Each winter, thousands of Monarch butterflies arrive at the Coronado Butterfly Preserve in Goleta, California. During the peak months of December through February, the monarchs congregate in the eucalyptus forest to enjoy the temperate weather and mate. By March, most of the butterflies have returned to lay their eggs in their Northern homes, some as far as 3,000 miles away.
The 9.3 acres of Coronado Butterfly Preserve is part of a glorious 52 acre protected natural environment. The Land Trust for Santa Barbara County, a non-profit group, acquired the preserve in 1998 with grants and donations from the community.
The preserve is located in a residential neighborhood and parking can get tight on peak butterfly viewing weekends, which often draw 1,000 visitors. On our visit, we joined photographers, tourists and locals out for an afternoon stroll with their dogs.
My nature-starved city kids loved the place immediately. As soon as they saw the sign announcing the butterfly preserve, they took off through the tall grass and wildflowers. Free from the burdens of watching for cars and stopping at alleyways, they ran and ran. I was hard pressed to keep up, but I faced the distractions of clean, eucalyptus-scented air and the deafening sound of silence.
After traversing a field and fording impromptu streams created by heavy rains the night before, we reached the eucalyptus grove. We spotted a single butterfly flashing a hint of orange as it flitted between the trees on the outskirts of the forest. We followed it under the canopy of leaves.
Inside the shade of the trees, the dappled sunlight revealed clusters of butterflies clinging to the leaves of the high branches. From that distance it was difficult to pick out the individual butterflies. The orange and black masses were beautiful against the green backdrop, but they were also somehow menacing, the trees teeming with life. Occasionally, a butterfly would chase its partner, swooping down to eye level in its complicated dance of attraction.
Emerging from the other side of the forest, we hiked through fields with criss-crossed trails until we reached the bluffs. Waves crashed on the deserted beach below us. The kids were all for scaling the side of the cliff to reach the ocean, but I urged them to skip the extreme sports.
We headed back to the car, blessing the community with the foresight to preserve these natural treasures from development. We found that exploring Nature instead of visiting a butterfly pavilion gave us an experience beyond what a curator could plan for our information and edification.