Most Angelenos have some sort of vague idea of what Catalina Island is. “That’s where Natalie Wood died, right?” some may ask, attempting to locate the place in relationship to Los Angeles history. Others have spread rumors that it’s cheesy or full of older people or even simply just an island lost somewhere near Los Angeles’ Pacific Ocean: most Angelenos feeling toward Catalina is nothing more than meh at best. The vacation destination loses out to cooler locations like Joshua Tree and Palm Springs.
But who has actually been to Catalina? Have you? Ask someone near you: have they? Of the many friends and acquaintances that I have polled in the past month, only two people noted visiting the island, both of who had visited the place one time and couldn’t really weigh in on what the place was like. When we were invited to visit the island for a wildflower tour by the Catalina Conservancy, we were certainly intrigued. The island has been on our list of places to go in Southern California for years and is one of those places that needed to be explored: the oceanic veil has to be lifted so that we can all gaze upon Catalina’s face.
There are a few ways to get to the island, most of which involve taking the speedy Catalina Express. This ship departs from San Pedro and Long Beach and, while not the only ship to take you the short ways across the Pacific, this is the nicest means of travel for the seventy-something round trip tickets to get there. Our boat left at 8:30AM on Saturday morning and was packed with families and geared up people who we assume were pumped for some island activities like fishing, scuba diving, etc. The boat feels like a more stable airplane fully equipped with seat-back tables and reclining levers. The only difference here is that no other form of transportation has pushed your getting drunk more than the Catalina Express: if you upgrade to the Commodore Lounge, you get a free drinking ticket and the waitresses nearly beat you into drinking. “I’ll just have a coffee,” many people would order before the 8:30AM departure. “Want that with Bailey’s?” the Cool Mom Waitress replied to every single person. It was surprising that an order of water wasn’t suggested to be paired with vodka. It all made sense once you attempt to geotag an Instagram photo on the boat and “Catalina Booze Cruise” comes up as an option: people obviously equate Catalina with silly cheap drinking antics.
We decided to take the seventy minute trip to nap and prepare ourselves for the island experience. We were gently awoken by an announcement that we were nearing an island and, while we had been out for a good fifty minutes or so, there is a solid twenty minutes of “Look! The island! It’s huge!” and then the boat slowly glides toward it as the island appears to get no closer than it was seconds before. This goes to tell you that the island is massive. Another myth about the island is that it is a tiny little place that you could run laps around. As you approach it, it looks like Runyon Canyon connected to Runyon Canyon connected to Runyon Canyon, etc.: it’s a mountainous mass with a tiny populated cove.
As you disembark the ship, you are greeted by bright orange Garibaldi swimming in the clear water and a very clean air: you are not in Los Angeles anymore. We walked through the town with a soundtrack of go-cart like sputtering from golf carts and a view of hillside houses ranging from Spanish Colonial Revival styles to gaunt San Francisco row houses. We walk with our friendly Conservancy guide for the day, Bob, through town to make it to the Conservancy’s headquarters. The headquarters is in a white house that is marked by its nicely minimal logo and is a hub for Catalina visitors who want to get out of the town and actually see what Catalina has to offer. The Conservancy functions to (obviously) conserve the land but also to enable education and recreation in nature. While Avalon–the town part of Catalina–is a huge attraction, that is only about three square miles of the seventy five mile square mile island: the city is a tiny fraction of what there is to do on the island.
We are greeted at the Conservancy by artists Andrew Evansen and Brian Stewart, two Minnesota based Plein Air painters who are participating in the upcoming June 21 and June 22 Catalina: The Wild Side art show. Together, we all hop into an open air Jeep for a tour of what really is happening on the island. We pass through the town of small streets and golf carts as one of the only actual cars and everyone–literally everyone–waves to us, Bob in particular. There are hellos from a store and hellos from other carts and hellos from hikers and hellos from fishermen: it felt like the opening song in Beauty And The Beast.
Traveling up and into the hills, the Jeep reaches a modest gated entry to a skinny mountainside road: this is the main means of transportation on Catalina. Hugging the hillside and looking over gorgeous–and somewhat frightening–canyon views to the surrounding ocean, we putter along through the desert island wilderness stopping to just see what’s going on. We learn that there was a devastating fire not too long ago that harmed a lot of the wildlife. We find that William Wrigley had a huge hand in making the island what it is and that his son actually helped to make the Conservancy. We also see a bison just chilling out in a patch of dry dirt. The creatures are non-natives and believed to have been brought to the island for the filming of a Golden Age Hollywood film–but no one really knows. There’s a magical mystery to them which is omnipresent in the natural side of the island.
The Jeep travels by cactuses and ground squirrels, lots of family of quails and even a few deer. We have a few hairy interactions with other vehicles as we both shimmy by each other without a scratch. We stop by their research nursery and meet with Nursery Technician Peter Dixon, who explains how many of the plants on the island are only found on Catalina and that–like visitors to the island–many plants have found the ability to thrive on Catalina whereas they have not been able to elsewhere. Peter also explained that they hold plant sales a few times a year which are actually a great means of income for the Conservancy.
Moving on, we pass a few old buildings and stop at points to admire the scenery and so that Andrew and Brian can photograph the environment for painting study. The Jeep–which can feel like a roller coaster if you are sitting in the back row–eventually winds down enough little roads that we end up near a cliff on the Westside of the island. It overlooks an idyllic beach and our little group spends more than an hour here because it’s so damn beautiful. Andrew and Brian take out their equipment and get to Plein Air painting and we actually decide to hike down to the beach to see how it is. We find a few surfers hanging out down there and that it is a hike in, hike out campground. The area is virtually untouched and is absolutely removed from anything human. The sand was so untravelled that it felt more like dry dirt than soft sand. It would be nice to camp here.
The hike back is a bit brutal (and is impossible to imagine with surfboards). The group hops back into the Jeep and we pass more beaches and bison and eventually make up to a place called the Airport In The Sky. What is that? An airport in the sky. The destination is a functioning small plane airport and also holds a little restaurant and gift shop for visitors as it is a stop on many of the tours happening on the island. The place still retains much of the 1930s, 1940s magic to it as you could certainly see how people could fly in and out of here for a little trips. (And, truth be told, the place was probably used to get army persons in and out of the island as the island was a lookout point for potential invasions.) Lunch is at DC-3 and quite literally is the only food option for miles. They have lots of burgers and sandwiches and even tacos and, as expected, you can have bison meat, if you like. The food and service is perfectly homey and a welcome meal after a day of adventuring and being stressed you were going to fall out of your seat and into a ravine.
Finishing up our trip and heading back into town, we get a view of the Eastern coast of the island and get ridiculous views of the ocean and hills in the distance. As Andrew pointed out (and we were unable to appropriately photograph), the boats departing from Catalina appear to be sailing off into the sky as both the waters and the air become the same color. It’s an illusion that is equally as exciting with each boat you see. We also passed a little black fox as we exited the Conservancy land, which is a big deal considering one of our websites is named after black foxes and that their population has recently stabilized. We arrive back at our Catalina Express port, say goodbye to the Garibaldi, and head back into the bright blue to the mainland. It was a great day of island adventuring.
Getting back to Los Angeles, we couldn’t help but feel like we had to go back to the island. We had lifted the island veil pretty far up–but not as far as we would have liked. How would it be to spend a night camping there? What are the hotels like? Beyond DC-3, are there any wonderful restaurants? Although shopping has to be limited, there has to be some hidden, quirky island gems. And is there an island equivalent to The Ace? We’re sure there isn’t but there absolutely should be. Catalina’s mystique still remains despite a visit but we can confidently relay that there are myriad reasons to visit that lie beyond the glossy 1950s streets. The Conservancy has many of them, too.
Our suggestion is to go for a weekend, one of the days being spent trekking the outdoors by way of hiking or Jeep touring like we did. There is so much here that is so similar and so alien to anything “on the mainland” that you have to see it for yourself. It’s a truly unique place that is so trapped in time and so in touch with island beauty that you have to see it for yourself. It feels like we have added another rare lifestyle merit badge to our Southern California Living sash: we have been to Catalina.
For more on the island and the Conservancy, check out their website here. You can also find out more about their Jeep tours here as well as hiking opportunities here. Other things to note: there are guided hikes by Catalina Backcountry and inland bus adventures and more by Santa Catalina Island Company. You can also support the Conservancy by becoming a member of the organization: get more information on that here.