We have driven down to southern California many a time over the past two decades; via all the major highways that connect us, including 1, 5, and 101. And we contemplated stopping over at Pismo Beach but we somehow never did. Finally, last week, we did make our way to the wondrous Monarch Butterfly Grove at Pismo Beach; and it was an amazing sight or a world of amazing sights all around, or rather above us!!
While I have been to the Natural Bridges Monarch Trail which is another wintering ground for the monarchs in California (and much closer to where I live), my visits there a few years ago were not as fruitful, or as “beaut(terfl)yful” as this recent trip to the Pismo Beach location. I hope to visit the Pacific Grove location (just a little further away than Natural Bridges for me, but closer than Pismo Beach) before this current wintering season ends.
About the Monarch Butterfly Grove at Pismo Beach
The Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove is one of the few overwintering sites of the magnificent monarch butterfly along the California coast. These seemingly dainty creatures migrate south from as far as Canada to seek shelter from the northern winters. From late October through February each year, these butterflies fly almost 200 miles a day (unbelievable, yes, but true) to arrive at warmer climes.
Each wintering spot is at different locations a few hundred miles away from each other. The trees the monarchs choose for shelter are also a little different (from the Monterey pine and the Monterey Cypress to their most popular choice – the eucalyptus – which is incidentally, the grove of trees at Pismo Beach). However, what remains constant is the marvelous sight they are to behold, no matter where you see them!
It is a joy and delight to see the butterflies clustered together on the branches above, and some flying around as well, depending on the time of the day and other weather conditions.
The monarchs cluster together in a shingle pattern, with each butterfly hanging with its wing down over the one below it. This formation helps provide shelter from the elements and warmth for the kaleidoscope (a rather apt word for a group of butterflies!). The collective weight of the cluster helps prevent them getting dislodged or whipping around in windy conditions. And while a single butterfly can not break a branch, sometimes these clusters get heavy enough to manage to do so!
How to Get There (and When, Why, Where)
Directions and Parking
The Pismo State Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove is located half a mile south of Pismo Beach just off Hwy 1. While the grove is open throughout the year, if you want to see the butterflies, then of course, you need to visit from late October through the month of February.
You can park along both sides of the road right in front of the grove. If you don’t mind a walk of about less than a mile across a beautiful boarded walkway along the beach, then another option is to park at the free parking lot near the end of Grand Avenue in Grover Beach.
If you need more information on directions, you can check here at the ExperiencePismoBeach website.
Best Times to Visit
As mentioned earlier, the best time of the year to visit the grove is between late October and February. Depending on other factors, you will need to pick the right time of the day as well. When it is below 55 F, or cloudy, the monarchs tend to stay clustered and will not fly. At these low temperatures, if they attempt flight, they will simply drop down to the earth. So early mornings or cloudy days are the best times if you want to see them clustered together. To watch them in flight, of course, go when it is warmer.
However, based on my recent experience, I think the best time is definitely around noon. This is when it starts warming up. The butterflies in the more sunny areas flutter by while those in the cooler and shaded areas stay in clusters. So you can see everything, and simply be awed by the experience!
Docents at the park offer guided tours a couple of times each day in season. When we were there, we spent time with two different guides, and each shared wonderful stories and fascinating facts. One was a retired high school biology teacher who is passionate about the monarchs, and hence chose to volunteer as a docent. The other docent fell in love with the monarchs as a little girl when her dad brought her to the grove. When she retired from her job, and her own kids had emptied the nest, so to speak, she knew she had to return here, as a docent this time!
If you happen to see the docents, make sure to ask them any questions you have. They are a font of kaleidoscopic knowledge!
The Why and Other Cool Info
Well, this is obvious, right? It is a stunning sight and when you think about it, a miracle considering the distances they have traveled to be here. In addition, these butterflies that we see now have never been here before. The ones that were here last year were actually their great-great-grandparents!! So it is amazing that they simply know their way here and know this is where to shelter despite never having been here earlier. Scientists have a few theories, including that of the magnetic pull of the earth and the sun’s position (source).
Another cool thing about the monarchs overwintering are that they are actually super-monarchs! As you can see from the image below, they are actually the fourth generation and have a life span of six to as long as nine months as opposed to the other generations in between which live anywhere between two to six weeks. Note that the image below shows the monarch migration across eastern America.
What Can You See There
First, of course, the monarch butterflies when you visit in season. The Monarch Butterfly Grove itself is really small and you can walk through it in less than half an hour. But the butterflies will keep you there, and before you realize it, time has passed by!
You can also take trails that lead you to Pismo Beach in one direction and Grover Beach in the other direction. The Pismo Beach trail is a short one, and will take you across the North Beach Campgrounds and the beach itself is stunning to walk in. The Grover Beach boarded walkway is about a mile long and will take you towards the start of the Oceano Dunes system, which is a whole other world! I will talk more about it in next week’s post.
Other Monarch Sighting Locations
- The Natural Bridges Monarch Trail at the Natural Bridges State Park in Santa Cruz, CA
- Monarch Butterfly Grove at “Butterfly Town, U.S.A.” or Pacific Grove, CA
- Various other sites across the California coast – including Big Sur, Encinitas, San Diego, and more
- Mexico, of course
More Info and References
- I recommend Winged Wonders as a wonderful resource for young readers to learn more about the monarch butterflies. This picture book is beautifully illustrated. It is sprinkled with fun facts throughout to make each page a cool exploration of the monarch.
- Check out this article (published earlier today) for interesting statistics on the monarch population
- Another well, kind of interesting article published today as well about the monarch and one of its predators. Considering the monarch’s main diet is the toxic milkweed, it actually has very few predators.
- An interesting read on the importance of the eucalyptus trees; these trees are stuck in a battle by those protesting against non-native species
- The California Parks & Recreation page on the Monarch Butterfly Grove and the National Park Service’s page on the Monarch migration
- The US Forest Service’s page on Migration and Overwintering
- National Geographic’s post about the Monarch Migration
- Tons of resources for adults and kids at JourneyNorth’s Monarchs page
And Now, the End of This Post
Dear reader, have you been to any of the monarch overwintering sites? Or any other similar place? I would love to hear your experiences.