Catalina Island: Making Weekends Count
Seeking a quick and easy getaway, Yuto Watanabe and his wife Shirley escaped the hustle of Los Angeles for the quiet roads of Catalina Island, just a short ferry ride off the coast. He shares some thoughts about the rewards of a simple, care-free trip here, along with a selection of vibrant images from their weekend away…
Words and photos by Yuto Watanabe (@yutowata)
It was a Friday afternoon and we sat packed inside a crowded Starbucks next to the Port of San Pedro, the launching point for the Catalina Express. Shirley was stressed, sitting on her laptop and worrying whether or not the internet connection would cut out in the middle of the conference call she was leading. I was in the parking lot doing last-minute gear checks and attaching bags to bikes. We’d been working from the coffee shop since the early morning, our strategy to avoid Los Angeles’ notorious midday traffic. Shirley knew she had to leave work a little early, but her boss kept piling on tasks before the weekend. Once the clock hit 4:00 pm, though, we had no choice but to leave. The boat to Catalina Island wasn’t going to wait, but work could.
We rushed to get the bikes loaded onto the boat and we were ready to go. As the boat accelerated, the ocean breeze felt colder and the bustling city of LA slowly disappeared from sight. Ahead, we saw the silhouette of Catalina Island’s hills illuminated by the sunset. It was a busy day at work, but our excitement finally started to settle in as the day’s stress faded away. This was going to be an awesome weekend getaway!
Not every bikepacking trip has a beginning as enjoyable as this one, though. The handful of trips I’ve put together have always been accompanied by all sorts of apprehension. Worrying about food and water: Did I bring enough of it? Did everyone else? What if the river we were planning on filtering water from has run dry – do we have a backup plan? Then there’s the route: How much distance do we need to cover each day? Is that too long? Too short? Is there going to be a lot of steep terrain that will slow us down? Do we have enough supplies if we don’t make it? And there’s gear: Could I have forgotten something important? Tent poles (I’ve done this)? Lighter? Pump? And most important of them all – is this actually going to be any fun? I dragged my friends far out into the middle of nowhere, so it better be.
All that and much more is on my mind at the start of a typical bikepacking trip in some remote location. But this time we were going to Catalina Island, a popular weekend vacation spot just an hour south of Los Angeles by boat. The 22-mile-long island features a small city and even its own airport. Over a million tourists visit the island every year. Biking across Catalina is not some treacherous expedition during which you forge a deep spiritual connection, cursing at yourself as you push your bike up a hill, and later having to justify it by calling it type 2 fun. Rather, riding on Catalina Island is good old type 1 fun with two thumbs up and smiles guaranteed. I enjoy the sense of accomplishment after challenging trips out of my comfort zone, but a leisurely bike ride can be nice too.
A large part of what made the trip relaxing was the route’s short distance. The entire route is only 45 miles, which is very short for a two-night trip. It could easily be done in a single day if time were a factor. But I’d be lying if I said the route was a walk in the park – there was 5,000+ feet of climbing. However, since it’s entirely on well-maintained fire roads, pedaling is pretty smooth as long as you’re used to some climbing. This meant that there was plenty of time for us to stop and make short walks down trails where the island stretches toward the ocean, or watch the wild bison that roam the island. Ample time is a luxury.
Because it’s so frequented by tourists, there’s a lot of bikepacking-friendly infrastructure on Catalina Island. In comparison to our previous trips which were much more challenging in length and remoteness (the Gila River Ramble and Grand Staircase Loop), this felt more like glamping because of the leisurely pace and fantastic amenities that the island provided. Normally, I’d be mildly embarrassed about using the word, but this time I fully embraced it and enjoyed all that it provided.
There are three places to get food along the route: the small town of Two Harbors where we began biking, the city of Avalon at the end of the route, and there’s the Airport in the Sky, a small airport in the middle of the island that’s mostly used by private planes. The proximity to food meant we probably didn’t have to carry that much food with us. We packed our own camp food anyway, partly to save money and partly to keep some of our pride as bikepackers, but it was hard to say “no” when we saw other tourists enjoying curly fries at the airport’s outdoor patio. We went for the hamburger and hot coffee instead. And who’s to blame us? We were on bikacation.
There’s a popular multi-day hike called the Trans-Catalina Trail (TCT) that crosses the length of the island. Most of it is designated for hikers only, but the bikepacking route travels along the trail, so we shared the established campsites that are setmup mainly for walkers – and they’re quite nice. On the first night we stayed at Parsons Landing, a quiet campsite right on a beautiful beach at the northern end of the island. Although we opted not to, we had the option to purchase water and firewood for 20 bucks. On our second night we stayed at Blackjack Campground, another campsite that is more central on the island, near the top of Blackjack Mountain. This campsite had running water, an abundance of wood for fires, its own scenic mountain view, and even a shower!
In the evenings it got dark early and quite chilly – maybe about 50°F. Despite Catalina’s temperate Southern California climate, it was still December. After we set up the tent, we gathered some of the branches that littered the campsite to build a fire in the fire ring. As we were enjoying the warmth of our fire, we saw someone approaching us in the dark. It was a guy from the another group staying there that night. He came over to ask us about how we started our fire. They were a couple, two college students hiking the TCT on winter break, and as it turned out it was their first camping trip.
I handed him some leaves, twigs, and pinecones with some instructions on which order to light them. He thanked us and returned back to his campsite. Half an hour later, Shirley and I peeked over to see if they had any luck – and we saw the satisfying glow of a fire. The couple later swung by to thank us for helping them with their fire. It reminded me of when Shirley and I began camping in college, and I was proud I could help them with their first campfire. It was also a reminder that while this may be glamping for us, that’s not necessarily true for everyone. The distinction between relaxing vacation and memorable adventure is different for all of us.
And that got me thinking: what is adventure, really? Surely biking 1,000 miles in rugged terrain and having near-death experiences is adventure (certainly not a vacation for most of us), but what about hiking the Trans-Catalina Trail? I’d say that it definitely can be, and it undoubtedly seemed like one for this couple. We all start somewhere with our first adventure, and I’m glad I could help with theirs. I’m sure that bikepacking Catalina Island would’ve felt like an adventure for us too, had we done it a couple years earlier when we were just beginning to bikepack.
However, adventures can happen on vacations too, especially if you let your guard down. Perhaps I was being too ambitious, but I navigated us down a wrong turn when riding out of Two Harbors. We were three quarters up a mountain, pushing our bikes up a brutally steep trail. “The boat attendant warned us that the climb was steep, but I didn’t think it would be this steep,” I thought to myself. “This route was supposed to be easy – definitely not as advertised.” I checked my map and realized we had taken the TCT, the hiking route, rather than the fire road cyclists were supposed to follow. Too late to turn back, we decided to hike-a-bike to the top before taking a different trail to descend back onto the fire road. Once we were back on track, I was relieved that the rest of the route was not going to be anywhere as steep as what we had just done. Hey, what’s a bikepacking trip without a getting a little off course?
All in all, the trip to Catalina was a great time for us. It was care-free and there were sweeping scenes of mountains and the deep blue ocean awaiting us around every turn. Eye candy might not have any calories, but it can sure help keep you fueled enough to keep riding. With the island known as a tourist destination, I expected large crowds of people and cars, but most of the route was actually quiet and serene. We saw a couple of vehicles and several other day-trip cyclists, but that was really about it. Most tourists stay in the vicinity of Avalon, so it felt like we had the island to ourselves.
Early on Sunday morning we enjoyed a fast and triumphant coastal descent into Avalon, where we stopped by a diner to reward ourselves with a big breakfast. While the trip was no adventure, we figured a successful vacation was worthy of a celebration, too. We took the first boat back to San Pedro and we were back in Los Angeles by early afternoon. Even though we weren’t gone for long, we were overwhelmed by the sea of cars as we slowly moved in traffic toward home. We missed the quiet of the island. Once home, we started getting ready for the week of work ahead, feeling refreshed and already looking forward to our next bikepacking trip.
About Yuto Watanabe
Born in the US and raised in Japan, Yuto Watanabe is an mechanical engineer based in Los Angeles, California. Whereas at work he designs rockets that go to space, in his spare time he daydreams about traveling to remote, undiscovered destinations on Earth. To see more of his photography, visit YutoWatanabe.com or follow him on Instagram @yutowata.