Pacific gray whales swim multiple marathons along the West Coast twice a year, covering 10,000 to 12,000 miles round trip. Monarch butterflies flap their orange-and-black wings from northern regions in North America to Mexico, defying their typically short life spans to complete the journey. Sandhill cranes can fly daily distances equal to the drive from Washington to New York — honking included. Elk navigate rough, mountainous terrain for valleys with a more accessible buffet. And tarantulas set their hairy legs in motion, crossing patches of desert and roads in the name of love — or, more accurately, spider Tindering.
And you thought a red-eye was tough.
Animal migrations are the most epic form of travel. The birds, bugs and mammals traverse large swaths of land or water (and sometimes both) and face life-threatening obstacles, all in the name of species survival. Unlike humans, they can’t cancel their trips or rebook for next year. Though the times and routes may vary due to weather, environmental factors and other variables, the animals will hit the road, moving between their summer and winter grounds.
Since you can’t catch a ride on a whale flipper or a butterfly wing, consider your second-best option: observing the migrating masses at certain points along the route or during their pit stops. Or, if you have a migratory nature, combine both.
We have chosen five migratory animals and their general routes and months of movement. (Remember, nature follows her own clock, so be flexible.) We show you where you can see the creatures as well as attend festivals and special events that cheer on the visitors as they fly, paddle, trek or crawl their way to the finish line. We have also included photos and videos of the migrations, because animals always look majestic. No headrest-mashed crane feathers, chapped whale lips or droopy butterfly antennae for these ultra-travelers.
Humans, take note.
When: For the fall migration, monarch butterflies depart their breeding grounds in Canada and the northern United States in August and travel through November to their winter habitats. Spring migration runs from March through June.
The route: Monarchs cover up to 3,000 miles in their quest for warmer climates over the winter. (The southbound travelers fly back part of the way in the spring, but several generations of their progeny complete the return trip.) The insects set their GPS for two main termination points: The group east of the Rockies ends its journey in the oyamel fir forests of the Sierra Madre mountains in Mexico. The western contingent rides out the cold in the eucalyptus, Monterey pine and cypress trees on Southern California’s Pacific Coast. Unfortunately, natural disasters and other factors have decimated the western population.
Follow that butterfly: Catch (figuratively, of course) the butterflies as they rumble down Interstate 35, or the Monarch Highway, which ribbons through six states from Minnesota to Texas. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service points monarchists to several national wildlife refuges around the country, such as St. Marks NWR in southeast Florida, the final terrestrial leg before the Gulf of Mexico; the Eastern Shore of Virginia NWR, which leads a counting and tagging program through the Coastal Virginia Wildlife Observatory; Balcones Canyonlands NWR in Texas Hill Country; Quivira NWR in central Kansas; and Iowa’s Neal Smith NWR, which hosts a Monarch Madness event every year. You can also look for flashes of orange and black in the nectar and milkweed plants along roads and in gardens — the pollinator plants are like catnip to butterflies.
Special events: Zoos, nature centers, museums and parks all over the country hold festivals, talks, walks and parades complete with wing- and antenna-wearing participants. Three of the most fly celebrations are the Monarch Festival — Festival de la Monarca, held in Minneapolis in early September; the Texas Butterfly Festival in Mission on Nov. 2; and the Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival in San Antonio, an eight-day monarch party in October that includes gardening workshops, the cheering-on of ultramarathoners who are replicating the monarchs’ journey, and a costumed parade. On the East Coast, the New Jersey Audubon’s Nature Center of Cape May holds its annual Monarch Migration Festival in mid-October. Attendees can build-a-bug, take garden tours, and observe a tagging demonstration and bid the butterfly “Buen viaje!”
Info: monarchwatch.org and monarchjointventure.org
Pacific gray whales
When: About 24,000 Pacific gray whales swim south from October through February and follow a reverse course from late February through June. January is the peak viewing month southbound; the best time to see the northbound cow-and-calf pairs, who move much slower than the hungry adults, is in April and May.
The route: The whales spend the summer in the Bering and Chukchi seas, bulking up for the 10,000- to 12,000-mile endeavor. Starting in the fall, they travel along the west coast of North America and hole up in Mexico’s Baja California, a one-stop shop for mating, calving and nursing their young’uns.
Follow that whale: The whales often swim only a few miles offshore, so you can spot a spout or tail from the land (bring binoculars) or on a whale-watching cruise (make sure the operator follows NOAA whale-watching guidelines). For example, two hours north of San Francisco at Point Reyes National Seashore, the Point Reyes Peninsula stretches 10 miles into the Pacific and is surrounded by the Gulf of the Farallones, the I-95 of whale commuters. Closer to the city, Mary Jane Schramm, a spokeswoman for the NOAA Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, recommends Fort Funston near Ocean Beach. Near San Diego, at the Whale Overlook and Old Point Loma Lighthouse at Cabrillo National Monument, rangers direct landlubbers’ gazes to the whale-rich waters between the kelp beds and the horizon. South of the border, hundreds of mothers and calves populate three lagoons on the Baja Peninsula: Scammon’s, San Ignacio and Magdalena Bay. Tour operators lead panga boat tours, but book early: The Mexican government limits the number of boats and passengers in the protected areas.
Special events: Whale festivals dot the coast like seashells. For instance, the Birch Aquarium at Scripps, in San Diego’s La Jolla neighborhood, throws a week-long Whale Fest in February. In March, the Mendocino Coast Whale Festival offers a trio of whale-centric weekends in three California towns: Mendocino, Little River and Fort Bragg. Farther north, Oregon State Parks holds its Whale Watching Spoken Here program on Dec. 27-31 and March 21-29. During these periods, volunteers at two dozen locations count the passing mammals and answer visitor questions. The town of Langley, on Whidbey Island in Washington state, hip-hip-hoorays the returning whales with a Welcome the Whale parade and festival in mid-April.
When: The sandhill cranes fly north in the spring and south in the fall and spend three to four weeks in March and April on the Platte River in Nebraska. Bill Taddicken, director of the Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary in Gibbon, Neb., said they start arriving in the Cornhusker State on Valentine’s Day, peak on St. Patrick’s Day and depart by Tax Day.
The route: Sandhill cranes follow the same route as many non-feathered snowbirds: They winter in such warm destinations as Mexico, Texas and Oklahoma and summer in Alaska, Siberia and Canada. On their northbound journey, they settle along the Platte River to fatten up their waistlines.
Follow that bird: You might be able to see, or more likely hear, the chatty, high-altitude birds as they fly by. However, for a mind-blowing, ear-blasting experience — “They all talk at the same time, like kindergartners,” said Taddicken — visit them while they are grounded. About 90 percent of the cranes, or 800,000 birds, occupy a 75-mile stretch from Lexington to Grand Island. For a more concentrated crane experience, focus on the 30-mile section between Kearney and Grand Island. The cranes overnight in the middle of the river channel, so keep your mornings (6 a.m.) and evenings (6 p.m.) free to witness the operatic takeoff and landing. During the day, drive the gravel roads by the river to watch the birds dine on waste grains and invertebrates in cornfields and wet meadows. (For a map, check out the Nebraska Flyway.) Because most of the land is private, you have only a few viewing options: the Rowe Sanctuary’s blinds, which are open for tours March 6 through April 11; the Crane Trust, which hosts visitors at its blinds through March; and the public-viewing platforms on the Gibbons and Fort Kearney bridges. The center opens its four bird blinds from March 6 to April 11. The Crane Trust’s blinds are available throughout March.
Special events: The sanctuary celebrates the crane season with the 50th Crane Festival, which runs March 20-21. The center leads morning and night tours in the blinds for $40 per person and can accommodate about 100 people per outing. In March, the Crane Trust leads similar bird blind tours for the same price as well as outings on a private footbridge for $15. In addition to the sandhill cranes, endangered whooping cranes and millions of waterfowl and snow geese fill the cornflower-blue skies and cover the corn-carpeted land of central Nebraska.
When: Between late August and early October, tarantulas such as the male Oklahoma brown species leave their burrows in search of a mate. Peak viewing season takes place in mid- to late September, but you may also see their love crawl a few weeks before and after their most active period. After finding a mate or mating, the males die within a few months, but the females survive for several more years — someone needs to parent the next generations.
The route: The spiders live throughout the Southwest and travel only a short distance from their burrows — within a mile range. The females stay in their underground pads, leaving only to set a web trap and pick up dinner.
Follow that spider: Comanche National Grassland in southeastern Colorado contains prime conditions for spotting tarantulas: no agricultural development to upset their habitat, arid land and short prairie grass. Michelle Stevens, recreation program manager at the Forest Service site, said the best viewing times are in the early morning, just after sunrise and around dusk. Avoid rainy and windy days. Stevens also recommends driving (slowly) on roads, such as Colorado highways 109 and 350 and Otero County roads N, 24, and 25, which are popular tarantula-crossing zones. Stay alert for cows, which use the same roads, and tarantula hawks. The wasps kill tarantulas and lay their eggs on the spiders’ bodies, which are also a food source for their offspring The insects don’t use humans as a maternity ward, but they do administer a painful sting.
Special events: Coarsegold Historic Village, in California’s Sierra foothills, organizes a Tarantula Festival in late October. Also in California and in October is the Henry W. Coe State Park’s Coe Park Tarantula Fest. This year’s event featured a naturalist-led search for tarantulas and live music by the Sada Springs Jug Band, whose members are park volunteers and friends.
Info: visitlajunta.net/about/tarantula-migration and fs.usda.gov
When: The Jackson Hole elk herd in northwest Wyoming move from the high country in the summer to the valley floor in the winter. The 11,000-strong population typically changes locations from October to December and again in March and April. Food is the driving force, with native grasses as their meal of choice. More than 30,000 Rocky Mountain elk, which live in several herds throughout the Upper Rio Grande area of southern Colorado and northern New Mexico, head to lower elevations in September and October. They return to the mountains in April, once the snow has melted.
The route: Wyoming elk travel anywhere from 60 miles to Yellowstone National Park to five miles to Grand Teton National Park. The length depends on the herd and environmental conditions, such as snowfall. The Rocky Mountain elk descend from the Sangre de Cristo, San Juan and Jemez mountains for the shrub land and desert below. The elk often cross state borders and pass through a patchwork of private, tribal, state and federal lands. “The Upper Rio Grande is considered one of the best-connected wildlife landscapes in the country,” said Jeremy Romero, regional connectivity coordinator for the National Wildlife Federation.
Follow that elk: According to Gregory Nickerson, a writer and filmmaker with the Wyoming Migration Initiative, visitors can sometimes glimpse the animals as they move south toward the National Elk Refuge and along the Gros Ventre Road to Kelly, Wyo., near Blacktail Butte. He advises drivers to use caution 10 miles north of Moose, where elk cross Highway 89 from west to east. Natalie Fath, visitor services manager of the National Elk Refuge, recommends visiting the 27,500-acre refuge between mid-December and March, when the elk are foraging, resting or standing around, in an attempt to conserve their energy. For drivers, she suggests the scenic pullouts along Highway 89 and the three-mile Refuge Road, which is open May 1 through Nov. 30. The Jackson Hole and Greater Yellowstone Visitor Center welcomes guests onto its elevated observation deck that overlooks the elk refuge. In May, backcountry hikers can often spot the antlered creatures, though the herd is more dispersed in the warmer months. Migration typically occurs at night. To increase your odds, Nickerson recommends rising early, as close to sunrise as possible, or venturing out at dusk, starting around the dinner hour. The Rockies elk congregate in several protected areas over the winter, such as Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado and the Valles Caldera National Preserve, the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument and the Columbine-Hondo Wilderness Area in New Mexico.
Special events: The National Elk Refuge arranges hour-long sleigh rides that depart from the Jackson Hole visitors center and cost $25 per adult. Jackson Hole celebrates its heavy-coated guests with Elkfest, held May 18-19. Events include an antler auction with proceeds donated to the refuge (Boy Scouts gather the discarded antlers) and a chili cook-off. In late September, the Valles Caldera National Preserve makes some noise for the elk rut with the Jemez Mountains Elk Festival, which includes a bugling competition — so practice your elk impression.
Info: fws.gov/refuge/national_elk_refuge, jacksonholechamber.com and nps.gov/vall/index.htm
About this story
Story by Andrea Sachs. Photo editing by Haley Hamblin. Video editing by Darian Woehr. Design by Jose Soto.