Take a Walk on The Wild Side. Getaway Tips: Catalina’s West End

A few people have asked me what I’d recommend for a couples’ 2 to 3 night camping trip in Catalina. For nature lover’s with limited time, I suggest you skip touristy (though charming) Avalon and head straight for Catalina’s “Wildland” gems.  Most Catalina aficionados concur that the 2 most beautiful spots on the island (not that you can really go wrong anywhere) are Little Harbor Campground and Parson’s Landing Campground. I’ll focus this post on them.

If you like this sort of thing, you’ll love those 2 spots.

 

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Heading down to picturesque Parson’s Landing

MAP 

How you plan your getaway comes down to your preferred balance of activity to relaxation.

If you want to see both Little Harbor and Parson’s Landing, the easiest way to do it is to take the San Pedro ferry direct to Two Harbors. Once there, you are equidistant to Parson’s Landing and Little Harbor – this gives you the most flexibility and the most relaxation and recreation options. You can grab a bite and set out for either destination as a day hike / bike or an overnight at one or both of them. You can also catch a shuttle one or both ways.

When you visit Two Harbors,  enjoy a meal at Doug’s Harbor Sands – the only restaurant / bar in town. I recommend the Mahe and a Buffalo Milk or two for dessert. Buffalo Milk is a delicious libation named after the island’s iconic buffalo (think alcoholic chocolate milkshake). I’d post a picture of one, but I drank them so fast I forgot to take one.

Otherwise, you could stay over in Little Harbor night 1 and then work your way West to Two Harbors and Parson’s Landing. On a quickie? Perhaps you take the Safari Bus back to Two Harbors or Avalon. (Arrange in advance.)

Staying Overnight in Two Harbors

Two Harbors Campground (42 tent sites & 3 Group sites) about a 1/4 from “town” on a bluff overlooking the Pacific. Outdoor cold water showers & portapotties.

In “town”, the Camping Cabins  offer simple comforts on a budget ($50-70 a night) They are available November through March only.

Note: There are coin operated hot water showers in Two Harbors.

After roughing it for a day or two, I always like to throw in a little luxury. See why the rustic Banning House Lodge in Two Harbors is my Top Pick .

Two Harbors Things to Do:  Diving, snorkeling, swimming, stand-up-paddling, kayaking, fishing, exploring and relaxing. So yes, you can have tons of fun just hanging in gorgeous Two Harbors. Did I mention the Buffalo Milk? (Yeah, I did.)

Two Harbors Visitors Services 310-510-4205

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Parson’s Landing 

 Head from Two Harbors to Parson’s Landing (via West End Road – easy fire road ~7 miles & or the Trans Catalina Trail – hard single track ~11 miles) and camp out there. Note there is no running water at this campsite.  You can hike from here to Starlight Beach (the Western most point of the island), but be prepared for 20 miles round trip as Starlight Beach is day use only.

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DISTANCES

Avalon to the airport ~10 miles

Avalon to Little Harbor ~15 miles

Avalon to Two Harbors ~23 miles (MTB route – ~3,284 elevation gain)

Little Harbor to Two Harbors ~7 miles by fire road or shorter by single track, expect a fair amount of climbing in either direction

Two Harbors to Parson’s Landing ~7 easy miles West End Road or ~11 via a challenging portion of the Trans Catalina Trail (hikers only) Note: Parson’s Landing Campgraound has no running water.

Two Harbors to Starlight Beach  ~17 to ~21 miles depending on your route (see above)

Two Harbors to the airport ~13 Miles

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Logistics – Getting to Two Harbors

Catch the Catalina Express from San Pedro to go direct to Two Harbors ~$75 ea round trip.

Or treat yourself to a Helicopter ride, starting at ~$135 one way depending upon your departure point. It’s a quick way to spend $135, but it is a dazzling ~15+ minutes. (One way is enough, unless you’re in a hurry and have $ to burn.)

If you have a boat, you’ve got it made to explore your way.

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Hiking permits are free and you can get them online.

Mountain biking? Get the scoop on the $35 pass and bike rentals.

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Long Haul Options From Avalon

If you start in Avalon, you can take the island’s Safari Bus to Little Harbor,  Two Harbors, or Parson’s Landing,  but you are limited by their schedule. Mountain biking or hiking is possible too, but only if you’re up for ~23 somewhat tortuous miles (especially if you’re going to be carrying a pack) see my Catalina mtb. adventure post 1 & 3). There is a new Catalina Back Country Concierge that offers gear haul and other services, but they may not be open on weekdays in the off season – – at least they weren’t when we called them.

Another option is to stay in Little Harbor the first night and save the final 7 miles to Two Harbors for Day 2…

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Caution

So many fantastic options, so little time. Be safe and have a blast!

I’ve been all over the island, the terrain can be challenging and most of it is completely exposed. (Carry plenty of water and sunscreen.) Keep ~150 yards from Buffalo. (They don’t like bikers.) Stay on designated trails and fire roads. Taking that short cut through brush may be tempting, but my brother will tell you, it’s not worth it. He got bitten by a rattlesnake there doing just that and had to be airlifted off the island. He’s fine now, but it was a bit sketchy during his two weeks in ICU…And no, I wasn’t on that trip.

Let me know if you have questions and do tell me what you did on your Catalina getaway!

Top Pick: Banning House Lodge, Two Harbors, Catalina

Want a wonderful romantic or solo getaway where you can unplug for a couple days, enjoy spectacular views (of the Isthmus on one side and Catalina Harbor on the other), and top off your full day of activity or relaxation with a sunset  wine & cheese social? Look no further than the Banning House Lodge in lovely, remote Two Harbors.

Located at the West End of Catalina Island, Two Harbors is more of a boaters’ and campers’ paradise compared to the Avalon, which I’d classify as a tourist meca…If you’re into nature, beauty  and outdoor and ocean activities, this is the spot. And it’s especially relaxing in   the off season…

Built in 1910 as a summer home for the Banning brothers, this 12 room lodge features 20th century charm and character, while delivering some fine contemporary Two Harbors hospitality.
It feels like a bed a breakfast, but each room has its own private bath.
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And I can’t tell you how wonderful it was to arrive just in time to take a quick shower and enjoy the warm welcome of the wine & cheese social hour.
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If you’re lucky, you might see a Catalina Fox trying to slip by unnoticed while you sip your wine in the sunset on the veranda…

The complimentary continental breakfast was delightful. Fresh fruit, yogurt, pastries, bagels, muffins, etc. A whole bowlful of blueberries, oh my.
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And there are plenty of splendid spots on the patio to enjoy your coffee, expresso, or wine al fresco.
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There’s also a gorgeous Common Room and cozy Sun Room with incredible island and ocean views and fireplaces. They even decked it out for the holidays.
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Did you know, Catalina has a birthday promotion?  The trick is in order to take advantage of the spiffs and discounts, you have to be traveling on your b-day. Unfortunately, I was a day shy of mine, but much to my delight, I found this surprise in my room.
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A gorgeous hand-painted and inked bday card!

What a wonderful stay in a magical setting! Even in the off season, the service, hospitality and accommodations were superb and it was a special treat to have the place nearly all to ourselves. (We met a great couple from the same town we’re from while there.)

Do they have wifi? I don’t even know or care, I came to unplug.

The Lodge offers free shuttle service to and from Two Harbors “village” where you will find Harbor Sands, the 1 restaurant and bar and “activity hub”. The Lodge is located on top of a hill so it requires a mini-hike of less than a half mile to go to & fro or a shuttle ride.
 Contact  Info
(I should mention that getting to Two Harbors can be a bit more challenging than just going to Avalon. Since Avalon is the more popular destination, most ferries go there, not so with Two Harbors. You have to depart from San Pedro to go direct, or take the safari bus from Avalon, or if you’re a bit nuts like me, you can mt. bike from Avalon to Two Harbors…It’s only 21 miles or so, but it’s a bit fierce with all the climbs.)

Avalon to Two Harbors: Catalina MTB Adventure, Part 1

So I asked my athletic beau, Ken, “How about we take our mountain bikes to Catalina and ride from Avalon to Two Harbors, hang out and ride around there for a day, and then ride back? What do you think? ”

“Sure, sounds good,” he replied without blinking an eye…This is where I should have pulled out the disclaimers about the ~1700 foot climbs (that’s plural) that we’d be doing from sea level over the course of ~21 mile traverse across steep, unforgiving fire roads, and the fact that he’d be carrying a heavier pack than I…

I did dig out my old map of the marathon route with its epic elevation gains and losses, but he didn’t give it a glance. I declared with my usual exuberance, “It’s going to be a tough one, but it will be a great adventure!” You see, back in 2000, (yes, nearly two decades ago), I ran the Catalina Marathon, which takes you across some of the same routes so I had a distant, but visceral memory of how “challenging” the climbs on the island can be.  (Decades of trail running has also taught me that’s it far easier to run up hills than it is to bike up them, especially if you are on heavy, beater bikes lugging packs on your back.) Of course, I’m nearly 2 decades older now and should also mention that we don’t mountain bike much (our last MTB adventure was Noble Canyon and we all know how that went. My bruises have finally faded,)

Bottom line, we both try to maintain a moderately-high fitness level for our weekend warrior and extended escapades and active adventures…(I’ve been focusing on yoga, swimming, hiking and a weekly road bike and he’s been running, and joining me for swims and road bikes as his schedule allows.) Unfortunately, I can’t run any more due to literally running out of cartilage in both my knees. Ugh, I know! For some reason, I thought I would be ok on the mountain bike with the hills…

About Catalina

Catalina Island is a small (22 miles long & 8 miles at its widest point) rocky gem in the Pacific ~ 22 miles from Los Angeles, but thanks to nearly 50 years of the Catalina Islands Conservancy’s good work, it’s really worlds away! The island’s topography is a study in rugged beauty with steep cliffs and jagged coastline. Ninety percent of the island’s 4k population live in Avalon, which is also the Island’s major tourist destination with quaint shops, restaurants and bars. Yes, it has its charm, but you know by now that I’m more of a “wildlands” fan myself. That’s why we’re heading to the remote Westside of the island and staying in Two Harbors,

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View point just after the initial climb out of Avalon on Stage Road – that’s the “What did I get us into this time?” look. Notice the over-packed backpack.

So I was wrong about that. Not long after the picture above was taken, 3/4 through the first climb from sea level up the airport road, I thought my knees were going to explode. No way I can make this, I thought. That’s when Ken pulled over and ordered me to empty everything heavy out of my pack and put it into his. I didn’t argue, toughing it out wasn’t an option if we were going to make it across. Yes, Ken is a stud and my hero! Wouldn’t have been able to make it without him taking on the extra poundage.

 

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My hero, Ken, aka Superman, all smiles despite the extra weight in his pack. This is at the top of the first climb, he’s thinking the worst is over…I know we’ve only just begun.
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But views like these of the remote backside of Catalina can turn even my worst grimace into a smile…

We left Avalon after 1PM  and we didn’t pass the halfway mark until 3PM with all my knee breaks so we were getting a little worried that we might not make it by dark. There were no hikers or bikers out except for us and only a few cars and Island Conservancy trucks passed us. We had decided not to camp as we’d be carrying the weight of sleeping bags and Thermarests and possibly a tent too. Instead, we decided to treat ourselves to a stay at the Banning House Lodge for both our recent birthdays. So instead of stopping and relaxing at one of these gorgeous deserted beaches we pushed on and on…

We came around a corner and a gorgeous Catalina Fox crossed in front of Ken. Unfortunately, my camera was in my backpack and getting it out would have scared it away so we both just sat still and watched in quiet wonder as the beautiful creature took 5 steps looked back at us, took five more, looked back again, and once more before disappearing into the roadside brush. As if to say, “Hey, I’m giving you guys plenty of photo ops, what’s your problem?” This would be the first of several fox sightings in which I would be camera cursed each time. (Luckily, we met a great couple from Carlsbad (John & Julie) who caught some great pics while we were having dinner together at Harbor Sands. Stay tuned.)

We would have one more notably larger critter encounter on our final climb  out of Little Harbor, a brute of a buffalo was snorting and drooling his way up the hill. He was on the far right. We stayed as far left as we could.

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Buffalo can charge at 35 mph and jump 6 feet high. And, we were told later, not unlike other aggressors, they have a thing for bikers. Yes, yikes. That’s my “Forget the picture and let’s keep moving.” look.

About Catalina’s Wild Buffalo

In 1924, 14 buffalo were brought to the island for a movie shoot and the rest, they say, is history. The bison thrived here and at one point the herd grew to 600. Today, the Catalina Island Conservancy  manages the population (via birth control) to about 150, thereby striking the balance between protecting the sensitive ecosystem and keeping the herd healthy.

 

The weather was perfect and the visibility out to the mainland was the best I’ve ever seen it. Unfortunately, camera didn’t quite capture it. (Wasn’t going to bring my heavy Nikon.)

We made it just in time for sunset and the splendid wine and cheese welcome at the charming Banning House Lodge (another 150 ft climb) just to add insult to injury.

Big sigh of relief after our full, half-day adventure – brutal workout, spectacular views, a studly boyfriend who’s a great sport, a hot shower and a comfy bed – now that’s a birthday to remember. Stay tuned for Part II & III. (If you’re a mountain bike legend fan, you’re never going to believe who we ran into in the middle of the island on our way back to Avalon…)