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Handy Guide to Pacific Northwest Butterflies

Where, When and How to Spot Pacific Northwest Butterflies  

Did you know that the Pacific Northwest is home to nearly 200 different species of butterflies? That’s right. From Washington to northern Idaho, Oregon and Vancouver B.C., the region is flush with the fluttering, often brilliantly colored winged creatures. At peak times, there are upwards of millions in the area. But here’s where you might be wondering: Where are Pacific Northwest butterflies, exactly? Allow us to be your guide. 

According to Pacific Northwest butterfly expert, Robert Michael Pyle, who has written several books on the subject, including “Chasing Monarchs: Migrating with the Butterflies of Passage” and “Mariposa Road: The First Butterfly Big Year,” there are common, uncommon and even extremely rare butterflies in the Northwest. Butterflies, which do exist year-round, mostly flourish in the warm months. About 90% of the region’s butterflies live in the area and 10% migrate to the Northwest from places like California.

Although some butterflies, like the dark-colored Mourning Cloak, live year-round, they can only really be observed in the warm months. Beginning in April, observers can see them flapping their large wings in local gardens or spots around the Pacific Northwest.

Pacific Northwest Butterflies, Echo Azure butterfly
Echo Azure butterfly. Photo by Randimal/AdobeStock

Sun Seekers

Butterflies like sunshine, not the wet, cold days of January or February. One of the first butterflies that observers can see in spring is the lavender-blue Echo Azure, which often comes out in April in big numbers at the edges of woodlands (like various parks in Seattle). Another that emerges around the same time is the ghost-like Margined White butterfly.

In May, more are available to see, including those known as swallowtails. And as summer falls, more and more come to life, lasting for months and tapering out into the fall. Although butterflies do live in forests, observers see them less often there than in big open fields.

Eastern Washington is a larger hub for the creatures. Those interested can visit the canyons up and down the east side of the Cascade Mountains, Pyle says. In addition, Washington’s Yakima Canyon, the Okanagan Highlands, meadows in the Olympic mountains are all good locales. The Yakima River and Methow River valleys are viable spots to find butterflies in the wild.

In Oregon, Pyle says, you can see butterflies at the canyons on the east side of the Cascade Mountains as well as around Oregon’s Metolius River. In Idaho, areas around the Sawtooth Mountains and sunny, floral spots around the town of Stanley are flush with butterflies, as well, according to Pyle, who also recommends Clearwater Canyon.

“In western Washington, on a good day, you can see around six species of butterflies. On the east side, in the canyons, on a good day you can see 30-50 species,” he says.

Pacific Northwest Butterflies, Western Tiger Swallowtail
Western Tiger Swallowtail. Photo by Danita Delimont/AdobeStock

Butterfly Watching

One of the most common and observable butterflies in the Northwest, because of its size and bright color, is the yellow-and-black Western Tiger Swallowtail, according to Pyle. It’s an “absolutely classic butterfly,” he says, available to see in cities, too. But, the expert adds, a rare butterfly — his “White Whale,” in fact — is the pale green Labrador Sulphur. Some sulphur butterflies (like the Orange Sulphur) are more common, but the Labrador is very rare. They only live in the high alpine arctic tundra, east of the Okanogan Highlands.

For lepidopterist David Droppers, who is working to catalogue butterflies on Washington trails in areas like Snohomish County, Hurricane Ridge at the Olympic Peninsula is a good place to view butterflies in Washington. There you might be able to catch a glimpse of the Vidler’s Alpine, a dark brown insect with a band of orange-and-black spots.

Another to seek is the white-and-black Olympic Parnassian, which has red-orange spots. Droppers also recommends Mount Rainier, Mount Spokane State Park, forest roads around Leavenworth and the Umtanum Creek Canyon as good butterfly watching areas.

“Bring plenty of sunscreen,” he says.

For those looking to get a glimpse, Pyle recommends bringing binoculars or a camera. More experienced “hunters” can bring nets to catch and observe the creatures. Catching and releasing butterflies in a way that does not injure them, Pyle says, can benefit the species, particularly if you upload your observations to expert sites like the Xerces Society, which is an excellent resource for those looking to find tips for observation or find out what plants to put in gardens to attract butterflies. The best way to protect butterflies, Pyle says, is to protect their habitat and avoid using harmful pesticides.

Pacific Northwest Butterflies, Monarch caterillar
Monarch caterpillar. Photo by Drake Fleege/AdobeStock

What Makes a Butterfly

Talking about butterflies necessitates another conversation: a talk about caterpillars. There are no butterflies without caterpillars. Butterflies, Pyle notes, lay eggs. These eggs are placed on very particular plants, done so that when the caterpillars hatch, they have a nearby food source. The eggs last about 10 days, hidden from predators like birds and spiders. The caterpillars live about a month, or so, and then, after a gestation period, turn into lovely butterflies.

To feed, butterflies flock to flowers, using a straw-like nose, known as a proboscis, to drink nectar. Whereas bees eat pollen, butterflies drink nectar. Some butterflies flock to mud puddles or even unseemly areas like urine puddles or animal droppings. To those in the know, this is called “puddling” and by doing so, butterflies get access to various nutrients dissolved in the substance. Other draws are honey or rotting fruit.

Butterflies are members of the insect class and of the order, Lepidoptera, which have been around for about 100 million years. As a class, they are scaley, winged insects. Moths are of the Lepidoptera order. The main difference between the two (although this is not steadfast) is that butterflies fly during the day and moths at night. In addition, butterfly antennas end in a bulb or club-like shape, whereas moth antennas end in a point like a pin. Butterflies are generally more brightly colored. Moths are much more common, however. According to Pyle, there are about 5,000 species of moths in the Northwest.

Pacific Northwest Butterflies, Orange Sulphur
An Orange Sulphur. Photo by pimmimemom/AdobeStock

Warning Colors

Now to the fun part: colors and flying patterns. According to Pyle, these each have several meanings when it comes to individual varieties of butterflies. Colors can make for good camouflage. They also can tell predators that the butterfly is poisonous. Plus, the right colors can attract the right mates. A butterfly’s flying pattern can indicate to a potential mate its physical prowess (or lack thereof).

Each butterfly has its own signature look and flying pattern — more observation lead to getting better at recognizing them, which eventually helps the creatures live on. The more people observing them, the more data and information can come in for experts to understand what might be changing for butterflies. It takes a village.

“If people can get out there with cameras,” Droppers says, “it extends the experts’ arms quite a bit. We’re a small group and we can only do so much. But if everyone is out there looking, there is far more data than we could ever get alone.”

–Written by Jake Uitti, last updated in October 2022.
–Top photo is by Vincent Ferguson/AdobeStock

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