How to See Monarch Butterflies Near Santa Barbara, California

I was blessed to get my college degree at the University of California, Santa Barbara. This was before the information age, when anything you chose to do can be thoroughly researched and planned without spending hours in a library.

One day my friends and I heard about a cool hiking spot by the ocean. Someone may have known what magic was in store there, but I definitely didn’t. We were alone as we took an easy hike into the local eucalyptus grove, in my recollection. I looked up, appreciating the trees, then noticed that the leaves started moving. Then they fluttered away. We had stumbled upon migrating Monarch butterflies, and it has long been a highlight of my exploring life.

As an adult, I still spend a lot of time in southern California, and I was determined to see the Monarchs again. It took me a few tries, but I eventually succeeded, and I would love to share the experience with you.

Goleta Monarch Grove

The Migration of the Monarch Butterflies

There is a species of Monarchs that travel from Mexico into Canada. They don’t do this in one generation, but three or four. These butterflies are the only ones to make a round-trip migration to get away from the cold.

One of the resting stops on their way is a Eucalyptus grove in Goleta, California. You may not have heard of Goleta, but it is actually the town that UCSB is in, and it is only about 15 minutes north of Santa Barbara. Amtrak now also has a train station in Goleta.

wildlife Santa Barbara California
You will likely see other wildlife than butterflies, such as these California brown pelicans. We also saw many seagulls and two hawks.

How to See the Monarch Butterflies in Goleta

Like the California super bloom, seeing the Santa Barbara Monarchs requires planning and luck!

When do the Monarchs stop in Goleta?

The Monarchs can visit between November and February, and I saw them successfully in January. Two years before, I had tried to see them in February, but they hardly came at all that year, according to sources I had read.

Santa Barbara butterfly grove

Where do I see the Monarchs in Goleta?

The Monarchs cluster together for warmth high on Eucalyptus branches. In Goleta, you will find them at the Goleta Monarch Butterfly Preserve, also called the Ellwood Bluffs or Mesa.

This area has great hiking most of the year because you hike through Eucalyptus groves and grassland overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Be warned that it can flood, though, so consider that when planning.

To see the butterflies, you need to head into the Eucalyptus Groves. Finding where the butterflies are perched will also take luck, but other hikers will generally point you in the right direction.

Ellwood Bluffs
Even without butterflies, Ellwood Mesa is still worth visiting any time for sunset views like these.

We always find street parking on Coronado Street in Goleta off Hollister Avenue. I have read that there is a small parking lot. You will find entrances onto the hiking trails along the right side of Coronado Street.

How long is the Ellwood Bluffs hike?

The 1.2-mile loop trail is dirt and is considered an easy hike.

What time of day should I go to see the Monarchs?

The butterflies are most active when it is warmer, so around noontime is ideal for your visit. I would plan to spend a few hours here to enjoy the hike and have a chance to see the butterflies in different lights.

What do I do once I find them?

Look up and enjoy these beautiful creatures and consider yourself among the blessed to get to spend time with them.

Like I said, getting to see these magical creatures requires planning and luck. When I tried to visit in February 2020, the numbers that visited that year were staggeringly low. If you have to plan a trip to California to see them, you likely have to do that before knowing if they are visiting that year, although Monarch count reports come out around Thanksgiving.

My friend and her family traveled up from Orange County the day after I successfully saw them in 2022, and they weren’t able to see any butterflies. Her family didn’t arrive until late afternoon, so maybe they were too late. Or perhaps they couldn’t find where they were hiding that day.

To give yourself the best chance, give yourself a few days to try and visit at different times of the day.

I definitely got lucky as I took a day trip from Santa Ana by train. This train ride on the Pacific Surfliner is one of my favorites. And even if you can’t find the butterflies, Santa Barbara is a great place to spend a day. Check out my guide for a weekend in Santa Barbara if you have more time to spend in the area.

Happy Butterfly Searching!

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8 thoughts on “How to See Monarch Butterflies Near Santa Barbara, California”

  1. This sounds like such a fun addition to a Santa Barbara trip! I can’t believe you “accidentally” stubbled upon them the first time you went, that’s so cool. I’ve been to LA and SF but your blog really makes me want to explore more of California.

  2. I did not know that there was a species of Monarch Butterfly that migrated from Mexico to Canada. But it would be a great reason to plan a visit to Goleta to visit their resting stop during their migration. So very cool to see them all congregated on trees in the Eucalyptus Groves! Good idea to plan to visit on more than one day to maximize the chance to see them. A truly magnificent sight to get!

  3. Oooh you really did get lucky if you showed up on the train and still got to see them! The Ellwood Bluffs hike looks pretty, even if you don’t get to see them, but adding in hundreds of butterflies makes it magical! 🙂


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