Ellwood Monarch Groves
Where Butterflies Fill The Skies With Winter Magic
Distance – Two hundred yards to the Monarch reserve; a quarter mile to the bluffs; 1 mile to Coal Oil Point; 1.5 miles to Haskell’s Beach
Difficulty – Easy
Topo – Dos Pueblos Canyon
From Santa Barbara drive northbound on Highway 101 to the Glen Annie/Storke Road exit in Goleta. Turn left, cross over the freeway and drive 0.3 miles to Hollister. Turn right and continue 1.1 miles to Coronado Drive, just past the 7-11 store. Go left on Coronado and park near the Coronado Butterfly Reserve sign or at the end of the street.
Observe all of the do’s and don’t which are posted on the reserve sign. The Ellwood overwintering site is very fragile and the butterflies need to be treated with respect.
From the end of Coronado Drive you can enjoy the mesmerizing beauty of monarch butterflies fluttering through the tall eucalyptus trees during the winter months, then walk out over the open meadows to the bluff tops. Small trails lead in and out of the eucalyptus trees and a network of paths throughout the bluffs, allowing you to walk for miles. Several trails lead down to the mile long beach.
SETTING THE SCENE
When I lived at 410 Coronado Drive in the 1960s we would head out to the eucalyptus groves whenever it was a warm, sunny day in late February or March. What made it so beautiful weren’t the puffy clouds or the green hills; it was the sight of the skies filled with butterflies, often hundreds and hundreds of them.
Later, when I taught an Environmental Education class at UCSB I would bring my classes here every winter to experience the wonder of seeing the Monarchs hanging in thick clusters from the tops of the eucalyptus trees in what is now called the “Ellwood Main.” This short gully is surrounded by tall eucalyptus trees and is the overwintering site for thousands of Monarch butterflies every year.
Before we would come I would tell them all to bring a bandanna large enough to be used as a blindfold. We would meet at the bottom end of Coronado Drive and talk a bit, but I wouldn’t tell them anything about the Monarchs or what we were going to see. I would have the students form a long line just on the other side of the barrier, and we would create a caterpillar by having each of the students place their hands on the shoulders of the person in front of them.
Once they had gotten the idea, they would blindfold themselves, place their hands on the student in front of them and I would lead them in caterpillar fashion down into the creekbed and over into the ravine. It would take awhile, and there were always lots of laughing as the students would stumble, but we would go slow and they would warn each other about upcoming obstacles.
Finally, when we were in the ravine, I would take each one and help them lie down on their backs in a comfortable place, blindfolds still in place. As we were doing this I would tell them to imagine something beautiful and magical, something that would be so powerful it would leave them breathless. One by one all of them would get in position until finally all of them were lying there, heads resting on the ground, eyes facing straight up.
At this point I would ask them to take a few deep breaths and when they were ready to take off their blindfolds to let me know. Then, perhaps a minute or two later I would lie down beside them so I was looking up as well and lead the countdown. On “three” all of them would take off their blindfolds.
All I can say is this an incredible experience, the looking up towards the sky, with the silhouettes of the eucalyptus trees all around, the butterflies floating about you and the incredible silence. At first there would be lots of words but then inevitably the students would all lapse into silence, mesmerized by the experience of watching the butterflies flying everywhere.
In a minute or two the really amazing thing would occur to them. In the silence they would begin to realize that it was not completely quiet. You could hear the sound of the butterfly wings as the Monarchs moved through the air. It is an amazing sound.
As you drive down Coronado will notice the large sign that marks the beginning of the Coronado Butterfly Reserve, which is owned and managed by the Land Trust for SB County. It is possible to begin walking from this point. The trail through the reserve leads over a small hill and then down a very pretty creek to the Ellwood Main, where you can observe the Monarch butterflies during the winter months.
You can also continue down to the end of Coronado. Devereaux Creek is on the other side of the barrier and the ravine where the Ellwood Main is located is just fifty yards to the right. There are really no established trails in this area, but rather, a network of paths which will take you through the eucalyptus forests or up along the bluffs.
Historically, Monarch butterflies have used many of the eucalyptus groves along the Goleta and Gaviota coasts as either temporary bivouacking sites or permanent winter aggregation sites.
The butterflies first begin to arrive around the beginning of Fall in late September but the largest numbers of them arrive in December and January. This is the period when they are the most concentrated and viewing them is the best. A good time to enjoy the Monarchs is midday on a warm sunny afternoon when there may be thousands of them in the air as well as thousands of others forming long tendrils of spiky brown clumps on the leaves and trunks of the eucalyptus.
If it is really warm you may see them fluttering about quite a ways from their home site in the ravine, sunning, or collecting nectar along the trails. When it is cooler you may spot them in long clusters high in the trees. When they cluster they fold their brilliant orange and black wings so that only their brown undersides show, making them appear more like clusters of leaves than butterflies – great for camouflage but making it hard to spot them unless you look closely.
The Monarchs cluster to stay warm and conserve energy during the winter so enough is left to mate and reproduce in the spring. This is why it is important to enjoy them quietly and not to disturb them. Dogs should be on a leash and their barking kept to a minimum. Children should be watched carefully to ensure they don’t shake the trees or throw anything at the butterflies. Making them fly and use up precious energy reserves could cause their premature death and diminish the population of the next generation.
In February and March you may see pairs of them mating. This is their major activity once the cold winter is over and before they begin dispersing inland. As the days grow longer and warmer, the females begin moving inland in search of milkweed plants on which to deposit their eggs. The butterflies consume leaves from the milkweed, which turns out to be a very good defensive tactic. The milky white sap contains a chemical toxin to which the Monarchs are immune, but is sickening to birds and other potential predators.
During the late spring and summer months, subsequent generations of monarchs will be born as these butterflies travel further east and north away from the coast, following the available milkweed. By Fall, amazingly, Monarch butterflies many generations removed from the ones which left the Ellwood Main will begin migrate back in our direction in search of overwintering sites with favorable conditions for them-like Ellwood.
After you have had an opportunity to experience the Monarchs, there are numerous possibilities for walks through the eucalyptus groves, out into the meadows or on the beach. Try walking in and out of the eucalyptus trees for awhile and you will be mesmerized by the peaceful feeling they exude. There are plenty of down trees to use for benches and the way the light filters down through the upper branches creates very nice effects.
One of my favorite loops leads over to the Ellwood Bluffs and back along the cliffs. To take this walk continue west beyond the Ellwood Main along the side of Devereaux Creek in the direction of Sandpiper Golf Course. The trail continues all the way to the course boundary then curves left and takes you along the edge of several of the greens to the cliffs.
There is a very overgrown trail here which will take you down to the beach or you can head back in an easterly direction along the top of the bluffs until you reach one of several easier-to-use beach access points. In any case, there is no proscribed route; sometimes I drop down and walk along the beach for awhile and at other times I just wander along the cliff top until I feel like circling back to the eucalyptus groves. No matter which route you chose you’ll have a great time.