California Condor Zion National Park Utah

Condor close enough for a cell phone photo

Condors in Zion National Park, Utah

The family snuck in a 4-day camping trip to Zion National Park recently. It’s an astoundingly beautiful spot. Unfortunately, it’s no secret, so it’s overrun with humans. For that reason, despite traveling to Utah every year, passing just 30 minutes from Zion, we never go. But a friend had reserved two group campground sites, and a bunch of families were up for the trip to celebrate some recent birthdays.  

Wall Street Zion Narrows

Wall Street section of Zion Narrows

I managed to squeeze in two awesome, and distinct, hikes while we were there. The first was hiking the Zion Narrows. Getting to the trailhead requires riding the Zion Shuttle all the way to the end of line. From there, it’s a one-mile hike alongside the Virgin River. The trail is wide and flat here. The fun begins where the canyon narrows and the trail ends. From here, you walk up river.  And I mean river – most of the hiking from here involves feet in the water. Depending on the flow rate, the water will be ankle deep with occasional mid-thigh sections, or worse. We had a nice low flow rate, so the water never got to my waist. The water is cold, though, and the rocks are uneven and can be slippery. A walking stick is a must, the rental water shoes weren’t necessary (my 15 year old son and I hiked in keens + neoprene socks). We made it all the way to Wall Street–3 miles from the trailhead–where the canyon is just 22 feet wide and the cliff walls are 1500 feet tall. The crowded Narrows isn’t a good spot for birding. You can see Dippers, and a handful of songbirds, and a condor could fly over, but a lone raven was my only bird sighting of the 6 hour hike.

Angels Landing Zion National Park

The trail (at right) to the top of Angels Landing

The second awesome hike was Angels Landing. Like the Narrows, this is not a hike you’re going to do alone. Beyond that, it’s a totally different and amazing experience. This hike rises from the canyon bottom, up some switchbacks that appear from below to be carved into the cliff. From there, you hit Refrigerator Canyon – a cool, shady, narrow canyon where the Mexican subspecies of Spotted Owls apparently nest.  Once you make it through this welcome respite from the heat, you encounter Walter’s Wiggles, 21 short, but steep, switchbacks that take you to the true highlight of the hike: the rock formation known as Angels Landing. It’s a half-mile hike along this narrow, steep spine of rock. In spots, it’s just a few feet wide, and there are 1,000 foot drop-offs on each side of you. It’s truly not for the faint of heart. In particularly sketchy sections, you’ll be thankful for the metal chains to grab onto.

Once you make it to the top of Angels Landing, the views are spectacular. Even better for the birder who has made it, this is one of the best spots to see California Condors in Zion. There are around 70-100 condors who make Utah and Arizona their home. Just this summer, there was a nest on the cliff below the scary section of the Angels landing hike. The bird hatched in the wild, and apparently took its first flight at the end of August. Just as we made it to the top, we spotted two adult condors soaring. Amazingly enough, they were soaring below us, not a sight I ever expected to see. At one point, we had eye-level views at a distance of about 75 feet of one of the condors. A third condor, a juvenile, joined them. I was able to read the tags on two of them – the juvenile was 4 years old, and the adult was 18.

Campsite Watchman campground Zion National park

Campsite at Watchman Campground, Zion National Park

As far as birding goes, the campground was the most productive spot by far. There were Yellow-rumped Warblers and Summer Tanagers and Western Bluebirds moving through the trees. I also spotted Red-naped Sapsucker,  Downy Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, and Black-capped Chickadee. There weren’t a lot of birds, but I wasn’t complaining.

I’m not going to be condescending and say don’t go to Zion National Park because there are too many people there.  However true the “it used to be better before everyone else starting coming” position may be, Zion is worth a trip despite the crowds – for the beauty, the scale, and the condors.