A visit to Santa Catalina Island is a unique opportunity to experience island life after just one hour’s travel from Southern California. Nearly all of the island’s tourist activities occur in Avalon, the island’s only city. However, if you prefer to go off the beaten path, you can also visit the much smaller village of Two Harbors, located on the island’s northwestern side. Either way, Catalina Island is a great place to go for travelers who are seeking a vacation spot where they can have fun and stay active at the same time. The island may only be 21 miles long, but it is packed with outdoor recreational activities. Before you finalize your itinerary, make sure to review our Catalina Island visitor’s guide.
Image Credit: Sarah Crutchfield
Transportation to Santa Catalina Island
Getting to Catalina by Water
Ferry: The most common way to get to Catalina Island is to take a ferry from one of the ports. San Pedro, Long Beach, Newport Beach, and Dana Point all run ferries that take 45 minutes to 1 hour to get to the island. You do not have to wait until you get there to start your vacation, though. The boats usually have inexpensive cash bars, as well as snacks for sale. Also, it is not unusual to see dolphins or even whales on your voyage if you keep a lookout. Ferry rates vary slightly, but will cost about $75 per person roundtrip.
Private Boat: For those who own their own boats, moorings are available for rent on a first-come, first-served basis.
Getting to Catalina by Air
Helicopter: If you can afford it, you can make it to Catalina from the mainland in just 15 minutes by helicopter. This will set you back at least $250 per person roundtrip, and a two-person minimum is required.
What to do in Catalina
- Catalina Snorkeling
Catalina Island is one of the most popular places to snorkel in all of California. You have a few options when visiting the island depending on how much you want to spend and how much guidance you prefer. You can take a reasonably priced guided tour that will provide you with all the necessary equipment. If you are a strong swimmer, you can opt for a private tour of lesser-known coves, rather than the typical large group tour. If you want to snorkel independently, you can rent the gear and head over to hotspot, Lover’s Cove. No boat required. Expect to see a lot of California’s bright orange state fish, the Garibaldi, and keep an eye out for friendly sea lions, and the more elusive harbor seals.
- Glass Bottom Boat Tour
If snorkeling is too much of a workout for you, then you can view Catalina’s kelp forests from one of its famous glass bottom boats. The water is clear enough that you will have no problem seeing the local marine life and boats also come equipped with food dispensers (for an extra charge) to help attract more fish to your area.
- Catalina Zip Lining
Catalina Island is one of the few places in Southern California where you can zip line, and it is an exhilarating way to experience the local nature and wildlife. The Zip Line Eco Tour consists of five separate zip lines as high as 300 feet from the ground, that will accelerate adventurers up to 40mph. They also throw in a little education: at each eco-station your guides will give you a brief presentation on Catalina’s history and wildlife.
- Wrigley Memorial & Botanic Garden
The Wrigley Memorial was built in honor of William Wrigley, Jr. who played a very large part in developing the island. It also provides a spectacular view. A hike to the top of the monument leads you through the botanic garden, which primarily consists of native plants. Some of these plants are so rare that they are actually on the Endangered Species list, and do not exist outside of California’s islands. If you are interested in hiking, the memorial is also the start of the highly recommended Garden to Sky Hike.
- Catalina Casino
There’s no gambling in this casino; rather it is actually a historic building that serves as the venue for many of the island’s events and entertainment. During the day, the casino is open to paid tour groups only. You will view the grand ballroom, and learn the history behind the iconic building and its murals. The Casino also contains the Avalon Theatre, which shows movies nightly, and The Catalina Island Museum.
- Buffalo Safari
One of Catalina Island’s lesser-known quirks is that it is home to a herd of American Bison. They were originally introduced to the island when they were brought over for a western movie in the 1920s and were then left there. Today, you can see them by taking a Jeep tour, which will also likely include visits to native plant nurseries and bald eagle sanctuaries. Be aware that most of these tours leave out of Two Harbors.
Getting Around Catalina
Getting around the island is no problem. Avalon is only about one square mile, so you can easily walk to most of the main attractions.
Additionally, it is really easy to use the trolleys, which operate Friday through Tuesday 8:30am- 5:00pm.
Cars are rare on the island, and it is much more fun, to rent one of Catalina’s famous golf carts if you want your own private transportation.
This article was written by Paula Ashlee Berg.
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