Birding Mexico’s El Rosario Butterfly Sanctuary: Migrating Monarchs are Only One Reason to Visit Michoacan Preserve

Each fall, the miraculous migration of Monarchs brings millions of these butterflies to the high elevation Oyamel fir forests of central Mexico. They arrive in mid-November and stay until mid-February, and touring the sanctuary at El Rosario during their stay is a phenomenal experience. The mile-long trek to the top is rich with birds, as well, and nearly a hundred species are likely to be observed along the way.

The Sanctuary at El Rosario

The Monarchs roost high in the Sierra Madre mountains, along a crest line that includes protected areas in parts of two Mexican states, Michoacan and Mexico. There are four sanctuaries with public access to the preserve, and one of the most accessible is at El Rosario, near the villages of Angangueo and Ocampo. There are three hotels in Angangueo and one in Ocampo. Since the butterflies are found at nearly 11,000 feet, it is recommended that visitors stay at least one night in the area to acclimatize (Angangueo is at 8,300 feet).

The Road to the Sanctuary

There are driver-guides in both villages, and they provide transportation to the Sanctuary for about 450 pesos per couple (currently about thirty dollars). However, the road is excellent and can be driven easily in any vehicle. It is only a ten minute drive into Ocampo from Angangueo, and the road from there to the Sanctuary is signed within Ocampo.

Outside of Ocampo the road is paved with cobblestones and climbs through beautiful pine forests to El Rosario ejido, about six miles from Ocampo. Once you enter the ejido, consider pulling to the side of the road and checking the adjacent fields for Eastern bluebird, Curve-billed thrasher, Lincoln and Chipping sparrows and Vermillion flycatcher. A “toll” of thirty pesos is collected as you pass through the settlement. To shorten your walk, continue past the first parking area on your right up the hill and to a larger parking area near a string of craft shops.

Preparing for the Hike

The elevation at the entrance is just over 10,000 feet and you will climb nearly another 800 feet. It can be chilly, so layered clothing is advisable. Other essentials you will not want to forget:

  • Plenty of water, at least one quart per person
  • Energy bars or other snacks
  • A walking stick
  • Binoculars
  • North American and Mexican bird guides
  • Note pad and pen
  • Camera, extra battery and memory cards
  • A day pack

The Trail to the Butterflies

From the parking lot you will see an arched entrance into the Sanctuary. When you pay your entrance fee of 35 pesos, a guide will be provided at no additional cost to accompany you up the trail. The trail is wide, well-designed and has numerous interpretive signs with English translations. Although the trail is easily walked, the ascent at this elevation can be breath-taking and should not be rushed.

The trail is a mile long and climbs over 700 feet to approximately 10,760 where the butterflies are located. You are allowed to take your time so that you can stop and bird as long as you like on the way. The forest consists of Oyamel fir, pine, oak and madrone among other trees.

Birding is nothing short of spectacular, with these trees often seeming to drip with birds. Simulating a pigmy owl call and “pishing” will draw them closer, as well. One easily can record more than fifty species in a one hour walk to the top, and it is likely that a hundred species or more could be observed. These include many endemics (e) as well as migrating birds, and include Red warbler (e), Ruby-crowned and Golden-crowned kinglets, Townsend’s, Orange-crowned, Hermit and Rufous-capped (e) warblers, Slate-throated redstart, Hepatic tanager, Blue-throated and White-eared hummingbirds, Brown-backed solitaire (e), Russet nightingale-thrush (e), Mexican chickadee and Buff-breasted flycatcher.

At the end of the trail, birders are treated to countless Monarch butterflies, estimated to number five million per acre.

Getting to Angangueo and Ocampo

Day trips to the preserve area are feasible from Mexico City or Morelia, but it is preferable to stay at least one night in the area. Angangueo is in the mountains east of Ciudad Hidalgo, which is about 65 miles east of Morelia. If you are driving, Angangueo can be reached easily in a day from Patzcuaro, which is 140 miles to the west.

Although the main attraction at El Rosario Sanctuary is the wintering Monarch butterflies, birders should not miss the opportunity for some incredible birding as well.