Butterflies. Not exactly what people think of when they think of Goleta. The average person is more likely to picture the beer-swilling, good looking, brilliantly scholastic UCSB student. In spite of this, the two species live in perfect harmony just miles apart for a few months a year in a part of our community that lies largely ignored by students.

Smack in the middle of an Ellwood subdivision is the home of thousands of migrating butterflies on a swath of land protected by the Santa Barbara Land Trust. At a time when most of us are covering up and scurrying indoors to avoid frigid temperatures (right now it’s a bone-chilling 52 degrees outside), thousands of monarch butterflies are taking up residence in the Coronado Butterfly Preserve in Goleta to enjoy our moderate climate for the winter.

As one of the longest-living butterflies (we’re talking months and weeks here, not years), the monarch must migrate in the winter to avoid falling prey to freezing temperatures up north. Groups of them end up spread all over California and Mexico, returning inexplicably to the same places for decades. The generation that currently resides in Ellwood was born in late summer. The insects robust enough to survive to winter might have traveled up to 3,000 miles to roost in the eucalyptus trees over yonder.

The preserve itself is practically in our backyard. If you head north, it’s just off of Hollister, past my favorite Slurpee shop on Coronado Drive. The whole trip itself is an incredibly small commitment as the walk from the curb to the grove where the butterflies roost is just under five minutes. On the day that I went there, I found myself surrounded by dozens of people and hundreds of butterflies flitting around through the air.

Don’t get me wrong, initially I was extremely wary about the whole thing. Butterflies don’t exactly beckon the manliest of images to mind. However, once I got inside the grove I let any shreds of brash masculinity slip through my fingers and succumbed to a fascination as these things zipped along above my head. (After leaving I went and wrestled a grizzly with my bare hands to make up for it. I won.)

The goal for most people when visiting is to glimpse the moment when one of the massive clumps of sleeping butterflies bursts into action as the sun heats them into awareness. Though I didn’t personally witness this phenomenon it was on the minds of everybody present as they stared down the clumps of hundreds of sleeping butterflies suspended on the branches above our heads just waiting for that moment.

The issue with the grove is that the main attraction — the butterflies — only exists there for about another month or so and will be totally gone by the time March rolls around. Because of the brevity of the roosting period, the grove is inundated with watchers stomping around the relatively compact area snapping photos and dragging their kids behind them to get a better look.

To avoid the crowds and get the best opportunity to see one of these “explosions,” I recommend that you make the trip on a weekday, around mid-morning when most people with real lives are at work or hauling their little ones to school. Supposedly this is also the time when the sun hits the roosting insects in an ideal way to stimulate them into excitement. I would discourage you from going on a weekend because the crowds sort of rob you of the fun. While I was there, about 50 people were wandering around the area, although that number doubled when a busload of tourists passed us on the path in. All in all, it’s a nice little distraction from your day, even if it’s just a brief trip. Oh yeah, and the best part? It’s free.

Escape to Coronado Butterfly Preserve:
Price: It’s free, homie!
Distance: 2.9 miles/ 7 minutes