The condor viewing site at Vermilion Cliffs National Monument is one of only a handful of places to observe the largest flying bird in North America, the California condor. Witnessing the massive vulture flying majestically above, with its nearly 10-foot wingspan, should be on everyone’s wildlife experiences bucket list. Until recently, seeing a condor in the wild, in North America, was nearly impossible. During our visit to Vermilion Cliff National Monument (NM), we saw about 50.
Since 1996, the Peregrine Fund and the Bureau of Land Management have worked together to release condors at Vermilion Cliffs NM―the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided this was the ideal release site. As an endangered bird species, the California condor was saved from extinction through human assistance.
In 1982, there were 22 California condors. Today, there are more than 500, with about 100 living near Vermilion Cliffs NM.
This dramatic increase began in 1996 when six condors were released onto the cliffs. Since then, about six to 10 birds, have been released each year. Every bird is fitted upon the edge of the wings with individual number tags and two radio transmitters. Roughly 10 biologists monitor their progress daily.
Once critically endangered, only recently has this unusual-looking bird started successfully breeding in the wild again thanks to an aggressive conservation breeding program. Sightings are rare because the birds are found in very small numbers in a few locations. Although there are birding opportunities in Arizona, Utah, Nevada, California, and Mexico, the California condors are primarily seen around both the Pinnacles and Vermilion Cliffs national monuments.
Binoculars and Cameras
The condor viewing site at Vermilion allows visitors to easily see these awesome birds in the wild. Whether they’re perched on the cliff or soaring thousands of feet above, the best way to watch them is with a budget-savvy set of travel size 12×42 binoculars, 10x magnification binoculars probably won’t cut it from the distance of the viewing site.
The Healsun binoculars come with a phone adapter, which will allow you to take amazing photos. Also, having a pair of binoculars always available will help with the other wildlife spottings and scenic viewpoints that you will come across during your travels through the area.
Tip: The large mounted binoculars (viewfinder) at the viewing site don’t work, so make sure to bring your own. Camera phones will be extremely pixilated, so it may be worthwhile to invest in the Nikon COOLPIX P1000. With a 125x zoom, the P1000 is by far the best travel-size wildlife camera on the market―photographers have even taken pictures of the space station with it from Earth!
Condor Viewing Site
Positioned along the southwest edge of Vermilion Cliff NM, the condor viewing site is only a five-minute drive off US Hwy 89A, the monument’s main road.
Whether you’re based in Kanab, UT, or Page, AZ the condor viewing site is basically an equal distance away. Consequently, the only difference is that visitors from Kanab will approach from the west, traversing through the Kaibab National Forest. While sightseers from Page will approach from the east, traveling the entire length of the Vermilion Cliffs.
There’s a beauty, a grandeur about the encounter that’s deserving of adding Vermilion’s condor viewing site to a bucket list. – The Budget Savvy Travelers
Upon turning north on House Rock Rd., travel for about three miles to the condor viewing site. It’s impossible to miss as it’s the only thing in the vicinity.
Follow the Bird Droppings
The condors are easy to locate, their white droppings coat the side of the cliff. Click on each picture below to gradually zoom in on the condors―it’s easy to see the importance of bringing a camera with excellent zoom capabilities, like the Nikon COOLPIX P1000.
The third picture (above) shows about 10 California condors roosting on the cliff. Sadly, our point-and-shoot camera wasn’t strong enough to provide a high-quality zoom.
The condor viewing site includes a useless viewfinder, interpretive panels, a picnic table with shelter, and a bathroom (pit toilet). Also, there is no fee to access the viewing site or the Vermilion Cliffs NM.
Tip: We brought some snacks and drinks in our Igloo Tag Along cooler to enjoy while we viewed the condors. It’s pretty much the only cooler on the market that keeps things cool for many hours. It comes with a convenient shoulder strap and is the perfect travel size.
Best Time to Visit Condor Viewing Site
The best time to visit Vermilion’s condor viewing site is during winter and early spring when visitors are almost guaranteed to spot at least one, if not tens of condors. As spring transitions to summer, the condors may move east towards the Navajo Bridge and then south towards the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Finally, during the fall, the condors roost/nest on the cliffs just west of Kaibab National Forest.
Spotting & Encountering – Our Birding Experience
Springtime is busy in Arizona. Between the snowbirds and spring breakers, popular trails and parks can get congested. To escape the crowds, we decided to experience one of Arizona’s most hidden wildlife experiences, watching the grace and beauty of the California condor.
Pulling up to the condor viewing site, we were excited to enjoy one spectacular wildlife show.
During our visit, we estimate that we saw about 50 condors, either perched on the cliffs or soaring above them. If you wait long enough, the massive birds will come and go, taking turns scoping out the area. It’s exciting to see them take off in small groups and soar beside the Vermillion Cliffs.
If you decide to go, consider bringing some snacks and drinks to refrain from rushing. We took advantage of the cozy sitting area by packing a lunch to leisurely watch the wildlife spectacle. It’s a great way to stretch the legs after exploring the Grand Canyon or other areas of Vermilion National Monument.
California Condor – Interesting Facts
Below are some interesting facts related to the California condor:
- They are the largest land birds in North America
- Average weight is about 26 pounds.
- Wingspans of up to 9.5 feet.
- Height of up to 4.3 feet.
- Live over 60 years.
- Range of about 15,000 square miles.
- Typically, they soar singly or in pairs.
- Lay one egg every other year in the wild.
- Biologists remove the eggs in nests and hatch them in incubators. As a result, most times, the breeding pair lay an additional egg, doubling the number of eggs hatched.
- Nest high on cliffs and in caves to protect themselves from land-bound predators.
- Only eat carrion, the decaying flesh of dead animals.
- Soar above the ground using wind thermals near steep slopes or canyons and can fly 200+ miles in a single day.
- Social creatures that are known to form intense bonds with other condors.
- Inquisitive animals that inspect anything that seems new.
- Enjoy play fighting and preening.
- Unlike turkey vultures which wobble as they fly, condors glide evenly.
- Lead poisoning seems to be the most likely reason for the mass endangerment of the species. Research has shown that spent ammunition was a common source of lead exposure in the carrion that condors ate. As of July 1, 2019, California has made it illegal to use lead ammunition while hunting.
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument condor viewing site is one of the easiest and best places to spot the California condor in the wild. While winter and spring are the ideal time to spot the high-flying animal, it is possible to see them any time of the year near Vermilion.