Each year, tens of thousands of Monarch butterflies migrate to Pismo Beach, California, to escape the harsh winters of the great white north. We came upon Pismo Beach entirely by fluke (or fate, depending on how you see things).
But first, let me tell you about the butterflies…
The Monarchs come from west of the Rocky Mountains in Canada and northeastern US. They pack up and leave in late August/early September to make sure that they arrive at Pismo Beach by October.
Monarch butterflies travel as far as 3,200 km (2,000 mi), covering 160 km (100 mi) per day. The migration lasts longer than the lifetime of a monarch, which means that a baby born mid-migration has to make it to Pismo Beach alone.
From October to February, 35,000 butterflies settle in a grove of Eucalyptus trees along the coastal dunes. They cluster together on the tree branches, forming these dangling masses.
(Photo on left is from an interpretive sign at Pismo Beach State Park)
I can’t really describe how freaky these butterfly clusters are, so here’s a video:
Monarchs instinctively come to Pismo Beach for food (the nectar of flowers) and for the microclimate of the tree grove, which offers just the right temperature, humidity, light, and protection from the elements.
We found Pismo Beach based on a somewhat random series of events…
After dropping Lucky off at GoWesty for rehab, we turned off the GPS and drove toward the coast to find a sandy beach where we could sit and watch the waves.
We ended up at Shell Beach, which is actually a very rocky area with steep cliffs that prevent access to the water.
The view was gorgeous, but it wasn’t the kind of beach I was looking for. I looked across the bay and pointed to huge sand dunes in the distance. “That’s where I want to go,” I said.
As we drove south, I saw a sign for Pismo Beach. Seeing the sign immediately took me back to my childhood and this Bugs Bunny cartoon:
All this time, I actually thought that Pismo Beach was an imaginary place created by Looney Tunes. It was real! And we were approaching the turn-off!!
“Turn right now!” I hollered to Gregor.
“Which way, left or right?” Gregor asked.
“RIGHT!” I yelled as we blew past the intersection.
Frustrated, Gregor explained to me that I didn’t properly emphasize the direction.
He thought I said:
“TURN, right now”
“Turn RIGHT, now”
After a heated debate over the quality of my diction, Gregor decided that we should give future directions in more of a ‘GPS-style’ speech:
“Now, turn right.”
“Fine,” I snapped, crossing my arms and turning my head away.
That’s when I spotted the sign:
I couldn’t believe it. One of our big goals on this Pan-American journey was to see a butterfly migration site. Here it was! And we were approaching the turn-off!!
“Butterflies! There!” I yelled.
And in my best Stephen Hawking voice: “Now, turn right.”
Gregor gracefully took the next right and I navigated him back to the parking area of the butterfly grove. I guess his little speech lesson worked.
When we entered the grove, we saw tens of thousands of butterflies dangling from the trees.
We got to the butterfly grove just before sunset.
You could say that we came to Pismo Beach by chance. I like to think we came here on instinct, just like the butterflies. The temperature, humidity, and light is just right for us.
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