This is one of the Channel Islands in California located about twenty-two (22) miles (35.4 kilometers) off the coast. It is actually part of Los Angeles County situated just southwest of Los Angeles itself. Now let’s find out what to do in Santa Catalina Island.
It actually offers a lot for anyone who wants to relax and enjoy a variety of activities. There are plenty of campgrounds for nature lovers as well as luxury and boutique hotels with a nice intimate atmosphere.
A Bit of History
Originally settled by the Tongva, who called themselves Pimugnans or Pimuvit, at that time they called the island Pimuu’nga or Pimu. The first Europeans to show up put in their claim to the island for the Spanish Empire. Over many years the territory transferred to Mexico and then to the United States.
The island has been used for gold-digging, otter hunting, and smuggling over the years. Then in the 1920s the chewing gum tycoon, William Wrigley Jr., made it into a tourist destination. The Catalina Island Conservancy has administered the island since the 1970s.
Native Americans settled this area way back in 7000 BC according to archaeological records. The Pimugnans were known for mining and trading soapstone which was plentiful on the island in terms of quantity and different varieties. There was a great demand for this material and it was traded all along the California coast. Although valued for its natural resources, it was greatly respected by the Tongva as a ceremonial center with ties to the village of Povuu’nga, or as it is known today, Long Beach.
Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo was the first person from Europe to land on Catalina. He was a representative of the Spanish Empire, and he claimed the island for Spain in 1542. He then called the island San Salvador after the name of his ship. In 1602, it was renamed Saint Catherine in honor of the saint.
The population of the Pimugnans decreased drastically due to diseases brought over from Europe by the Spanish. By the 1830s the remaining native population was transported to the mainland to work on private ranches or at the missions. By the end of the 19th century, the island was pretty much uninhabited other than for a few herders of cattle.
The sons of Phineas Banning, an American businessman known as “The Father of the Port of Los Angeles”, bought the island in 1891 and proceeded to turn Avalon into a resort community. In 1919 William Wrigley, Jr. bought a controlling interest in the Santa Catalina Island Company. He constructed the Catalina Casino (opened May 29, 1929) and developed the infrastructure, and added additional attractions. Wrigley also owned the Chicago Cubs and they used the island for Spring Training from 1921 to 1951 excluding the war years of 1942 to 1945.
In 1975 the Wrigley family deeded ninety (90%) percent of the island to the Catalina Island Conservancy that Philip Wrigley helped set up in 1972. The remainder of the island with the resort properties is controlled by the Santa Catalina Island Company.
A Few Interesting Facts
- The island has a herd of free-roaming bison
- Glass bottom boat tours are available
- Underwater kelp forests are some of the most impressive anywhere
- The highest area on the island is Mount Orizaba which is 2,097 (639 meters) feet in elevation
- Catalina Island is the easternmost of the Channel Islands archipelago and is within Los Angeles county
- The population of the island is approximately 4,096
- The island’s only incorporated city is Avalon where ninety (90%) percent of the people live with most others residing in the unincorporated village of Two Harbors. Middle Ranch and Rancho Escondido are smaller settlements.
- Catalina is the starting point for the Catalina Channel Swim (the second part of the Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming)
- Quartz is quite prevalent throughout the island
- It has a warm-summer Mediterranean climate with mild winters and summer temperatures around 78.1 F (25.6 C). On average the annual precipitation is 13.73 inches (34.9 cm).
- Although there are about fifty (50) endemic species and subspecies that occur naturally on the island, the island was never connected to California so most plant and animal life arrived either by chance or were introduced by humans
- The most common plants are coastal sage scrub, eucalyptus trees, island oak-ironwood woodland and grassland, and chaparral
- The animals most prevalent are the ornate shrew, the island fox, the Santa Catalina Island deer mouse, the California ground squirrel, the orange-tip butterfly, the Southern Pacific rattlesnake, and the Santa Catalina harvest mouse. There are also American bison on the island brought over in 1924 for the filming of the movie “The Vanishing American”.
- Tourism brings in over one hundred and fifty million ($150,000,000) dollars each year with over one million (1,000,000) visitors
- Activities include snorkeling, scuba diving, parasailing, fly-fishing, and rides on glass bottom boats to view the shipwrecks and reefs. There are summer camps for children
- There are over one hundred thousand (100,000) items of cultural significance at the Catalina Island Museum. This includes pottery and tiles, over ten thousand (10,000) photos and images, ship models, and in excess of eight thousand (8,000) years of Native American history. It also hosts exhibitions from around the world, has an art gallery, a museum store, and a regular schedule of tours, book signings, concerts, and talks.
- The pottery and tiles that were made at the Catalina Clay Products Company between 1927 and 1937 are now highly-valued collectibles
- There are two (2) schools on the island that are part of the Long Beach Unified School District and also a branch of the Los Angeles County Library. There are research and teaching facilities at the University of Southern California (USC) Wrigley Marine Science Center and is open for public visits as part of its “Saturday at the Lab” program.
- Ferries are available from Long Beach, San Pedro, Dana Point, and Newport Beach and take about an hour to arrive on the island. They are run by the Catalina Express and the Catalina Passenger Service. Cruise lines also frequent the port. The Catalina Airport is located a little over ten (10) miles (16 kilometers) northwest of Avalon. It is also known as “Airport in the Sky” as its runway is one thousand six hundred and two (1602) feet (488 meters) above sea level. Motor vehicle use is limited and there is a fourteen-year waitlist to have a car on the island. The majority of folks use golf carts to get around. There are taxis and a lot of people use bicycles.
- Avalon is the only unrestricted area on the island. Day passes or permits are necessary for hikes and mountain biking on Conservancy property. Hiking permits are free while there is a fee for biking permits.
- The island was the filming location for numerous movies, and in the 1930s it was a hangout for many stars such as Clark Gable. Each year the island is the host to the Jazztrax Festival.
Now for Some Stuff to Do
* Trans-Catalina Trail — from Avalon on the eastern tip of Starlight Beach to the western end is a 37.2 mile (59.8 kilometers) hike. Hiking permits are available at the Two Harbors Visitors’ Services Office. There are also day hikes available that range from easy to extreme. Along the trail, there are five (5) campgrounds with a few boat-in campsites at Little Harbor, Parsons Landing, and Two Harbors.
* Silver Canyon Pottery — Founded in 1988 by Robin Cassidy, who is one of the locals who restored the tiles of downtown Avalon that were there since the 20s and 30s. It’s located in Pebbly Beach at the former site of the Catalina Pottery and Tile Company that was operational between 1928 and 1939. It currently produces the tiles that were used in the restoration project as well as figurines and dinnerware. There are studio tours where you can learn a lot about how pottery is made, and local artists hold classes on how to mold and fire these creations. There is also an extensive library with many books about Catalina that you can review while relaxing on the studio deck overlooking the ocean.
* Scuba Diving and Snorkeling — there are a variety of options available for the experienced and novice with guided scuba diving tours at Avalon Underwater Park and snorkeling tours in the Casino Point Dive Park. There are orientation classes for non-divers who want to enjoy this ocean experience. With the crystal clear waters and undersea gardens, variety of sea life, and coral reefs this is an underwater paradise with some of the best shore diving in California attracting divers and snorkelers worldwide.
* Catalina Island Casino — this has been the island icon for many years. It opened in 1929 and has been restored to its original prominence reminding many of the island’s historic past. Over the years it has hosted numerous entertainers, theater productions, and first-run movies. Ironically, it was never built to be a casino as William Wrigley, Jr. constructed it for dancing to the big-band sounds of musicians such as Benny Goodman. You can take a Walking or Behind-the-Scenes Casino Tour and learn plenty about the casino’s history. Other events held there throughout the year include the Catalina Island Jazz Festival and the New Year’s Eve Celebration.
* Descanso Beach Club — right behind Catalina Island Casino is this secluded private beach area and cove with plenty of activities for the entire family. There are plenty of lounge chairs scattered about, and restaurants and bars that provide entertainment day and night. Descano Beach Club Restaurant has plenty of good food and drink. The club provides access to many types of water sports and activities including snorkeling, scuba diving, kayaking, zip-lining, and climbing the Catalina Climbing Wall. High-end facilities include chaise lounges, beach massages, and private cabanas.
* Airport in the Sky — this is the only airport on the island and in addition to commercial flights, it is also used for freight. It is one thousand six hundred (1600) feet (488 meters) above sea level and a little over ten (10) miles (16 kilometers) from Avalon. It’s situated right in the center of the island on top of a mountain. The restaurant, DC-3 Grill and Gifts, is noted for its Buffalo burgers, well-known cookies, and its gift shop. The airport opened in 1946 and was commissioned by the Wrigley family.
* Nature Center at Avalon Canyon — set up to restore and protect the flora and fauna on the island, this is one (1) of two (2) nature centers established by the Catalina Island Conservancy. Here you will find many displays and exhibits that will increase your knowledge of nature on the island as well as its natural history and conservation efforts. There are interactive activities to enjoy and a Resource Center for teachers and students. There are many images of marine life, geology, animals, and plants scattered throughout the center.
* Catalina Island Museum — here you will find much of the cultural heritage and substantial history of this island. Founded in 1953 it is located in the Casino Building and it displays thousands of years of history with its many displays and exhibits. There are also a number of special events, workshops, and lectures throughout the year. There is also a small gift shop.
* Catalina Island Golf Course — the oldest golf course that is operational west of the Mississippi, the course was built in 1892 by the Banning Brothers. Originally a three (3) hole course, in the early 1900s it was expanded to nine (9) holes, and then in 1929 to eighteen (18) holes. During World War II the course got beat up a bit and was returned to nine (9) holes after it was renovated. It was once the home course of the Bobby Jones Invitational Tournament. It’s two thousand one hundred (2100) yards (1920 meters) long and a par thirty-two (32). This scenic course has two (2) sets of tees to play eighteen (18) holes. There is also a Miniature Golf Gardens for those who just want to enjoy and have some fun. The Pro Shop offers pull and electric carts, rental clubs, and golf lessons.
* Starlight Beach — on the west end of the island, this is a beach cove surrounded by rocky cliffs. There is a trail on the back of the cove where you can access this rocky beach. This is the endpoint of the Trans-Catalina Trail so you will see backpackers completing their multi-day hike across the island. There is no camping here, but Parsons Landing is an excellent location to camp.
* Food Tours (Taste of Catalina) — these walking tours are run and operated by Erin Eubank, the Head Foodie. You will hit some of the best cafes and restaurants for some delicious tastings of food and craft brews. Meet some of the chefs responsible for these culinary delights while hearing stories about many of the island’s historical landmarks. Private tours are also available.
* Avalon Theater — on the lower level of the Catalina Casino resides this classic movie palace with first-run movies being shown since 1929. Right under the Casino Ballroom, this theater seats one thousand one hundred and eighty-four (1184) people. John Gabriel Beckman decorated the walls with his Art Deco murals. The theater has great acoustics and has a Page Organ Company rank organ that is still used for weekend performances.
* Two Harbors — named after Catalina Harbor and Isthmus Cove, the two (2) harbors in the town, this is a down to earth seaside village about twenty (20) miles (32.1 kilometers) from Avalon. Here you will find campgrounds, cottages, and bed and breakfasts with a number of pubs, cafes, and restaurants. Activities include boating, hiking, scuba diving, camping, mountain biking, snorkeling, and kayaking. There is also a Visitors Center in town.
* Wrigley Memorial and Botanic Garden — in honor of William Wrigley, Jr., the chewing gum mogul, the gardens and memorial are maintained and operated by the Catalina Island Conservancy. Its located in Avalon Canyon which is the starting point of the Garden to Sky Trail, a favorite hiking destination. The gardens consist of endemic plants from the Channel Islands many of which are endangered species. The centerpiece of the thirty-eight (38) acres (13.4 hectares) of landscapes is the Wrigley Memorial built in 1934 and standing one hundred and thirty (130) feet (39.6 meters) tall.
Well for one it is a beautiful place with lots of fun things to do. Also since it is just off the coast of Los Angeles you can do a day trip or escape for the weekend or longer. You can take a two (2) hour Hummer Tour around the island experiencing the high elevations, coastline, canyons, and even checking out the bison population. You can also have a Falconry Experience and check out these birds of prey that keep the seagulls in check without killing them. You can also learn how to call and hold a hawk on your glove and how to greet an owl.
An interesting place to stay on the island is The Inn at Mount Ada. This guesthouse is on top of a steep hill with absolutely incredible views of Avalon Bay. This was the home of William Wrigley, Jr. and his wife Ada. It has six (6) bedrooms and sits four hundred (400) feet (122 meters) above the Pacific Ocean. You also get a view of the baseball field where the Chicago Cubs held Spring Training many years ago. This building has a lot of history and the staff are most willing to fill in the blanks answering any questions you may have. They have an excellent restaurant as well.
The Pavilion Hotel is right in the center of Avalon walking distance to the many shops and cafes. It has beautiful tropical gardens and a casual flare with some rooms with ocean views. Breakfast is on the house as well as daily wine and cheese gatherings.
For great food and a lively bar scene check out the Avalon Grille where you can get fresh seafood, gourmet burgers, and a chef most willing to accommodate the preferences of vegans as well. Also, you get great views of the ocean.
Santa Catalina Island is most definitely a hidden gem in the Pacific Ocean, just off the California coast, and easy to get to by water or air. The next time you are visiting Los Angeles give this place some thought and consideration as you won’t be disappointed.
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