Beyond Your Wildest Dreams: Monarch Butterflies

Thousands of delicate, orange-hued wings gracefully flutter, somewhat randomly, about Santa Cruz County, each traveling to a place Beyond Your Wildest Dreams. Tucked away on the west side of our picturesque county is Natural Bridges State Park, home to California’s only State Monarch Preserve. There, thousands of monarchs gather together to overwinter in a sheltered canyon. Meandering down the boardwalk path to the Monarch Grove, it’s imperative to keep your eyes peeled for clusters of butterflies hanging from the branches above.

Camouflaged among the eucalyptus leaves, monarch butterflies migrate here seeking shelter and food to sustain them during the winter months. With monarch season ranging from mid-October until mid-February, reaching peak numbers at the end of October and through the month of November, Natural Bridges State Park offers self-guided tours for those interested in viewing and understanding more about these winged beauties of our environment. Park volunteers are available in the grove to answer questions and help visitors spot the butterflies. Don’t fret if there is not a volunteer around; signposts along the path, copiously filled with monarch knowledge, will help you feel like an expert after a self-guided tour! And if the visitor center is open, the friendly and knowledgeable staff will also be happy to answer any questions. You can also spy the monarchs at nearby Lighthouse Field State Beach, where the butterflies find winter warmth amidst the towering eucalyptus trees. The dappled light shining between their branches supplies a gentle warmth, sending the butterflies into spectacular flight!

Soaring above, it’s easy to spot their speckled bodies and orange wings, laced with black veins. Their bright colors are a warning to would-be predators; their colors say, “Beware, I’m poisonous!” Their toxin comes with a diet of milkweed consumed as a caterpillar, which they retain in their system through metamorphosis from caterpillar to chrysalis and their adult butterfly form. Milkweed is the caterpillars’ only source of nutrients, so these plants are essential for the survival of the species.

While monarch populations have dwindled over the last few decades due to habitat loss and climate change, there are steps that we can take to help monarch numbers rebound! Bonny Hawley, Executive Director of Friends of the Santa Cruz State Parks, notes ways to help the monarchs: “Plant nectar-rich flowers in your neighborhood, avoid using pesticides and cut back milkweed in the fall to discourage winter breeding. You can also learn more about all of our vital pollinators by stopping by the Natural Bridges Visitor Center and ParkStore.” Another way to help out the monarchs while keeping our state parks beautiful is to pay the $10 park entry fee, and consider adding an extra $10 donation at the Visitor Center! Pop into the ParkStore, where all proceeds support local state parks and beaches, and check out their monarch jewelry for a one-of-kind keepsake!

Although monarchs are fragile, the resilience that these delicate creatures demonstrate in the face of adversity is awe-inspiring. Monarchs have adapted to their environment, shivering their bodies to warm up when it’s cold, gaining enough energy to move to a spot where they can bask in the speckled light of the forested grove. This thermoregulation is assisted by the black scales on their wings, which the monarchs use like solar panels as they absorb the sunlight and convert it into heat energy, warming up their flight muscles. Monarchs’ dainty wings also carry them as they complete one of the longest insect migrations in the world, with some of these butterflies fluttering their wings for almost 3,000 miles!

For your best chance to see these magnificent butterflies fluttering in the grove, check the thermostat; they’ll start to fly when it’s over 55 degrees outside. However, when the temperature dips below 60 degrees, it’s a great time to see the monarchs as they cluster together for warmth. These clusters, called roosts, camouflage so well into the eucalyptus trees that their wings are often mistaken for dead leaves – so look around a few times to make sure you haven’t missed them! You might accidentally spy a great-horned owl or two, who also find shelter in the secluded canyon. Natural Bridges State Park is a wonderful location to observe the migratory wildlife that overwinters here in Santa Cruz!

Whether they’re clustered together in the shelter of a eucalyptus grove or fluttering as they take to the skies, the monarch butterflies’ delicate beauty is a sight you won’t want to miss. The winter warmth of Santa Cruz County brings thousands of Monarch Butterflies soaring Beyond Your Wildest Dreams!