Natural Bridges State Beach in Santa Cruz, California, is a popular and gorgeous destination for nature-loving visitors. Featuring an interesting, all-natural bridge right on the beach, the park also boasts the state’s only protected Monarch Butterfly sanctuary. Butterfly fans from all over the country travel to Natural Bridges during the winter months, eager to see the beautiful creatures as they cluster within the park’s sweeping eucalyptus groves.
West For The Winter
Monarchs, searching for a more temperate place to live until they migrate back east for their spring mating season, travel to Natural Bridges as early as October. They take cover within the park’s eucalyptus groves while the Natural Bridges team keeps a close, protective eye on them. The park's Monarch Grove serves as an awesome vacation home for the warm weather-loving butterflies, and as many as eight thousand of them came to visit the park in 2016!
Monarch butterflies, bearing their recognizable orange, black, and white patterns, possess many different defense mechanisms against predators. The colors of their wings, which mimic the Viceroy Butterfly, serve as a literal warning sign to birds and reptiles who might eat them. Coupled with the color scheme, Monarch butterflies and caterpillars eat from the milkweed plant, which provides their primary layer of defense against predators. Nectar from a milkweed plant’s flower, and “milk” from the plant itself, are toxic and highly unappetizing to birds and reptiles. Therefore, predators associate a Monarch Butterfly’s coloring with their terrible taste, and vice versa.
East of Natural Bridges, near the Rocky Mountains, milkweed blooms in the warmer months, and the Monarchs travel here to mate. Monarchs use milkweed plants not only to eat, but they also use milkweed leaves as homes for their eggs!
The Monarch Preserve
The best time to explore Natural Bridges and get a chance to see the Monarch Butterflies is between Halloween and Thanksgiving holidays. California’s only State Monarch Preserve in California, the Monarch Grove at Natural Bridges, is an official Natural Preserve, so guests are prohibited from touching, collecting, or otherwise harming the delicate creatures. Without this protection, the Monarch Butterflies would be susceptible to immense danger.
Keep those eyes peeled and directed up toward the towering eucalyptus trees in the grove’s canyon! To get a closer look, head down the paved path toward the eucalyptus grove, where the park provides an observation deck for guests to get a good vantage point for viewing the butterflies as they shelter in the trees. During this time, the Monarchs will huddle together in the treetops to stay warm and protect each other from the colder winds. Eucalyptus is also the Monarch Butterfly’s primary food source during these winter months!
Natural Bridges depends on its volunteers, which include butterfly fanatics of all ages. Whether guests are helping to restore the park, guiding walks and tours of the park, or helping out with special events, the Natural Bridges team will put volunteers to work! Assisting in the protection and preservation of some of the planet’s most delicate creatures would surely be a fantastic and fulfilling way to spend a weekend.
Group Tours And Special Events For Kids
While adults can certainly reap the benefits from exploring Natural Bridges and observing the butterflies, there are a few great options for kids to enjoy it, too!
Beginning August 1st, Natural Bridges accepts applications for schools interested in field trips, offering one-hour time slots during the fall and winter months. Completely donation-based, these tours would be a great way to expose children to the wonders of nature. They only require one adult to be present for every group of seven students.
The Monarch Butterfly field trip tour features a half-hour indoor lecture, which teaches children and teens about Monarch Butterflies’ lives and journeys west. After this, kids are led by a tour guide outside, where they can explore the butterfly sanctuary and milkweed garden to see the butterflies in action.
Little Rangers Program
Every Monday at 10:00 am, children younger than six can hear stories and songs, play games, and learn all about the park with their families. An adult is required to be with them at all times and is encouraged to participate with the children in the activities. Like field trips, this program is completely free, with a suggestion for donations.
Know Before Going
- Travelers can only bring or drink alcohol by presenting a permit designed for special events. This process typically takes one month, so plan accordingly!
- The park is not open to camping; day passes only!
- To get to the picnic area, head toward the eucalyptus grove near the parking lot.
- Facilities include restrooms, grills, and tables. Camping is not allowed.
- Pets are allowed only in the picnic areas and parking lots. With an exemption for service animals, pets are not allowed on the trails and the beach. Pets must never be taken off their leash.
- Only ride bicycles on paved roads- not on trails or the beach.
- Fires, glass containers, drones, and taking any feature of the landscape are not allowed. The law protects all the park’s flora and fauna- observe and admire, but don’t take!
- Day Pass Vehicle Parking Charges apply
- Seniors 62 years and above- $10
- Bus - $50 with an added parking fee of $100.
- The Monarch Butterflies at Natural Bridges State Beach is a wonderful way to spend an afternoon (or a weekend) while in California. As always, plan and prepare before traveling, and enjoy appreciating one of the planet’s most fascinating and beautiful creatures!