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It’s peak monarch butterfly time near Santa Cruz. Here’s how to see them

A bunch of monarch butterflies gather in a tree.
Monarch butterflies overwinter in Natural Bridges State Beach near Santa Cruz in November. Locals have reported seeing the butterflies in record numbers this year. | Source: Courtesy Robert Aldana

Robert Aldana has taken his kids—now teenagers—to see the monarch butterflies in Santa Cruz ever since they were little, but this fall the display is extra special.

“This is one of the most incredible years of monarchs that I’ve seen at Natural Bridges,” said Aldana, who lives just 10 minutes away in Scotts Valley. “I don’t remember ever seeing the trees as full of butterflies as they are now.”

Aldana is just one of the local fans who’ve reported big bunches of butterflies clumped in the blue gum eucalyptus trees along the Monarch Grove Trail at Natural Bridges State Beach.

Clumps of monarch butterflies gather in a tree.
Monarch butterflies enjoy the mild winter temps and eucalyptus groves along the California Coast. | Source: Courtesy Robert Aldana

Monarch butterflies flock to the California coast to overwinter because of its sunny, mild climate. After a long decline in population, the number of monarchs counted in California and Arizona by volunteers for the Xerces Society, an international conservation group, over the past two years showed promising growth.

The 2023-24 monarch count is currently underway. And though experts believe this winter’s count may show a dip from last year, early anecdotal evidence from the Santa Cruz area appears to show the opposite. Aldana’s report of an uptick in local monarchs was echoed by others on social media.

Where To See Monarch Butterflies Near Santa Cruz

California state park sites from Santa Cruz to San Diego accounted for 44% of all overwintering western monarchs in 2019. The butterfly flock peaks between mid-November and mid-December, but clumps can often be seen until late January.

At Natural Bridges State Beach—the only State Monarch Preserve in California—a short, ADA-accessible trail with interpretive signage leads from the visitor’s center to the spots where butterflies hang out in the trees overhead, making for an easy and economical day trip from the Bay Area.

Clumps of monarch butterflies gather in a tree.
Famous for its coastal rock formations, Natural Bridges State Beach in Santa Cruz is also one of California’s best places to see overwintering monarch butterflies. | Source: Courtesy Robert Aldana

“Parking at Natural Bridge State Beach is just $10 and supports the park,” says Jennifer Murray, a spokesperson for Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks. “Once you’ve paid for parking at a state park, that receipt is good all day at any state park in California.”

That means one small fee enables butterfly fans to hit several other Santa Cruz-area monarch-filled state beaches on the same day, including Lighthouse Field and New Brighton. A cruise down past Carmel gets road trippers into Point Lobos and Andrew Molera state parks, which also play host to flocks of monarchs.

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When the butterfly safari is over, Murray recommends hitting more state parks on the way back to the Bay Area, including Wilder Ranch State Park for hiking and biking, Año Nuevo State Park for elephant seals and the San Mateo Coast State Beaches like Pescadero, San Gregorio and Pebble state beaches for a nice picnic or sunset.