Think of Southern California and you just might conjure up images of Disneyland, smog (my mom claims it is only haze), sandy beaches and crowded freeways. Think of an island paradise and Hawaii or the Bahamas may come to mind. But Southern California has its own island paradise just across the horizon—Santa Catalina Island.
One of the eight Channel Islands, Catalina may be a mere 22 miles west of the mainland, but visit and you’ll feel a world away from the hustle and bustle of Southern California. And it’s easy to visit too. Just hop on the fast ferry and you’ll be there in an hour; ride via helicopter and you’ll be there in 15 minutes. A visit to the island with a Mediterranean-type climate makes a nice day trip or you can overnight there as well. Recently, my husband and I spent two nights, sleeping at the Pavilion Lodge, which was across from the beach and within walking distance of the ferry.
RVers can’t take their rigs with them so I’d recommend camping at the Golden Shore RV Resort in Long Beach (800-668-3581, goldenshorerv.com). It’s on the water’s edge and within walking distance of the ferry.
Our fun began from Long Beach with a ride on the Catalina Express ferry (800-481-3470catalinaexpress.com). We traveled in mid-September so the ferry wasn’t crowded and we had plenty of room to spread out and look for dolphins and bird life. After checking into our room at the Pavilion, we walked around the grounds and were amazed by the acorn woodpeckers stashing acorns in palm fronds. Later we ventured to the Wrigley Memorial and Botanical Gardens. There we strolled through 37 acres of lush gardens and we gazed at the magnificent Wrigley Memorial, built in 1933. More importantly, we thrilled to learning about Catalina’s endemic plants found only on the island we were visiting.
Catalina boasts of at least 50 endemic species and subspecies found nowhere else in the world, including six species of plants, five kinds of mammals, three species of birds, and many different invertebrates and flora. There are more than 100 varieties of birds on the island (look for great blue herons, Catalina quail, ravens, kestrels, red-tailed hawks, as well as the endangered peregrine falcon to name a few) and 396 different plants. And while not endemic, more than 20 bald eagles soar over the island.
The following day we met Fred Freeman, a volunteer driver and naturalist with the Catalina Island Conservancy’s Jeep Eco-Tours. He treated us to a half-day chartered tour, which lasted almost six hours (four hours is typical) because Fred just plain and simply enjoys talking about and showing off his beloved home, Catalina Island. We traveled dusty back roads in search of American bison, bald eagles, the Beechey Ground Squirrel and much more.
While touring with Fred, we learned that thousands of years ago early man lived harmoniously in this rich, untouched ecosystem. However, the devastation of this lush isle began when Spanish explorers and early settlers introduced grazing animals. In addition, in 1924, a film company shipped a herd of 14 bison over as movie extras in the silent film, The Vanishing American. The bison never made it into the film, and the film company left the enormous beasts behind. Today, the bison herd is kept at a manageable 150 to 200 animals. Feral goats, pigs, and sheep once roamed the island as well, but they are no longer present on the island.
Although we did our best to see some of the island, we didn’t see it all. Catalina Island spans 21 miles in a northwest to southeast direction and it is eight miles wide at its broadest point. At Two Harbors, however, the island is only one-half mile wide at the isthmus. Its perimeter is 54 miles. Steep, rugged and hauntingly beautiful, the highest point on the island is Mount Orizaba at 2,125 feet.
The Catalina Island Conservancy, a private nonprofit conservation organization, protects the natural and cultural heritage of Santa Catalina Island. Stewardship consists of about 42,000 acres of land or about 88 percent of the island’s 76 square miles, and includes 50 miles of rugged shoreline, more than 200 miles of road and an airport.
Catalina can be explored in many ways. The toughest way to see the island is on foot via the Trans-Catalina Trail. Hikers can travel the entire length of Catalina on a 37.2-mile path. Bicyclists can enjoy most of the length of the island by using multi-use portions of the trail and alternate routes.
Most people come not to hike cross-country, but to visit Avalon, the biggest town on the island with 3,700 year-round residents in an area just over one square mile. Visit and you’ll no doubt feel as though you’ve stepped back in time. The atmosphere is laid back and casual. In the summer and during the weekend, the population rises to over 10,000. Most people here do not own automobiles. Instead, they cruise around in golf carts, using them for both business and pleasure.
Upon entering the harbor at Avalon you will undoubtedly notice the Casino, a circular white building. A magnificent landmark, it was completed in 1929. While most visitors think the Casino was once a place to gamble, there’s never been any gambling there. The building’s name comes from the Italian word “casino,” which merely means a place of entertainment. The Casino has a large ballroom where big bands played in the 1930s and ‘40s. Casino tours are available, and you can also see current movies in the Casino’s theater. Today, the Casino hosts special events, such as the Jazz Trax festival in October and the New Year’s Eve Gala.
It’s easy to travel around town. Besides walking and renting bicycles, you can take a taxi or rent a golf cart. There is also boat service to Two Harbors and shuttle service to the airport, Two Harbors and the interior campgrounds. In addition to private conservancy jeep tours, visitors can tour the island’s interior via a 1950s bus. Restored to its original streamlined beauty, the bus travels 31 miles and the four-hour tour follows the 1800s stagecoach route. It allows access to the Native Plant Nursery, Catalina Island Fox habitats and El Rancho Escondido.
When you arrive in Avalon, be sure to stop at the visitor center at the Green Pleasure Pier. There you can ask questions, pick up brochures, make reservations or buy tickets for one or several of the many island tours as well.
There’s plenty to do on Catalina Island. Visitors can scuba dive, snorkel, parasail, go boating, spread out on the beach, play tennis, picnic, camp, hike, jog, dance, dine, kayak, fish, shop, walk, go to the spa, and much more. Golfers will want to check Southern California’s first golf course. Built in 1892, the Catalina Island Golf Course is a beautiful 18-hole course.
If snorkeling and scuba diving are not your thing, or even if they are, hop on the glass-bottom boat and/or a semi-submersible vessel. Choose either vessel and you’ll see bladder kelp, also known as seaweed, reaching for the sky. With a growth rate of more than a foot a day under ideal conditions, it grows even faster than the fastest growing bamboo. The kelp is named for the air bladders on its leaves, which contain methane gas that helps the kelp to stand straight up and down in the water. If the current is strong, however, the kelp flutters like a flag blowing in the wind.
The kelp forms a dense canopy around the island, its masses a living forest for a variety of animal life. Growing only where the water is cold and the ocean floor rocky, it provides numerous creatures with the necessities of life: food and shelter. Kelp not only provides a living forest for numerous animal species, humans benefit, too. In fact, we eat or use kelp every day. Look for kelp in ice cream, chocolate, toothpaste, pharmaceuticals, and more.
As the vessels cruise toward Lovers Cove, a favorite place to snorkel, you’ll notice that the local fish pay little or no attention to the vessels. But once it reaches the cove, a frenzy of activity provides a thrilling, unforgettable sight—for the fish feed in this same area each day.
Catalina Island really is an island gem. Once so very remote (from the 1850s to as late as 1899 pigeons were used to carry messages between Catalina and the mainland), today access is easy. Three boat companies provide scheduled service to Catalina with departures from five mainland communities: Long Beach, Marina del Rey, San Pedro, Dana Point and Newport Beach. Helicopter service is also available with departures from Long Beach and San Pedro.
For more information regarding accommodations, boat cruises and tours, etc., contact Catalina Island Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Bureau at (310) 510-1520 or visit catalinachamber.com. For information on Catalina Island Conservancy’s Wrigley Memorial and Botanical Gardens, call (310) 510-2595 or visit catalinaconservancy.org.
Donna Ikenberry is a writer and photographer who lives in South Fork, Colorado.