8 Things to Do on Catalina Island to Soak Up Its Unique Vibe

Featured image credit: Ken Lund

On a clear Los Angeles Day, you can see the Pacific Ocean glittering in the distance from the Griffith Observatory. And on the very clearest of days, you might even see a considerable landmass punctuating those gleaming waves. For a lot of Angelenos, this is their introduction to Catalina Island (formally known as Santa Catalina Island). In days gone by, it was a hidden gem reserved for Hollywood royalty who needed a break from the flashbulbs. These days, it’s a popular day trip option for Angelenos in search of some much needed R&R. The prime objective of Catalina Island is unwinding. So, what if you’re feeling restless? Fortunately, there are also plenty of things to do on Catalina Island. Here are a few of our favorites. 

Know Before You Go

Photo credit: Elena.laps

You’ll find most of Catalina Island’s 4,000 permanent residents (as well as the majority of tourists) split between the port town of Avalon and the smaller village of Two Harbors. That Avalon is the bigger of the two at a single square mile gives you some idea of the scope of the island. Yet, a lot of the best things to do on Catalina Island can be found in the surrounding wilds (and, of course, ocean). 

Getting to Catalina is a bit of an adventure itself. The most popular (and affordable) option is catching a ferry. Catalina Island ferry services operate out of Long Beach, Dana Point, and San Pedro. If you want more of a thrill (for both you and your bank account), consider taking a helicopter. Once you arrive, sun, sea, and sailing beckon. And golfing. Maybe some drinking. Definitely some bison. That brings us to our first suggestion…

Go See the Wild Catalina Island Bison Herd

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Catalina offers a plethora of guided tours satisfying the full spectrum of price points. We recommend you find one that introduces you to the island’s legendary bison population. Surely, you’ve heard of the bison of Catalina Island? 

The story goes that a herd of 14 bison were transported to Catalina as part of the production for the 1925 film The Vanishing American. Rather than round the buffalo back up and return them to the mainland, the crew simply left them to roam free. Fortunately, they did quite well, going forth, procreating, and feeling equally at home on the island as on the range. What started as 14 bison has now turned into around 100. And though they’re an invasive species, the herd is protected by the Catalina Island Conservancy. 

One of the most popular things to do on Catalina Island is the conservancy’s very own Bison Eco-Tour. Expect to get as close as you safely can to the beautiful bison as well as the Catalina Island fox, American Bald Eagle, and other critters that call the island home. Afterward, you can return to Avalon and grab one of the island’s signature alcoholic beverages, Buffalo Milk. Don’t worry, no bison were actually milked in the making of this beverage. 

Things to Do on Catalina Island Beaches

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Speaking of drinking; if you think day drinking is fun, wait until you try it on the beach! Unfortunately, you’re going to be waiting a little longer when you get to Catalina. That’s because drinking on the beach is strictly prohibited by law… with one exception. 

Pony up the admission fee to the Descanso Beach Club and you can enjoy all manner of alcoholic beverages on their private stretch of beach. Sure, it isn’t really resort style luxury, but the drinks are strong enough that it doesn’t have to be. The Descanso Beach Club also offers one of the few dining options on the island. 

If the Descanso Beach Club is out of your budget, there are still plenty of fun things to do on Catalina Island beaches. Head over to one of the public stretches of sand to simply bask in the glory of Southern California’s beautiful weather. 

Things to Do Off Catalina Island Beaches

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Of course, the real fun is arguably in the water. On any sunny day, you can look forward to renting jet skis, paddleboards, kayaks, or snorkeling sets. After all, the abundant oceanic ecosystem surrounding Catalina is intoxicating in ways with which Buffalo Milk can’t quite compete.  

Yet, one of the most interesting things to do on Catalina Island beaches actually happens after the sun goes down. Get your minds out of the gutter. We’re talking about a little phenomenon called flying fish. That’s right, in the waters off Catalina Island, the fish actually take to the air almost as easily as they do the water. Okay, maybe it’s more of a glide than full on flight, but it’s still plenty impressive. 

If you want to see a fish fly, you have to time your visit right. Flying fish season runs roughly from Memorial Day until the end of September. During these months, Catalina’s Flying Fish Voyage tours hit the waves with specially designed searchlights aimed at summoning the strange sea creatures from the depths. Just prepare yourself. These excitable fellows sometimes swoop right into the boat itself. And a faceful of flying fish is likely not the vacation story you want to bring back to the mainland. 

Cruise the Island in a Golf Cart

Photo credit: Love Catalina Island

The scenic beauty of Catalina Island makes it perfect for simply cruising. Too bad that cars are outlawed on Catalina. That’s right, you can’t even rent one of those gas guzzlers. But you can rent the island’s preferred mode of transport: the golf cart. 

Yeah, we’ll be honest, riding around in a golf cart isn’t one of the more thrilling things to do on Catalina Island. The novelty, if there’s any at all, wears thin pretty quickly. But, speaking from a purely utilitarian perspective, it is one of the most efficient ways of getting around Avalon and its surroundings. If you’re visiting Catalina for the first time and want to see all there is to see, you can cover the majority of the island in just a couple of hours. And, if you’re looking for a leisurely time, a golf cart rental is definitely easier on your feet. Your chariot awaits. 

Pay Your Respects at the Catalina Island Pet Cemetery

Photo credit: Carol M. Highsmith

Another reason you may want to rent a golf cart is to reach the island’s pet cemetery. Now hear us out. This can be one of the most cathartic, colorful, and honestly beautiful things to do on Catalina Island if you have an open mind and heart. The pet cemetery is where the locals bury their dearly departed animal companions. Sentiments range from whimsical to heartbreaking with plenty of compassion in between. 

Since the pet cemetery isn’t officially sanctioned by Catalina Island, it can be easy to miss. You’ll find it on the southern outskirts of Avalon, set back in the woods a bit. Just keep in mind that these are real graves of beloved family members and approach the scene with the respect it deserves. 

See Catalina Through the Eyes of Its Visionary

Photo credit: Love Catalina Island

Before we get into our next Catalina Island attraction, we need a quick history lesson. Catalina Island was developed into the recreational area it is today through the vision of William Wrigley, Jr., entrepreneur and founder of the Wrigley Company. They’re perhaps best remembered for their chewing gum, but Wrigley, Jr. is also the namesake for Chicago’s Wrigley Field. Why? Because the businessman also owned the Chicago Cubs for a time. 

On the many occasions when Wrigley, Jr. would visit Catalina, he’d stay at the peak of Mount Ada. To this day, many would argue that it gives the best view of the island. You can judge for yourself when you make your trip since Mount Ada is open to the public. 

While owned by Wrigley, Jr., the Cubs used to do their spring training on the island. Wrigley, Jr. would often punctuate the stunning sunrises and sunsets by looking down on their practices from the tip of Mount Ada. Time your trip right and you can even take a tour of the Cubs’ original training facility. 

The Plant Plan

Photo credit: Justin Ennis

If you’re interested in finding more things to do on Catalina Island pertaining to Wrigley, Jr., then add Wrigley Memorial & Botanical Gardens to your list. Those who weren’t sold on Mount Ada’s views may find the panoramic perspectives offered by this spot more to their liking. It’s worth climbing to the top of the manmade quarry rock tower for the best view possible. 

Of course, being that it is a botanical garden, plants abound here. But, to be more specific, you’ll find 37 acres of plant life at the Wrigley Memorial & Botanical Gardens; lots of it native to the Channel Islands too. Gorgeous and educational; what could beat that?  

No Risk at This Casino

Photo credit: Sean McCulley

One of Wrigley, Jr.’s most ambitious plans for Catalina was the addition of a massive casino just to the northeast of Avalon. Don’t get too excited; you can’t actually gamble at this casino. But visiting this looming piece of history is still one of the most interestings things to do on Catalina Island. For one, you’ll find it crowned on its upper level by the world’s largest circular ballroom, capable of holding thousands of celebrants. This ballroom is often the site of annual festivities on the island including jazz festivals, charity balls, and, of course, Catalina’s New Year’s Eve bash. 

The casino also houses the Avalon Theatre, screening both the latest films and classic movies. The Avalon Theatre was actually the first theater constructed with sound-synced movies in mind as opposed to films of the silent era. However, if you want to catch a movie in this classic cinema house, be advised that they only have showings on Friday and Saturday nights. 

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