It’s a scene worth flocking to. Every year, thousands of orange and black Monarch Butterflies spread their wings, seeking shelter from the northern winters. From late October to February, the butterflies cluster in the limbs of a grove of Eucalyptus trees at Pismo State Beach, which is located a little under 30 minutes away from Santa Maria Valley. The Monarch Dunes Butterfly Habitat is only 10 minutes from Santa Maria Valley, and was once part of a 957-acre Tasmanian blue gum eucalyptus plantation in Nipomo, Calif.
The Monarchs are of a special variety. They have a life span of six months as opposed to the typical six weeks. This can be attributed to a unique fat storing system. However, even with an extended life span, those butterflies that leave in March will never return.
Only 17 miles from Santa Maria Valley, the Pismo State Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove is an extraordinary place to witness these winged wonders in action. It is located on Highway 1 at the south boundary of the city limits of Pismo Beach. During the season, the Docent Trailer opens at 10 a.m. and closes at 4 p.m. daily. Daily talks happen at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., weather permitting. Knowledgeable volunteer docents are the perfect way to experience and become educated on these winged-wonders. Usually, telescopes are available for visitors to get a closer view.
Visitors can see the vibrant butterflies in dense cluster formations, with each one hanging with its wing down over the one below it to form a shingle effect. This provides shelter from the rain and warmth for the group. The weight of the cluster help keeps it from whipping in the wind and dislodging the butterflies.
The Pismo Beach wintering site is only one of five in the state of California that have a count of more than 10,000 monarch butterflies, with the grove hosting an average 25,000 butterflies annually. The site is also one of the largest wintering homes of the Western monarch butterfly in the United States. Not many other creatures do this on a large scale.
The Monarch Dunes Butterfly Habitat has supported as many as 60,000 overwintering monarch butterflies. As part of the mitigation of the development of this parcel of land for homes, golf courses and a hotel resort complex in Nipomo, nineteen acres surrounding the historic aggregation area were identified as critical for its integrity and, in 2006, were preserved as a sanctuary for overwintering monarch butterflies, now known as the Monarch Dunes Butterfly Habitat.
Scientists do not know why the Monarchs consistently return to some wintering sites. In North America, those sites range from the Central and Southern California Coast to Mexico. Some scientists speculate that the insects are equipped with genetic homing systems that lead them from their summer sites in the Sierras, Florida, Canada and the Great Lakes Region in North America back to their winter locations.
In the Santa Maria Valley, there’s so much to do from here. The recipe for our way of life requires simplicity, the natural landscape, soul and a touch of spice. Hit the road and explore all you can do in and around Santa Maria Valley. You’ll find it’s the perfect home base, where you can eat, drink and do more for less.
For more information on or directions to the Pismo State Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove, please call the Interpretive Office of the Oceano Dunes, California State Parks at 805.773.5301 or visit the website.
For more information or directions to the Monarch Dunes Butterfly Habitat, visit the website.