Tourists love to visit California’s coast in winter. So do monarch butterflies. Thousands of these hardy travelers flock to coastal areas on an annual migration from Central California to Mexico’s Baja Peninsula, though their numbers have been thinning dramatically.
In California, butterflies arrive in October and are gone by February. However, monarch populations in the western U.S. plummeted from about 10 million to about 300,000 in the last 35 years, a recent study published in Biological Conservation says. The exact reason for the waning numbers isn’t clear, though loss of habitat for breeding and wintering over, and use of pesticides may be factors.
Still, there are places to go in California to see thick orange and black ribbons of butterflies hanging in eucalyptus and pine trees. Here are three destinations where you’ll find these extraordinary travelers — and have a nice coastal getaway too.
1. Pismo Beach
The Monarch Butterfly Grove in Pismo Beach is is one of the largest viewing areas in the state with counts last January of about 20,000 butterflies. The grove opens from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily from Oct. 28 until Feb. 28, with prime viewing in December. You can take a docent walk at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. to learn more about the monarchs. The grove is about a mile south of Pismo Beach just off Highway 1 near the North Beach Campground at the state beach. Info: Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove; (805) 773-7170
2. Santa Cruz
The state’s sole designated Monarch Preserve is inside Natural Bridges State Beach in Santa Cruz. You can take an easy walk along a boardwalk to an observation platform beneath eucalyptus trees. Last year, about 8,000 butterflies came through in winter. Warm, sunny days are the best time to visit because that’s when butterflies are most active. The park is open sunrise to sunset, and visitors can take a free hourlong guided tour at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays during butterfly season. Parking costs $10. Info: Natural Bridges State Beach, 2531 W. Cliff Drive; (831) 423-4609
3. Pacific Grove
Monarchs have started to arrive at the Pacific Grove Monarch Sanctuary that’s right in the middle of this town near Monterey. The local natural history museum counts the butterflies every week; as of last Saturday, there are 45. Monarch viewing etiquette includes rules such as staying on paths (“Monarchs often drink their water from the fog dew left on the ground. You could step on a monarch and never know it.”), leaving your dog home and being quiet while in the trees. Entrance is free, and the sanctuary is open sunrise to sunset. While you’re in the area, stop at the museum as well as the Point Pinos Lighthouse and Asilomar State Beach. Info: Pacific Grove Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary, 250 Ridge Road; (831) 648-5716, press 4.
There’s also one place you shouldn’t plan on visiting this year. The Goleta Butterfly Grove, a popular viewing site on the Ellwood Mesa bluffs in Goleta (near Santa Barbara), has been closed indefinitely. Drought-damaged trees that provide temporary homes for the butterflies are at risk of dying and falling. The city is coming up with a management plan for the trees and the wildlife, but the area remains shut until then.