Return of the Condor

With wingspans approaching 10 feet and weighing as much as 25 pounds, California condors are the largest flying land birds in North America (both mute and trumpeter swans are heavier). In the 1980s, there were only 22 California condors left in the wild; the last few condors were captured and a captive-breeding program was launched in hopes of bringing the species back from the brink of extinction.

Between 1924 and 1996, if you had seen a California condor in Arizona, you would most likely have been in a zoo; none of these giant birds still lived free in a state where once they had been plentiful. In 1996, however, six captive-raised condors were released atop the Vermilion Cliffs (north of Grand Canyon National Park). Since then, between 6 and 10 birds have been released annually, and there are now more than 50 condors flying free over northern Arizona. In 2003, for the first time in more than a century, a pair of condors hatched and raised a chick, and since then, several more condor pairs have successfully raised offspring.

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Condors are curious birds, and they are often attracted to human activity. Consequently, they are often seen in or near Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim. Look closely at their wings: if there’s a large number on the wing, it’s a captive-raised condor, but if there isn’t, it’s one of the handful of birds hatched in the wild in recent years.

One of the best places to spot condors is en route to the North Rim on House Rock Valley Rd., north of U.S. 98A between Lees Ferry and Jacob Lake. A few miles up this road, you’ll find interpretive plaques and a viewpoint from which you can see the condor release site, high atop the cliffs to the east. There’s also a small population in the West Canyon that sometimes fly out onto the grasslands near Grand Canyon Caverns. For more information on the condor-release program, visit the Peregrine Fund website (www.peregrinefund.org), which is the organization that administers the program.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.