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Exploring: California's Monarch Butterfly Groves During a Comeback Year

Thanks to a recent L.A. Times article, we decided on a whim to make a day trip to Pismo Beach, along California’s Central Coast. In that area, monarch butterflies “overwinter” annually, but the population has been dwindling, from hundreds of thousands to a couple thousand in recent years. The reason isn't yet entirely clear but may have to do with a combination of habitat loss, pesticides, and wildfire smoke, as the fire season has gotten longer. This year, though, the butterflies are back in mass, and hopefully for good. For the time being, hundreds of thousands huddle up in the trees overnight, trying to stay warm, then energetically flit among the groves when the warm sunlight shines down during the day.

A few years ago, Janine and I headed south from L.A. to Temecula, when a poppy super bloom and mass migration of painted lady butterflies was happening simultaneously. It was rejuvenating, getting away from the city, taking in the fresh air along the trails, and appreciating the renewal brought on by another year.

butterfly on California poppy flowers during spring - photo by KilmerMedia

In the time since, the world has drastically changed, and our travels have been scaled way, way back. Even just a quick trip out of the big city is a welcome respite so, with minimal planning, we recently got up early on a Saturday, hopped in the car, and started driving three hours to see the monarch groves.

Normally on road trips, I’m the passenger. It nice to relax and get out the camera every once in a while, hoping I’ve set the shutter speed right, as interesting parts of the landscape zip by. What I always love is the way the brown, rugged mountains that ring L.A. give way to lush green, rolling hills as you drive further north. The barns, vineyards, cattle, old oak trees - it all seems so calm and peaceful, and I always wish for an opportunity to sit in the middle of all that quiet stillness and just do nothing.

rolling hills near California's Central Coast - photo by KilmerMedia

The drive took us through Santa Barbara, then we headed northwest, along Lake Cachuma. After another hour of listening to ‘90s rock songs, we arrived in Pismo Beach. It’s evident the nature preserve is nearby when the line of cars parked on both sides of the road seems to stretch over the horizon. A single parking spot was up ahead, on the other side of the road, so I put on my blinker and slowed down in this already-congested section of the road. We waited on the incoming traffic to pass, and as I started turning into the open spot, the guy who was stuck behind us yelled “F— YOU!” as he drove by. I felt no guilt and gave him a thumbs up. If he paid attention to my signal and didn’t tailgate, there would have been room to pass us on the shoulder, like a couple cars behind him did.

Pismo State Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove entrance in California - photo by KilmerMedia

It doesn't seem that way from the above photo, but the grove was bustling with visitors. Some people were wearing masks and most weren’t. Being outside, ours were in our pockets, and we have no judgement for anyone trying to make sure they’re safe.

The tall eucalyptus trees seem to reach straight up for the sky. Following the trunks up to the top of the stand, spots of blue sky peeking through provide the greatest contrast and evidence that thousands and thousands of butterflies are continually zipping around. It’s really amazing and feels so chaotic and peaceful at the same time.

watch out for Monarch butterflies sign - photo by KilmerMedia

The beach is nearby, so we checked out the neat sand dunes, watched an old, sightseeing biplane cruise around, then continued on our way.

sand dunes and a walking trail near Pismo Beach, California - photo by KilmerMedia

There was another grove on the list to check out, but first, we went in search of some lunch. Among my quick research, I found a promising lunch spot in Morro Bay called Giovanni’s Fish Market. The photos looked so good, the reviews were decent, and the single “$” price rating was a plus. When it was our turn at the walk-up window, we ordered fish tacos and a fish and chips basket. Soon enough, our little beeper started going off, signaling the order was ready.

We collected our food from the pickup window, took a seat, and got to work. I won’t pull any punches here - what a letdown. All of it, the fish tacos, fried fish, and fries, were all nearly flavorless. The flavor we did find came from ketchup, tartar sauce, and the raw onions on the tacos. To boot, it turns out there’s another order window at the side of the building, with a menu that’s probably twice as long as the window directly facing the main road. I ate without any joy in my heart, and Janine picked at the fries. The food looked delicious, but it wasn't.

fish and chips and fish tacos baskets at lunch - photo by KilmerMedia

After “lunch” we took a stroll down the embarcadero. A wine tasting room along the way caught our attention, so we stopped by. The place is called Absolution, and the owner, Dirk, was pouring and explaining the bottle art and how it ties in to the varietals. It’s fascinating stuff, getting a glimpse into the creative process that goes so far beyond whatever that brand is at the grocery store that puts basically a P-touch label on their bottles. The Absolution wines were really nice, albeit on the pricey side.

We continued our walk along the harbor and occasionally took in the changing perspective of the massive volcanic plug across the water, which is a 500’+ rock dome called Morro Rock. As an endangered bird habitat and sacred Native American site, it’s off-limits for climbing but provides an iconic symbol along this popular stretch of the coastline.

Morro Rock along California's Central Coast during the day - photo by KilmerMedia

After the end of our roundtrip walk, as the sunlight started to fade, we drove eight miles south, to a butterfly preserve in Los Osos. This park is at the end of a neighborhood. According to that L.A. Times article, the stand of trees was originally intended to be used for railroad ties, but the wood was unsuitable. Now, it’s a seasonal home for thousands of migrating butterflies.

eucalyptus grove along California's Central Coast - photo by KilmerMedia

The park was quiet and serene, with maybe only ten other people visiting within the hour or so we were there. As the sun started to dip below the horizon, the butterflies fluttered mostly at treetop level, where there was still direct sunlight. Soon enough, the monarchs began preparing for another cool, winter night by huddling up together on branches.

Next, we headed to Avila Beach, where we found a wine tasting room open relatively late (7 PM vs. the usual 5 or 6 at vineyards), called Alapay Cellars. When we arrived around 6:00, a total of eight people were tasting wines, and six of them were about done. Bear in mind, this is February, and I would expect a lot more traffic during summer. Our host, Clay, was awesome and very knowledgeable, telling about his experiences from making wine for 35 years. The bottles weren’t as fun to look at, compared to the tasting room earlier in the day but, more importantly, there were some really enjoyable wines in this collection, as well.

We weren’t sure what to do about dinner, so we asked Clay for any recommendations. He mentioned some places around, and even not around, saying he had heard really great things about Industrial Eats in Buellton. Looking it up, that was an hour drive south, so we crossed our fingers that we could get there before the 8 PM closing time, or whenever the kitchen would be shutting down.

An hour later, the navigation app had us turning into what felt like a neighborhood. “Is this right?” we wondered aloud. When we starting passing some small industrial/manufacturing buildings, “Industrial Eats” made sense.

The place was hip and bustling on a Saturday night. We opted for a pizza, BBQ brisket sandwich, and a couple beers - Abita Mardi Gras for me and some whatever-it-was IPA for Janine. It was a clever ploy for her to not order the Old Rasputin, since I would have had some of that, too. Now you (sorta) know what three beers were on tap, and there were a lot of craft, canned options also.

The drive home was long, and we took a break by stopping in a dark patch off the highway, to take in the night sky filled with so many stars we never get to see from the big city.

stars in the night sky viewed from the California coast, north of Los Angeles - photo by KilmerMedia

The cold air recharged us just long enough to get home safely. The day was long, but a quick getaway was exactly what we needed.

As of this writing, it's February, and this rare display in the monarch groves isn't expected to last long. So for those who have an opportunity, get on out there!

Locations visited:

Monarch Butterfly Grove

400 S. Dolliver St.

Pismo Beach, CA 93449

Giovanni’s Fish Market

1001 Front St.

Morro Bay, CA 93442

Absolution Cellars

845 Embarcadero # H

Morro Bay, CA 93443

Coastal Access Monarch Butterfly Preserve

2-98 Monarch Ln.

Los Osos, CA 93402

Alapay Cellars Tasting Room

415 1st St.

Avila Beach, CA 93424

Industrial Eats

181 Industrial Way

Buellton, CA 93427


“Exploring: California's Monarch Butterfly Groves During a Comeback Year” Written by: Justin Kilmer | Edited by: Janine Kilmer

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