The Best Time To See The Monarch Butterflies

Natural Bridges Beach
Natural Bridges Beach

The Best Time to see the
Monarch Butterflies at
Natural Bridges State Beach 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. They fly thousands of miles to return to these trees each winter, lay their eggs, and stay warm.

Natural Bridges State Beach Monarch Butterfly Natural Preserve is one of many such migration stopovers for the butterflies in Northern California. Thousands of monarchs migrate to this region each year from west of the Rocky Mountains to stay warm for the winter.

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

When can you see the butterflies?

They arrive by the middle of October and usually stay until February. The best time to catch them is late November to early December.

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

Know before you go

When to Go

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 winter to foggy and chilly! Wear layers and sunscreen!

Shop my favorite hiking gear here.

I recommend the winter months for this top Bay Area California hike if you want to see the butterflies. 


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 trail. You might feel like you’re lost and wandering on the trail for a bit. Look for the accessible wooden walkway leading down to the main viewing area, tucked into a eucalyptus grove.

Parking Symbol


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

Please be respectful and follow all the 7 Principles of Leave No Trace!©  Plan Ahead and Prepare, Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces, Dispose of Waste Properly, Leave What You Find, Minimize Campfire Impacts, Respect Wildlife, Be Considerate of Other Visitors.


  • 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.


If you can’t make it to Santa Cruz in the winter, but are closer to one of the other migration spots in California, here is a list of where you can find them hanging from the trees and flying around.

  • Ardenwood Farm
  • Bodega Head
  • Natural Bridges State Beach.
  • Pacific Grove Monarch Preserve and Museum of Natural History
  • Point Lobos State Natural Reserve.
  • 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! 
Monarch Butterfly Preserve Santa Cruz

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

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.

I hope you get to see these magical creatures in their happy winter home!



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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