The most amazing things you can see in California during the winter are tiny - and orange. I'm talking about the delicate, orange-and-black Monarch butterfly.
These jewel-like creatures spend a few month of their unusual life cycle in California, from mid-October through February. When they get here, they're easy — and beautiful — to watch.
Why Monarch Butterflies Are Amazing
A monarch butterfly weighs less than 1 gram, but it can pull off a migration that would leave stronger animals, and most humans, exhausted.
Their round trip journey covers some 1,800 miles (2,900 km). That's the equivalent of a round trip from San Diego to the Oregon border and back.
It's not fast. In fact, four generations of butterflies will live and die before 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 eucalyptus groves. They mate in late January and fly away to start the spring migration by March at the latest.
That next 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. They fly into 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.
How to See Monarch Butterflies in California
You can see the monarch butterflies in California from mid-October through February. They like to sleep in eucalyptus and pine trees along the California coast. Every morning, when the sunshine warms the trees, basketball-sized clusters of butterflies rustle and stir.
The air fills with orange and black wings, and a monarch butterfly parade begins.
As temperature rise and days get longer in February, the butterflies mate. You may see them doing spiral mating flights. After that, they sleep. By the end of February or early March, they fly away to begin their migration cycle.
Tips for Seeing the Monarch Butterflies
If you want to see the butterflies in their favorite groves of trees, you need to know a few things. They can't fly when the temperature is below 57°F, or on cloudy days. What time they take off depends on the air temperature but also on the density of the trees where they sleep. In general, you can expect them to flutter out of the trees between noon and 3:00 p.m.
Monarch Butterfly-Watching Spots in California
The monarch butterflies spend their winter vacation along the California coast between Sonoma County and San Diego. The spots listed below are the most popular and easiest to reach. You'll find docents on hand in most places to answer your questions. And lots of other visitors will be there to see them with you.
Natural Bridges State Beach is accessible to everyone. The best time to see monarchs in the park is usually from mid-October to late January.
They give guided tours 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 their winter vacations. The trees are dense, which means it takes longer for the butterflies to warm up than in other locations. The best chance to see them take off is when the sun is straight above, between noon and 2:00 p.m.
You can also see them at neighboring Coronado Butterfly Preserve.
In some years, the Pismo Beach Monarch Grove boasts the maximum number of monarch butterflies in California.
It's in an open area with more sunlight - and consequently more chance of seeing monarchs flying.
You may also find them at Pismo State Beach, at the south end of the North Beach Campground.
More Places to See Monarch Butterflies
The locations listed above are the most spectacular and easiest to get to, but you can see the monarch is a lot more places, too. The Monarch Program maintains a list of many more places you can see the monarch butterflies in California.