Travel Destinations

Monday, May 26, 2014

Catalina Beyond Avalon: Touring Catalina Island’s Interior

Santa Catalina Island Bison
One of Santa Catalina Island's bison.
California has an island, and its name is Santa Catalina.  Santa Catalina Island is actually part of the chain of California’s eight Channel Islands, but it is the only one that is a tourist destination.  Visitors to Santa Catalina Island can either come for the day, leaving from one of Southern California’s ports by ferry in the morning and returning in the late afternoon, or they can enjoy Catalina for a few days, staying in one of Catalina’s hotels steps away from the water. 

Both Romeo and I have lived in Southern California our entire lives, yet somehow neither of us had ever visited California’s island playground.  Some complain there is not much to do in Catalina, as the town of Avalon is only one square mile.  But I am here to tell you the Catalina we discovered has plenty of activities for thrill-seeking travelers.

Santa Catalina Island is 21 miles long and eight miles across at the widest point.  88% of the land is protected by the Catalina Island Conservancy and available for exploration.  There are quite a few inland activities from which to choose, and we got to experience two.

Flying with the Catalina Island Zip Line Eco Tour

Catalina Island Zip Line Eco Tour
A zip line with an ocean view.  What could be better?
If visiting Catalina for the day, the Catalina Island Zip Line Eco Tour is a great way to see a little bit of Catalina’s interior, learn about Catalina’s flora and fauna, take in some spectacular ocean views, and of course get the adrenaline pumping, all within a two hour window.

To be honest, I was a bit nervous about zip lining.  I’ve been zip lining once before, and it wasn’t the perfect experience.  We zip lined in Costa Rica on a beautiful course through the rain forest.  But we were in charge of braking before landing which involved monitoring our speed by applying pressure to the cable with our gloved hands.  Long story short, I stopped short of the landing platforms three times and had to hand-over-hand myself in.  Not fun.  Granted, I was the only one with this issue, so it was obviously user error, but it was not something I wanted to experience again.  You can imagine my delight when I learned the Catalina zip line has a new braking system that doesn’t involve the rider at all.  In fact, all you have to do is grab on and enjoy the ride.

Elaine and Donald of Catalina Island Zip Line Eco Tour
Elaine and Donald hamming it up while demonstrating how the zip line works.
The Santa Catalina Island Company opened the Catalina Island Zip Line Eco Tour in April 2010.  Our zip line guides Elaine and Donald have been zipping the lines since it opened.  After Elaine and Donald demonstrated how the zip lines work, we piled into a bus and drove up the hill to the first zip line platform.  On the way we spotted a deer and learned a bit about the island from the zip line guides who are also trained naturalists.

Santa Catalina Island Deer
Deer spotting on the way up to the first zip line platform.
The Catalina Island Zip Line Eco Tour consists of five zip lines starting at 600 feet above sea level.  The longest line is 1,100 feet, speeds reach 40 miles per hour, and riders soar 300 feet above the Descanso Canyon floor.  After the first and shortest introductory line, the rest have stunning views of the canyon funneling towards the deep blue ocean dotted with white bobbing boats in the harbor.  Even while flying through the air, there is time to turn and take in the scenery.

Catalina Island Zip Line Eco Tour
A camera on the last platform provides a photo souvenir.
Say cheese!
Photo courtesy Santa Catalina Island Company
At each of the platforms there are illustrated signs which talk about the history of Catalina Island as well as the unique plants and animals found on the island, such as the tiny Catalina Island fox.  Catalina Island foxes only weigh four to six pounds and only recently recovered from nearing extinction.

The Catalina Island Zip Line Eco Tour is enjoyable for both zip line aficionados and novices.  Riders have ranged in age from under 10 to over 90, so it is an activity for everyone.  Zip line tours run daily and tickets can be purchased online.

Off-Roading on the Catalina Island Cape Canyon Expedition

Cape Canyon Expedition
The Cape Canyon Expedition off-roads through a part of the island many visitors never see, Catalina's interior.
If staying overnight, joining Santa Catalina Island Company’s Catalina Island Cape Canyon Expedition provides an exciting way to explore Catalina’s interior more thoroughly.  This off-road adventure departs from Avalon in the morning and introduces guests to the expanse of land and sea visitors to Catalina rarely see.  Since golf carts are not allowed on these roads, visitors to the island can only traverse Catalina’s interior on a tour, unless they want to spend a full-day or more hiking or biking. 

Catalina Island Interior Views Cape Canyon Expedition
Gorgeous views of water and land seen from Catalina Island's interior.
The Catalina Island Cape Canyon Expedition is one of the most extensive tours of its kind on Catalina.  For over four hours visitors are driven through the island’s interior in eco-friendly Hummers which run on biofuel created with recycled and refined vegetable oil from Avalon’s restaurants.  This off-road drive provides just the right amount of safety and adventure.  Passengers are belted in a vehicle made for off-road exploration, driving along cliffs steeply declining to the ocean and following bumpy roads through the canyons.

Cape Canyon Expedition Hummer
Off-roading in an eco Hummer.
The tour starts by following a high ridge to Catalina’s Airport In The Sky, originally built by the Wrigleys in 1946.  The road then descends to the windward side of the island with views of beautiful and secluded beaches and campgrounds that only lucky locals with cars can visit (only a few hundred cars are allowed on the island and there is a 14 year waiting list to own a car).  Next the road winds back up through Cape Canyon. 

Catalina Island Airport In The Sky
Catalina Island's Airport In The Sky.
Keep your eyes open for Catalina’s wildlife.  Bison, which were brought to the island for a movie shoot and then left behind, are frequently seen.  We were lucky to spot bison multiple times.  We saw a few males hanging out alone along our drive plus a large group of bison congregated together.

Santa Catalina Island Bison Herd
Catalina Island bison sighting.
If you’re lucky you may also catch a glimpse of a tiny Catalina Island fox or an American Bald Eagle.  The tour includes a visit to an injured American Bald Eagle who is permanently being cared for by the Catalina Island Conservancy. 

American Bald Eagle Santa Catalina Island
One of Catalina Island's American Bald Eagles.
An interesting relic from the past which can be seen on this tour is the original stagecoach stop from the late 1800s.  Before the Wrigleys owned Catalina, the island was owned by the Bannings, who had a stagecoach business.  The Bannings brought the stagecoach to Catalina Island in 1897 and it was a popular tourist attraction for visitors to the island.    

Santa Catalina Island Stagecoach Stop
The stop for Catalina Island's original tourist attraction, the stagecoach.
The Catalina Island Cape Canyon Expedition runs once a day and tickets can be purchased online.  10% of ticket proceeds go to the Catalina Island Conservancy.  Bring a jacket as it can get windy, and blankets and water are also provided.

An added bonus from joining tours such as the Catalina Island Zip Line Eco Tour and the Catalina Island Cape Canyon Expedition is you get to learn more about current island life.  Catalina’s only export is rocks, so the majority of Catalina’s full-time residents work in the tourism industry.  While our guide Kim drove us around on our Cape Canyon Expedition, we not only learned about the island’s history and animal life, we also learned about day-to-day life on the island.  Catalina’s residents love their island, and that love shines through when they introduce travelers to the beautiful wonders of their island.

Santa Catalina Island Beach
One of the secluded beaches on the windward side of Catalina Island.
For your next trip to Santa Catalina Island, be sure to experience Catalina beyond Avalon and explore Catalina’s interior.

Thank you to the Santa Catalina Island Company and Catalina Island Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Bureau for hosting our trip to Santa Catalina Island and making this post possible.  As always, all opinions are my own.

Travel the World: Visitors to Catalina Island in California can tour the island's interior via the Catalina zip line and the Cape Canyon Expedition.

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Katherine Belarmino and Romeo Belarmino are the authors of Travel the World, a travel blog for the everyday working stiff. They work full-time in non-travel related jobs, but take every opportunity they can to travel the world during their limited vacation time.