Off the Beaten Path: Catalina Island

July 24, 2013  •  Leave a Comment

Coastal islands always fascinate me. Whether world-renowned locations such as Ibiza and Skye and Hilton Head or local hideaways with tiny mom & pop marts and a single 'scenic lookout'.

Of the eight Southern California Channel Islands dotting the coastline between Santa Barbara and Orange counties, Santa Catalina - locally known as 'Catalina' - Island is the largest and most traveled. On a clear day, you can see its two distinctive humps rising above the horizon from Santa Monica, Venice, and many points in West Los Angeles.

Getting to the Island is fairly simple with multiple daily launches from Long Beach or the South Bay with returns from Two Harbors or Avalon. And with the added benefit of a free round-trip fare on your birthday from major operator Catalina Express, I take a bon voyage at least once a year. If, however, you have a friend with a plane, helicopter, or sailboat, you can get there in style and be the envy of fellow travelers and locals alike.


If Catalina is a book, then Avalon is the primer for all things island. Fresh off the boat, you can choose from several distractions including shopping, perusing galleries, touring the historic casino, golfing, visiting the Wrigley Memorial and Botanic Garden, or any number of water-oriented past times.  But a good pair of shoes, loaner golf cart, or the Safari Bus can bring you to some of the lesser-traveled charms as well. 

Golden Age Hollywood made its mark in the early 20th century by using the island as a location in over 300 films. Star-sightings (both on and off shore) frequently made the local news and the industry itself was responsible for bringing one of the most unusual celebrities to the island's interior. An obstinacy of bison (yes, you read that correctly) was abandoned after a film wrapped in 1924 and (most of) their descendants have been wandering the island ever since. Prior to that, the island was home to indigenous peoples and haven to smugglers and pirates (though not simultaneously). This year marks the city's 100th anniversary.

Maps found at the Catalina Conservancy Explore Store (125 Clarissa Ave. Avalon CA 90704) are the first key to trekking the interior and negotiating the overland route to Two Harbors. 

Of the succession of Island developers, William Wrigley, Jr. (yes, that Wrigley) had the greatest impact on modern Catalina. Under his direction, the Catalina Casino (not actually a casino but more of a dance and dining mecca), a hotel, the Catalina Pottery Plant, and a spring training ground for the Chicago Cubs were built. Past the Nature Center, Avalon Canyon leads to his namesake memorial and garden.  

Beginning on Memorial Road (to the rear of the memorial), the Garden to Sky hike pays off with views of Avalon Bay and San Clemente Island to the west. From there, the trail leads back towards Hermit Gulch Campground almost completing the loop.  

Falling asleep under an inverted bowl of stars is one of the payoffs of hiking the Trans-Catalina Trail (TCT) , the other, of course, is eating practically any snack smuggled in from Trader Joe's. Little Harbor campsite is 16 miles from Avalon and a short walk to the beach. With its neighboring (and intriguingly named) Shark Harbor, they make up a cozy cove for doing little to nothing or indulging in surfing, boating, and other water sports (take your pick). A word of caution however - the California current of this stretch of the Pacific is a cold one. Temperatures drop and the wind picks up after dark bringing more than a little chill to your holiday.

Avalon Bay, Catalina Island; ©2013, incite photography
Avalon Bay
Two Harbors

Hiking northwards from Little Harbor is the last leg of the Trans-Catalina Trail before descending into Two Harbors. Along the way, between the ample photo opportunities, bison reserves, and previously unnoticed packs of scout troops, there's plenty to distract and delight in the 5 miles. If you're an infrequent extended length hiker or sporadically troubled by ailments unknown to the under 35 set, the trail is wide enough to provide for a 'slow lane' for tieing and re-tieing a shoe while catching your breath.

Once in Two Harbors, with the exception of the historic Banning House Lodge and a few small inns, gone are the rows of homes, hotels, and retail shops. Instead the General Store is there with provisions for roughing it on the isthmus (which is fine by most). This side of the island is home to Buccaneers' Day and dinghy parades, 'buffalo chip' tossing and fishing tourneys.  

Returning to the mainland (arrival in San Pedro only) via island shuttle or catching a Safari bus or glass bottom boat back to Avalon are both available from here. As is adding an extra day to your trip to learn a new skill (scuba anyone?) or explore your way to the very tip of the island at Starlight Beach or Land's End. Either way, you'll end up with plenty of stories to share and perhaps a deeper shade of brown to the envy of your friends.

Catalina tile, Catalina Island; ©2013, incite photography
Catalina tile
view towards Avalon Bay, Catalina Island; ©2013, incite photography
View towards Avalon Bay from Wrigley Memorial 
Wrigley memorial, Catalina Island; ©2013, incite photography
Wrigley Memorial


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