Get us in your inbox

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 for the best things to do on Catalina Island

Written by
Kai Oliver-Kurtin
Contributor
Jeff Miller
Advertising

Once a getaway for Hollywood elites hoping to escape paparazzi, the best things to do on Catalina Island still tend to be rather low-key. That doesn’t mean Catalina flies under the radar—in recent decades, it’s become more of an open secret for everyday Southern Californians and visitors looking for a simple, relaxing vacation (with a handful of thrills, of course).

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 just a laid-back hang, Catalina has something for everyone. You’ll find most of the action in Avalon (the main port town) and the small community of Two Harbors, while adventure awaits out in the island’s wild interior, too.

A daily ferry service is available from Long Beach, San Pedro, and Dana Point, although there's also a speedier (and pricier) helicopter option. Ready to explore? Here are the best things to do on Catalina Island.

RECOMMENDED: everything you need to know about the Catalina Island ferry

Best things to do on Santa Catalina Island

Stroll around the Wrigley Memorial & Botanical Gardens
Photograph: Unplash / Michael Glazier

1. Stroll around the Wrigley Memorial & Botanical Gardens

Check out a beautiful ode to the island’s founding father, William Wrigley, Jr. (yes, the gum guy), who was responsible for the development of Catalina. This garden and memorial is one of the most beautiful spots on the island—it’s just about a 30-minute moderate hike from the beach, but you can also there by renting a bike or via golf cart (more on that in a bit). At the memorial, you’ll be surrounded by 37 acres of botanical gardens that flourish with plants endemic to California and the Channel Islands—there’s a great view from the tower overlook, a structure built from quarried rocks culled from the island itself.

This might just be one of your only chances to watch fish fly. For nearly a century, Catalina’s Flying Fish Voyage has wowed visitors with a surreal experience—every night from Memorial Day weekend through the end of September, the boat uses powerful searchlights to lure Cheilopogon pinnatibarbatus californicus (otherwise known as flying fish) up and out of the water. No, they aren’t actually flying, but it sure does look like it when they soar several feet out of the water like butterflies. Bring a jacket—it can get chilly—and keep your eyes peeled, because the fish often end up landing inside the boat.

Advertising

Sure, you can visit Avalon’s main beaches just off of Crescent Avenue for free if you’d like, but there’s also a fancy beach on the island with cabanas, booze, and more. Head to Descanso Beach Club where you’ll find the aforementioned luxuries plus its most important perk: it’s the only beach where you can legally drink alcohol on the island. For those looking to do a little more than just luxuriate, there are also rentable paddleboards, snorkel sets, and kayaks. Visiting over the summer? Aim for the weekends when the club brings in DJs and live bands.

If it’s your first time in Catalina, you’ll probably notice a slew of smiling tourists sporting straw hats. Why are they so ecstatic? Just one trip to Luau Larry’s will explain it all. This classic burger-and-drinks shack is famous for its Wiki Wacker, a very alcoholic drink that comes with one of those ubiquitous straw hats. Grease the drink down with curly fries, which are always perfectly crisp and seasoned with a secret blend (it’s gotta be magic, whatever it is). The burgers aren’t bad either, and you’ll often find live music singalongs at night.

Advertising

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—the chewing gum magnate, William Wrigley, Jr., purchased the island and transformed it into a vacation destination just over a century ago (since then, it has largely passed into the hands of a non-profit). If you’re hungry for even more backstory, the museum also touches on things like the Chicago Cubs (long ago, the team held their spring training here), 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 the best way to get great views quickly—is via golf cart. Sure, you can spend all of your time exploring Avalon itself, 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 Avalon where beautiful views, historical structures, and some of the island's more off-the-beaten-path sites are waiting to be found. 

Advertising
Go off-roading on the Ridgetop Eco Adventure
Photograph: Courtesy of Catalina Island Company

8. Go off-roading on the Ridgetop Eco Adventure

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 for a thrilling look at the island’s eastern interior. Starting from the center of town, you’ll survey the 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.

Advertising

9. Lace up and hit the hiking trails

If you’re outdoorsy, taking a hike while you’re on the island is the prime reason to visit. Catalina’s inland is covered with over 165 miles of hiking trails. The trails themselves are bound to surprise you—you’ll spot tons of interesting plants, not to mention animals like 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).

Take in the view from Mt. Ada
Photograph: Courtesy of Catalina Island Company

10. Take in the view from Mt. Ada

Get a good peek at William Wrigley Jr.’s old mansion, which also has the best view on the island. Now a hotel, you won’t be able to get very far onto the property without a reservation, but you can still take advantage of the stunning views from just below the inn.

Advertising

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).

Recommended
    You may also like
      Advertising