For the second year in a row, California is seeing an explosion of color from monarch butterflies. The fiercely beautiful insects flutter 1,000 miles from southern Canada to the California coast, where they spend the winter before continuing their long migrations.
After four decades of declining numbers—a staggering 99.9 percent decrease since the 1980s—both 2021 and 2022 have seen a marked increase in the number of the monarchs wintering along the coast (check out this Smithsonian Magazine article about 2021’s unexpected good news). These recent counts don’t come close to historic highs, but they’re a promising uptick over the last five years.
Fun fact: A group of monarch butterflies is called a kaleidoscope. Gaze at these kaleidoscopes—or jewel-toned clusters—from November to early February along the Western Monarch Trail, a partnership between the Central Coast State Parks Association and several preservation organizations.
You can put together a 57-mile road trip along this stretch of Highway 1 in San Luis Obispo County to visit several monarch wintering sites, which are found on nature preserves and near a winery, golf course, and campground.
Bring along binoculars so you can keep a respectful distance from the monarchs. Start on the Monarch Trail’s north end at Hearst San Simeon State Park, not far from Hearst Castle. Look for orange-and-black clusters high up in eucalyptus trees above the beach, or near Hearst Ranch Winery. About one mile south, stop at the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve, where monarchs roost in a Monterey pine forest near 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 spot lots of shorebirds in addition to monarchs.
The Pismo Beach area marks the trail’s southern end, where the Pismo State Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove at Pismo State Beach hosts one of California’s largest monarch colonies. The butterflies that 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 historically has attracted upwards of 20,000 monarchs a year. The butterflies are partial to the local Monterey cypress trees, and since their branches are often only about 15 feet off the ground, this is an easy place to view them.