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 Pismo State Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove in Pismo Beach, CA. There, you can gaze upon thousands of delicate winged beauties who have had the same idea.
Each year, thousands of monarchs migrate to coastal California. The Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove, about 20 minutes north of the city of Santa Maria, is the largest overwintering site for the Western monarch population. 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 clusters 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 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. These monarchs have braved a dangerous journey of over 1,000 miles by the time they reach their winter home.
At the Pismo State 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 peak season between November and January, before the weather starts to warm and the butterflies begin their long journey back north.
Know Before You Go
The butterfly grove is located off Highway 1, on the west side of the road just past North Beach Campground. No parking permitted inside North Beach Campground. Admission is free and the park is staffed by docents from November to the end of February. Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m, with a Docent talk at noon, and Saturday-Sunday & holidays from 10am-4pm, with Docent talks at noon and 2pm. A short boardwalk trail leads from the butterfly grove to the beaches at Pismo State Beach.