Even though I’ve made three trips to Catalina Island in two years, my husband Jason and I are still not done exploring. Each time we have discovered new attractions that make us wish we had more time on the island and soon we start planning our return trip. On our last visit, our focus was on the wild side of the island, often referred to as the hinterland. It’s a lesser known part of the island but I hope to change that.
88 percent of Catalina Island is undeveloped and protected thanks to the Catalina Island Conservancy. Hikers, cyclists, campers and boaters can access 165 miles of recreational roads and trails and 62 miles of beaches. All this protects 60 species of plants, insects and animals that can only be found on this island. It is also home to 100 bison who were brought there in 1924 to film a film. After filming wrapped, the bison had scattered and made the decision to leave them on the island.
How to get to Catalina Island?
Before you can enjoy any of these adventures, you must first get to Catalina Island. Catalina Express operates daily ferries from San Pedro (Los Angeles), Long Beach and Dana Point. It’s a quick and comfortable 60 to 90 minute ride and if you’re lucky you might see dolphins.
Part of this trip was hosted but all opinions are my own.
1. Eco-tour of the hinterland
The Conservancy Eco-Tour is definitely one of my favorite things to do on Catalina Island. Hop on and buckle up to explore the backcountry on paved and dirt roads while learning about the plants and animals that call the island home. Led by a naturalist, these 3-hour tours head deep into the canyons and then up into the hills, where guests enjoy expansive views of the Pacific Ocean. Along the way, learn the island’s history, meet some of its furry residents, and discover why it’s so important to protect the land.
Our guide, Shaun, a fourth generation islander, was not only knowledgeable but also deeply involved in preserving Catalina’s environment. He participated in decades of efforts to protect bald eagles, one of which we were lucky enough to see soar high above. After spotting an island fox, he told us about the successful efforts to protect these cute animals and take them off the endangered species list. We discovered several small, picturesque coves and even stopped at Airport In The Sky for a cookie break. I would love to do this tour again.
2. Hiking the Trans Catalina Trail
Beginning in Avalon and ending 38.5 miles later, the Trans Catalina Trail (known to locals as TCT) is both physically challenging and visually stunning. Most hikers allow 4 days to complete the trail and camp at one of the conservancy’s campgrounds each night.
If you’re not ready for a multi-day hike, consider hiking parts of the TCT instead. We had a chance to see a short 3 mile trail called the Airport Loop Trail featuring Catalina Backcountry. Our guides Sydney and Barry picked us up at our hotel, drove us to Airport In The Sky and then took us on an informative and scenic walking tour. Along the way we learned how the island was formed, the Tongva Indians who originally inhabited it and what to expect if you are interested in trekking the entire TCT. After the hike we enjoyed a delicious lunch at the DC-3 Grill and then returned to Avalon. This brief introduction to the TCT definitely inspired us to come back and explore more of it soon.
Pro Tip: A permit is required for hikes inside the island, including the TCT, and is free. Permissions can be obtained on the Conservancy’s website.
3. Mountain biking
Mountain biking is another popular outdoor adventure in Catalina. While bicycles are not permitted on the TCT, they can ride backcountry paved and dirt roads to cross the island from Avalon to Two Harbors. The 24-mile route is challenging, so many cyclists choose to complete it in 2 days and camp one night along the way.
Another option for mountain bikers is to head straight to Two Harbors and enjoy the trails on the west end of the island, an area few people ever see. This requires some planning as the ferry schedule to Two Harbors and accommodation options are limited.
Pro tip: Biking through the interior of the island requires a Freewheeler Bike Pass, which can be purchased from the Catalina Island Conservancy.
4. Scuba dive or snorkel at a marine reserve
California has a whopping 124 marine protected areas (MPAs), nine of which can be found around Catalina. These federally designated waters protect sensitive marine life and restrict commercial activities. As a result, the island’s marine ecosystems are among the healthiest in the world and are excellent for diving and snorkeling.
Located on the edge of the Catalina Casino building, Casino Point Marine Park is Southern California’s first city-designated underwater park. It’s the perfect spot for experienced divers to explore a vast seaweed forest and several shipwrecks.
Don’t worry if you’re not a certified diver, snorkeling and snuba are also available in Catalina. A variety of guided adventures are available from Catalina Divers Supply and Catalina Scuba.
It is possible to explore some of the island’s MPAs without becoming submerged. Rent a kayak and paddle to tiny coves and secluded beaches while observing the rich marine life that swims in the water below you. While kayaking here Jason and I enjoyed seeing a huge seaweed forest from above and peering into the clear water to see all kinds of fish. We were even visited by a friendly seal.
If you’re visiting Avalon and are an experienced paddler, just rent a kayak and get out on the water. For those new to kayaking or who would like some guidance, consider joining a tour with an experienced guide through Catalina Island Expeditions. When visiting Two Harbors, both kayaks and paddleboards are available for rent at Two Harbors Kayak Rental.
6th Underwater Submarine Expedition
Even if you don’t swim — or just don’t want to get wet — there’s still a way to explore the waters of Catalina on an Undersea Sub Expedition. The 45-minute excursion begins at Avalon’s Green Pleasure Pier and slowly moves through nearby Lover’s Cove, one of the island’s MPAs. As we entered a vast kelp forest, we saw hundreds of fish including dozens of orange garibaldi, California’s official marine fish.
The ship’s first mate feeds the fish a small amount of food to lure them to the ship, although he assured us it wasn’t enough to disrupt their normal feeding habits. The experience reminded me of Disney’s famous ride, the submarine journey, but this time with real sea life. If you are traveling with children I would highly recommend this experience.
7. Back country camping
I’m not usually that eager to camp, but a beachside campground tucked away in a secluded cove is just the incentive I need to get away from the hotel. Campgrounds on Catalina are perhaps some of the most scenic in the United States
The conservancy operates three campgrounds across the island, which are frequently used by TCT hikers. All provide drinking water, cold showers and chemical toilets. Campers can bring all their supplies and gear, or opt to rent commonly needed items like sleeping bags and stoves.
Additionally, near the dock at Two Harbors, there are campgrounds with traditional tent sites or tented cabins. These provide drinking water, showers, toilets and a nearby general store.
For something truly unique, try kayaking or boating to your campsite. Five boat campgrounds are available on the island. However, these are considered primitive and do not include toilets, showers or water. All rubbish and rubbish must be unpacked.
Pro tip: If you want to enjoy all the joys of camping without having to lug around the gear and set up camp, consider a service like Catalina Backcountry, which will do all of this for you. And if you really want a glamping experience, they will even take care of your meals.
Where to stay in Catalina
Unless you plan on camping or backpacking on the island, then I recommend staying at the Bellanca Hotel on Crescent Avenue, Avalon’s main street. This recently renovated boutique hotel offers unobstructed views of the harbour. We watched the sun set over the harbor while dining at the hotel’s Naughty Fox restaurant and caught a stunning sunrise from our room the next morning. You can splurge and have your own balcony or use the shared terrace for an equally great view. The large rooms are perfect for relaxing between adventures and everything you need in Avalon is a short walk away.
Pro tip: If you’re arriving out of season – especially in winter – there are good deals that combine ferry transport to the island and accommodation.