First things first, close your eyes and take 5 seconds to visualize what comes to mind when you think of Catalina Island… What do you see?
Until last week, the exercise conjured up nothing in my head but thoughts of The Catalina Wine Mixer, some palm trees, and bougie fuckers in white tuxedos.
Believe it or not – aside from the small municipalities of Avalon and Two Harbors – the majority of Catalina Island is undeveloped. 88% of the island is owned by the Catalina Island Conservancy, who look after the wild populations of flora & fauna, operate a few campgrounds and maintain an expansive network of gravel roads – perfect for a weekend’s worth of gravel grinding.
With a rough plan, a few essentials, and a few non-essentials, the three of us (Shaun Daley, Eric Wallis, & Chase Burch) boarded the 8 am ferry in Long Beach and set off for Catalina Island.
The beauty of a quick overnighter is that you can pack fairly light and sacrifice some creature comforts for more important things. Leave the tent, bring the snorkel. Commit to one pair of socks, bring tequila. Ditch the towel, bring a spear.
Our original plan was to set off on a 70-mile loop around the island, spending the night halfway at Little Harbor campground – which is rated one of the best campgrounds in the US (except site 15 – trust me). However, after arriving in Avalon and learning about some road closures, it appeared our intended loop was now going to be an out-and-back – a faux pax for any worthy route planner.
New plan: stay flexible, get creative, skid more.
After the long paved climb out of tourist-laden Avalon, we passed through the conservancy gates into the heart of the island. Therein lay miles of gravel roads that weave through the dry and rolling island landscape, with no shortage of vistas and views of the Pacific Ocean. Even better, the only people allowed on the roads are permitted bikers, hikers, and an occasional Conservancy vehicle – so we basically had it to ourselves.
The isolation was a welcomed relief from COVID concerns of mainland California. Our biggest worry? Running over bison shit and catching flat tires from rogue cactus spines.
Following the casual* 30 mile ride we arrived at Little Harbor campground – an oasis of lush palms nestled in a picturesque cove. We dropped the bikes at our campsite and headed to the beach for a mandatory swim and some spear-fishing. Sunset was cut short by an immense spell of sea fog, but not to worry… spirits were lifted with DIY bike-pack margaritas (how-to on @skidlizards) and some Bitchin’ Sauce that Wallis had packed along.
Although we couldn’t feasibly complete the intended loop on the island, we realized that there was potential for a larger mainland/island loop by ditching our return to Avalon and instead of taking an alternate ferry out of Two Harbors to San Pedro. From there, we would pedal back to Long Beach via the LA River Bike Path. Boom. (Pro tip: One-way tickets = ultimate flexibility)
On day two, we pedaled from Little Harbor to Two Harbors to check the Ferry schedule. The San Pedro ferry didn’t leave the island until 5 pm, so we had the afternoon to burn meandering around the northern area of Catalina, which arguably holds the best sections of gravel on the entire island. After fueling up on burgers and Buffalo Milk (it’s not what you think) we pushed up to Parson’s Landing for a quick spot-check and then raced the clock back to the ferry dock. With a few pocket beers from the General Store, we boarded the ferry and settled in for the ride back to the mainland – with the island silhouetted against a tangerine sky as it faded into the distance.
Back on the mainland, the final stretch through industrial Long Beach back to our vehicles was a striking reunion with the real world that we had left behind 36 hours prior – albeit a great reminder of just how easy it can be to temporarily trade your desk for some drop bars and your career path for a gravel road.
*Casual compared to our typical bike touring trips, which usually require ridiculous hike-a-bike situations on impassable Oregon forest roads, or brutal Southern Utah desert conditions with no water. The roads on Catalina Island are certainly not flat, with many climbs and descents throughout and not a lot of protection from the sun.
Featured Cocktail: Bikepacking Margarita. @skidlizards for a how-to tutorial, coming soon.
Featured fish we completely botched easy spearfish shots: Calico Bass.