Some years, California sees a super bloom of wildflowers—but this winter that explosion of color is coming from monarch butterflies.
The timing couldn’t be better. After years of declining numbers—a staggering 99 percent decrease since the 1990s—2021 has shown a marked increase in the number of the monarchs migrating along the West Coast (check out this Smithsonian Magazine article about the unexpected good news). In Pismo Beach the number of monarchs wintering has gone up by a whopping 3,500 percent compared to last year. (Fun fact: A group of monarchs is called a kaleidoscope.) It’s great news for other flora and fauna, too: Monarchs are major pollinators and a key part of the food chain for various birds, animals, and other insects.
See a few kaleidoscopes yourself this winter along the Western Monarch Trail, a recently launched partnership between the Central Coast State Parks Association and several preservation organizations. You could easily build a 57-mile road trip along this stretch of Highway 1 in San Luis Obispo County to see some of the 10 monarch hotspots, comprised of nature preserves, golf courses, and a campground.
Pack some binoculars so you can keep a respectful distance and start at the north end of the trail: Hearst San Simeon State Park, not far from Hearst Castle. Look for clusters of orange high up in eucalyptus trees above the beach, near Hearst Ranch Winery. About one mile south, stop at the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve, where the butterflies roost in a native forest right by the shoreline.
The next four stops are clustered around Morro Bay, including the Sweet Springs Nature Preserve in Los Osos, a 24-acre natural preserve that’s managed by the Morro Coast Audubon Society. Walk the trails through Monterey cypress and eucalyptus trees, and you’ll see lots of shorebirds who winter here too.
The Pismo Beach area marks the southern end of the trail, where the Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove at Pismo State Beach is home to one of the largest monarch colonies in North America—in part because the butterflies that tend to gather here are known for their longevity (check out this video tour from a docent).
Don’t miss the nearby Oceano Campground, part of the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area, which has attracted upwards of 20,000 monarchs a year. The monarchs here seem partial to the local Monterey cypress trees; since those branches are often only about 15 feet off the ground, the butterflies are even easier to see.