Let's admit it. Catalina Island is a very cool place. I simply love all of it. Even Avalon, though I'm usually not for touristy places.
We first visited Catalina in 2007 when a friend gave us the gift of a weekend getaway to Avalon as a delayed honeymoon/anniversary/birthday present for Em. It was in January, and there was hardly anybody there, though the weather was perfect. We wandered around town, did some hiking and had a great time.
Then in 2011 we took the mighty tall ship American Pride for Buccaneer Days in Two Harbors. Oh man, was that fun, despite the fact that we both suffered from serious sea sickness.
A year later, I got yet another free ride to Catalina, this time as a "thank you" from this really cool company I did a lot of work for. We had tickets to the island, but no accommodations, so we decided to stay two nights in Avalon's only campground, Hermit Gulch. It was November, there was even rain in the forecast, but we didn't care.
Making reservations was easy, and according to the system, not one single other spot would be occupied. We could have gotten a yurt, but it was way too expensive, so we decided to set this up more or less as a backpacking trip. We even took trail food and decided to have only one dinner at some cheap restaurant.
Day 1 - L.A. to Newport Beach and Avalon
The ticket was for the Catalina Flyer, which operates out of Newport Beach and only to Avalon (the other company, Catalina Express, leaves from Long Beach and goes to both Avalon and Two Harbors).
We had to get up really early to make it and beat traffic. It worked out OK, we were down at the boat in time, though a bit sleepy. The ride was pretty smooth this time, there was some dramatic fog off Avalon, but by the time we pulled into the harbor, most of it has already burned off.
Before hiking to the campground, we got hiking permits for the next days. They are free, but mandatory for any day hikes outside of town and can be obtained at the Conservancy's office on the main promenade.
Hermit Gulch, the campground, is on the other side of town, about 1.8 miles inland from the harbor, between the golf course and the Wrigley Botanical Garden. It's not what you would call the most scenic campground, that's for sure. As predicted, the place was totally devoid of people, we were the only humans there, but there were dozens of deer. At night they were grazing at the golf course, during the day, they were all over the place.
There was an overly friendly fawn who kept begging for food, and a ranger told us that this place is somewhat an exception to the rule of not feeding wildlife. The deer are an introduced species here, and they do serious damage to the natural vegetation of the island, so as long as it's fresh fruit or vegetables, we could feed them. Em had a great time giving an apple to the fawn, who even licked her nose. She keeps mentioning this ever since, and of course, I keep putting her down, reminding her of the incident where the Alaskan white wolf licked my face, but no hers.
In the afternoon, we hiked up the Hermit Gulch trail to the divide, then over the ridge to see the ocean on the other side. We took snacks with us and sat there, watching the sunset. On the way back it was already dark and we had great views of the Los Angeles basin.
Back at camp, we ate a proper dinner (well, trail food), fraternized with the deer some more, then went to sleep. We've been up since 5am, so we didn't have much trouble sleeping.
Day 2 – Avalon and first leg of Trans Catalina Trail
On the second day, we hiked the first section of the Trans Catalina Trail, essentially a 10-mile loop from the Avalon campground down into town, up to the trailhead, around and then back to the campground from the divide through the botanical garden. By the way, there's no entrance fee to enter the garden from above, so that was a good thing, too.
The TCT itself begins out of town, about a mile southeast of Avalon, winds around toward the east end of the island, then back, and passes just above Hermit Gulch.
Compared to many of the other sections of the TCT (as we learned later), this is a very easy section. It goes uphill first, but it's not terribly steep, then levels out, rollercoasters a bit up and down, then descends to the junction with the road leading down to the botanic gardens.
This was the first time Em really let herself go and earned her trail name of Speedy Gonzales. She was in the lead the whole time, and even with numerous photo breaks and a 45-minute lunch break, we hiked the 10 miles in 3.5 hours. I kept joking to her that if she had hiked a bit faster, we'd have gone faster than light and gotten back before we left.
We were both pretty beat, but after eating, we perked up and still had the strength to walk down into town again, watch a movie (Looper – hated it) and walk back into camp. The cinema is in the old casino building and it was very refreshing to see a movie in a non-multiplex setting.
While walking on one of the small streets towards the theatre, it was already dark. As we passed a house where the lights were on, from the corner of my eye, I thought I saw this huge owl carved of wood sitting just inside the window.
Then we stopped to take a peak, and the thing looked like it wasn't wood, but more like feathers. Hmm, so these folks have a huge stuffed owl. OK. And then the thing moved. It turned its head and looked at us!
It was a real, live, effin' huge owl, I think a grey owl, though I'm not sure. Upon a closer look, we saw a few more feathered creatures inside, including a peregrine falcon and some other bird of prey, I don't remember what kind. Of course, later it turned out that those people were working with those birds, they were taking them down to the beach so the tourists can take pictures with them for money. Not my sort of thing.
Day 3 – Avalon to Newport Beach and back home
At night, it started raining, and did so on and off until next noon. We were prepared for it, there was a trench around the tent, all other items were secured, so everything was OK.
The ship was leaving only in the afternoon, so we slept late and ate breakfast in the tent. The rain was still drizzling somewhat, and I asked the camp host (really cool guy, by the way) if we could retreat to one of the yurts for an hour or two until we pack up. He happily obliged and we had a dry area to take care of everything. By the time we were done, even the rain had stopped.
We said goodbye to the deer, then visited the Conservancy's nature center next to the campground and chatted with one of the curators about the issues and challenges they have.
The ship left only at 4:30pm, so there was plenty of time. We ate lunch at the beach and then just walked around and relaxed. There was no more rain, no strong wind, and though the sun didn't come out, it was very pleasant. The ship departed right on time with more dramatic views of the island with the darkening skies and huge clouds.
Of course, it was dark before we got back to the mainland, and there was a lot of traffic on the freeway going home, but we were already making plans to go back and hike the rest of the Trans Catalina Tail, which we did next spring.
The island can get terribly crowded in the summer. If you plan to camp there, make reservations well in advance and be prepared that compared to most other campsites, it's very expensive. Also, their online reservation system is a mess.
We have only been to Catalina in spring or winter, and it was gorgeous each time, not cold at all and very few people. Highly recommended time of year.
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