Updated: Dec 21, 2021
While my knowledge of Catalina originally began with the movie Step Brother's and the "Freakin' Catalina Wine Mixer", I now know that it's more than just some ritzy vacation spot. Beyond the shining seaside city of Avalon, Catalina Island has tons to offer any nature lover, from camping to kayaking and even bison sightings! Even though Catalina may be a bit expensive and the trails may be a bit intense for a beginner hiker, but every dollar and ounce of sweat is well worth it.
In this post, I'm hoping to introduce you to what I've learned about Catalina Island. From campgrounds, to how to get there, to services offered across the island. All of this as a start to my personal weekend camping experience in the next posts to come!
So let's dive into this beautiful island destination and get to planning what could be your next California trip!
Getting to Catalina Island
Santa Catalina Island, better known as Catalina, is an island located 29 miles southwest of Los Angeles. While you can charter a private yacht for thousands of dollars, the way most people get to the island is by the Catalina Express or Catalina Flyer. These ferry services run regularly from 4 different locations along the Southern California coastline and the ride is usually about an hour long.
Mainland to Avalon:
Dana Point, CA
Long Beach, CA
San Pedro, CA
Mainland to Two Harbors:
San Pedro, CA
Mainland to Avalon:
Newport Beach, CA
As for prices, you're looking at about $75 per adult roundtrip from any of the ports. But don't forget to include daily parking rates at the docks, which will run you between $14 and $20 per day.
The schedule differs depending on the time of year, with more boats running in the busier season (April - August) and only on Friday, Saturday and Sunday on the off-season (November- March).
Always get to your boat at least 1 hour early, since you have to wait in line to get your tickets and then in another line to get on the boat, and no one is holding the ferry on your account.
While online it states that you can only have two bags, and everything has to be a certain weight, they are not as picky about this as an airport would be. I saw people in line with paddleboards, two backpacks, and a cooler that had no problem getting on board.
Just make sure you have all of your valuables on your person, since anything bigger than a school backpack has to go below the boat, and they are not particularly nice with the luggage below deck.
Two Harbors vs. Avalon
Avalon is the main city on the island, this is where you'll see more hotels, restaurants, and even a casino. This is also the official start of the Trans Catalina Trail. Since this city is so big it can be a bit difficult to navigate when trying to find the trail or even your hotel, but if you're looking for more amenities, this is the place to be.
Along with some classic city perks, Avalon is also where you'll find some great outdoor adventures. With activities such as jeep tours, fishing expeditions, snorkeling, zip-lining and so much more. While the prices for these tours range from $20 for a glass-bottom boat voyage to
$125 for a zipline eco-tour, they can be a very exciting addition to your Catalina trip.
Two Harbors I would barely consider a town, they have a general store, one restaurant, one beachside bar, and one bed and breakfast. Even though this port is very small, I'm glad this is the one I docked at. If your goal is to hike and camp for the weekend, this area is the easiest to navigate and the store has every camping necessity you could possibly need if you happened to forget something (or need some extra caffeine before your hike).
This is the town to stay in if you plan on camping at the nearby campground and simply relax the time away. They do have a rental facility that rents out kayaks, paddleboards, and snorkeling gear, but not many more options for adventure beyond that. So if you like laying out on the beach, sipping on overpriced delicious cocktails in solitude, then this is the town for you.
There are 5 campgrounds across the island and several other primitive boat-in-only sites on the east side of the island. Each campground has its own rules and regulations, and its own unique view of the island.
Since I've only been to two of the camping sites, I found this great site that goes into more info about each campground https://www.lovecatalina.com/places-to-stay/camping/. But I will be going over Two and Little Harbor campgrounds in my posts to come.
Getting to the Campgrounds
Each of the five campgrounds is located along the Trans-Catalina Trail that covers the entire island and most are only accessible by hiking into them. With the Two Harbors and Hermit Gulch campgrounds being a rather easy walk right outside of each town.
You can also hire a car to take you out to Little Harbor Campground on the backside of the island.
Reservations and Price
You'll want to try to reserve your campsite at least a month in advance depending on the season. In summer it's best to reserve one as early as possible as many campgrounds fill up fast. Also, the online reservation system isn't the best, so it may be easier to call to make sure you get the spot you want.
The cost for these sites can be quite pricy since you have to pay for each person staying at the site instead of the site itself. Depending on the season you're looking at about $30 per adult, and if you want firewood sent to your site that will be an extra $10 per bundle. You can also rent almost any camping equipment you may need such as stoves, fire starter, sleeping bags, and tents.
If you like fresh food over backpacking meals, there is also an option to pick out a cooler and load it with food from the general store and have it delivered to your campsite.
If you don't want to backpack all of your gear over to your campsite, you can have Catalina Backcountry drive over all of your belongings and even set up your site for you! You could literally go to the island with some water and hiking poles and have your whole camping experience ready for you when you get there, including dinner.
While I enjoy the extra effort of backpacking, this is a good option for those who aren't physically able to carry the weight of their pack or prefer to take an easier hike across without the burden of an extra 30lbs on their back.
The Trans-Catalina Trail
The most desired trail on the island is the Trans-Catalina trail, an intense 38mile hike across the entire island.
I can't stress this enough, this hike is not for the beginner or faint of heart. The entire trail has almost 10,000ft of elevation gain and even the 6 miles I accomplished were filled with constant hills and some very steep inclines and descents. So even if you can normally do 10+ miles in a day, you may want to rethink your strategy because of the intensity of this trail.
With that said, the trail offers amazing views as you traverse mountain ridges over the ocean, into canyons, and across open fields. You may even spot some bison on your hike as I did!
Just remember to come prepared as the weather changes drastically on this island, and there is very little shade. So sunscreen up and bring your rain jacket because you never know what you're going to get.
If you're looking to take the 3-5 days to backpack the entire trail (I'll do it one day), I gathered up some good resources for you to check out here:
Extra Tips for Planning Your Trip
Save up some money! Catalina costs more than you think, a typical camping weekend for 2 people for 2 nights can run you:
Ferry to Catalina: $150.00
Camping reservations: $140.00
Dinner and drinks in Two Harbors: $100.00
Snacks/Coffee/Beer at the General Store: $40.00
Kayak/SUP/Snorkel rental $50.00
Parking at the dock: $60.00
Get at least 2 bundles of wood if you're planning on having a fire, as one bundle will only last you about an hour.
Be prepared for any weather, from blaring sun to misty wind, to a downpour of rain, you never know what you'll get.
Make sure to check-in for your campsite when you get off the boat. In Two Harbors there is a building at the end of the dock where you check in for your first camping spot and get any directions or questions answered.
Stretch out before hitting those steep inclines, your calves will thank you.
Use the bathroom in town before hitting the trail as there is little to no coverage once you're out there.
Make sure you're able to hike the distances you need to get to the dock well before the ferry comes, or else it could mean spending another night on the island.
Bring plenty of water and high-calorie snacks since the hike is quite difficult you'll be wanting to drink and eat more than you think.
Be safe around the Bison!
- While amazing to see, these are wild animals and they can attack you
- Stay at least 100ft away, and do not disturb them
- The Catalina Conservancy has this great guide to help you out:
Planning the trip to Catalina can be expensive, confusing, and complicated at times, with so many options on campsites and timing the ferry, it can get overwhelming. The big takeaways are to check the ferry schedule, reserve your campsites early, and make sure you're well prepared to make the intense hike across the island, and you'll have a great time.
Even though I wanted to push myself and hike farther to see more of the island, I was very happy with my short weekend trip. If you're lucky enough to get the opportunity to spend some time on this island, I say take it because it is a truly magical place.
If you want to read about my first day actually backpacking this beautiful island, you can read that here.
Until next time,