It's Monarch season! Monarch butterflies migrate every year, beginning in October, and the West Coast Monarchs always go to the same places en route to Mexico and So Cal, where they seek warm weather.
Particular trees on the Central Coast are such frequent temporary homes to the Monarchs, you can count on spotting colonies of them there. The Monarchs do not fly when it's cold, so look for them on a day when the temps are below 55 degrees. They'll be camped out, waiting for a warm day on which to escape.
How do they know where to go? I'm not sure, but generation after generation of butterflies can be found each year in the same spots. You can observe them yourself from October to February.
Where to see migrating Monarch butterflies
Because nature doesn't take reservations, I am including phone numbers that might be able to verify the presence of butterflies on the day you are planning to visit.
Santa Cruz's Natural Bridges State Beach – Monarch Butterfly Natural Preserve
During the weekends, from mid-October through mid-January, guided tours of the Monarch Butterfly Grove are available at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.
Natural Bridges Visitor Center
More info at the California Parks website >>
Pair this destination with: A less-than-a-mile kid-friendly hike through the beautiful forest at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park in Santa Cruz and a treat from Pacific Cookie Company
Pacific Grove – Monarch Grove Sanctuary
Located about a mile from the Monterey Bay Aquarium, this Monarch-viewing spot is open all day, but like the others has limited hours for volunteer docents to point out facts of interest.
250 Ridge Road, Pacific Grove, CA, 93950
More info at Trip Advisor >>
Pair this destination with: A play session at Dennis The Menace Park, if budget does not permit a visit to the Aquarium.
Pismo Beach – Monarch Butterfly Grove
Located half a mile south of Pismo Beach just off Hwy 1. The grove is open from late October through the month of February from 10 am to 4 pm with docents providing daily talks at 11 am and 2 pm.
More info at the Monarch Butterfly Grove website >>
Pair this destination with: A beachfront meal at nearby Wooly's, complete with a kid-friendly menu and access to the sand.
What to expect when observing butterfly colonies
The butterflies are all nestled against tree branches. At first glance, it appears to be a thick-branched tree, but as your eyes adjust, it looks like the tree is gently moving as a blanket of butterflies are covering every surface, moving their wings the slightest bit.
Using binoculars will allow you to really see them in detail, and it's possible that your kids have better vision than you and will be able to see what's happening without assistance.
The trees are protected from human hands by fences, so set your expectation to observe from a distance.