Travel Tips

Catalina Island: Southern California’s Ecotourism Playground

Locations in this article:  Buffalo, NY Chicago, IL Los Angeles, CA

Holiday escapes to warm places; Nov'11; Avalon Bay, Catalina Island, CACatalina Island is one of the best-kept secrets among Southern Californians. It was once the stomping ground of celebrities like Charlie Chaplin and John Wayne. Today, Catalina Island is the go-to destination for nature lovers, and there are lots of eco-adventures that get you out of the city and into the great outdoors.

Located just off mainland Southern California, the island itself is 22 miles long, 8 miles across at its widest point, and only a quarter of a mile at its narrowest. This area is known as the Isthmus, or Two Harbors. The Island’s main destination, however, is the capital city of Avalon.

Before European contact in 1542, this island was inhabited by Native Americans for at least 8,000 years. Those who lived here referred to the island as Pimu and called themselves Pimungans or Pimuvit.

One thing most people don’t know is that Catalina Island was once owned by William Wrigley, Jr. He was part of the same family who created Wrigley chewing gum. He turned Avalon into a resort town, which attracted famous celebrities such as Charlie Chaplin, John Wayne, and Zane Grey.

At the time, the family also owned the Chicago Cubs, and they came to Catalina Island for spring training from the 1930s through the 1950s. Today, you can actually stay in the former Wrigley mansion, which turned into a bed & breakfast called The Inn on Mt. Ada. If you ask the locals, they’ll tell you it’s haunted. But they’ll also tell you it has the best view, since it sits on a hill that overlooks all of Avalon Harbor.

???One  of Avalon’s most iconic buildings is the Casino Ballroom. While it was never a casino, it was once a ballroom. It was built in 1929 and still maintains its Art Deco design and unique, ocean-inspired mosaics. Back in the 1930s and 40s, Big Bands headed by musicians like Kay Kyser and Glenn Miller used to play here. In those days, people used the steamship to make the trek, which took about four hours. But Big Bands played on the steamship as well, and most people danced during the entire boat ride.

In the late 1890s, Avalon flourished as a successful fishing and tourist destination. But by 1906, the beach became too crowded with boats, sea lions, and people. In 1909, the Green Pleasure Pier was built, and since then it’s been used as an official weigh station for sport fishermen. Back in the 1950s and 60s, sea planes used to land alongside it. Now it’s home to the Catalina Island Chamber of Commerce Visitors Center, restaurants, dive centers, and water activities.

Not sure how to get to Catalina Island? Here’s a hint: you can’t drive there. But you can take the passenger ferry, Catalina Express. With ports in Long Beach, San Pedro, and Dana Point, it’s easy to get here anywhere from Southern California. Catalina Express was created in 1981 by Tom Rutter, Greg Bombard, and his father Doug Bombard, and it is still a family-run company. The boat trip only takes about an hour, which gives you plenty of time to look for dolphins, talk with the boat crew, and enjoy one of their famous Bloody Marys.

Since the majority of Catalina Island is an open nature preserve, it’s a great destination for hiking. The Trans-Catalina Trail covers 37.2 winding miles all over Catalina’s Nature Preserve, which is known by locals as the Interior. If you’re an ambitious hiker, the entire trail will take you a few days. Otherwise, you can hike a small section of it to get some exercise, see some native plants and wildlife, and enjoy the views. But you will need a hiking permit, which you can pick up for free at a few different places in Avalon, including the Conservancy House and the Wrigley Memorial & Botanic Garden.

In 1972, the Wrigley family established the Santa Catalina Island Conservancy as a non-profit organization. The Conservancy’s main goal is to preserve over 42,000 acres and 48 miles of coastline, as well as the local animal and plant life. After all, over 60 different types of plants and animals are home to Catalina and nowhere else. It’s also home to the American Bald Eagle, which has bounced back after problems with DDT runoff.

buffaloBut speaking of animals, Catalina Island is well known for buffalo. Back in 1924, 14 buffalo were brought over to the Island to film the movie The Vanishing American. Once production wrapped, the buffalo were let loose on the island and have lived there ever since.

As a result, locals began naming dishes and drinks after them. At The Airport in the Sky, Catalina’s only airport, you can get a Buffalo Burger, and one of the most famous Catalina cocktails is Buffalo Milk. It’s better than it sounds: it’s made with crème de cocoa, Kahlua, crème de banana, and vodka mixed in a blender and topped with whipped cream and a dash of nutmeg.

One thing you can’t miss while you’re here is the seafood. Catalina’s harbor is known not only for Garibaldi, but also for providing fish to Avalon’s restaurants as well as some on the mainland. In 2013, the Bluewater Grill built a new location in Avalon, serving only sustainably harvested, locally caught seafood. When you come in, you’ll see a chalkboard listing the day’s freshest catch.

Catalina Island has a few cars, but those have special permits from the city of Avalon. The waiting list to bring a car is 10 years long. Don’t worry, Avalon is only one square mile, so it’s easy to get around on foot. But if you want to get around more quickly, just hop on a golf cart.

If you’re looking for an adrenaline-pumping activity, try the Zip Line Eco Tour. It has 5 separate zip lines, and the last one is 1,100 feet long. The whole zip line covers nearly three quarters of a mile, and most of the time you’ll be about 300 feet above the canyon floor. The experience takes about two hours and, in between each zip, the guides will tell you about some local history, wildlife, and point out native plants. If that sounds a bit frightening, don’t worry. The zip line ends at the Descanso Beach Club, which sells Buffalo Milk by the glass…and by the pitcher.

Watch the video below to discover ecotourism opportunities on Catalina Island.

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By Peter Greenberg for