Crystal-clear waters, rugged coastline, scenic hikes, charming town, sundrenched beaches, golf carts, and bison. Did any of those pique your interest? Because these are ALL the things you have to look forward to at Catalina Island, California!
When I first visited Catalina Island (via a cruise) shortly after moving to California, all I could remember was the golf cart we had rented. My memory of the island consisted of NOTHING else, literally just the view from a vista point and the golf cart.
I went through life operating under the impression that Catalina Island = golf cart island. I wasn’t too far off, but after my most recent trip to the island as a grown adult, I realized how much MORE there is to the island than just those good ol’ golf carts!
Take, for instance, the opportunity to go wildlife watching for bison — and ziplining! These are such fun and unique activities that I never knew existed so close to home until I did my research on Catalina Island for my own trip.
Since most people really only ever get to spend a day on the island (either as part of a day trip or as part of a cruise stop), I wanted to create a helpful little guide on what you can easily do with just one day on the island!
The first section of this post will contain the best things to do if you’re not interested in half-day excursions that’ll eat up most of your hours on the island. This section is perfect for people who like to explore local shops, dine among the locals, and enjoy soaking in a destination’s atmosphere!
In the following section, you’ll find all those immersive half-day excursions and activities — for all my adrenaline junkies, adventurers, etc.
Ready to discover Catalina Island? Let’s go!
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Table of Contents
AVALON, CATALINA ISLAND: IN A NUTSHELL
Here’s a quick overview of all the useful info you need to plan an awesome trip!
- When To Go: July to September – for the best weather (sunny days and true SoCal vibes). March to May or October to November – for slightly cooler weather and fewer crowds.
- Where To Stay: Bellanca Hotel ($$) | Zane Grey Pueblo Hotel ($$ – $$$) | Hotel Atwater ($$$)
- Nearest Airport: Long Beach Airport (LGB), about 22 miles away. From there, visitors can take the Catalina Express ferry to the island. The island also has an airport, but it’s for private planes.
- How To Get To The Island: Take a ferry from Long Beach, San Pedro, Dana Point, or Newport.
- How to Get Around: Avalon is pretty walkable in the downtown area, but to see the scenic parts of the island, most people choose to rent a golf cart. Taxis are also available for those who want to get to farther parts of the island.
- Must-Do’s: See the island via golf cart, peruse the many cute shops in town, go snorkeling at Lover’s Cove, and/or take a glass-bottom boat tour to see the colorful marine life.
- Before You Go: Bring comfortable walking shoes, sunscreen, and a hat to protect yourself from the sun. If snorkeling is on the agenda, pack your snorkel gear to avoid having to rent!
Best Things To Do In Catalina Island, California
Rent a golf cart and explore the island’s scenic roads
Regardless of whether you’ve arrived by cruise ship or on your own via the Catalina Express, one of the first things you should do on Catalina Island is to rent a golf cart to enjoy the scenic route!
This is THE thing to do on Catalina Island.
As soon as you hop off your watercraft and onto the island, you’ll see golf cart rentals. They’re literally right in front of your face as soon as you hit Crescent Avenue (the main street that hugs the waterfront).
If you were planning on seeing the island by golf cart (which I highly recommend if this is your first time on the island), you’ll want to snag one before the rest of the crowds show up!
Once all the golf carts are rented out (usually happens around late morning), the rest of the visitors still in line have to wait until other groups return with their golf carts.
It takes about 45 minutes to an hour to drive through the entire scenic route of the island. Needless to say, the wait can take a while!
👉 Pro Tip: Most people will rent from Catalina Island Golf Cart Rentals because it’s the first rental shop they see. But if you find the line to be way too long by the time you show up, head over to Island Rentals Inc. just a street up. The lines will probably be a lot shorter over there!
Once you’re handed a golf cart, the rental staff members will give you a map that outlines the suggested scenic route you can drive with the cart.
As you drive around the island, you’ll see a variety of sites, including the iconic Catalina Casino, the Descanso Beach Club, and the Wrigley Memorial & Botanic Garden. Some of the best viewpoints that you’ll hit are Tremont Overlook and Three Palms Overlook.
During our self-guided ride, we didn’t really need to use the map to know where to stop. We just saw a pretty view, as well as other golf carts stopped, and just knew it was time to pull over!
Go snorkeling along the shoreline
The best place to snorkel in Avalon is Lover’s Cove Marine Preserve, which is a protected area that’s crystal clear as heck and sees its fair share marine life.
Some of our other favorite snorkeling spots include Casino Point Dive Park and the waters around Descanso Beach.
To go snorkeling in Avalon, you can bring your own snorkeling gear or rent it from several locations in town. The rental gear includes a mask, snorkel, fins, and a wetsuit if needed.
Once you have your gear, head to Lover’s Cove Marine Preserve, which is located just a short walk from the center of town. The preserve is marked by a buoy line so you know where to snorkel (you’ll want to stay within the designated area to protect marine life).
While snorkeling, you can expect to see a variety of fish, including garibaldi, sea bass, halibut, and opaleye, as well as colorful coral and kelp forests. You might even come across bat rays or harbor seals!
The waters are typically calm and clear, so snorkeling should be a breeze — even for the little ones. You can rent snorkel gear (but I’d recommend bringing your own set to save money on unnecessary rental costs) or join a guided snorkel tour.
👉 When is the best time to snorkel on Catalina Island? Summer is the best time to snorkel around Catalina Island because of the warmer weather/water. Having said that, you can snorkel year-round on Catalina Island. During cooler months though, you might want to rent a wetsuit before getting into the water!
Take a glass-bottom boat tour to see the colorful marine life.
Discover the wonders of the Pacific Ocean without getting wet (or knowing how to swim) on a glass-bottom boat tour of Catalina Island. This tour is perfect for those who don’t enjoy snorkeling or scuba diving, as you can view colorful fish, coral, and other sea life from the comfort of the boat. Not one drop of water will touch you!
On this 40-minute boat ride, you’ll explore Lover’s Cove Marine Preserve and see several aquatic species in their natural habitat.
Your captain will provide commentary on the local ecology, so you’ll get to learn stuff about the island as well as the marine life during the boat adventure.
I like this one because the tour groups are small, which means you’ll have the chance to ask all your burning questions and actually get them answered!
Browse through all the cute shops in town
Shopping is sort of ingrained into a trip to Avalon. Since you will for sure be walking along the main drag of Crescent Avenue, you’ll run into most of the stores naturally!
You can expect laid-back clothing shops, lifestyle stores, surf shops, and souvenir shops selling everything from sunglasses to stickers to commemorate your trip. Most of the main shops are oh-so-conveniently located on Crescent Ave.
If you’re in need of a snack or an afternoon pick-me-up, we like Island Donuts (for donuts, duh) and Catalina Island Brew House for coffee (and beer… and pizza…).
Chill out at Descanso Beach Club
Descanso Beach Club is a trendy little beach club located just a short walk from the main town area of Avalon. This is such a fun place to lay back on chaise lounges and daybeds, grab drinks, gorge on food, and watch your day go by!
To get seats at the beach club, you can reserve them in advance by calling or booking online. There are several seating options available, including lounge chairs, cabanas, and daybeds, and prices vary depending on the location and size of the seating area.
In addition to lounging on the beach and soaking up the sun, you can also rent kayaks, stand-up paddleboards, and snorkeling gear to explore the crystal-clear waters.
The beach club also has a restaurant and bar, where you can enjoy a variety of food and drinks while enjoying beach vibes and music. Visiting on a Saturday? Live DJs play at Descanso Beach Club every Saturday during the summer!
The menu features a variety of fresh seafood, salads, burgers, and signature cocktails (like The Original Buffalo Milk, the Descanso Lemonade, and the Saldana Michelada), making it a great spot for lunch or a mid-afternoon stop!
Enjoy a delicious meal at one of the island’s many restaurants
If you’re starting to feel tummy rumblings as you explore or adventure your way through the island, you can grab a meal at one of these establishments vetted by both locals and travelers:
- The Sandtrap ($) – Situated outside of the tourist zone, this spot serves up good tacos and margaritas. Go here for happy hour on a nice sunny day and grab a seat in the outdoor patio area!
- Coney Island West ($) – A slice of NY and a favorite among locals and visitors — known for its classic theme park/fair foods like hot dogs, burgers, and fries.
- The Lobster Trap ($$) – This family-owned restaurant has been dishing out fresh seafood for over 50 years. The Lobster Trap is known for its lobster bisque and cioppino!
- Steve’s Steakhouse and Seafood ($$$) – This iconic restaurant known for its delicious steaks and fresh seafood has been a favorite among locals and visitors for over 40 years.
- Bluewater Avalon ($$$) – This waterfront restaurant and bar offers fresh seafood and sushi, as well as a variety of craft beers and cocktails. You’ll get epic views of the harbor, so it’s a great spot for a romantic dinner or a celebratory night out with friends!
- El Galleon – Featuring classic American fare like seafood, steak, burgers, prime rib (!!) and some Mexican cuisine. You can catch live music or karaoke on some nights too!
Enjoy brews (and beer pong) at Flx Biergarten
If you’re not the type to just sit and talk while enjoying a cold pint of beer, I’d recommend walking past some of the pubs along the main street until you get to Flx Biergarten.
This new beer garden spot is so much fun! They have a massive beer pong table, Jenga, Uno, cornhole, and other little games to play within their beer garden.
During our last visit, we opted for a game of beer pong, which required a purchase of a pitcher of beer that came with all the balls and cups needed to play your own game of beer pong.
Since there was just one other group that seemed like they had no interest in playing next, we basically took our sweet time and played about 3 games or so before we decided to head out and end our day of exploring the island.
All in all, we had a blast here! If you want chill vibes and good beer served in an outdoor environment, this is the place to go! If you end up getting cold at night, there are fire pits!
Other places to grab drinks:
- Luau Larry’s – Your classic tiki bar featuring tropical cocktails and island-inspired drinks.
- Bluewater Avalon – A waterfront restaurant and bar offers views of the harbor, craft beers and cocktails, as well as fresh seafood and sushi.
- The Marlin Club – A cozy nautical-themed pub with beers on beers on tap! It’s a great spot to grab a drink and watch the game.
Other Things To Do On Catalina Island, California
Go on a bison expedition
Did you know that there are herds of bison roaming free on Catalina Island? Yup, I was surprised to find this out myself too! If you’re a first-time visitor to Catalina and happen to be a fan of wildlife-spotting, one of the must-dos there is the bison expedition!
This 2-hour 4-wheeling adventure takes you on a guided tour of the island’s rugged interior in search of American bison, which were introduced to the island by a movie crew in the 1920s. (It must have been a Western movie — that’s my best guess!)
Today, the Catalina Island Conservancy maintains the bison herd to protect both the animals and the island’s landscape.
The Bison Expedition offers an excellent opportunity to see these majestic animals in the wild. As you journey through the historic Middle Ranch and up rugged Cape Canyon to a scenic overlook on Black Jack Mountain, your guide will share interesting facts about Catalina’s history, flora, and fauna.
You’ll also get to travel down the original 19th-century stagecoach route, which not many day-trippers get to experience!
Visit the Catalina Island Museum to learn about the island’s culture.
The Catalina Island Museum is a must-visit attraction for those of you interested in the history of Catalina Island. Located in the heart of Avalon, the museum offers a variety of exhibits and programs that showcase the island’s unique heritage.
The museum’s permanent exhibits include the Catalina Island History exhibit, which explores the island’s history from the Native American era to the present day.
In addition to its permanent exhibits, the museum also features some really interesting rotating exhibits throughout the year. Past exhibits have included Chihuly at the Catalina Island Museum, which featured works by glass artist Dale Chihuly, and Jaws: The Art of Fear in Filmmaking, which explored the making of the classic movie Jaws.
There’s also Time Changes All Odds: Photography and Catalina, which explores how photography has contributed to the identity of the island since the medium’s introduction in the 1800s.
Take an underwater expedition of Catalina Island
Explore what’s underneath the Pacific waters surrounding Catalina Island on a 45-minute underwater cruise. From the comfort of a climate-controlled cabin on board a large boat, you’ll glide five feet below the surface and observe marine life in their natural habitat through your own porthole.
As you journey along, a guide will provide live commentary about the Pacific Ocean marine life. With a choice of departure times available throughout the day, this undersea expedition is a great way to experience the underwater world of Catalina Island without getting wet!
Do an escape room
You don’t have to have to love the outdoors to enjoy your trip to Avalon. Indoor activities like escape rooms are popping up everywhere, so why not on Catalina Island too? If you’re into problem-solving with your friends and family under time pressure, this activity is for you!
Escape Room Catalina is a classic family-friendly and affordable activity, perfect for people who aren’t as into sun, sand, and water. Or people who just need a break from all that!
With over 200 five-star reviews you can trust that your party will have a unique and memorable experience. They book by reservation only and your experience comes with a photograph complete with fun props and costume hats!
Visit the Wrigley Memorial & Botanic Garden
The Wrigley Memorial & Botanic Garden is quite the picturesque attraction on Catalina Island! This memorial and garden were built in honor of William Wrigley Jr., who played a major role in the development of the island.
There are two parts to this stop — the memorial and then the gardens.
The memorial is a massive concrete structure made of Catalina stone and colorful tiles while the botanic garden, which surrounds the memorial, features a variety of native plants and flowers.
The idea for the gardens came from Mr. Wrigley’s wife, Ada. In 1935, she worked with Pasadena horticulturalist Albert Conrad, to plant the original Desert Plant Collection. But there are more than just desert plants at the gardens thanks to Catalina Island’s temperate marine climate that allows other plants from every corner of the earth to also thrive!
While exploring the botanic garden, there are several must-see areas to visit. The Desert Plant Collection features a variety of cacti and succulents, while the Channel Islands Section showcases the unique flora of the nearby Channel Islands.
The Wrigley Memorial Garden, located just below the memorial, features a variety of colorful flowers and plants, as well as a koi pond.
Go on a ziplining tour above the island
For an adrenaline-pumping adventure with a side of canyon-meets-coastal views, opt for a thrilling ziplining experience while on the island!
The zipline consists of 5 separate lines that drop from 600 feet above sea level, with one run that is 1,100 lineal feet long all on its own. You will travel nearly three-quarters of a mile over five consecutive zip lines at heights of 300 feet above the canyon floor at speeds pushing 40 mph.
As you begin your journey from the Hogsback Gate high in the hills near Avalon, you will descend through Descanso Canyon and pause at several eco-stations along the way. At each station, your hosts will give you a presentation on some of the unique and interesting aspects of Catalina Island, its wildlife, history, and the areas you are passing through.
Eventually exiting at Descanso Beach, your Catalina Island zip line journey will last approximately 2 hours.
I will warn you now though — this tour is the most popular and most booked on the island, so advanced reservations are recommended.
Other popular excursions for thrill-seekers and adventurers include:
- Seeing the island by kayak or stand-up paddleboard
- Catalina Aerial Adventure
- Catalina Island Parasailing Adventure
Visit the Catalina Island Casino
Before all you gamblers get too excited, let me first state that there is NO gambling that takes place at this “casino”!
In the 1900s, this historic art deco building hosted folks looking to enjoy a movie, dinner, and dancing as the hub of Avalon nightlife! Today, you can take a tour of the Casino, perfect for people interested in learning more about the theater’s history. Catalina Casino offers two experiences, General Admission and Casino VIP Backstage Tour.
Three Palms Avalon Arcade
Visit the Three Palms Avalon Arcade for family-friendly bowling, classic arcade games, food, and drinks!
Where To Stay In Catalina Island
Bellanca Hotel ($$): A super hip, modern, and trendy hotel that’s situated in just the perfect location in Avalon, just steps from the beach! It’s basically a five-minute walk from just about anywhere you can think of walking to. You will get a cute and cozy room that features either a queen or king-size bed. Some of the amenities that you can enjoy include a scenic rooftop deck that offers amazing views of the island as well as beach towels, beach chairs, and an amazing breakfast!
Zane Grey Pueblo Hotel ($$ – $$$): Contemporary comfort within a historic landmark! Newly renovated in 2019, the Zane Grey Pueblo Hotel was originally built in 1926 by renowned novelist, Zane Grey, as his vacation home. The estate is now transformed into one of the best-selling hotels in Catalina Island. I love that guests get complimentary shuttle service and breakfast, at your service!
Hotel Atwater ($$$) – This is hands-down one of the most sought-after hotels on the island! The hotel has been recently renovated with island-inspired décor and offers a refreshing design and relaxing escape from mainland life. With its central location, Hotel Atwater is a great choice if you want to be in the middle of everything Avalon has to offer. You also gotta love the two free flutes of sparkling wine on arrival day!
When Is The Best Time To Visit Catalina Island?
Personally, I love Catalina Island’s weather conditions from July to September.
These months are best for those who want to enjoy the island’s beaches and water activities! The summer weather is warm, the sun’s out and shining, and the water is perfect for swimming, snorkeling, and other water sports.
Some of you will notice I didn’t mention May or June up there. While the weather is typically pretty warm in May and June (no jacket needed), do note that SoCal usually sees “June gloom” during this time period, where a marine layer will block out the sun and all you see is overcast skies. If this is the weather you like for exploring, then more power to you!
For those who want to avoid the crowds and enjoy slightly cooler temperatures compared to summertime, the best time to visit is during the spring or fall months from March to May or from October to November. During these months, there will be far fewer tourists on the island. And you probably still won’t need a jacket!
Winter months from December to February can be cold and potentially rainy, but the island is still beautiful and offers a quiet, unique experience for visitors. The winter months are also a great time to see the island’s wildlife, including bison and bald eagles!
Our most recent trip in July actually started out with sad-looking marine layer skies. I saw it and thought “okay let me pack a jacket for our day trip”. But around 11 a.m., almost ALL of the cloud coverage had burned off and out came the sun. At that point, it no longer made sense to have a jacket at all!
How To Get To Catalina Island
First off, where is Catalina Island exactly?
Catalina Island is located off the coast of Southern California, approximately 22 miles southwest of Los Angeles. It is one of the eight Channel Islands and is the only one with a significant and permanent population.
Avalon is the main city and the most populated area on Catalina Island. It is located on the eastern end of the island and is the primary destination for people looking to enjoy a day trip, weekend getaway, or beach time.
Compared to other parts of Catalina Island, Avalon is the most developed and has the most amenities, including a variety of restaurants, shops, hotels, museums, etc. You’ll also find lots of homes here.
In contrast, other parts of Catalina Island, such as Two Harbors and the interior of the island, are less developed and offer a more rugged experience — better for backpacking and camping.
Since it’s an island, getting there does take some pre-planning. But it’s not hard at all!
There are three main ways to get to Catalina Island: via the Catalina Express, by cruise, or by private boat, plane, or helicopter.
The Catalina Express (from Long Beach, San Pedro, and Dana Point)
The Catalina Express is the most common way for visitors originating from Southern California to get to Catalina Island. This ferry service operates daily all year round from several ports in Southern California: Long Beach, San Pedro, and Dana Point.
All of them will take you to Avalon, CA. Ferry boats make the trip in about an hour.
The Catalina Flyer (from Newport Beach)
The Catalina Flyer is the best way to get from Newport Beach to Catalina Island. The Catalina Flyer is a 600-passenger catamaran ferry that offers daily roundtrip departures for the Newport – Avalon route. This ride will take you approximately 75 minutes one way.
By Cruise Ship
Catalina Island is a popular cruise ship port. This is probably how most of us learn about the existence of Catalina Island in the first place!
Many cruise lines, such as Carnival Cruise Line and Princess Cruises, offer itineraries that include a stop at Catalina Island as part of their California/Mexico coastal cruises.
Once the cruise ship reaches the island, passengers will disembark (starting at 8am or so) with a half-day of free time to explore the island’s many attractions, including carting around the island, hiking, ziplining, enjoying the beaches, and doing water sports. Cruise lines typically also offer shore excursions that take passengers on guided tours of the island.
Private Boat / Private Plane
A much less common way for people to get to Catalina Island is by private boat or yacht. This is really only possible by those who can afford it.
Lastly, the least common way to get to Catalina Island is by private plane or helicopter. There is a small airport on the island, the Catalina Airport, which can accommodate private planes and helicopters. However, this option is usually reserved for those who can afford the luxury of flying privately.
How To Get Around Catalina Island
Getting around Catalina Island is pretty easy and convenient, even if you don’t have a set of wheels. Most people come by some kind of boat and stay for a day or two, so practically no one will have access to a car when they arrive!
Avalon, the main town on the island, is pretty walkable in the downtown area. You can easily explore the town on foot, taking in the sights and sounds of the charming streets and shops.
To see the scenic parts of the island, most people choose to rent a golf cart. This is a popular option for a 1 to 2-hour excursion, allowing visitors to explore the island’s rugged coastline and scenic viewpoints at their own pace.
Golf carts can be rented from several locations in Avalon and are a fun self-guided way to see the island!
There is also the Garibaldi Bus operated by the City of Avalon. The fixed route bus serves central Avalon from the ferry landing to Casino Way and up-canyon to the Wrigley Memorial and Botanical Garden. It costs $2 per ride; children under 5 are free.
For those who want to get to farther parts of the island or are towing a ton of luggage and need to get dropped off at their hotel, taxis are available and can be found all over the downtown area. They’ll be all over the Catalina Island ferry terminal, as well as the taxi stand, located on the corner of Crescent Avenue and Metropole Avenue.
Map: Best Things To Do In Catalina Island
Looking for more Southern California travel tips? Here are some more articles you may find interesting!
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- 28 Fun Things To Do In The South Bay Los Angeles, California
- 20 Best Wineries Near Los Angeles, California (And Wine Day Trips!)
- 58 Fun Date Spots In Los Angeles, California
- 17 Fun Things To Do In San Juan Capistrano, California
- 41 Things To Do In Anaheim Other Than Disneyland
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