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 – and might entice you to come back.
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Get on island time on a day trip to Catalina Island
Once you arrive on Catalina Island time will take on a different quality. The pace of life is slower even on a day trip to Catalina Island. That may be because the bulk of the population either walks, bikes or gets around via golf carts. Cars are severely restricted.
Catalina 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.
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.
1. 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.
2. Try kayaking or SUPing on 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.
3. Go for a hike 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 over 3 – 4 days though there are plenty of easier ones to do too especially out of the Two Harbors area.
4. Go snorkeling or scuba diving
The snorkeling and scuba diving around Catalina 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.
5. Explore Catalina Island by bike
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.
Because 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.
6.Take the Catalina Casino Tour – one of the top 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 dollars 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.
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.
Absolutely visit the Casino on a day trip to Catalina Island. It was an unexpected highlight of my day.
7. Go shopping and check out the Catalina Island restaurants.
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’re there more than a day
If you can make it to Catalina Island try and spend at least one night. I wish I had.
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.