Monarch Butterfly Magic at Natural Bridges

In Santa Cruz, we like to celebrate all creatures great and small, especially those of the migrating variety. On one end, we are captivated by the sight of a whale surfacing from the depths of the sea and, on the other, we delight in the spellbinding magic of a fluttering monarch butterfly.

Every fall and winter, Natural Bridges State Beach welcomes back the monarchs to their winter habitat in the eucalyptus grove, the only State Monarch Preserve in California. Starting in early to mid-October, the black and orange beauties start trickling in from colder climates to enjoy our moderate coastal weather. Scientifically speaking, monarchs are tropical butterflies and at no point in their life cycle – egg, caterpillar, chrysalis, butterfly – can they freeze, so they move with the warmer weather while migrating south.

Wondering why they choose the same eucalyptus grove at Natural Bridges as their temporary home? First, it’s located in a canyon which provides shelter from the wind. Second, the trees filter in sunlight to keep monarch bodies from freezing. And third, eucalyptus trees flower in the winter, giving the butterflies a convenient source of food.

Photo taken on November 1, 2023 | By Liz Birnbaum, The Curated Feast

According to a Docent Naturalist, monarchs tend to arrive at Natural Bridges in mid-October, have peak observation numbers in late-November and early-December, and migrate out of the area by mid to late-January and sometimes into February. The Monarch Grove Trail located at Natural Bridges is open for self-guided monarch tours during park hours (8am to sunset.) Parking is $10. Volunteers are often available in the grove to help answer any questions and to help visitors locate the monarch butterflies and their clusters. They can be pretty camouflaged sometimes!

It’s also a good idea to pay attention to the weather. The minimum temperature a monarch needs to fly is 55 degrees. Temperatures below 55, mean you are more likely to see monarch clusters hanging like leaves off the eucalyptus trees, which can also be quite mesmerizing. But please note, when the monarchs are clustered it is easy to pass them up! Make sure you look closely!

Photo by Ann Whitted

While we celebrate the return of the monarchs, we also acknowledge their dwindling numbers due to loss of natural habitat and the use of pesticides and insecticides. One way to help preserve the monarch population is to become a butterfly gardener by planting nectar sources, such as marigolds, cosmos and asters- organically grown, of course.

Planting milkweed is also crucial to monarch survival, as it is the only plant on which the female monarch will lay her eggs and the monarch larvae will eat. Milkweed also contains toxins that help protect the monarch caterpillar from predators. But according to Natural Bridges naturalists and the Xerces Society, we have now learned that we should not plant milkweed too close to the coast. For our area on the Central Coast area, it is best to plant the milkweed 5 or more miles from the coastline. For more information on how you can help the monarchs in their recovery, check the Xerces Society website.

The monarch butterfly is just one of several Santa Cruz migratory wildlife mascots. Be sure to experience their magic this fall and early winter at Natural Bridges State Beach. And BIG BONUS: Natural Bridges State Beach has a few additional mascot favorites in the eucalyptus trees! Horned owls have been nesting and calling the Natural Bridges’ eucalyptus grove home for several years, and sightings have been high this season! If you are looking to spot the horned owls, check with a Natural Bridges interpreter or docent and they can help direct where you might find them. Best of luck and be sure to tag @visitsantacruz in your monarch and owl spotting adventures this season!

Photo by Liz Birnbaum, The Curated Feast

Updated November 2023