5 Migrations You Won’t Want to Miss

29 Jul 5 Migrations You Won’t Want to Miss

The world is constantly in motion, which manifests in some truly awe-inspiring migration events. From millions of butterflies to rushing snowmelt to dashing caribou, here are five global movements not to be missed.

1. The Monarch Butterfly Congregation in Mexico

How Many: 100+ Million

Time of Year: Winter, October to March

Monarch butterflies at night, Mexico

Photo by Mike Bruscia, ©Natural Habitat Adventures.

Witnessing the populations of monarch butterflies overwintering in Mexico’s forests is a must-see, if only for the sheer number of these bright-winged beauties: Tens of thousands can cluster on just a single tree. In fact, there are so many butterflies wintering in so few sites that they are usually tracked by the acreage they cover, rather than by number.

Still, Alejandro del Mazo, the head of Mexico’s protected natural areas, said that in 2016 there were around 140 million monarchs overwintering in Mexico. Historically, this number is low — and dropped by nearly a third in 2017 — though still spectacular.

Luckily, you can see this incredible phenomenon and support monarch conservation, if you go with Natural Habitat Adventures, a tour operator partnered with World Wildlife Fund. They offer both a Kingdom of the Monarchs tour, and a Monarch Butterfly Photo Adventure.


2. The Ancient Migration of Goods and Cultures Across the Silk Roads of Eurasia

How Many: Tens of thousands of bolts of silk annually, plus other fabrics, textiles, spices, precious metals, foods, horses, technologies and ideas over 2,000 years

Time of Year: Accessible year-round, with scheduled itineraries in the fall

Ani, ancient Silk Road city, Turkey

Ruins of ancient Ani, one of the vital Silk Road cities. Photo by Güldem Üstün.

It’s impossible to go back in time to truly see the history-altering crossing of goods, peoples and ideas of yore. Or is it? Luckily for us, the legacy of the Silk Roads that once stretched from Asia to Europe is still vibrant and visible in buildings, monuments, artwork, cultures and craftsmanship — if we know where to go to see it.

For two millennia, merchants and envoys used vast networks of ancient routes across land and sea to trade precious commodities that fueled dynasties and empires. These goods were so highly valued that caravans would brave treacherous weather, bandits, pirates, disease and starvation in journeys across modern-day China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Greece and Italy — a distance of 4,350 miles from end to end. Silk in particular was so valuable that it was used to finance imperial armies, and its production was guarded under penalty of death.

But ultimately, the threads that connected each destination were made of more than silk, as art, language, technology and religion intertwined over the centuries. Some of what was transmitted, disease and plague in particular, reflected the horrors of humanity’s history. On the other hand, the spread of spiritual and intellectual developments — navigation, astronomy and Buddhism, to name a few — marked some of the greatest human ambitions of the time. To revisit the routes, including the roads marked as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is an opportunity to step into the origins of these legacies.

To see the ancient hubs of culture and learning forged by the Silk Roads — including visits to the ancient Terracotta Warriors and Caves of the Thousand Buddhas — journey through time with GeoEx. There’s even an option to see the Silk Roads by train.


3. The Spring Snowmelt Rush from the Sierra Nevada Mountains, California

How Many: For the American River, an average of 3,600+ cubic feet of water per second, or challenging Class III+ whitewater rafting

Time of Year: Spring and Summer

rafting on the American River, California

River rafters on the South Fork of the American River. ©OARS

Each spring, the melting snowpack of the Sierra Nevada cascades down the mountains and into the rivers of central California, making its way to the coast. The phenomenon makes for some white-knuckled whitewater fun in the Gold Country, especially in the tributaries of the American River, the most popular whitewater-rafting river in the West.

The American River has three main whitewater tributaries: the North Fork, the Middle Fork, and the South Fork. The upper sections of river are the rowdiest, boasting Class IV-V rapids with names like Texas Chainsaw Mama. The waters then mellow out to Class II-III rapids on the South Fork, where families and first-time rafters congregate.

This year, the Sierra snowpack — measured at Tuolumne Basin — hit 1.2 million acre-feet, creating raging rapids on much of the river, though stretches of calm remain. These glassy sections slide through green, granite-speckled canyons, with views of the snowy peaks from which the waters came.

To get a sense of the state of the river, look at its real-time river flow here. And to get an unforgettable adventure, head out with OARS river rafting on the American River’s North or South Forks.



4. The Porcupine Caribou Dash to North Alaskan Calving Grounds

How Many: A Herd of About 170,000

Time of Year: Spring, Usually April or May

caribou in Alaska

Photo by Zak Richter. ©NPS Alaska

They may be a wilder version of the reindeer that land on rooftops at Christmas, but these ungulates do know how to fly — across hundreds of miles of Arctic tundra, that is. The Porcupine caribou cover serious ground from their winter ranges in Alaska’s Brooks Range to their calving grounds in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and Ivvavik National Park each spring: Some observations tally their round-trip annual migration at more than 3,000 miles!

Caribou are hooved mammals of the deer family, and they have been around for more than 1.6 million years — living through ice ages and among mammoths and saber-toothed cats! Archaeological diggings show that they’ve used their current migration routes for at least 27,000 years. This animal’s magnificent migrations have contributed to its longevity, and you can catch a glimpse of the nearly 170,000 Porcupine caribou heading to their summer range if you visit the right Alaskan territories in the spring. (Of course, this isn’t the only time to see caribou on the move: Check out the seven seasons of caribou movements here.)

If you want to “watch a caribou herd sweeping across the vast arctic tundra,” Off the Beaten Path can take you! Head to their Alaska page, and don’t be shy — a phone call can spark a custom tour tailored to catch the caribou dash.


5. The Big Game Herds of Africa Crossing the Serengeti and Makgadikgadi Salt Flats

How Many: Upwards of 2 million wildebeest, zebras and gazelles in the Serengeti’s Great Migration, and about 20,000 zebras crossing the Makgadikgadi Salt Flats in Botswana

Time of Year: the Great Migration herds head north in summer (May – July) and south in winter (November – December); the Makgadikgadi crossing begins in June

Wildebeest migration, Tanzania

©Micato Safaris

No grouping of migration trips is complete without the Great Migration, where herds of wildebeest, zebras and Thompson’s gazelles — totaling more than 2 million animals — make the perilous crossing through Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park to the Masai Mara reserve in Kenya. The spectacle is particularly phenomenal in early summer, as the herds head north while predators lie in wait, but the migration cycle (including calving season) can be enjoyed practically year-round. For a glamorous safari adventure in Tanzania and Kenya, you’ll want The Micato Grand Safari.

A lesser-known but similarly spectacular African migration happens in Botswana, where tens of thousands of zebras head west to the Boteti River, an overflow of the Okavango Delta. This movement is the second largest big game trek in Africa, after the Serengeti Migration. It’s a little trickier to predict, but worth trying, if only to spot the surreal scene of zebras crossing the salt flats in plumes of salt-dust. You can explore the Botswana safaris available from Bushtracks, or call them to arrange a customized chance to catch the zebras in action.



Want to learn more about East Africa’s Great Migration? Let Pietro Luraschi, a veteran safari guide with Natural Habitat Adventures transport you in this video:

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Sabine Bergmann
Sabine Bergmann is the Adventure Collection’s Managing Editor. As a professional writer, traveler and conservation activist, she writes for a dozen publications, including Wired, Sierra, Ethical Traveler and The Best Travel Writing series from Travelers' Tales. She’s done some pretty crazy stuff, like mountain biking from the Andes to the Amazon, spear fishing in shipwrecks and serving in the US Peace Corps. She's based in a little yellow house in Berkeley. Read more about Sabine at www.sabinekbergmann.com.
Sabine Bergmann

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