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Me enjoying the ziplining course

Day Trip to Catalina Island From LA

One of the outstanding things to do out of Los Angeles is the day trip to Catalina Island. It feels like a world away from LA and yet it’s just over an hour by ferry and all of about 22 miles southwest of the city. 

Catalina Island or Santa Catalina Island as it is properly called, is a rocky one measuring 22 miles long by eight miles wide with mountains rising to 2,097 feet above sea level. Its home to about 4,100 people, most of whom live in Avalon, the small town you dock at in when you arrive by ferry. While it would be fun to spend a few nights on the island a day trip to Catalina Island provides a great introduction – ad might entice you to come back.

Updated January 2020. This post includes some affiliate links. If you make a purchase via one of these links, I may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. 

The ferry in San Pedro
The ferry in San Pedro
Leaving the busy LA port on a day trip to Catalina Island
Leaving the busy LA port
In December it's warm enough to enjoy the ferry ride outside - or at least I thought it was
In December it’s warm enough to enjoy the ferry ride outside – at least I thought it was
The harbor in Avalon on Catalina Island
The harbor in Avalon on Catalina Island
Avalon from the water
Avalon from the water

Day trip to Catalina Island – move to island time

Once you arrive on Catalina Island time will take on a different quality. The pace of life is slower on Catalina Island. That may be because the bulk of the population either walks, bikes or gets around via golf carts. Cars are severely restricted.

The island feels super clean and pristine – in large part because of the Catalina Island Conservancy. The Conservancy oversees over 90% of Catalina Island, including 60 miles of unspoiled beaches. It’s goal is to promote restoration and preservation efforts through education.

Interestingly there are 60 species of plants, animals and insects found here that exist nowhere else in the world.

One of the charming waterfront cafes
One of the charming waterfront cafes
On Catalina Island golf carts are the main form of transport
On Catalina Island golf carts are the main form of transport
The waterfront in Avalon
The waterfront in Avalon

What can you do on day trip to Catalina Island?

There’s lots to do though in the winter not all activities are offered – at least not every day like they would be in the summer. Catalina Island is the sort of place where it feels right to do nothing at all.

Take a zipline eco-tour 

I did a zipline eco tour thanks to Santa Catalina Island Company. It was just me and my two guides – Nick Flores and Douglas Hippe and what a blast I had.

Five ziplines whisked me over 4,000 feet and offered up glorious views of this rugged island.  Not only did I learn about the fauna and the flora of the area but I had lots of time to chat one on one with the guides – both who have lived either full time or extensively on the island and so had lots of local knowledge to share.

On a day trip to Catalina Island you can fit in some ziplining
On a day trip to Catalina Island you can fit in some ziplining
Me enjoying the ziplining course
Me enjoying the ziplining course
Beautiful harbour views along the ziplining course
Beautiful harbour views along the ziplining course

Go kayaking or SUPing on a day trip to Catalina Island

Kayaking and SUP is available out of the Descanso Beach Club, and would be a glorious summertime activity. You can rent kayaks or arrange a tour for a couple of hours.

There are also 11 boat-in beach sites where you can camp though you should reserve ahead. Check out Camping Catalina for a location map of all the campsites – and the rules and regulations that go along with the camping. You will need to take all your water and pack out every last bit of trash.

Hiking on Catalina Island

Of course there is also hiking on the island. I would like to return one day to hike the full 37.2 mile Trans-Catalina Trail though there are plenty of easier ones to do too especially out of the Two Harbors area.

Go snorkeling or scuba diving

The snorkeling and scuba diving around the island is reportedly excellent. Waters are crystalline and marine life is diverse thanks to a confluence of currents.

According to Mother Nature Network, Scuba diving magazine ranked the waters as the world’s healthiest marine environment – a big surprise to me considering the proximity to Los Angeles. There are a number of companies offering snorkeling and scuba tours on the island.

On a day trip to Catalina Island, kayaking would be one of the fun things to do
On a day trip to Catalina Island, kayaking would be one of the fun things to do
Beautiful buildings along the shoreline and clear water
Beautiful buildings along the shoreline and clear water
Entrance to The Tuna Club of Avalon - & the birthplace of modern sportfishing
Entrance to The Tuna Club of Avalon – & the birthplace of modern sportfishing – though stressing conservationist ethics and sporting behaviour
Good balance on the part of a gull
Good balance on the part of a gull
Beautiful tile work along the waterfront
Beautiful tile work along the waterfront

Go biking on Catalina Island

There is lots of biking on over 20 miles of paved streets – in and around Avalon. You can rent bikes at Brown’s Bikes, located within a one minute walk of the ferry terminal. They have maps illustrating routes of varying difficulties. As Catalina Island is extremely hilly, you do need to put some thought into your route. Note that if you want to bike outside of Avalon you must join the Catalina Island Conservancy.

Take the Casino Tour – one of the must-do things on a day trip to Catalina Island 

On my itinerary for the day, the Casino Tour showed up. My first thoughts were – do the fine folks at Visit California not know that my blog has an adventure focus – and that I’m not into gambling? This was a lesson for me on when a casino is not really a casino. 

Casino, before the word was bastardized by Vegas, comes from Italian and means a social gathering place. And that’s actually what the Catalina Casino has been since 1929 – a place to dance, enjoy theater and be entertained. It was commissioned by William Wrigley Jr. of Wrigley chewing gum fame. From start to finish it took just 14 months to build at a cost of two million – 1.4 million over budget.

There are so many highlights to the building – but before you even get inside your eyes are drawn to the murals. They were designed and painted by John Gabriel Beckman.

He originally wanted to do them all on Catalina tile, made from local clay – but ran out of time so only one mural over the entrance is made of tile. The rest were painted on concrete and feature underwater life found in the waters around Catalina Island.

Incredible hand painted murals at the Casino
Incredible hand painted murals at the Casino
On a day trip to Catalina Island be sure to include a tour of the Casino
On a day trip to Catalina Island be sure to include a tour of the Casino

The Avalon Theater is unbelievable though none of my photos do it justice. Murals adorn the walls. Add in gold leaf and sterling silver leaf to many of the artistic touches. Throw in a rare pipe organ, one that’s still in action on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights.

The quality of sound thanks to the acoustics is phenomenal and in fact has been copied by many leading theaters. The Avalon Theater currently offers movies that change every week.

The design of the building was incredibly thought through on so many levels. Because the building was commissioned by someone who happened to also be the owner of the Chicago Cubs, Wrigley had knowledge of how to move crowds. To get up to the ballroom level ramps instead of stairs were installed – that meet code to this day for handicapped access.

The ballroom is magnificent. And it’s huge – 10,000 square feet. It owns the title of the world’s largest circular dance floor. Still active, it plays host to a number of big band dances throughout the year. The all-time record for dancers at one time is 6,200 people.

Despite the abuse over the years of thousands of dancing feet – and the fact that one year the ballroom was used as the basketball court for the local high school team when their gymnasium was unavailable – the wood floors have never been replaced.

The world's largest circular ballroom
The world’s largest circular ballroom is in the Casino
View from the ballroom
View from the ballroom

Of course there is the usual shopping and dining on Catalina Island – some of which is first rate.

Where to stay on Catalina Island – if you can do more than a day trip

If you can make it to Catalina Island try and spend at least one night. I wish I had. 

For a place that’s rated as fabulous book the Aurora Hotel. It comes with breakfast. Another very good choice is the Casa Mariquita Hotel. There is a Holiday Inn on the island as well.

Getting to Catalina Island

There are three ferry terminals offering access to Catalina Island. They include San Pedro, Dana Point and Long Beach Downtown. Tickets are in the order of $82.50 round trip per person – unless it’s your birthday – in which case it’s free but you must bring one full paying passenger with you.

I believe free tickets are only offered in the low season – and be prepared to wear a birthday ribbon. There were about four people on my boat doing the trip on their birthday.  Parking fees are extra and range from $12 – $15 per day.

There is also the option on some trips to visit Two Harbors, a small island village with one B&B, a restaurant, camping and a place I’m told where the hiking is excellent.

Further reading on things to do in California

Click on the photo to bookmark to your Pinterest boards.

A fabulous day trip from Los Angeles to Catalina Island

A big thank you to Visit California and the Catalina Chamber of Commerce for making my trip possible. 

Leigh McAdam

Leigh McAdam is a Calgary based writer, author, photographer and social media enthusiast with over 61,000 followers. Her blog: HikeBikeTravel is frequently cited as one of the top travel and outdoor adventure blogs in Canada.

Author of Discover Canada: 100 Inspiring Outdoor Adventures
Co-author of 125 Nature Hot Spots in Alberta

This Post Has 15 Comments

  1. I’ve been to L.A. several times and for one reason or another never made it over to Catalina Island. Oh my gosh GREAT timing on this post with all of the warm, blue colors, Leigh! It’s freezing, bitter cold here in Reno. Great catch of that bird on one leg. And that ballroom looks absolutely magnificent and what a view! I had absolutely no clue there were so many boats and buildings on the island until I read this. Really enjoyed it! 🙂

    1. @Mike I have missed a nasty number of freezing cold days in Calgary so it was a treat to sit out on a ferry deck in a December morning. And the island is sheer delight – and well worth a visit Mike.

  2. I’ve never been there but have been eyeing the island as a possible destination for our next scuba diving trip. We heard it’s supposed to be amazing!

    1. @Jill I have another reader who said the first time she ever went diving was at Catalina Island and it sounded like it was a great experience. I met more people in California who raved about it.

    1. @Jackie I think you would love a weekend on the island. It’s laid back but charming – and if you could time a visit with something interesting offered at The Casino so much the better.

  3. Catalina Island really is beautiful. I had no idea that casino had a different meaning. Thanks, Leigh! And I’d definitely take the casino tour.

  4. Wow, Leigh, Avalon looked so pretty as you were approaching it in the boat. It looks so dinky and colourful and pristine. Catalina Island looks like somewhere we’d love to go and the ziplining looks thrilling. Interesting about the casino tour 😉

  5. It’s been awhile since I’ve been to Catalina. I went camping there a few times when I was a kid with the Girl Scouts. Except we camped on White’s Landing – another of Catalina’s islands that’s full of roaming buffalo (at least it was back then). I haven’t been to Avalon in several years, but this post is inspiring me to return. Maybe I’ll take Jave for his bday! Also, love the view from the ballroom!

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