If you find yourself heading to the Santa Maria Valley on the central California coast to escape the chilly northern winter, make sure you stop by the Monarch Butterfly Grove at Pismo Beach. There, you can gaze upon thousands of delicate winged beauties who have had the same idea.
Each year, as many as 25,000 wintering monarchs come to roost in the eucalyptus grove at Pismo Beach, about 20 minutes north of the city of Santa Maria. The butterflies cluster densely together in the trees, lining the branches with curtains of brilliant orange that can stretch for several feet.
At first glance, these butterfly congregations look like clumps of leaves that blend in with the landscape and can be easy to miss. But a closer look reveals an overwhelming number of monarchs huddled together for warmth and protection. The butterflies hang upside down from the branches, each with a wing down over the one below it to create a shingle effect that helps protect the delicate creatures from wind, rain, and predators. When the sun comes out, the insects start to break off from the group and spread their wings and bathe in the warmth. On a sunny afternoon, they can be seen fluttering through the air looking for nectar and water to drink.
These beauties are part of the western monarch population in North America, which migrates down from the northern states west of the Rocky Mountains to forested areas along the Pacific coast in central and southern California. Pismo Beach is one of just five monarch roosts in the Golden State that host more than 10,000 butterflies each year, many of which have braved a dangerous journey of over 1,000 miles by the time they reach their winter home.
At the Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove, there are telescopes placed around the grounds pointed at the largest clusters of butterflies so visitors can get a closer look at the vibrant hues and recognizable orange, black, and white pattern of the monarchs’ wings. For the best viewing experience, visit the park during the high season between November and February, before the weather starts to warm and the butterflies begin their long journey back north.