Zion National Park Wildlife: Which Animals You’ll Spot and How to Stay Safe

by Jon D. B.
zion-national-park-wildlife-which-animals-youll-spot-and-how-to-stay-safe

From California condors to collared lizards, Zion National Park is home to some of the most fascinating desert wildlife on the planet. Learn which animals you’re likely to spot within, where to spot them, and how to stay safe around Zion’s remarkable wildlife.

With a whopping 148,000 acres, Zion National Park protects the heart of Southern Utah’s remarkable ecosystem. Flora and fauna are abundant in the heavenly desert, with some creatures defying imagination. Like the ringtail, or ringtail cat, which isn’t a cat at all, but a wildly unique relative of the raccoon (below).

Ringtail (Bassariscus astutus) also known as ringtail cat and miner’s cat. (Photo by Wild Horizons/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Ringtails are nocturnal and reclusive, however, and only the luckiest of Zion visitors will ever spot one. Instead, Outsider is focusing on the species that makes Zion National Park one of the best desert wildlife watching destinations in America.

Wildlife Watching Highlights in Zion NP

  • Birds: Mexican Spotted Owl, California Condor,
  • Mammals: Desert Bighorn Sheep, Mule Deer, North American Porcupine, Rock Squirrels
  • Reptiles & Amphibians: Great Basin Collared Lizard, Canyon Tree Frog, Great Basin Rattlesnake

Each of these keystone species is a staple of Zion National Park and make their presence known to visitors. Below, we’ll highlight each and, if possible, where you’re most likely to find them.

Protected Wildlife: Mexican Spotted Owls

All animals in Zion are protected by the National Park designation. Yet some species are of special note. Zion is critical habitat for the Mexican spotted owl; a beautiful mid-sized raptor that remains threatened at the federal level. Keep your eyes peeled for their adorable faces perched in  cool, moist, old-growth forest areas of the park with tree canopies.

  • Where to spot Mexican Spotted Owls: Deep, narrow slot canyons of Zion National Park

The park also protects Mojave desert tortoises, along with the endangered Southwestern willow flycatcher. Peregrine falcons are making a comeback in this ecosystem with NPS’s help, too. But perhaps the most iconic bird you’re likely to spot in Zion holds an out-of-state designation.

Return of the King: California Condor

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(Photo by: Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

During mid-morning in Zion Canyon, sun conspires with air to warm-up an atmospheric life zone for many species of birds. The common ritual fuels their zest for flying, capturing food, and nesting among towering sandstone walls. Zion National Park protects and maintains this rugged sanctuary, and for several years has played host to cliff-loving giants that almost disappeared from the planet 30 years ago.

Zion National Park

There are 291 known species of birds in Zion NP, but the California Condor dwarves all others. The largest bird in North America, these iconic Western scavengers were driven to the brink of extinction in the 20th century.

California condors are curious giants, and find human activity as fascinating as we find theirs.

  • Where to spot California Condors:
    • Frequently seen perched on or soaring above Angels Landing
    • Kolob Terrace Road near Lava Point

If you see a perched condor, do not approach it or offer food. If the condor is within reach of people, please report the situation – including the bird’s tag number – to Zion park staff.

Desert Bighorn Sheep are a Zion Staple

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Bighorn sheep stand proud in Zion National Park in Utah on February 9, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / RHONA WISE, Getty Images.

Desert bighorn sheep are perfectly adapted to survive the hot, dry deserts they call home. Their bodies are smaller, legs longer, and coats shorter than their cousin the Rocky Mountain bighorn (Ovis canadensis canadensis). In the spring, bighorn can go many days without drinking water, metabolizing just enough moisture from the vegetation they eat. In dry times of the year, they drink more frequently, relying on water-filled potholes and springs to survive.

Zion National Park
  • Where to spot Desert Bighorn Sheep:
    • between the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel and the East Entrance
    • Entire East side of Zion NP

Incredibly skilled climbers, desert bighorns choose steep, rocky terrain (found on Zion’s east side) to escape predators like mountain lions. We typically don’t think of hooves as gripping appendages, but bighorn hooves are perfectly adapted to doing exactly that on Zion’s jagged cliffs.

As with any wildlife, never approach bighorns. Keep the park-mandated distance of 25 yards.

Mule Deer are Abundant Zion National Park Wildlife

Mule Deer, Ococoileus hemionus. (Photo by: Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Mule deer are one of the largest mammals in Zion, and are commonly seen throughout park lowlands. We tend to think of deer as a “dime a dozen” in America, but mule deer bucks can grow to impressive size and display remarkable antler racks.

  • Where to spot Mule Deer:
    • Grazing throughout the cooler morning and evening hours in the campgrounds
    • Near the Zion Lodge
    • Along the Virgin River at the bottom of Zion Canyon
    • During the heat of mid-day, they seek shade and den

Their name comes from a perfect adaptation to desert heat: large, mule-like ears. These distinct, 9-inch ears hold blood vessels close to the skin’s surface help to dissipate heat on a hot summer’s day.

Rock Squirrels are Cute But Carry Deadly Diseases

A species of ground squirrel, rock squirrels are something of a mascot for Zion National Park. They can be found climbing boulders, rocks, and trees almost everywhere in the park. Zion’s boulders and cliffs provide perfect habitat for rock squirrels to build their homes, and their loud whistles or chirps can be confused with bird calls.

  • Where to spot Rock Squirrels:
    • Riverside Walk trail
    • Pretty much everywhere else

Although they may look cute and come right up to you, please remember that squirrels are wild animals—don’t feed them, and keep your distance—because they can bite! In addition, human food is hard for rock squirrels to digest, and feeding them has led to several squirrel fatalities. These squirrels have been known to get into backpacks, lunch pails, and trash cans, and to steal food right out of visitors’ hands. You can help keep wildlife wild by not feeding or touching them.

Zion National Park

It’s also imperative to note that rock squirrels, like many rodents, often carry deadly diseases. The park has noted cases of plauge and other deadly zoonotic diseases (able to be transferred from wildlife to humans) in the species.

Canyon Tree Frog

The adorable little canyon tree frog is a plump and warty, toad-like amphibian with olive to brownish-grey skin with darker blotches present in most populations. Fascinatingly, these little frogs have suction discs on each toe.

  • Where to spot Canyon Tree Frogs:
    • Around water courses like streams, creeks, and rivers
    • Craggy rocks near water sources

While they’re primarily nocturnal, visitors can spot these signature amphibians wherever water courses are present in Zion National Park. They can also be found among rocks or around stony crevices near streams during the day.

Great Basin Collared Lizard

Another park staple, the striking Great Basin collared lizard can be found throughout the canyon-esque areas of Zion. One of several unique lizard species in the park, collared lizards are distinguishable by their loud, striped neck (or collar) coloring.

  • Where to spot Collared Lizards:
    • Zion’s lower canyon
    • Watchman Trail

These fast carnivores grow to over a foot long. They’ll also stand up on their hind legs when they feel so inclined, and make for a terrific sighting and photo ops in Zion. Just remember to keep your distance and help park wildlife remain wild!

Great Basin Rattlesnake is Zion National Park’s Only Venomous Snake

While rattlesnake encounters are rare in Zion NP, it is imperative to watch your step in their habitat – which is potentially anywhere in the park. Like most pit vipers, the Great Basin rattlesnake is identifiable by the triangular head. Locally, the park says, “Great basin rattlesnakes are usually light brown with darker brown blotches down the middle of their back. However, their colors can vary over a range of shades, and they usually blend in well with their surroundings.”

Knowing how to spot a rattlesnake from other harmless species is a key skill when visiting any national park they call home. Always keep a safe distance from all snakes, however, regardless of species.

  • Rattlesnake Safety:
    • As always, watch where you are walking, and pay attention for the sound of their warning rattle
    • If you encounter a rattlesnake on a trail, back away slowly, and give it plenty of space
    • In the unlikely event that you or someone near you is bitten, remain calm, and seek medical attention immediately

It’s in our DNA to fear snakes, and for good reason. But remember, rattlesnakes will never be out in search of human-sized prey. They’re more afraid of us than we are of them, and it’s this fear during surprise encounters that typically brings them to strike.

Stay safe out there, Outsiders, and happy trails through Zion National Park! For more on how to stay safe when visiting, see our Zion National Park Safety: Toxic Cyanobacteria, Desert Safety, Cliffs and Other Best Practices to Stay Safe next.

Then, see Zion National Park Lodging: Campgrounds, Cabins, Securing Reservations in Zion Canyon, Kolob Canyons and More to begin planning your trip.

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