On a recent afternoon, people took a break to wander down the meandering paths of Ellwood Mesa.
As the late afternoon light sifted through the towering eucalyptus trees, the atmosphere was still, with several visitors whispering quietly to each other, looking up, squinting into the branches above.
Suddenly, what had looked like a cluster of leaves fluttered into the air, orange wings beating silently as they took flight.
The Goleta Butterfly Grove atmosphere became more reminiscent of an Amazonian jungle than a property just yards away from a suburban neighborhood and busy street.
That’s because the thousands of monarch butterflies are now populating the Ellwood Mesa in western Goleta after migrating from colder climates.
More than 20,000 butterflies are roosting in the eucalyptus trees now and can be seen there until about mid-February.
A walk through the grove to experience the magic of the butterflies is the perfect Christmas family activity, said Luz Reyes-Martin, who is the docent program manager for the City of Goleta, where she oversees 10 and 20 docents.
A whole cadre of docents works the site every year, and staff the site during the busiest hours, primarily on Saturdays and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Informal counts from docents had the number of butterflies at the main grove at about 8,000 in early December, but counts from other areas on the mesa actually have the numbers between 20,000 and 25,000 butterflies.
“It’s great to see the numbers picking up a little bit,” Reyes-Martinez said.
Though it’s hard to say how many visitors have frequented the mesa this year for the monarchs, Reyes-Martin said that field trips have definitely increased in recent years.
There were 30 field trips last year, primarily from local schools, but groups from Los Angeles, Ventura and Thousand Oaks also travel up to see the monarchs.
“Docents tell me that they have hundreds of people go by on the weekend,” she said.
More monarchs are expected to congregate as Christmas and New Year’s approaches.
“It’s the perfect time to go out,” she said.
The city has made a big effort to make the site more visible with signage in the area, directing visitors down the path towards the main butterfly grove.
Signage can also be seen on Hollister Avenue,
“It’s such a wonderful place, not just to see the monarchs, but to take advantage of the mesa as a whole,” Reyes-Martin said. “It’s just beautiful.”
She recalled seeing a pod of dolphins offshore of the mesa on a recent walk there, but “there’s nothing more magical than seeing the monarchs.”