wandering the beachfront town of avalon california

14 Coolest Things to Do in Catalina Island, California

If you want to get away from the hustle and bustle of LA and want a slower pace with a super scenic landscape, Catalina Island is your answer! 

Santa Catalina Island is located about 22 miles off the coast of Southern California and it’s the perfect Santa Barbara or Los Angeles day trip.

Catalina is a stunning historic seaside destination that is an absolute must-see if you are visiting Southern California for its beaches and beauty!

How to Get to Catalina Island

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Red and white ferry heading straight towards the island of Catalina with a blue sky and the distinctive white round Avalon casino visible on the shoreline.

Many Catalina visitors choose to take a day trip to Catalina, arriving early morning to the island and returning to the mainland early evening via high-speed ferry.  

Two of the most common ferries are the Catalina Express (daily departures from San Pedro, Long Beach, and Dana Point) and the Catalina Flyer (daily departure from Newport Beach on the largest catamaran on the West Coast). 

OPTION ONE: The Catalina Flyer departs once a day from Newport Beach’s Balboa Pier. This luxurious boat speeds across the crystal ocean for about an hour and 15 minutes.

You’ll board this magical boat in a cozy side street of Balboa Island, and parking can be found at the Balboa Pier Lot for $28.15 per day. 

This boat leaves precisely at 9 AM, so you’ll want to get there about 20 minutes early.

NOTE: Morning traffic is infamously legendary in Southern California, so give yourself plenty of extra time to arrive!

The return boat departs Catalina at 4:30 PM and is back in Newport Beach by 5:45 PM.

Tickets for the Catalina Flyer cost $35 one-way with no discount on return tickets.

avalon catalina view of red rooftops and blue sea

OPTION TWO: The Catalina Express departs from Long Beach to Avalon several times a day.

Departures from Long Beach, CA currently leave at 6 AM, 9:50 AM, 2:00 PM, and 5:50 PM, and cost $38 one-way.

There are return trips from Avalon to Long Beach at 7:50 AM, 11:50 AM, 3:55 PM, and 7:45 PM.

If the Dana Point to Avalon ferry is more convenient for you, there’s a daily departure at 9:30 AM that returns at 5:00 PM.

If the San Pedro to Avalon ferry works better, its schedule leaves at 8:45 AM and 2:55 PM, and returns at 10:30 AM and 6:00 PM.

All the options listed above are to go to Avalon, the main heart of Catalina.

However, you can also take the Catalina Express to Two Harbors, the other side of the island which is more rustic.

San Pedro to Two Harbors has departures at 8:45 AM and 2:55 PM, with return trips from Two Harbors to San Pedro at 11:45 AM and 4:45 PM.

Best Time to Visit Catalina Island 

If you’re planning your trip to Catalina, it is best to arrange it for spring or fall.

Swimming in summer is very pleasant due to the warm water, but lodging prices almost double from June to September. 

Still, these seasons are perfect to visit the island, as it has a temperate climate most of the time and you can enjoy excellent weather at virtually any time of the year!

Fun Catalina Island History

wandering the beachfront town of avalon california

Catalina Island has a fun and unique history with film stars, dignitaries, presidents, and major league baseball.

Some famous Catalina visitors include John Wayne, Charlie Chaplin, Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, and the infamous Marilynn Monroe.  

Did you know this island has served as a filming location for more than 500 movies, television shows, etc., making it a prime location for the Hollywood filming industry?

Well, now you know.

The Chicago Cubs even held their spring training on Catalina Island for 30 years!

In fact, descendants of William Wrigley Jr. (of Wrigley Field fame) still own the Catalina Island company to this day. 

Staying the Night on Catalina

beach on Catalina island at sunset with pink and orange sky and rocks in the water

If you have more than one day to enjoy the island, there are many beautiful resorts, vacation rentals, and hotels to stay overnight and enjoy island living. 

Make a reservation at the newly renovated Bellanca Hotel or the 2020 Travelers’ Choice award winner, the Catalina Island Inn, to sleep oceanside and experience the island late at night and early in the morning without the busy hum of day-trippers.

Avalon vs. Two Harbors

The island is generally split into two areas:  Avalon (east end) and the isthmus of Two Harbors (west end).

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Catalina is part of one of the Southern Channel Islands.

Avalon is the more historic, touristy, and charming side of the island and is the area typically pictured in the quintessential Catalina Island photos, with its famous crescent-shaped harbor images you’ve likely seen.

Meanwhile, Two Harbors is more of a remote resort town, with a population of 298. It is an outdoor lover’s paradise and a bit more rustic in nature. 

Mountain biking, hiking trails, fishing, world-class scuba diving (if you’re an advanced diver, you have to visit the astonishing kelp forest of this island!) and camping are some of the best things to do in Catalina’s Two Harbors.

You can check out the fantastic Two Harbors Campground to reserve the most amazing camping experience on the island!

Things to Do in Catalina Island

Rent a Golf Cart or E-Bike to See More of the Island

If you are only able to spend a day in Catalina, you will need to hit the ground running when you arrive! 

Most ferries arrive around 10:15 AM and depart around 4:30 PM that same day.

There is a lot of things to see in Catalina during this short amount of time, so make sure you have a solid plan for how you will spend your time in Catalina if you’re only doing a day trip!

Be sure to reserve a golf cart or bike at least a week in advance, so you can explore the island at your own pace. 

If you prefer a bit more guidance, you could also schedule an island bus tour that will bring you to incredible scenic clifftop views, narrated by a driver who will give you a history of the island. 

Don’t miss checking out the one and only gas station on the island: the prices are sky high!

Pro Tip: Speaking of golf carts, I highly recommend heading over to the Golf Gardens Mini Golf course. This 18-hole golf course is one of the most popular attractions on this island and it was designed with a special focus on golfers of all skill levels.

This Catalina Island golf course has been named among “America’s 100 Favorite Places to Play.”

Dirt road on Catalina island with rugged shrubbery and ocean to the left side

Shop ’til You Drop on Front Street

Don’t get confused if asking for directions in the main area of town!

“Front Street” is what the locals call Crescent Avenue, the shopping epicenter of the island. 

If you are looking for Catalina souvenirs, kitschy one-of-a-kind artwork, or mouthwatering salt water taffy… this is the place for you!

Don’t Miss the Famous Catalina Island Casino

The iconic Catalina Casino has the bragging rights of being the largest building on the island and is the most visible landmark in Avalon Bay, you can’t miss it!

Don’t be confused, there are no slot machines or poker tables at this casino. 

After taking the casino tour, you’ll realize the Catalina Casino is more of a spectacle of Art Deco architecture and island history that offers daily walking tours and holds special events.

This building was commissioned by William Wrigley Jr. and opened in 1929, marking the 10th anniversary of Wrigley’s 1919 purchase of Catalina Island. 

Back in its heyday, this landmark was a popular spot for the locals to enjoy dancing, theater, and dinner.

A white casino on a boardwalk surrounded by palm trees, turquoise railing, blue water, a cruise ship in the distance and a few small boats.

Check Out the World Under the Sea

Two of the coolest excursions in Catalina are the glass bottom boat tour and Underseas Sub Expedition.  

Both allow you to look under the water into the wild blue sea in one of the healthiest marine environments in the world!

The glass-bottom boat will take you to Lover’s Cove Marine Preserve where you can experience a plethora of brightly colored fish, sea urchins, rockfish, and bat rays, just to name a few of the things you might catch a glimpse of.

If you choose the Underseas Sub Expedition, each person will have their own seat and porthole to look out into this gorgeous ecosystem. 

There are no restrooms on either boat, so make sure you take care of business before boarding.

I suggest you book this excursion before you arrive on the island — they sell out very quickly!

Alternately, if you’re PADI certified, you can go on a dive with Diving Catalina in Avalon or Two Harbors Dive Shop in Two Harbors.

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Young male scuba diver under the water, photo half above water, half under water, with the iconic Avalon casino (a white round building) above the dive on land.

Seek Some Adventure With a Bison Safari

Wait, a bison safari on a California island? Why not!

Venture off-road with the extreme Bison Expedition tour in the rugged “outback” landscape of Catalina.  

Be on the lookout for bison, Catalina foxes, and eagles as you ride through beautiful Cape Canyon in a 12-passenger eco-friendly H1 Hummer.

You’ll explore a truly unique landscape that very few tour companies have access to. 

The ride can be a bit bumpy so make sure you are in good health and up for the adventure (and take some non-drowsy motion sickness tablets before you go if you are prone to getting carsick!).

An American bison with horns sitting in a desert-looking atmosphere with cactus in the background on Catalina Island.

Dine on Fresh Seafood After a Day of Adventure

The stunning views on the waterfront patio of the Bluewater Grill will give you the quintessential Catalina experience.

This is a favorite spot right on Avalon Bay that has some of the best New England clam chowders on the West Coast! 

The seafood is so incredibly fresh that it is cut on location daily to meet its highest quality standards. 

They grill up more than 40 varieties of fresh seafood annually!

Enjoy the tasty chipotle-blackened swordfish (my favorite!) while hanging over the water on their dog-friendly patio.

White bowl on a white plate filled with clam chowder and topped with oyster crackers with a spoon on the side.

Learn About the Chicago and Chewing Gum Connection

Want a slice of Chicago in California? The Wrigley Memorial, honoring William Wrigley Jr., sits in the center of the gorgeous Botanic Garden and is a 30-minute stroll up Avalon Canyon from the town center. 

William Wrigley Jr. absolutely loved Catalina Island!

He had an enthusiastic vision to protect and nourish the land and its residents. 

You might recognize his name from the famous Wrigley Field where the Chicago Cubs play… or from the Wrigley Chewing Gum that he famously manufactured! 

This beautiful botanical garden is one of the most popular attractions for visitors to Catalina Island. 

It is home to rare and endangered plant species that can only be found there or in the wild.

It features a variety of plants and flowers, including one of the largest collections of succulents.

The botanical garden is located in a peaceful area of the island’s historic district and the idea of dedicating the garden as a memorial to the tycoon came from his wife, Ada, in 1936.

A concrete memorial to Wrigley in a botanic garden with a partly cloudy sky.

Chill at the Descanso Beach Club

If you are looking for a day of rest and relaxation, then the Descanso Beach Club is for you! 

This is the only beach-side restaurant and bar on the island where you can have your drink in your hand and your feet in the sand. 

This cool place is just a short walk past the historic Catalina Casino and has easy access to a ton of water activities. 

You can rent a cabana or chaise lounge and enjoy the sights with a tasty Catalina cocktail in hand soaking up the sun!

If you plan on exploring the neighboring Descanso Cove, you might benefit from wearing water shoes as you cross that narrow strip of rock that separates the Descanso Beach Club from the cove.

White sand beach with pebbles by the shoreline, reaching out into turquoise water, a cluster of palms and some white cabanas in the background.

Go Kayaking or Paddleboarding in the Calm Waters

Catalina Island is the perfect place to practice two of the most popular adventure sports: kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding!

Beginners will enjoy paddling on the leeward side of the island, while more experienced paddlers can challenge themselves by paddling longer trips.

Sea kayak tours around Catalina Island are offered by several outfitters and are a great way to get to know the island!

Another popular option in Catalina Island is stand-up paddleboarding, which is a fun and active way to enjoy the sea and sun!

Standing up paddleboarding is ideal for spotting marine life, viewing scenic coastlines, and exploring secluded coves on Catalina Island.

Colorful plastic Kayaks on a white sandy beach

Grab a Sweet Treat for the Ferry Ride Home

You will feel like you have gone back in time to the soda jerk days in a retro ice cream parlor as soon as you step into Lloyd’s of Avalon Confectionery!  

Lloyd’s has been making world-famous saltwater taffy, gooey caramel apples, crisp peanut brittle, and rich chocolates in the storefront window on Crescent Avenue since 1934.  

Everything in the store is 100% handmade!

Be sure to grab a sweet treat for the hour-long ferry ride back to the mainland and reminisce about all the fun you had in Catalina! 

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A pile of colorful saltwater taffies in a rainbow of colors.

Have Fun on the Zip Line Eco Tour!

The zip line on Catalina Island is one of the most popular attractions in the area.

It is located amidst an old-growth forest and offers spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean below.

If you’ve never gone ziplining before, here’s your chance.

If you’re wondering what it is, zip lines are a type of aerial cableway that is anchored by one or more trees, poles, or towers and have a series of cables.

You can harness up and slide down these cableways at incredibly fast speeds!

The zip line in Catalina Island is one of the longest in the world at 6,500 feet long — meaning you can go really, really fast, up to 35 mph!

It’s one of those things you have to experience for yourself!

Having fun at a Zip line in California
Image credit: California National Guard via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Discover the Wonders of the Catalina Island Museum

Catalina Island is not only an amazing getaway to enjoy adventurous activities like kayaking, snorkeling, and parasailing, but it is a place full of history and culture everywhere.

The Catalina Island Museum is the largest museum on the island, and it was established in 1953.

The museum’s exhibits include Native American artifacts from the Tongva people, the first peoples to inhabit Catalina Island.

This fascinating museum has a collection of about 6,000 artifacts that date back to the island’s first inhabitants.

The museum also hosts events, lectures, and educational programs for visitors.

The Catalina Island Museum is a part of the Catalina Island Conservancy.

Image credit: Miss Shari via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Did You Know?

The Catalina Island Conservancy is a non-profit organization that protects the island’s natural resources and wildlife.

The organization has been around for more than 60 years, protecting the island’s natural resources and wildlife.

They have been successful in this endeavor because they have a strong network of volunteers and partners that help them with their mission.

Enjoy Nature on the Trans-Catalina Trail!

The Trans-Catalina Trail is an island-wide trail that connects the island’s major geographical regions.

It’s a backpacking trail and you will need permits, though these permits are free and available same-day at these locations listed on this website.

This is an excellent way to explore the natural beauty of Catalina Island while getting in shape at the same time.

It starts in Avalon, where you can take a ferry to reach the island, and then it loops around the north and east coasts of the island.

The trail is a great way to get away from the busy city life for some fresh air and exercise. You’ll get a chance to spot bison, the Catalina fox, and maybe even bald eagles!

It also provides a unique perspective on the wildlife of Catalina Island along with breathtaking views of the open ocean, mountains, and coastline.

With a course of 38.5 miles that typically takes 4-5 days to complete, you can cross the island starting in Avalon and finishing in Two Harbors — with plenty of stops along the way for the most scenic photos you can imagine, of course!

Trans Catalina Trail
Image credit: Chris Hunkeler via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Relax With Friends And Family At Pebbly Beach

Pebbly Beach on Catalina Island is a popular destination for tourists.

As you might have guessed, the beach has no sand but instead consists of pebbles which gives it its name.

This beach among other things is well-known for its beautiful crystal clear water. 

Even though it is not the best choice for sunbathing unless you have a pretty comfortable mat to take with you, you can enjoy fun activities such as parasailing, snorkeling, and kayaking on this beach — considered one of the prettiest on Catalina Island!

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