In Avalon, the hub of Santa Catalina Island, shops, restaurants and sights abound in one square mile. But for the adventurous and for the outdoorsperson, Catalina is a special place, particularly during the non-summer months. This 76 square miles of island has a back country, a wilderness to be explored beyond the swarm of visitors.
Give me a place where deer and buffalo roam and where bald eagles soar and where wild pigs play, and I'll pack my bag and bike. What's more, Catalina is accessible and inexpensive in the off-season and even cheaper if you camp. Tenting at any of the five campgrounds on the island is $5 per person a night.
"Between October and May the island is yours, particularly on weekdays," says the park ranger at Bird Park Campground, about a 20-minute walk from downtown Avalon. On a recent Thursday I was the only camper in the park, with two others due to arrive Friday evening.
I chose to camp in Avalon because I wanted to bicycle "killer hill" out of Avalon to the east summit--about three miles and an elevation gain of 1,450 feet. There is not a flat place, much less a downhill, in the entire distance.
It's a great ride even if you have to walk some of it. The panoramas of the east side of the island and roadside vistas of Avalon are ample reward for a difficult ascent.
It's an easy 10-mile bike ride from the summit to the airport on a paved road. A multispeed, narrow-tire bike is satisfactory on paved roads, but mountain bikes are best for the unpaved back roads beyond the airport.
I took my own 18-speed mountain bike to the island, but there are several rental companies in Avalon. Rentals cost about $25 a day.
What makes Catalina's back country special is the wildlife and the solitude on the back roads, which are largely restricted to bicycle or foot travel. Vehicular travel is limited to those who have a special card key. Consequently, buffalo, deer, pigs and goats regularly share back roads with bicyclists.
For all the attention they get from passers-by, these wild animals are indifferent to humans. Fourteen bison, introduced to Catalina in 1924 for the filming of "The Vanishing American," established a herd that now totals about 400.
Airport, and Beyond
The Airport in the Sky features the island special, buffalo burger. It's hard to swallow after observing these gentle creatures lumbering about and grazing on the hillside, but you might like it.
Beyond the airport the road is unpaved, rocky and alternately hard-packed and sandy--ideal conditions for my mountain bike. The road to Little Harbor from the airport makes a gradual, bumpy descent from 1,600 feet to sea level. Downhill rides are always a lot of fun.
"There's one! Oh, my gosh! There's one!" shouted my companion as he directed my attention skyward, causing me to spill my bike and myself into a patch of beaver-tail cactus.
I searched the sky from my prone position, and there was no mistaking the beauty, majesty, wingspread and size of the magnificent bald eagle.
Never having seen this gem of nature outside a zoo, I was awed and unaware of several bruises on my legs and of several spines from the cactus lodged in unfortunate places. To the credit of the Catalina Conservancy and the Institute for Wildlife Studies, about 20 bald eagles make Catalina their home.
The conservancy, a nonprofit operating foundation, owns about 86% of the island for the express purpose of preserving and protecting open space, wild lands and nature preserve areas for the benefit of future generations.
Scored Some Successes
They have done a marvelous job of restoring the back country that was damaged by overgrazing, returning the bald eagle to Catalina and protecting the remaining seven adult Catalina mahogany trees, to mention a few of their successes.
The conservancy is constructing a nature center and a native plant botanical garden at the airport, from which nature trails will take visitors into the interior.
For solitude and wildlife, Little Harbor campground is a choice spot to spend a day or two. Our sighting of the bald eagle was near the campground, where buffalo and wild pigs paraded daily near our tent site. All this, and an outstanding sunset to stir the senses and to calm the spirit: Who could resist?
Aside from the primitive roads and the campgrounds, the interior of Catalina is relatively untouched, so that beyond Avalon and the airport a person can find peace and solitude.
Camping on Catalina is a year-round activity. In addition to Bird Park in Avalon, camping is allowed at Blackjack two miles from the airport, Little Harbor at the midpoint of the island on the west side, Little Fisherman's Cove at the Isthmus, and Parson's Landing at the northeast side of the island.
Where to Get Permits