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Where the Wild Things Are

Animal viewing in Grand Canyon reveals an ark’s worth of species.

This is a wild place; not an amusement park. If you’re anxious to get close to wildlife, use a telephoto lens.

Before explorer John Wesley Powell arrived at what is now known as Grand Canyon in 1869, Spanish explorer García López de Cárdenas showed up in 1540. Long before Cárdenas entered the picture, native tribes were living in communities as long ago as 1200 BC.

And long, long, long before there were native tribes, animals alone had made Grand Canyon their home. Incredibly, descendants of these original residents are still living at Grand Canyon National Park today.

Elk

Animal Magnetism

There aren’t many places in America where you can roll into a train station, peek out the window, and see an elk grazing on a grassy ridge.

That’s what I saw when the Grand Canyon Railway chugged into the station below El Tovar Hotel. It was an interesting sight that made me wonder, “Why is an elk at the train station?”

The answer is surprisingly simple: because he can.

Elk are in the park because despite the hotels and restaurants and gift shops, and a steady stream of visitors, it’s where they seem to want to be. And they’re not alone. With 1.2 million acres of largely undeveloped land to explore — not to mention a 277-mile-long, one-mile-deep, up to 18-mile-wide canyon in its backyard — the park is filled with an ark’s worth of animals. More than 447 bird, 91 mammalian, 48 reptile, 10 amphibian, and 17 fish species are found in the park. The National Park Service Science & Nature and Wildlife pages detail an impressive laundry list of wildlife that make Grand Canyon home.

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“The best time to look for wildlife is around sunrise or sunset,” suggests Bruce Brossman, marketing director for the Grand Canyon National Park Lodges and Grand Canyon Railway & Hotel. “They’re up early to find food, then they’re off to seek shelter as the day warms up, and they’ll come out again around dusk.”

And even after they retreat to the woods and scrub brush and to the cliffs and crevices, they’re still around.

“There are mule deer and bighorn sheep, coyotes, beavers, bobcats, foxes, and jackrabbits,” Brossman says. “And there are badgers, bats, mountain lions and mule deer, elk, raccoons, ravens, several species of squirrels, and there are bears to the east. If you go down into Grand Canyon you could see rattlesnakes and scorpions.” Rattlesnakes live on the rim, too (for example, there's a family at Desert View and one at Powell Point that visitors occasionally see).

Brossman, who has lived inside the park at Grand Canyon for nearly a decade, recalls a yearly ritual that always caught his attention.

“Fall is the mating season for elk, and whether I was at home or walking by the rim, I could hear the bugling and then the crashing of antlers. The sound of them butting their heads echoed around the historic village. It always reminded me that this is a wild place, not an amusement park. If you’re anxious to get close to wildlife, use a telephoto lens.”

Indeed, the NPS provides the following guidance on how to interact with wildlife in the park:

  • It is illegal and harmful to people and wildlife to approach, feed, handle, capture, or harass any wild animal in the park.
  • By treating wildlife with respect and not approaching or feeding them, you are helping them live natural lives. By keeping wildlife wild, you are protecting their safety — and yours.

One creature that should especially be avoided is, believe it or not, the common rock squirrel. Visitors exploring the shops and hotels along the South Rim are always ready with a handout, but long past their fear of strangers, squirrels have been known to bite the hand that feeds them. While definitely cute, they can be deceptively dangerous.

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Up, Up in the Air

One of the most inspiring conservation efforts in recent years took place when the non-profit Peregrine Fund launched a recovery program to re-introduce native California condors, considered one of the rarest birds in the world, to Grand Canyon. In 1982, just 22 were known to exist in the wild. Today, there are more than 400 estimated to be at Grand Canyon alone.

“They are an amazing animal to observe,” Brossman marvels. “Some have a wingspan that can reach up to nine feet. When they leap off a cliff, they may flap their wings a time or two before catching thermals rising from the canyon and desert floors. After that, they can soar for hundreds of miles with very little effort.”

Because of the important role the park plays in protecting hundreds of bird species, in 2014 it was designated a Globally Important Bird Area by BirdLife International. But you don’t have to be a birdwatcher to thrill at the sight of a California condor — and you don’t have to be a biologist to assist with the annual raptor count. Each year during fall migration (roughly late August to early November), you can sign up for HawkWatch and join volunteers at Yaki Point who keep an eye on the canyon to tally raptors returning from their vacation in Canada. They’ll observe eagles, falcons, and hawks — as well as condors — and share data that informs land managers, scientists, and visitors on what raptors need to survive.

Hundreds of thousands of creatures great and small live here, and chances are you’ll see at least a few. But what if they don’t show? Then go with Plan B. South of Grand Canyon near the town of Williams is Bearizona, a drive-through/walk-through nature park where you’re guaranteed to get a view of wildlife: bison, owls, bears, bobcats, otters — and even squirrels.

For more information, visit grandcanyonlodges.com or call 888-297-2757.

For more travel experiences available from Xanterra Parks & Resorts and its affiliated properties, visit xanterra.com/explore.