Just a short boat ride away from the shores of Southern California, Catalina Island boasts 75 square miles of beautiful beaches, kelp forests, hilly terrain, and even California’s most popular multi-day treks – the 38.5- mile Trans-Catalina trail, making the destination nothing short of an island paradise.
Catalina Island has always been on my radar, but it wasn’t until a few days ago that I was finally able to make the trip to the island myself with two of my close friends. We went to the island with little time to plan, and with the island offering you the wide variety of unique adventures and activities, the tough part was squeezing in all we wanted to do before we had to return to the mainland.
Based on our trip, here is what to expect and what to do for a day trip to Catalina Island.
HOW TO GET THERE
Unless you know someone who has a sailboat, or you want to splurge on a helicopter ride, the most common way to get to Catalina is by taking a ferry. There are two boat companies that take passengers to the island – the Catalina Express and Catalina Flyer.
The Catalina Express departs from: San Pedro, Long Beach, and Dana Point, and travels to both Avalon and Two Harbors, but the Catalina Flyer only departs from Newport Beach.
If there is one thing you take away from this article, it is that you need to plan ahead and book ferry tickets (at least) a few days in advance to your preferred day of travel. I will say, Catalina Express was very accommodating with helping us to get last minute tickets, so if you aren’t able to get tickets online in advance, try calling the ferry companies to see if they are able to help you out!
If you are going for just the day, I recommend getting an early ticket, as you are going to want to get the most out of your trip, and the island is less crowded in the morning.
(We were able to get tickets for Catalina Express departing from Long Beach arriving in Avalon. We left at 6:30 am, arriving around 7:45 am, and left the island around 4:30 pm to go back home.)
Original Jack’s Country Kitchen
118 Catalina Ave, Avalon, CA 90704
The island is filled with incredible restaurants, but we ended up going to Original Jack’s Country Kitchen for breakfast, and it really just set the perfect tone for our day. This buzzy, old-fashioned diner has an expansive menu filled with familiar classics, including hearty breakfast options.
The atmosphere and décor are bright, nostalgic, and homey, a perfect complement to the staff, who, were beyond delightful and friendly, sharing their favorite spots and secrets of the island. You can sit down in one of the comfy booths, or take a seat at the counter, with the smells of freshly brewed coffee and homemade pies and cakes turning in an old-style glass display case surround you.
Rent a Golf Cart
If you visit Catalina and do not rent a golf cart, you will be missing out. Not only is this so much fun to do with friends, family, or even by yourself, but this is also one of the best options to drive around the island and take in all of the incredible views it has to offer.
Downtown Catalina has a handful of golf cart rental companies that will let you rent the cart by the hour. Along with a golf cart, you will be given a guided map of the island and sent on your way to explore.
We rented our golf cart from Catalina Golf Cart Rentals, which is on a first-come-first-serve basis. We rented our golf cart for two hours, but one hour ended up being more than enough time to drive around and take in all of the incredible views provided by their 12-mile scene route.
Note, for rentals, you have to be at least 21 years old and provide a valid driver’s license. Renting a golf cart from Catalina Golf Cart Rentals also requires a $50 deposit, and it is cash-only, but there is a nearby ATM.
Take a Tour of the Catalina Casino
1 Casino Way, Avalon, CA 90704
No building on the island is as well-known as the Catalina Island Casino – but don’t expect to gamble here. With its name as the Italian word for “gathering place”, William Wrigley built the casino to be a social center in 1929, and to do this day, the casino hosts movies, tours, and other events throughout the year.
There are three tours to choose from: Discover the Casino, Behind the Scenes Casino, and Twilight at the Casino. Whichever tour you end up choosing from, you will get to see the movie theater, with its 50-foot domed ceiling, and the fully restored ballroom.
Local guides will share the history of the building and some facts about the island. Tours can be booked online in advance, or at the casino ticket office on the day of your visit.
Unfortunately, we were not able to squeeze in a casino tour on our trip, but we were able to walk around a little, and from what we could see, the casino looked spectacular, and if I am lucky enough to ever go back, this will be at the top of my to-do list.
Stroll through the Wrigley Memorial and Botanic Garden
1400 Avalon Cyn Rd, Avalon, CA 90704
The Wrigley Memorial & Botanic Garden is an excellent place to learn about the island’s native plants while also getting another spectacular view of Avalon.
This 37-acre garden was inspired and designed by Wrigley’s wife, Ada, who worked with horticulturalist Albert Conrad to install the original desert plant collection. The Wrigley Memorial, constructed between 1993 and 1994, was built to honor the life and legacy of the man responsible for the development and protection of the island.
You can either walk, rent a golf cart, or take the city bus to get to the garden.
(Our golf cart rental tour took us here.)
GET OUT ON THE WATER
You have to do at least one water activity while you are in town. The surrounding waters around the island are full of diverse marine life, kelp forests, and clear waters that are some of the warmest in Southern California.
It would be a shame to only experience these deep blue waters of Catalina on land. Fortunately, there are many ways to do this depending on your time, budget, and interests.
With one of the healthiest marine environments in the world, Catalina is a diver’s and snorkeler’s paradise. You can either do a guided tour or simply rent a snorkel and go by yourself. There are plenty of rental companies on the island, but I recommend either Diving Catalina or Catalina Divers Supply.
We ended up just renting some gear from Catalina Divers Supply, and the staff was beyond friendly and helpful, recommending Lover’s Cove, a more secluded spot right off the shore.
If you prefer to explore above the water, renting a standup paddleboard or kayak is ideal. The water was very clear around the shores of Catalina, so you should still be able to see a lot from above the water.
You can find rentals from Wet Spot Rentals or Descanso Beach Ocean Sports.
Jet-skiing and parasailing are two of Catalina’s more popular water activities. Jet skis infuse a serious dose of fun into any Catalina Island vacation, and if you’re an adrenalin junky, this is your activity. Jet ski rentals are available for one passenger, two passengers, or up to even four passengers. You can rent jet skis from Catalina Jet Ski.
Parasailing provides a bird’s eye view as well as a floating sensation that manages to be both exhilarating and relaxing at the same time. Choose between flying 600 feet or 800 feet, for one, two, or even three people. You can rent from California Parasail.
Unlike snorkeling and kayaking/paddleboarding, jet-skiing and parasailing is not first-come-first-serve and requires a reservation. This will book up quickly, so if this is something you are interested in, make sure to give yourself a few days to book ahead of time.
Note that these two activities are going to be more expensive compared to the other water activities available.
*Please also note that another very popular water activity on Catalina is the island’s semi-submersible submarine and glass-bottom boat tours. These tours, however, feed fish to get them to swim close to the boat, proving to be detrimental to the local fish population, as it teaches them to not search for their food. I do not recommend any tour that interacts with wildlife in a way that can negatively change their natural behavior.
Descanso Beach Club
118 Catalina Ave, Avalon, CA 90704
Although the island is filled with a bunch of adventures and activities you can emerge yourself in, the beaches are also incredible, and are worth giving yourself at least an hour or two to just relax and take in the beautiful scenery.
One of the best places to go where you can also grab a cocktail and some snacks to enjoy on the beach is Descanso Beach Club. Located just past the casino, this private beach costs $2 for beach access but is one of the nicest beaches within walking distance to downtown Avalon.
If you are interested in renting a cabana or beach chairs, make sure to book a reservation in advance of your trip.
If you’re looking for a sweet snack, be sure to try the homemade ice cream at Scoops.
You can also sign up for a zip lining tour at Descanso Beach. If you have a few hours to spare, this tour takes you up 600 feet above the beach where you will fly across the canyon and through eucalyptus trees at around 35 MPH. Along the course, you will enjoy scenic views of the ocean, and learn more about the flora and fauna that can be found around the island.
If you’re looking for more too, there is also a rock-climbing wall and ropes course at Descanso Beach.
We enjoyed a few cocktails and nachos at Descanso Beach. (The mango mojito and strawberry daquiri were very good.)
Plan ahead as reservations will book up quickly, especially in the summer months. Also, keep in mind that Catalina Island is not the cheapest. Transportation, including the ferry and golf cart rentals, food, and activities all come at a price. Make sure to budget accordingly and know that you will probably be spending between, at least, $200-$300 for a day trip alone.
Most importantly though, have fun! The island is gorgeous and is definitely worth the sometimes hassle of planning.