By Brian Cooke
A Tropical Getaway in Colorado:
Exploring Fort Collins’ New Butterfly House

Happiness is a butterfly

The great American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne once said that “Happiness is a butterfly, which when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.”

I don’t usually go for that sort of thing, but I couldn’t help but reflect on this after seeing my daughter grin when a butterfly landed on her finger at Fort Collins’s new Butterfly House last week.

The Butterfly House, located at Fort Collins’ Gardens at Spring Creek, is a 1,500-square foot greenhouse that provides a year-round home to hundreds of North American butterflies and about 100 varieties of tropical plants. It’s the first attraction of its kind in Northern Colorado. Open since November, it’s part of a $6 million transformation that includes changes to the botanic garden’s indoor and outdoor spaces, many of which will be on full display this spring. In the meantime, the Butterfly House, which is kept 80 degrees and humid, is a wonderful place to go on a cold winter day … or to take friends visiting from Florida.

The coolest job in the world

In addition to possible close encounters with the residents, visitors to the Butterfly House are also likely to find trained butterfly keepers who can provide an extra bit of information on the creatures. During our visit, we had a chance to chat with a butterfly keeper named Elise Willcox. Since Fort Collins is one of the most educated cities in the country, I was not surprised to learn that she has a master’s degree in zoo management. “I have kind of the coolest job in the world,” Elise told us, before guiding us down the path to see a giant swallowtail – the largest butterfly species in North America.

Elise explained that the Butterfly House receives one or two shipments a week from a company in Florida – the same one that supplies the Butterfly Pavilion in Westminster, about 60 miles south of Fort Collins. Shipments include more than 100 butterflies in different life stages, including a Julia longwing butterfly that we watched emerge from its chrysalis in an enclosed wall exhibit. Elise also explained that since we were visiting on a cloudy day, the butterflies were less active. Apparently, the best days to visit are sunny ones.

Stop and smell the roses

The Butterfly House houses more than 400 mostly tropical and subtropical North American butterflies and moths, a number that may rise to 600 or so in the coming months. About a dozen species are there now, with plans to gradually add a few dozen more, with names like painted ladies, red admirals, black and tiger swallowtails, and red spotted purples.

Although your experience may differ if you’re there during a visiting school field trip, a stroll around the Butterfly House can be a quiet and thoughtful experience. While watching my step to avoid crushing any butterflies on the pathway, my thoughts ranged from the impermanence of life (many butterfly species have an adult life span of only two weeks) to the state of the environment around the world, with the eastern monarch butterfly’s crashing population in recent years. But as I wandered around the room, watching these colorful, fragile creatures flit from leaf to flower to feeding dish, I was reminded how important it is to take time to enjoy the beauty of life.


Located at Fort Collins’ Gardens at Spring Creek at 2145 Centre Avenue, the Butterfly House is open year-round, with interpretation and education provided by staff, interns and volunteers. Additional information on hours and admission fees can be found at

A volunteer blogger for Visit Fort Collins, Brian Cooke has worked as a writer and editor for more than 20 years, including extensive freelance work for the U.S. Forest Service. His past volunteer work has included leading night tours on Alcatraz and answering visitors’ questions at Deadman Lookout Tower near Red Feather Lakes. Brian’s LinkedIn page is