Some of the most amazing living things you can see in California during the winter are so small that you could fit several of them in the palm of your hand.
The delicate, jewel-like, orange and black Monarch butterfly spends a few months of its unusual life cycle in California. They're easy—and beautiful—to watch from many spots along the coast. The rest of this guide will help you find out just how you can view them.
How to See Monarch Butterflies in California
You can see the monarch butterflies in California from mid-October through February. They're stopping off to mate before moving on, but they don't just pair up. They also gather in basketball-sized clusters while they sleep in eucalyptus and pine trees along the coast. When the sunshine warms the trees, thousand of the orange and black butterflies rustle and stir, and they take flight.
As temperatures rise and the days get longer, the butterflies mate. During that time, you may see them doing spiral mating flights. By the end of February or early March, they fly away to begin their migration cycle, which is described below.
Tips for Seeing the Monarch Butterflies
If you want to see the butterflies taking off from their favorite groves of trees, you have to go at the right time of day. If you get there too early, you might lose patience and leave before they start to fly. If you get there too late, they will be gone for the day.
The first thing to do is to check the weather forecast. The butterflies won't fly at all if the temperature is less than 57 F (14 C). They also don't fly on cloudy days.
If the weather conditions cooperate, on most days, they will start flying during the warmest part of the day between noon and 3:00 p.m.
Timing also depends on the density of the trees where they sleep—it takes longer for things to warm up where the trees are close together.
Watching Spots in California
The monarch butterflies spend winter along the California coast between Mendocino County and San Diego. The spots listed below are the most popular and easiest to reach, but they aren't the only places you can go to. Most sites south of Santa Barbara and north of Santa Cruz have far fewer butterflies to see.
Natural Bridges State Beach is accessible to everyone. The best time to see butterflies there is from mid-October to late January. Guided tours are given on weekends from early October until the monarchs leave.
The Pacific Grove Monarch Grove Sanctuary is so spectacular that the town of Pacific Grove is nicknamed "Butterfly Town, U.S.A." Docents are on hand during butterfly season.
At the Ellwood Main Monarch Grove in Goleta just north of Santa Barbara, as many as 50,000 monarch butterflies spend the winter. The best time to see them take off is when the sun is straight overhead, between noon and 2:00 p.m.
You can also see the butterflies at neighboring Coronado Butterfly Preserve.
In some years, the Pismo Beach Monarch Grove hosts the most monarch butterflies in California. It's in an open area with lots of sunlight - and consequently more chance of seeing monarchs flying.
You may also find the butterflies at Pismo State Beach, at the south end of the North Beach Campground.
Why Monarch Butterflies Are Amazing
A monarch butterfly weighs less than 1 gram. That's less than the weight of a paper clip, but it can pull off a migration that would leave stronger animals, and most humans, exhausted.
The butterfly's round-trip journey covers some 1,800 miles (2,900 km). That's like making a round trip from San Diego to the Oregon border and back.
They go for a long distance, but they don't travel fast. In fact, four generations of butterflies live and die before their descendants return to the place where their ancestors started.
The first generation begins the migration cycle in the winter along the California coast. While there, they cluster in the trees for protection from storms and for warmth. They mate in late January and fly away by March at the latest.
That first generation of monarchs lay their eggs inland on milkweed plants in the Sierra Nevada foothills, and then they die. Their offspring (the second generation) hatches in the mountains. From there, they fly to Oregon, Nevada, or Arizona. Third and fourth Monarch butterfly generations fan out even further.
Finally, they return to the California coast, to the place where their great-great-grandparents started.