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Catalina Island
Photograph: Michael JulianoCatalina Island

The Best Things To Do on Catalina Island

From botanical gardens to a fancy beach club, here are our picks of the best things to do on Catalina Island

Written by
Time Out editors
,
Jeff Miller
&
Kai Oliver-Kurtin
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Once a getaway for Hollywood elites to escape from paparazzi, Catalina Island has in recent decades become more of a not-so-secret treasure for everyday Southern Californians and visitors looking for a simple, relaxing vacation (and, yes, those itching for debauchery within the constraints of a somewhat-sleepy marine town).

Cars are few and far-between on the island, and just about everything is either walking distance or a short golf-cart-taxi-ride away. Whether you’re shooting for a family vibe, an outdoor sports experience or a low-key hang, Catalina’s got something for everyone within its main port town of Avalon, small community of Two Harbors and out into the wild island interior.

Daily ferry service is available from Long Beach, San Pedro and Dana Point, although there's also a pricier, speedier helicopter option. Here are the best things to do no matter your vibe once you hop off the hour-long boat ride or 15-minute helicopter ride from the mainland.

Done something on this list and loved it? Share it with the hashtag #TimeOutDoList and tag @TimeOutEverywhere. Or find out more about how Time Out selects the very best things to do all over the world.

Best things to do on Santa Catalina Island

Stroll around the Wrigley Memorial & Botanical Gardens
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Lisa Andres

1. Stroll around the Wrigley Memorial & Botanical Gardens

Check out a beautiful ode to the island’s famous founding father. William Wrigley, Jr. (yes, the gum guy) is responsible for the development of Catalina, and the garden and memorial that carries his name is one of the most beautiful spots on the island. It’s about a 30-minute moderate hike from the beach (you can also get up to it by renting a bike, or via golf cart—more on that in a bit), and once you’re there you’ll be immersed in a 37-acre botanical garden focused on plants endemic to California and the Channel Islands, and a tower overlook built from quarried rocks culled from the island itself.

Set sail on a summertime Flying Fish Voyage

This is one of the only opportunities you’ll ever have to watch fish flyseriously. For nearly a century, Catalina’s flying fish boat has been wowing visitors with a surreal experience that seems culled from a dreamworld. Every night from Memorial Day weekend through the end of September, using powerful searchlights to draw them out, the crew lures Cheilopogon pinnatibarbatus californicus (otherwise known as flying fish) out of the water for not-quite-actual-flying-but-it-sure-looks-like-it glides up to 100 feet. Bring a jacket—it can get chilly—and keep your eyes out... The fish often end up landing inside the boat.

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Visit the “fancy” beach on the island, with cabanas, booze and more. Sure, you can place your towel on Avalon’s main beaches just off of Crescent Avenue for free if you’d like. But—especially if you’re on the island to party—it’s worth taking a walk just past the casino to Descanso Beach Club, which offers rentable chaise lounges and cabanas. Possibly even more important, Descano is the only beach where you can legally drink alcohol on the island. There are also rentable paddleboards, snorkel sets and kayaks. Over the summer, they have DJs and live bands on weekends.

This is a classic burger-and-drinks shack—with the best fries you’ll ever have. First-time visitors to Catalina can’t help but notice slews of tourists sporting straw hats, and one trip to Luau Larry’s explains why all of them look so ecstatic. It’s because they’ve all gotten their Wiki Wacked by ordering a heavily-alcoholic drink of the same name, which comes with one of the ubiquitous headpieces. Grease the drink down with their curly fries, which are always perfectly crispy and seasoned with—well, it’s a secret... but it’s gotta be magic, whatever it is. The burgers aren’t bad, and there are often live music singalongs at night.

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Visit this well-curated museum that explores the island’s intriguing history. Don’t be confused if you see a stick of gum every so often during your island visit—chewing gum magnate William Wrigley, Jr. purchased the island to transform it into a vacation destination just over a century ago. Note: since then, it has since largely passed into the hands of a non-profit. If you’re hungry for more backstory, the elegant Catalina Island Museum dives deep into a fascinating history that touches on Chicago Cubs spring training, proto-CIA military exercises, Natalie Wood’s suspicious death and Wrigley’s vision for a vacation utopia.

Scoot around in a golf cart rental
Photograph: Shutterstock

6. Scoot around in a golf cart rental

The best way to see a large percentage of Avalon—and get a great viewis via golf cart. Sure, you could spend all your time on Catalina in town within Avalon. But if you want to explore more of the island, a golf cart is the best way to do it. In about two hours you can get up and over the top of town for beautiful views, check out some of the historical structures on the island and explore some spots off-the-beaten-path.

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Embark on a high-intensity aerial experience. High-octane adventure seekers should check out two Catalina experiences. The first is the Ocean Runner boat tour, which blasts through the water at high-speeds on a ribcraft boat, and the other is this high-flying zip line tour. Descend over five ziplines, 600 feet above Descanso, getting a unique vantage point to learn about the island’s unusual ecosystemif you’re not just in it for the thrills.

Go off-roading on the Ridgetop Eco Adventure
Photograph: Michael Juliano

8. Go off-roading on the Ridgetop Eco Adventure

What is it: A two-hour tour aboard a biofuel Hummer of the island’s eastern interior.

Why go: As you approach the island via the Catalina Express, you’re greeted with a breathtakingly rugged, mountainous coastline. But if you stick to Avalon, you’ll see nothing but paved pathways. Split the difference and climb aboard this tour—which starts from the center of town. Survey the island’s remote interior with a two-hour off-road (read: bumpy, very bumpy) tour on an open-air biofuel Hummer, which tears past rolling hills, steep coastline and—fingers crossed—a wild bison or two.

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Lace up and hit the hiking trails
Courtesy CC/Yelp/Romeo K.

9. Lace up and hit the hiking trails

This is an outdoorsperson’s prime reason to visit. Catalina’s inland is covered with hiking trails and camping spots, with over 165 miles of trails to exploreranging from easy to expert level. Obviously, it’s a way to get closer to nature. The island is home to tons of interesting plants and animals, including tiny island foxes and imposing bison, the latter of which became an island mainstay after they were imported for a movie shoot (as one story goes), and then began procreating. With some luck, during an inland hike you’ll see a herd peacefully grazing.

Take in the view from Mt. Ada
Photograph: Michael Juliano

10. Take in the view from Mt. Ada

Tour William Wrigley Jr.’s old mansion—which also has the best view on the island. If you’re not staying at the Mt. Ada hilltop inn, you won’t be able to get very far onto the property. But you can still take advantages of the stunning views from just below. The hotel previously offered a three-course menu for non-guests—here’s hoping it makes a return sometime soon.

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Behold one of Avalon’s newest family-friendly activities. The island’s only escape room (pirate-themed, naturally) isn’t quite as high-tech as its competitors on the mainland, but that’s part of its charm. Using lo-fi effects and hints, it’s a challenging and fun way to spend an hour, especially on a hot day (thank you, a/c). Just keep this in mind: duck, and then look up. We didn’t, and needed to ask for a hint. You’re welcome.

Explore more of Catalina Island

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