22 miles off the coast of California lies Santa Catalina, one out of 8 islands that make up the Channel Islands. It’s well-loved for its quaint white sand harbor view beaches, wildlife, diving sites, and hiking and views from Mt. Orizaba, the island’s highest point which is 2,097 ft.
When I took a day trip to Catalina Island it was an impulsive last-minute decision, I didn’t know much about the island I just knew I wanted to visit after my interest had been peaked by a YouTube video I had seen in the past. There are quite a few things I wish I would have known before I had decided to book my ferry ticket. So, here I present to you my list of things you should know before planning a one day trip to Catalina Island.
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Brief History of Catalina Island
Several hundred years ago around 7000 BC, Santa Catalina was first inhabited by Tongva (indigenous people of California) who made settlements all throughout the island including modern-day Avalon. They used many of the island’s natural resources for trading along that California coast including soapstone which was found in an abundance. Eventually, in 1542 Europeans settled on the island years later and the Spanish explorer named the island San Salvador after his ship. With the Spanish came disease and it wiped out many of the Tongva tribes and it forced the population to relocate to the mainland of California.
In the 1800s the island and California’s ownership were passed from the Spanish over to the Mexicans in war. Thomas Robbins become the first private owner of Catalina Island in the mid-1800s awarded to him by a grant from the governor, at this time ranching and mining were the most popular ways to make a living on the island. During the Civil War, Catalina was taken over by the army in 1864 and a major of the inhabitants were kicked off, the army remained on the island for a year, and once they left came the return of the ranchers.
In 1887 the first pier and first hotel were built on Catalina Island and the owner at the time started running a regular boat service in hopes of it becoming a popular tourist destination. In 1919 William Wrigley (yes, the founder of Wrigley chewing gum) visited the island with his wife for the prospect of becoming part of a group investment to purchase the island. However, during this visit, he fell in love, which led him to buy out the other partners. He invested millions to improve the island and bring it to the attention of the American people.
Modern Day Catalina Island
To this day the descendants of William Wrigley still own Catalina Island but in the 1970s, Wrigley’s son Philip entrusted 88% of the land to the Catalina Island Conservancy to protect its native animals and plant species. Today 4,096 people live on this island, 90% of them living in Avalon, the main city, while the rest live in the more rural and less developed Two Harbors.
Why Plan a One Day Trip to Catalina Island?
Catalina, officially known as Santa Catalina Island, is located 22 miles from the Southern California coast. It is known for its relaxing small-town atmosphere away from the fast-paced lifestyle of the mainland. It’s a great choice when you want something a little different. In my opinion, to fully take advantage of all Catalina has to offer you should be prepared to spend some money as it’s not the most budget-friendly destination.
13 Things to Know For a One Day Trip to Catalina Island
1. The difference between Avalon and Two Harbors
The Catalina Express can take you to either Avalon or Two Harbors but what is the difference between the two? Avalon is the more touristy laid-back city, while Two Harbors is the rustic outdoorsy side known for snorkeling, camping, fishing, etc. Choosing which side to visit ultimately depends on your interests! In this post, my input will only be regarding Avalon as I did not visit Two Harbors.
2. There are 3 Ferry Locations to Catalina Island
- Dana Point, CA
- San Pedro, CA
- Long Beach, CA
My Findings Tip: For the San Pedro dock google maps may try and take you off into the shipyards (we saw a lot of other people lost too). Depending on your starting point take the exit right before or right after the Vincent Thomas Bridge to Swinford St.
3. Limited public transport to the Ferry locations
Public transportation in California is among the worst in the county. I would say a rental car is a must to get to the ferry docks. Ubering is flat-out expensive unless you are staying close by to one of the ports. Bus routes are slower and do not always have convenient pick-up/drop-off locations.
4. Round trip on the ferry is $75 per person
The large upfront cost is one of the reasons why visiting Catalina Island on a budget can be difficult. Normally, if transportation is cheap I don’t feel so bad spending a little more at my destination. You can book your ferry in advance here.
5. Golf carts are the Catalina way
Considering Avalon is only 2.9mi2 most of the locals get around by golf cart. Renting a golf cart is another fee that is almost necessary to see most of the iconic views on Catalina.
We rented a 4-seater from Catalina Island Golf Cart Rentals which cost $55/hr, whereas a 6-passenger would be $70/hr. They give you a map with suggested routes. To be able to explore everywhere you’ll need around 2 hours without rushing. My boyfriend and I lucked out because we found another couple who decided to split it with us, otherwise, I would have been a little disappointed to pay that rate for just two people. The company does provide you with a map that marks the recommended 2-hour routes.
If you don’t feel like navigating or driving around the island yourself book a private golf cart with a tour guide instead, they will take you to all the best viewpoints and stops around Avalon. This option is especially great if no one in your group is legal to drive the cart (25 or over).
Note: you have to be 25+ to drive the golf cart.
6. An overnight isn’t necessary while visiting Catalina Island
Everything can be done in one day fairly easily if you take an early ferry and leave late. Booking a room would only be worth it if you are looking for a slower-paced couple of days, want to escape on a romantic getaway, or are looking to hike or dive. Make sure to start thinking about reserving your hotel in advance because there are limited options and they book up fast!
Where to stay in Avalon
Spending an overnight or a weekend on Catalina Island may just be a much-needed relaxing getaway to help you recharge from city life or give you some quality time to connect with your partner. You can browse the limited hotel options on Avalon here or you can check out my recommendations below but be advised that finding a hotel for under $200/night is almost impossible. All options are right on the main strip of town.
$$ Catalina Island Seacrest Inn – One of the cheapest hotel options on the island. This converted home while tight quarters provides a full apartment-style layout that has a kitchen, living room, attached bathroom, and a private porch. One of the best features is the spa-sized tub that comes with some of the rooms. All guests have access to the sundeck with views of the ocean.
$$$ The Edgewater – This quaint beachfront hotel is clean and comfortable and has breakfast available downstairs. The oceanfront suites come with a kitchenette. Note: there is no elevator.
$$$ Bellanca Hotel – Newly opened hotel with modern decor and personal balconies. This hotel that feels like a resort will make your stay in Avalon even more enjoyable. There’s a restaurant, bar, and terrace onsite for your convenience and a 24-hour help desk. It gets even better, bikes and beach chairs are complimentary for you to use! Starting at just under $300/night I find the Bellanaca to be a really good deal.
$$$ Hotel Metropole – If you’re really looking for a luxury stay or are in need of some pampering this beachfront hotel has you covered. Once you manage to get out of your plush bed and take off your complimentary robe head out and enjoy the spa, wellness center, pool, hot tub, or arcade. A fireplace and balcony are a part of some rooms and views are either ocean, courtyard, or hillside.
7. Sunset will not be visible from Avalon because of the island’s positioning
I did not really think about whether or not the sunset would be visible during or before our visit. I am a sunset lover so I always try to plan everything around viewing the sunset. It did not affect any of our plans but it was a little disappointing. It is something to note if you’re trying to plan a romantic evening based around a sunset view because that will be a buzzkill!
8. The public beaches are easy to visit
We hung out at Middle Beach which is just steps from the ferry dock and the strip of shops and bars. The beach didn’t seem overly crowded, but it was early October so there were no summer vacation crowds!
We quickly enjoyed some tropical drinks from a bar across the street and then walked right across to tan and swim. Swimming so close to all of the sailboats in the harbor was a great view, it was a bit rocky so I just kept my sandals on. If you’re planning to lay in the sun I’d plan to go before mid-late afternoon because as the sun starts to set the beach will quickly become shaded.
My Finding’s Tip: If you want a more luxurious beachside experience check out the Cabana & Chaise Lounge Rentals at Descanto Beach Club. They can accommodate between 1-8 people and the prices range from $85-500 USD in the spring/fall and $105-$415 USD in the summer depending on the inclusions.
9. Wrigley Memorial & Botanic Garden is one of the cheapest island activities
The building of the Wrigley Memorial and Botanic Garden has beautiful tile work and the view at the top looks out over the gardens. Walking from the center of town is a 30-minute trek each way so a bike or golf cart would be the most convenient.
- Price: $10 per adult, $8 for seniors, $5 per child.
- Tickets can be purchased in person or booked in advance online.
- Hours: Every day 8 am-5 pm
My Findings Tip: If you arrive by golf cart it will cut into your time limit (they charge per hour). Unfortunately, this is why we skipped this activity.
10. Most shops, museums, and tours close early
Shops, tours, and museums start closing as early as 5:30. I didn’t pay attention to this at all! Right before catching our ferry, I decided that was the perfect time to shop for a t-shirt… I was the last customer before closing and had limited options!
If you are planning a day trip just start early and aim to do the tours and shopping first. Restaurants stay open late so if possible try and push eating dinner out later when the town starts becoming sleepy.
11. Catalina Chimes Tower offers the best free view
Seeing the view from Catalina Chimes Tower is a free alternative that will show you a view of the harbor and mountain vs looking out from on top of the mountain. If you decide against getting a golf cart rental. Getting to the tower from the city center is a quick walk. Something to be aware of is that to reach the tower, you have to walk against traffic along the edge of a busy one-way street.
12. Avalon gets crowded in the summer
Avalon and Two Harbors attract around 1 million tourists every year, a majority of those come during the summer. If visiting Catalina Island during this time, you’ll be fighting the crowds and the charm of Catalina could get overlooked. The recommended time to visit would be in the offseason which is in the spring or fall. I went in early October and it was perfect! The island didn’t feel overly busy and the water wasn’t too cold to go for a dip.
13. Most activities on Avalon cost money
As you’ve probably noticed by now going on a day trip to Catalina Island isn’t cheap. Even though most activities in Avalon are not free there are a lot of unique options to pick from! If you’re planning to splurge you could really extend your time on the island for a couple of days to be able to experience a range of the most popular activities in Avalon. You can view your options in the next section below!
Best Catalina Island Tours
Although Catalina Island can be a retreat for rest and relaxation it can also be an adventure lovers heaven! Here are some of the most exciting tours that can easily be done on any day trip to Catalina Island!
On land tours
Catalina Scenic Tour – To see the most scenic places on the island this tour is a great option, especially for first-time visitors! It is also a much cheaper option than renting your own golf cart, especially if you don’t have more than 2 people in your group to split the cost with. The price per person is just $28 USD! On top of getting chauffeured around, your guide will also share will you a lot about Catalina Island’s history. This tour has the most total ratings out of any of the island’s tours on Viator.com!
Discover the Catalina Island Casino – The casino is Catalina’s most visually appealing and historical building dating back to 1929. If you want to step inside and learn about its glamourous Hollywood era and see the art deco murals you’ll need to join a tour such as this one. You will also get to watch a short film on the large Avalon Theatre screen and set out onto the casino’s balcony for an incredible view. It lasts for around 40 minutes and costs $28 USD.
Bison Expedition – In an all-terrain H-1 Hummer you will traverse the island’s rugged outback including Middle Canyon and Cape Canyon on your way to find wild Bison! You never know but you might also spot foxes and eagles too! This tour lasts 2 hours and costs $107 USD. Note: 10% of the proceeds go to support the Catalina Island Conservancy.
Haunted Catalina Ghost Tour – If you didn’t already know, Catalina Island is said to be extremely haunted. If you want to learn about its eerie past then this tour is for you! Your guide will walk your group around Avalon while sharing paranormal stories and mysteries. This exact tour has been voted into the Top 10 Ghost Tours in the country by USA Today and for only $25 USD it sounds like it’s worth it!
On the water tours
Undersea Sub Expedition – Get a glimpse at the creatures that lie underneath the water’s surface on this underwater cruise! The protected kelp fields at Lover’s Cove are one of the top highlights as this is where various schools of fish hang out! The clarity from the windows is really great and there are enough portholes on the boat for each person to have their own to look through. Your guide will also teach you a ton about fish, the island, and the environment. This 45-minute experience costs $48.50 USD and is fun for younger kids and adults alike.
Glass Bottom Boat Voyage – another fun tour for kids that is slightly cheaper than the submarine tour. This $27 USD glass bottom boat tour lasts 40 minutes and explores Lover’s Cove Marine Preserve where you will find colorful fish, coral, and other marine life. The overhead speakers will provide commentary about the different fish and underwater ecosystems.
Bonus Facts About Catalina Island
- Santa Catalina Island has been inhabited for at least 8,000 years. The earliest settlers referred to the island as Pimu and themselves as Pimungans (Pimuvit)
- William Wrigley (Yes, the founder of Wrigley gum) was the most recent buyer of the island. After Wrigley’s death, the island was passed to his son who deeded 90% to the Catalina Island Conservatory in 1975.
- The number of vehicles allowed on the island is limited. Getting a car could take up to 10 years on a waiting list.
- There are wild bison roaming Catalina. 14 bison were brought to the island for filming a movie and there are now around 150!
- Speaking of films, Catalina Island has been the shooting location for over 40 movies!
- The Casino on the island is not a functioning casino. The word casino is Italian for a gathering place. It has the world’s largest indoor circular ballroom and can be rented for events.
Final Words on Catalina Island Day Trips
Hopefully, this post brought you some clarity on what you can expect when taking a Catalina Island day trip! If you’re interested in my other island-related posts you can check them out below!