattlesnakes, mountain lions, mule deer, scorpions, and many kinds of birds are the real owners of the Grand Canyon, and we are simply visitors in their domain.
One of the most impressive birds to ever take to the skies is the California Condor; with an unbelievable wingspan of 9.5 feet from tip to tip, the condor is the most giant flying bird in North America.
I have had the privilege of witnessing this beautiful creature twice, and each time it was an awe-inspiring experience. The grace with which these massive birds soar through the sky is truly a sight to behold, and one that I will never forget.
In this article I tell you everything you need to know about this majestic bird, their history in the region, the efforts made for their preservation, and of course, where and how to see them.
Let’s get started.
California Condors in Grand Canyon National Park
Although there are several species of condor found throughout the world, the only one that inhabits the Grand Canyon and surrounding areas is the California Condor.
Weighing up to 20 lbs (9 kg) and measuring nearly 10 feet from wingtip to wingtip, California condors seem almost too big to fly; they primarily use hot air rising from the ground below to soar to great heights with little effort.
Their impressive size is hard to appreciate until you see them up close! (The Phoenix Zoo has a pair of California condors that are beautiful to see in person).
These majestic birds used to live across all of North America thousands of years ago, but today they number around 561 [source], making them one of the rarest animals worldwide.
The California Condor live mostly in northern Arizona, including the Grand Canyon and the Vermilion Cliffs area. There is also a small population in Baja, Mexico.
Obviously, it would be ideal to have more of these birds in the wild, as they are a vital part of the ecosystem and deserve to thrive in their ancestral lands.
Condors used to number in the thousands, with populations occupying the landscapes along the Pacific Ocean, across the southwest, all the way to Florida, and up the east coast of the United States.
In the 1900s, with the expansion of mankind across the entire country, condor numbers began to fall drastically. Habitat loss, hunting, poisoning, power lines, egg collecting, and most of all, lead poisoning from eating animals that had been killed by lead shot, all contributed to the demise of condors in huge numbers.
Where Can I See a California Condor?
Since condors nest and roost in the steepest cliffs and other rough terrains, coming across one in the wild is rare.
Condors are commonly seen at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, but again it is rare to see them up close.
Here are the best places to see California Condors in the Grand Canyon and nearby:
- Plateau Point in the canyon, South Rim
- Lookout Studio, South Rim
- Yavapai Point, South Rim
- Yaki Point, South Rim
- Navajo Bridge, Marble Canyon (80 miles north of the Grand Canyon)
- Vermilion Cliffs (100 miles north of the Grand Canyon)
You’re most likely to see them flying above you, riding the heat waves coming out of the canyon, and looking for food. They eat only dead animals, so near any carcass in the Canyon will surely be a good place to spot a condor.
I have seen them only twice, on Navajo Bridge over Marble Canyon near the Vermilion Cliffs (80 miles north of the Grand Canyon).
This is a great place to stop on a road trip anyway, and if you bring some binoculars with you, you may be able to spot them soaring in the bright blue skies above this beautiful landscape.
Baja California (Mexico) has a sturdy population of condors as well, where the rugged desert terrain provides safety from predators (of which there are few). Pinnacles National Park and Big Sur in the state of California are also home to steady populations of California Condors.
Saving the Condors
By 1985, after many years of study and close observation, it was noted by scientists that only 9 wild birds remained [source].
This was hardly sustainable for the population to continue, so they made the difficult decision to capture all of the remaining condors to preserve the species in captive breeding programs.
In 1987, the last wild California Condor was captured [source].
Breeding California Condors successfully is tricky work; they only lay 1-2 eggs every other year, and the chance of baby condors making it to adulthood in the wild is very low.
Captive breeders would remove the eggs from breeding pairs (which would sometimes encourage them to lay another egg or two), place them in incubators, and then raise the hatched condor chicks (sometimes with hand puppets that look like real condors!)
The babies grew over time, and as the breeding programs got more and more successful, soon it was time to release the captive-bred condors back into the wild where they would hopefully survive and reproduce.
There were only a few areas in the country that were deemed suitable for condors to survive. Some of the first places for new condors to be released included:
In 1992, condors were starting to be released in California, and in 1996, the condors were released into the skies over northern Arizona, occupying their natural habitat for the first time in 80 years!
It was an emotional moment for all involved; a beautiful species was brought back from the brink of extinction through the hard work of many biologists, scientists, researchers, and breeders.
In the past 40 years since then, that population has grown to 561 [source] wild condors thanks to these huge preservation efforts.
To obtain information on specific birds, visit CondorSpotter.com, a website that provides data on wing tags and details for all free-flying California Condor populations in the U.S. By selecting the name of a particular flock, you will be presented with a list of various flocks to explore further.
For visitors to these areas where condors fly free, it is important to remember that they are still highly endangered species and need to be protected at all costs.
Remember to never litter (condors may be attracted to shiny objects and trash), avoid hunting/shooting with lead-based bullets, do not disturb any nests or roosting condors that you may come across, and always keep your distance from all wild animals.
Although the largest bird in North America remains critically endangered, their future is bright with continuing breeding programs and successful wild breeding pairs as well.
Condors are notorious for the slow rebounding of their numbers and tricky breeding practices, but with continued work and conservation by scientists, there will always be condors flying in the skies over the Grand Canyon and other areas for many years to come.
Before You Go
Seeing a California Condor in person is nearly a once-in-a-lifetime experience; their incredible wingspan seems impossibly vast, and the vibrant white feathers under their wings combined with their bald, orange heads give them a unique, unmistakable look.
For visitors to the Grand Canyon, bringing binoculars is one of the surest ways to see these magnificent birds in the wild. They tend to soar hundreds of feet in the air but are easy to spot from below with their distinct wingspan length.
California condors are a living icon of the southwest and I, for one, am thankful for the tireless effort of conservationists over the years to bring back this gorgeous bird to its natural habitat.
For more adventures in the area check out my guide on how to go horseback riding in the Grand Canyon, and before you go make sure to read about the cell service coverage there and what to do about it.
Also don’t miss my article where I list what animals live in the Grand Canyon, where to find them, and in which I give essential tips on the subject.