How to escape to SoCal’s tropical island

Words and photos by Parker Amstutz
It’s hard for some to believe that Los Angeles has a tropical escape rivaling that of France’s Côte d’Azur. Sailboats nestled in private coves of deep blue water, subsurface terrariums teeming with marine life. A quaint island town with both luxurious seaside resorts and comfy bed and breakfasts, it’s no wonder that Catalina has long been a favored getaway for the rich and famous (not to mention it’s less than 30 miles off the coast of LA).

Known to adventurers as a dream destination for the outdoor community, Catalina is poised to be the home of your next great escape. With coastal campgrounds, panoramic views, and several places to refuel your body with a bison burger (more on that later), there’s no reason not to love this land of opportunity. Though the 38.5 mile Trans-Catalina Trail is open to hikers only, the island’s fire roads are ready and waiting for bikepackers of all skill levels.

The Ride

Bikepacking Catalina

Riding into Two Harbors from the south. Photo Parker Amstutz

Be prepared to put on some elevation. Walking off the boat at sea level means you earn every foot of elevation gain. The Catalina Island Conservancy puts out a great topographic map online, with detailed elevation profiles. No matter what, if you decide to start your ride in Avalon (the most popular option), be prepared for a 1,400’+ climb out of town. Those burning legs will make the flowing, tacky fire road descents even more sweet (assuming you don’t follow my example and let your speed get out of hand, landing you in nature’s worst camp chair — a cactus).

The Ferry

Heading to the dock in Avalon. Photo: Parker Amstutz

Catalina Express, the island’s largest ferry company, services both Avalon and Two Harbors, so you can customize your trip according to your riding abilities. You’ll find the greatest number of ferry departures on the Catalina Island Express, though the Catalina Flyer is an option for those willing to forgo a bit of flexibility. Tickets are nearly $75 per adult round trip (with bikes costing an extra $7 round trip), so expect this to be the biggest expense on your adventure.

PRO TIP: You’ll find the greatest availability of ferries running between Long Beach and Avalon on the Catalina Express. If you’re looking to keep your costs low, check Groupon for tickets on the Catalina Flyer. With one round trip per day from Newport Beach to Avalon, your flexibility is restricted but it’s a great way to save on the most expensive part of the trip. Remember, bikes are $7 extra round trip on both the Catalina Express and the Catalina Flyer. 

Red Tape

A “Freewheeler Bike Pass” is required to bike anywhere outside of Avalon or Two Harbors. The pass is available with a conservancy membership, starting at $35. Depending on the number of riders in your party, you might find it beneficial to purchase a higher tier of membership which includes more bike passes. After stepping off the boat on Catalina, head to the nearest conservancy office (there is one in both Avalon and Two Harbors) to pick up your bike pass before heading out of town.

The Food

One of the great draws of Catalina to hikers and bikers is the accessibility of delicious food along the route. Between Avalon, the airport in the middle of the island, and Two Harbors, it is easy to grab a meal or two on any day of your ride. In fact, we met a couple who had been bikepacking Catalina for the past ten years for that very reason. They’d only pack food for breakfast, grabbing lunch and dinner on the road each day. Keep in mind the additional cost of food on the road, though. For example, you can grab a quick pulled pork or tuna melt sandwich for around $9 at the airport, but one of the island’s legendary bison burgers can be upwards of $18. With easy access to food, Catalina is a great destination for first time bikepackers.

FAST FACT: Brought over for a movie set in 1924, the original herd of 14 bison soon grew in size and popularity. Now roaming the island, don’t be surprised if you pass a few on the road. Be sure to keep your distance and obey the conversancy’s guidelines regarding interaction with the incredible creatures. Don’t forget, these behemoths can weigh a ton, run 40 miles per hour, and jump six feet high. Take that, Captain America.

Campground Reservations

Bikepacking Catalina

Parsons Landing Campsite #2. Photo: Parker Amstutz

All of the conservancy memberships include a 50% discount on three campgrounds: Little Harbor, Black Jack, and Parsons Landing. Depending on your itinerary, it’s likely these are the only campgrounds you’ll need for your trip.
The discount is quite significant, as the campsite fees are charged per person (up to $25 per night, per person on a holiday weekend). There are two options to receive the discount. You can book your reservation through Reserve America online or over the phone and call the conservancy office in Two Harbors after to process your refund. Alternatively, you can call the conservancy office and have them book the entire reservation for you and receive the refund instantly. Whichever route you prefer, the number for the conservancy office in Two Harbors is (310) 510-4205.

PRO TIP: With only eight campsites available and accessible only by boat, bike, or foot, the exclusivity of Parsons Landing was a nearly unparalleled experience. Be sure to check in to your campsite at the conservancy office in Two Harbors before riding out to Parsons Landing. At the office, you can purchase a $20 key to access a locker at the campground with 2.5 gallons of water, firewood, and a starter log. With no running water at the campground, this is highly recommended (especially on a hot summer day).

Now get outside and hit the trail — just not the cactus!

Bikeacking Catalina

Taking a break, charging phones, and making calls in Two Harbors. Photo: Parker Amstutz

Bikepacking Catalina

Grabbing a quick pancake breakfast in Avalon before hitting the trail. Photo Parker Amstutz

Bikeacking Catalina

Making dinner at Parsons Landing. Photo: Parker Amstutz

Bikepacking Catalina

A late night campfire before turning in. Photo Parker Amstutz