The California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus) is the largest flying bird in the Western Hemisphere, with a wingspan up to almost 10 feet (3 meters), more than 4 feet (1.5 meters) long and weighing up to 30 pounds (13 kg).
They live almost as long as humans, up to 60 years, but in the late 1980s, the species' fate was in question. With the wild population down to twenty-some birds, scientists took the bold step of collecting all the remaining animals. In 1987, the last wild condor joined 26 others already in captivity.
By 1992, the first birds were placed back into the wild and in the late 2000s, the population is well over 300. In 2008, wild California condors outnumbered those in captivity for the first time in over 20 years. California, Utah, Arizona and Baja, Mexico are all home to wild condors now, but this article focuses on places to see them in California.
California Condors in Big Sur
The best places in Big Sur to see California condors are near the flagpole at the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park entrance and riding thermal updrafts along the cliffs between there and the town of Big Sur.
If you'd rather have some help locating the condors, the Ventana Wildlife Society offers guided tours the second Sunday of the month, the only such tours in the state. They also host full-day trips that include a visit to their base camp. Their guides use radio signals to track the birds, giving you the best chance of seeing them.
The Ventana Wildlife Society also operates a very fun Condor Cam on their website, with a view of a remote site where the big birds hang out.
California Condors at Pinnacles National Park
Almost two dozen California condors have been identified at Pinnacle National Park, accessible through Hollister or Soledad. The most likely place to see them is the High Peaks in early morning or early evening, but it's a strenuous hike to get there. For easier access, they also hang out on the ridge just south of the campground, where they soar on morning thermals along the ridge and roost in the trees.
California Condors in Los Padres National Forest
The Sespe Condor Sanctuary in Los Padres National Forest is where the first releases of captive-raised California condor chicks were made in 1992. To help them keep thriving, it's closed to the public, but you might see the birds flying off CA Hwy 33 near Ojai.
California Condors in the Zoo
The Los Angeles Zoo has been very active in the conservation efforts, hatching more than 100 birds. However, they do not keep any of them at the zoo itself.
In 2007, the Santa Barbara Zoo became the second place in California where the general public can view the condors.
California Condor Watching Tips
- California condors are easy to identify. Their 9-foot wingspan is almost twice as wide as a turkey vulture. When gliding, they don't wobble and are so black that they look like they're drawn with felt tipped marker.
- Bring binoculars. You can see them better.
- Photographing moving birds is difficult. Practice "panning," following birds with your camera before you go and remember: don't stop following when you press the shutter.
- California condors are free-ranging, wild creatures and sometimes they just don't show up, no matter where you are or how much you want to see them.