In a eucalyptus grove within earshot of the pounding Pacific surf, the monarchs at Pismo Beach State Park flutter like golden leaves set aloft by a gentle wind. But a closer look reveals something magical: thousands of the orange and black butterflies clustering together in the tall trees for warmth and protection.
Pismo is one of about 200 sites where western monarchs overwinter along the California coast. A three-day drive up the iconic Pacific Coast Highway from Santa Barbara to the Monterey Peninsula offers the chance to see some of the greatest concentrations of overwintering monarchs in the United States.
These are not the eastern monarchs that migrate by the millions to the mountains of central Mexico. Western monarchs, which today number less than 1 million, originate west of the Rockies. Unable to survive freezing northern winters, they travel hundreds or thousands of miles to mild coastal microclimates. They roost in Monterey cypress and pine and non-native eucalyptus, which provide protection from wind, rainstorms, and predators.
The butterflies that make the journey to these coastal groves are very special. While the lifespan of spring and summer monarchs is 10 weeks or less, this generation born in early fall has adapted to survive between six and nine months—long enough to make the great migration and overwinter on the coast. As they migrate, these monarchs suck up as much flower nectar as they can to build fat reserves that will sustain them on their journey. They’ll need it, too, because they travel up to 100 miles a day and fly as high as 10,000 feet.
This generation spends months in a state of reproductive diapause, when a hormone necessary to trigger development of their reproductive organs is absent or nearly absent until conditions are favorable for offspring. Those conditions become favorable right around now, when days become longer and warmer and monarch mating season gets underway. The butterflies will be gone by March at the latest, so don't wait too long to see them.
So grab your binoculars and get ready for a classic California road trip with an amazing twist. Bonus: all of these butterfly groves have free entry.
DAY 1: SANTA BARBARA COUNTY
Monarchs aren’t able to fly until the temperature rises above 57°F, so early afternoon is the best time to witness the butterflies bursting from their clusters and flying around the Goleta Butterfly Grove. That leaves your morning free to visit some other scenic sites and learn about local flora and fauna at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History and the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden.
At noon, head for the Goleta grove on the Ellwood Mesa. This is an especially dense eucalyptus grove, so the butterflies will be most active when the Sun is directly overhead. Until then, they might appear at first to be nothing more than masses of dead brown leaves, but get closer and they’ll take your breath away. This grove also links with trails to the beach and another monarch site, the Coronado Butterfly Preserve.
DAY 2: PISMO BEACH
Enjoy a morning drive along the Gaviota Coast, the longest remaining stretch of undeveloped coastline in Southern California. You’ll be treated to stunning views of the Santa Ynez mountains, secluded beaches, and coastal bluffs. If the day is clear, you’ll also be able to see the Santa Barbara Channel Islands and maybe even spot a whale—another migrator on an epic journey.
Follow Highway 1 north another 1.5 hours through the small farming towns of Lompoc and Guadalupe. The Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove is right off the highway, and by noon, the monarchs should be taking flight. You can observe thousands more clustered in the trees through one of several telescopes provided for visitors.
A short trail will take you through the sand dunes to the beach, but return to the grove in time for the fascinating docent talk at 2 p.m. Spend the night under the stars in the adjacent campground (reservations required), or continue on up the coast to Cambria, a charming seaside town that’ll put you within striking distance of Big Sur.
DAY 3: BIG SUR AND PACIFIC GROVE
Get an early start to allow plenty of time for stops along the magnificent Big Sur coastline. It’s a 2.5-hour drive straight through to Pacific Grove, but it would be a shame not get out and walk to the beach and nearby redwood forests. Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is a great place to do both.
Pacific Grove, dubbed “Butterfly Town,” is located on the Monterey Peninsula and just a short drive away from the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The butterfly sanctuary is in a grove of pine and eucalyptus in the center of town. Docents are on hand daily to answer questions and wow you with astounding monarch facts.
One thing the dedicated volunteers at each of these sites will stress is that monarchs are in peril. They’re currently under consideration for endangered species status, and western monarch numbers have plummeted nearly 40 percent below the long-term average (monarch populations are down 90 percent overall). Development, agriculture, and climate change are destroying monarch habitat and the milkweed plant that is essential to the species’ survival. The caterpillars only eat milkweed, and the butterflies lay their eggs on the plant.
Whether or not you have the chance to visit the monarchs’ winter homes, you can support monarch survival by planting milkweed around your own home. Just be sure to ask your local nursery which milkweed species are native to your area, because planting the wrong kind can actually interfere with the monarchs’ migration.