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ORANGE COUNTY : SUMMER SPECIAL : CATALINA : Twenty-Six Miles Across the Sea, Waiting Is the Island of . . . Recreation, Recreation

Fifth in a series on recreation and outdoor life in Orange County during the summer.

July 22, 1987|STEVE KRESAL | Times Staff Writer

For many, Santa Catalina Island is little more than a landmark that shows how clear the air is off the Southern California coast.

Even a trip to the island doesn't immediately reveal much more than clear coastal water and the steep cliffs that dominate much of the 54-mile perimeter. Other than the large Avalon Casino at the west end of the harbor, little about this island is obvious.

Even visitors--an estimated 743,000 last year by commercial boats from Newport Beach, Long Beach and San Pedro alone--that mostly land at Avalon Harbor, located at the east end of the island, might have a difficult time seeing exactly what there is to do.

Bicycles, electric golf carts and walking are the most popular forms of transportation within Avalon, which contains most of the island's 2,500 year-round residents.

"Some people think this island is Disneyland, they get off the boat and ask, 'Where are the rides?' " said Gail Hodge, who works with a promotional marketing firm in Avalon. "Some people think this is a place to drink in the street and whoop it up. It's not. This is a place you have to make your own fun and usually that means some type of recreation."

There are plenty of opportunities for fishing, scuba diving and snorkeling, camping, hiking, hunting, sailing, golf and more, for those willing to invest a little time and effort to find them.

Much of the island's recreational area is controlled by the Santa Catalina Island Conservancy, a nonprofit organization founded in 1972 by members of the Wrigley family, which then owned the island. The family deeded about 86% of the island's 47,884 acres to the conservancy.

The conservancy issues hiking and camping permits and also decides on hunting seasons on the island.

"There is a lot to this island," said Doug Propst, president of the conservancy since in 1972. "So we try to take care of any problems before they become problems."

BICYCLING

The most recent problem the conservancy had to deal with arrived with mountain bikes, a bicycle that allows riders to conquer terrain that previously was unaccessible. Riders were doing too much damage to the land and were coming down the road into Avalon too fast, so bikes were banned anywhere outside the city limits as of July 1.

"Too many of us who drive the the roads had too many close calls," Propst said. "It was getting to be a problem so we had to put a stop to it before someone was seriously injured. We'll come back with a program that involves some sort of permits and a new set of rules. I'm just not sure when.

"It was a shame. There is some really beautiful country out there for the riders."

CAMPING AND HIKING

There are five major campgrounds on the island that allow overnight camping, but reservations are required six to eight weeks in advance.

"We try to preserve the natural beauty of the campgrounds, but to do so we have to keep the numbers down," Propst said. "You can't wait until the rocks are worn down before you start backing off. You have to prevent it in the first place."

The campgrounds are Bird Park Avalon, one mile outside the city; Little Harbor, on the south side of the island; Black Jack, in the center of the island; Little Fisherman's Cove, in the Two Harbors area toward the west end of the island; and Parson's Landing, on the extreme west end. Campers walk to the sites.

One of the reasons camping is so popular is the high cost of hotel rooms. While most hotels charge around $100 a night or more, campsites can be had for $5 per adult.

All hiking on the island must be done with a free permit from the conservancy. There are several trails that start out of Avalon and more that start at the Two Harbors area on the island's west end.

"There are two misconceptions about the island," said Bob Weeks, who is in charge of the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation on Catalina. "People think it's going to be like Hawaii with palm trees and hula girls and it's not like that. Other people think it's going to be like mountains and it's not like that, either.

"The lure of it is that you can hike around and see what California looked like before it became developed. We get the pretty casual camper and hiker here. We don't get the same people that go to the Sierras. People that come here want to be by the beach."

FISHING

The waters around the island are protected from the taking of bait fish--anchovies and sardines--by commercial fishing boats so the large amount of available food brings game fish into the area.

The big draws are marlin and broad-billed swordfish, but yellowtail, black and white sea bass, albacore, sheepshead and tuna are also popular. Marlin season traditionally starts on the July 4 weekend and continues through the middle of October. There have been three caught this season.

Three charter boats operate out of Avalon.

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