The Arch at Santa Cruz beach where the entrance to the monarch butterfly path is.

The Best Time To See The Monarch Butterflies 2023

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You might be wondering when is the best time to see the Monarch Butterflies in Santa Cruz, CA.?

Monarch butterflies are one of the most magical species in the universe. They are both beautiful and complicated, and fascinate people of all ages. 

In Northern California, we are lucky enough to have them visit at the same coastal spots each year.

The Natural Bridges State Beach Monarch Butterfly Natural Preserve in Santa Cruz County is one of many such migration stopovers for the butterflies in Northern California. Just over one hour from San Francisco and from Alameda, Santa Cruz is one of our favorite beach towns.

These Santa Cruz monarch butterflies arrive by the middle of October and usually stay until February. The best time to catch them is late November to early December.

They fly thousands of miles to return to the same trees each winter to lay their eggs and stay warm.

The monarch butterflies are most active in November becasue they are starting their winter roosting process.

Natural Bridges Beach
Monarch Butterfly Preserve Santa Cruz

So when we see them in Santa Cruz in the groves of trees along the California coast and the Monterey Bay, they have made the long trek from the Rocky Mountains to their “overwintering sites” in California.

The annual cycle actually takes four generations of butterflies to complete!

The monarchs are truly a sight to behold. and when you see flocks of them flying all at once, you’re witnessing one of nature’s miracles!

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Monarch Butterfly Natural Preserve
Monarch Butterfly Natural Preserve
Monarch Butterfly Natural Preserve

Monarch Butterly Natural Preserve Hiking Info

The walk to the Monarch Butterfly Natural Preserve is a 0.6 mile loop. It’s not strenuous at all, and it’s very accessible.

Walk to the end of the parking area to look for signs to the  Monarch Trail.

You might feel like you’re lost and wandering on the trail for a bit, but not to worry, you’re in the right spot.

Keep an eye out for the accessible wooden walkway that leads down to the main viewing area, tucked into a eucalyptus grove. 

Wander in and look up! You’ll see thousands of butterflies in the air, landing on the trees, and being beautiful!


How do I get there and where do I park to see the Monarch Butterflies?

~ From Highway 1 in Santa Cruz, turn Right onto North Mission St.

~ Continue for 1.6 miles and then turn Left onto Swift St.

~ Turn Right onto Delaware Ave.

~ Turn Left onto Swanton Blvd.

~ Turn Right onto West Cliff Dr.

~ Turn Left into the Natural Bridges State Beach.

~ Enter the Natural Bridges State Beach parking area for a $10 fee OR park for free along Swanton Blvd or West Cliff Drive.

What’s the weather like at the Monarch Butterfly Natural Preserve?

The Bay Area and its micro climates are, at best, unpredictable.

The Santa Cruz beach area can range from very warm and sunny in the fall and winter to suddenly becoming foggy and chilly! So, wear layers and sunscreen!

Pro Tips

~ There are sometimes park volunteers around offering great information and showing butterflies up close with their microscopes.

~ You might want to bring binoculars and a good camera lense.

~ Consider joining a guided tour.

~ Remember, there are no dogs allowed.

~ Keep noise down to a minumum so you don’t disturb the butterflies.

Overlook in Point Lobos

Where else in Northern California can I see Monarch Butterflies?

If you can’t make it to Natural Bridges State Beach in Santa Cruz during butterfly migration time, but are closer to one of the other migration spots in California, here’s a list of where you can find them hanging from the trees and flying around.

  • Ardenwood Farm
  • Bodega Head
  • Pacific Grove Monarch Preserve and Museum of Natural History
  • Point Lobos State Natural Reserve near Carmel
  • Big Sur
  • Morro Bay State Park
  • Pismo Nature Center and Monarch Grove
  • Goleta Monarch Butterfly Grove & Coronado Butterfly Preserve
  • Point Mugu State Park
  • El Dorado Nature Center

Monarch Butterfly Fun Facts

~ Monarchs have distinct orange and black coloring which warns predators to stay away.

~ Monarchs are poisonous to predators because they eat only milkweed and milkweed is toxic to other species.

~ Western Monarchs migrate to the California Coast for the winter.

~ In a few short weeks, Monarchs lay 300-500 eggs onto milkweed leaves.

~ Monarchs only live for about 6 – 8 months.

~ Monarchs make their long trip using sun navigation and a natural magnetic compass.

~ Monarchs have incredibly strong and efficient muscles that let them fly such long distances.

~ Not such a fun fact is that Monarchs are a “nearly threatened species.” so they really need protection and support.

~ There are plenty of Save The Butterfly organizations who can use our support! 

Natural Bridges Beach

Expectation vs Reality:

I expected the butterflies would be flying lower in the trees and closer to eye level than they were. I also expected to see more of them along the trail. Well, apparently, in some years, there are many more, and some years fewer. So, its worth it to go back each year!

Monarch Butterfly Natural Preserve
Monarch Butterfly Natural Preserve
Monarch Butterfly Natural Preserve

How do caterpillars become butterflies?

In case you need a refresher:

Monarch eggs become caterpillars, caterpillars eat milkweed to grow and then build a cocoon, becoming a chrysalis. After a few weeks they finish their metamorphosis and have a big reveal as a beautiful butterfly!

Monarch Butterfly Natural Preserve
Monarch Butterfly Natural Preserve

So Much More To Do In Santa Cruz!

~ Visit the protected Tide Pools at Natural Bridges Beach during low tide to observe thousands of sea creatures surviving the tides.
~ Check out the famous Santa Cruz Boardwalk amusement park.
~ Take a walk on Cliff Drive.
~ Enjoy the Surfer Museum.
~ Eat at Cafe Gratitude on Lincoln Street.
~ Listen to music at Kuumbwa Jazz on Cedar Street.

Now you know the best time to see the monarch butterflies in
Santa Cruz this Fall!

In a nutshell…

Checking out the monarch butterflies in Santa Cruz, California is an absolute must!

Strolling through the eucalyptus grove as the butteflies are circling overhead is like stepping into a magical forest.

The orange and black beauties cluster together in the  trees is unlike anything you’ve seen before .

This adventure isn’t  just about the butterflies –  it’s a reminder of how remaarkable nature is and why we need to cherish it!

Be sure to catch the butterflies this fall and enjoy!



Hi There! I’m Carrie.

Carrie Green-Zinn Bio Page

I’m a native New Englander, turned New Yorker, turned California girl! Following a dance career, working as a dance therapist, and being a school psychologist, I’m now ready to share my passion for photography and travel with you! I absolutely love seeing the world with my family and friends. I know you feel the same! Let’s go! 

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