Last updated on February 12th, 2020 at 11:50 am

Monarch butterfly by Kenneth Dwain Harrelson
Monarch butterfly is celebrated at Monarch Butterfly Festival (Photo by Kenneth Dwain Harrelson)

Everyone ends up in Florida sooner or later it seems, and monarch butterflies are no different.

On their 2,000-mile fall migration from North America to Central Mexico, thousands of monarch butterflies stop over in Florida’s Big Bend and Panhandle in October and November. This miraculous migration is celebrated in an annual Monarch Butterfly Festival at the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in picturesque St. Marks, Florida, a half hour south of Tallahassee.

The 1831 lighthouse at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
The 1831 lighthouse at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

The 2020 festival is expected to be in late October. 

The festival offers educational demonstrations, wildlife exhibitions and entertainment.

Admission to the Monarch Butterfly Festival is free but it’s $5 to enter the refuge. Here’s information about the refuge.

The town of St. Marks, by the way, usually holds its annual Stone Crab Festival on the same day, making this a two-for-one destination.

Monarch butterflies have experienced a dramatic decline in population in the last two decades. While monarch butterflies are found across the United States, according to the U.S. Fish Wildlife Service, their numbers have declined by 90 percent because of loss of habitat due to agricultural practices, development and cropland conversion.

The monarch butterfly migration is unique – each butterfly is on its own, not following a parent, exhibiting an inherited behavior, not a learned one. Migrating monarchs hatch during the summer and they make the round-trip only once.

Floridawildlifeviewing.org says you can see hundreds or even thousands of monarch butterflies at St. Marks refuge and the best place is around the picturesque historic St. Marks lighthouse.  The site reports: “Monarchs are reluctant to fly directly across the water, so they bunch up at the lighthouse, located on a small tip, beside the Gulf of Mexico. They tend to stay for a time because the food supply is good at this time of year.”

The refuge also leads another interesting activity for wildlife lovers: Weekly monarch butterfly counting and tagging project.

Even without monarch butterflies, we found the St. Marks Refuge to be a beautiful place to explore. You won’t find a more scenic lighthouse than St. Marks, and there are many hikes in the area. (Start at the beautiful refuge headquarters, with a walk around their pond and into adjacent woods.)

Here’s a Florida Rambler report on St. Marks and the Wakulla Springs area. This region offers a great variety of recreational opportunities – a lovely paved bike path through the forest, one of the biggest and most beautiful springs in Florida, a picturesque river to kayak, charming small towns. You could spend days here.

More about the monarch butterfly migration in Florida:

St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge There is a $5 per car entry fee to the refuge.  St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge is at 1255 Lighthouse Road, St. Marks .

Monarchs also migrate along the Atlantic Coast and the dunes along Amelia Island State Park in northeast Florida are also a stopover site. Here’s more information.

US Fish and Wildlife Service “Save the monarch butterfly” site.

Monarch Watch for information on monarch waystations, free milkweed and more.

4 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Hi, I plan to visit St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in October to see the Monarch butterflies. I wanted to get some ideas about the do’s and dont’s. I have heard it is a beautiful sight to see so many butterflies huddled together. Do i just visit the lighthouse and observe them or are there any guidelines. Also, is OCtober the right tiem or we can spot them in September too?

    • Bonnie Gross

      Your best bet is to call the wildlife refuge and ask for some guidance. The staff there was very helpful and friendly when I visited (which was NOT during the migration period.) St. Marks NWR provides a phone number (850) 925-6121 and a general email address saintmarks@fws.gov so I would contact them.

  2. Avatar
    Pam Roberts

    Can you still experience the Monarch’s if you go on Sunday?

    • Bonnie Gross

      Yes. The monarchs migrate over several weeks so to the butterflies, there’s nothing special about Saturday. It’s the day the wildlife refuge biologists picked for the event so I’m sure they try to time it to the peak weekend.

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