I loved hiking Catalina Island because it allowed me to combine two of my favorite things: island life and hiking. Located 22 miles south-southwest off the Los Angeles coast, Catalina Island offers a tropical getaway that feels like a world away but in fact is only a boat ride away. The distance is reasonable even for a day trip, but the perfect distance for a weekend getaway that feels a world away.
Getting to Catalina Island
My husband and I took the Catalina Express out of Dana Point, which was about an hour drive from where we were staying at the Lawrence Welk Resort in Escondido. If Dana Point isn’t convenient, you can also take the Catalina Express out of Long Beach or San Pedro. Both the Dana Point and Long Beach routes take you into Avalon, while you can go into the quieter Two Harbors port from San Pedro.
Make sure you follow the advice about arriving 45 minutes prior to your designated departure time, as you’ll need time to check in and get your tickets and move your car into the designated lot. The ride is reasonably priced at $76.50 roundtrip from Dana Point or $74.50 roundtrip from San Pedro or Long Beach to Catalina Island (with discounted rates available for seniors and children).
We rode on the upper level of the Catalina Express, where I was able to get some writing done on my iPad on the way over. There are several tables available both inside the cabin and outside on the deck, and even the seats that aren’t at tables have seat-back trays like you’d find on an airplane.
The day we went out the water was very calm, and the ride out was only slightly bumpier than a typical highway ride in a car. I forgot to take my Dramamine (which I usually swear by as a “better safe than sorry” proactive approach), and I was perfectly fine, even while typing the whole hour and a half ride out. The ride back was even calmer – you could barely even tell you were in a moving vessel.
Walking Around Catalina Island
Once the boat docked, it was a short walk over to the Catalina Island Conservancy. Hiking Catalina Island requires a hiking permit (it’s free) if you plan to spend some time out on the trails, and the Catalina Island Conservancy was one of a few places we could pick up our permit. We were only able to squeeze in a day visit to the island, which meant we couldn’t focus on much other than our planned hike.
Before hiking Catalina Island, we walked a few blocks from the Visitor’s Center to Crescent Avenue, which is lined with restaurants and shops and runs along the waterfront. The overall feel of the area (and the prices for food and souvenirs) reminded me of a Caribbean island. Many of the streets aren’t accessible by car, and a golf cart seems to be the preferred form of motorized vehicle. You can rent a golf cart in several locations, but we chose to explore on foot.
Hiking Catalina Island: Garden-to-Sky Trail
Given the timing of the available boats to and from the island, and the 45 minutes we took for lunch, we were left with less than four hours for hiking Catalina Island. The Visitor’s Center recommended we hike the Garden-to-Sky trail, which would take us to the top of the mountains on the island for 360-degree panoramic views.
We started on the Hermit Gulch Campground end of the trail and went to the highest point on the trail and then back down the same way we came. The full trail is a four-mile loop that would have taken us to the Wrigley Memorial Botanic Garden on the other end, but we didn’t think we had time to do that and get back to our boat before its departure.
The walk from town to the base of the trail took us nearly 40 minutes, which was a little more than we expected. Knowing what we know now, a bike or a golf cart would have been nice to get us back and forth to the trailhead.
Once on the trail, we quickly began to ascend the mountain. The trail wasn’t rocky, so it was easier to get your footing than on many mountain trails, but it was steep.
Knowing our time was limited, we tried to keep our pace up. It took us about an hour and a half to ascend the full two miles. We only stopped a couple of times to take photos and only for a couple of minutes each time.
I only hike mountain trails a couple of times a year, so there were moments in the beginning of our steep ascent that I questioned whether this was really going to be an enjoyable experience. It certainly would have been more enjoyable if we’d been staying in town for the night and could have taken our time.
But the views were absolutely worth it. You can check out the pictures yourself – a picture is worth a thousand words, after all. And my words could hardly do the views justice.
As you can see, a large cruise ship had unloaded its passengers for the day and ended up prominently displayed in all of my photos from atop the mountain. Even with the cruise ship in town, however, the town didn’t feel overly crowded to me. And the hiking trail was downright deserted. We only came across two other groups of hikers on our trip up and down the mountain.
In order to make it back to the boat on time, we only spent about 10 minutes at the top of the mountain admiring the view and had to descend the mountain at the same quick pace we used on the way up. We made it back to the boat slip with only 30 minutes to spare, having only a few minutes to slip into a gift shop on the way back to look for a souvenir.
Overall, I really enjoyed our day hiking Catalina Island. If you only have a day, I would still recommend making the trip over, but try and stay a night or two if you can and enjoy the island at a more leisurely pace. We’re definitely heading back to stay the night next time!
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