It's a sight to behold! Thousands of Monarch butterflies cluster in eucalyptus groves and settle on pine trees all along the California coast. They return every year from as far away as Canada to escape killing winter temperatures.
The Monarch butterfly migration begins in mid-October, and by late November the groves are full of roosting butterflies. In late February, they begin to leave the groves in search of milkweed plants where they can lay their eggs. And by March, most have moved on.
There are about 200 sites along the California coast where these butterflies congregate. The following sites are some of the best locales accessible to the public. They're listed from north to south.
When visiting a butterfly grove, please be aware that when the temperature is below 55 degrees the butterflies are unable to fly. When it's below 40 degrees, they can't even move. So be careful not to disturb them. On warmer days, you may find Monarchs on the ground sunning or drinking. So watch your step!
Natural Bridges State Beach
This lovely beach just to the north of Santa Cruz features a wheelchair and stroller accessible boardwalk that winds through the Monarch Butterfly Nature Preserve. There's also an observation deck overlooking the Preserve.
Natural Bridges offers educational activities, including Welcome Back Monarch Day in mid-October, Monarch Butterfly Tours on fall and winter weekends, and The Migration Festival in February. You can download an excellent map and brochure at their web site.
Lighthouse Field State Beach
This beach attracts surfers, tourists, sea lions and Monarch butterflies. It's easily accessible on West Cliff Drive in downtown Santa Cruz.
This little town on the Monterey Peninsula dubs itself "Butterfly Town U.S.A." The Monarch Grove Sanctuary is located at Lighthouse Avenue and Ridge Road. Pacific Grove also boasts some of the most spectacular scenery on the California coast.
Point Lobos State Reserve
This Reserve, located 3 miles south of Carmel, offers a network of nature trails and outstanding scenery. Take the Whalers Knoll Trail and look for butterflies on the northeast side of the knoll. You'll find them in warmer, more protected spots.
Andrew Molera State Park
This park in Big Sur is relatively undeveloped, but the views are spectacular. You'll have to do a little bit of hiking to get to Cooper's Grove, a stand of eucalyptus trees near Cooper's Cabin. Take the trail through the Environmental Campground to get there.
Morro Bay State Park
There are several butterfly sites in the park. If you download the brochure from their web site, the map shows a roosting area near the campground. Bird watching is also popular here, and you'll find an abundance of wildlife.
Pismo State Beach
This park attracts a large overwintering colony of butterflies. It's easily accessible, and you'll find a variety of activities in the area. While you're there, you won't want to miss the Pismo Dunes (aka Oceano Dunes).
Coronado Butterfly Preserve and Ellwood Main Monarch Grove
This site attracts close to 100,000 butterflies a year. Located in Goleta, just to the west of Santa Barbara, this site features a system of trails and abundant wildlife.