Where to See Monarch Butterflies
Best Bets for Butterfly Viewing
With 140 butterfly species in the Bay Area, you don’t have to look too far to spot these airborne beauties, but some places are just brimming with them. Here are few hot spots:
Muir Beach – Search for monarch butterflies as they overwinter on the Monterey pines in the small grove at Muir Beach before their trek south and west in spring. And when you’ve seen the Lilliputians, take a look out in the waves for leviathan whales, which during the winter months migrate along the coast. Open daily, 8am-6pm. FREE. Take Highway 1 to Pacific Way and go east to the Muir Beach parking area. Walk to the stairs. 415-388-2596.
Fort Baker – This former Army post just north of the Golden Gate Bridge is one of the few corners of the Bay Area where the endangered mission blue butterfly can be found. It only flies a couple weeks of the year. The other 50 it can be seen on the blue lupine flower, its host plant, as a caterpillar or egg. Due to nonnative plant invasion and a fungus attack on its host, mission blue numbers plummeted in the mid-90s, but have returned thanks to habitat restoration. Park along the water at Horseshoe Cove or at the trailhead at Drown Road. 415-331-1540.
Ring Mountain Open Space Preserve –Take a hike to the top of the Tiburon Peninsula to find a unique geological landscape known for its views, spring wildflowers and variety of butterflies. Roughly 75 species have been counted here over the years, including the California tortoiseshell, pipevine swallowtail and eastern tailed blue. Daily, sunrise to sunset. FREE. 5300 Paradise Drive, Corte Madera. 415-473-5058.
Golden Gate Park – Strawberry Hill, on an island in Stow Lake, is the place to go to see swallowtail and monarch butterflies. While you hike up this 430-foot hill, you’ll also get to take in some great views of the park, Golden Gate Bridge and Mount Tamalpais. Daily, sunrise to sunset. FREE. 50 Stow Lake Drive, San Francisco. 415-750-5110.
Thompson Reach – This recently-restored riparian stretch of the Presidio leads to Crissy Field Marsh and hosts thousands of native plants attracting many types of butterflies. More than 15 species including the west coast lady and checkered skipper are commonly spotted among the willows, and many others make rare appearances here. The free guide The Butterflies of Thompson Reach shows colorful images to help you identify the species. Other popular butterfly hangouts in the Presidio are Rob Hill and Lover’s Lane Bridge. Daily, sunrise to sunset. FREE. Tennessee Hollow Trail, a short walk from the Presidio Transit Center. 415-561-5300.
Crissy Field – On a lucky day, you may spot the western pygmy blue – an endangered species and North America’s smallest butterfly. Seeing the half-inch-long blue beauty isn’t only cause for personal celebration, it’s a triumph for the Presidio scientists who labored to restore the natural habitat, including the endangered California sea blite, a native plant fed upon by the western pygmy’s caterpillars. Hike along the Presidio’s Golden Gate Promenade to see the insects or join a guided tour of the habitat. Daily, sunrise to sunset. FREE. To reach Crissy Field, park at East Beach or take the PresidGo Shuttle. 415-561-5300.
Coyote Hills Regional Park – Just a short walk from the visitor center at this park along the eastern shore of the San Francisco Bay is a bird and butterfly nectar garden that harbors monarchs, swallowtails and other colorful species among the flowers. Check the website for the Butterfly Day each May. Wed.-Sun, 10am-4pm. FREE. 8000 Patterson Ranch Road, Fremont. 510-544-3220.
Ardenwood Historic Farm – Monarch butterflies overwinter at this historic, 1850s-circa farm and country estate from Nov. through early Feb. Although their population here has decreased over the years, visitors can find the orange-and-black beauties in small clusters in the eucalyptus grove, as well as their eggs, caterpillars and chrysalides in the greenhouse. Tue.-Sun, 10am-4pm. Tue., Wed. and Sat: $3 adults, $2 ages 4-17, under 4 FREE. Thu., Fri. and Sun.: $6 adults, $4 ages 4-17, under 4 FREE. 34600 Ardenwood Blvd., Fremont. 510-544-2797.
Picchetti Ranch Preserve – This former family ranch in the Cupertino foothills is a great spot for finding butterflies from late spring until early fall. You’ll see them feeding, breeding and laying eggs in the grasslands, forest edges and near water sources when sun is shining and there’s little wind. Open half an hour before sunrise to half an hour after sunset. Montebello Road, west of Cupertino. 650-691-1200.
Sierra Azul Preserve – This past spring, butterfly aficionados discovered 10 species on the Woods Trail, including the colorfully named tailed copper, spring azure and the mournful duskywing. Another prime viewing spot not far away is Skyline Ridge Preserve, where each May, the open space district hosts the Wingding Family Fest celebrating butterflies, bats, birds and more. Open half an hour before sunrise to half an hour after sunset. Reach the Woods Trail from the Jacques Ridge Parking Lot near Hicks and Mt. Umunhum roads. 650-691-1200.
Natural Bridges State Beach – Stroll through the eucalyptus grove on the wheelchair- and stroller-accessible boardwalk to see the thousands of monarch butterflies at the only state monarch preserve in California. The eucalyptus are a convenient food source for the butterfly and are located in a gentle sloping canyon that shelters the monarchs from the wind. On days when the temperature drops below 60 degrees, see the butterflies cluster together in the trees for warmth. Check the website for guided walks. Open daily, 8 a.m. to sunset. FREE. 2531 W. Cliff Drive, Santa Cruz. 831-423-4609.
Monarch Grove Sanctuary – What better place to view the handsome monarch butterflies than “Butterflytown”? This community so values the thousands of butterflies that overwinter on its pine and cypress trees that it approved a tax to create a sanctuary; police prohibit molestation of the winged guests. Stop at the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History for docent talks on the monarchs from Oct. to Feb. Daily, sunrise to sunset. FREE. 250 Ridge Road, Pacific Grove. 831-648-5716.
For more information on Bay Area butterflies, visit www.sfnps.org/butterflies_moths and www.sfbaywildlife.info/species/butterflies.htm. Help communities preserve habitats by documenting your butterfly finds on Project Noah at www.projectnoah.org.