Ride Report: Catalina Island 3

Ride Report: Catalina Island

Ever since I found out that you can ride your bicycle in and around Catalina Island, it has become one of my missions to organize an overnight bike trip there. Rather than putting this at the bottom of my list of things to do, I moved it to the front of the line, like a Disneyland Fastpass ticket. The trip was scheduled to happen the weekend of August 22 – 23. This wasn’t your typical overnight bike tour. This involved some preparation and planning before we could even think about packing our bikes. Lucky for me, one of my other Los Angeles area bike friends was organizing the same ride a few months before, so I piggy-backed on his preparation. Here’s what we found out we needed to do.

Winding gravel riding

Winding gravel riding. Photo by Sang Hyun De Krieger.

Before Having Fun

There are several things one must do to make sure things go as smoothly as possible. First thing we needed to do was join the Catalina Conservancy for $35 for the year. This includes a “freewheeler bike pass” which allows cycling around the island, as well as 50% off camping fees (this came in handy later). If you have more than one people purchasing the pass, I would recommend batching the purchase to get the cheapest price. I should have done this with my brother-in-law, but we didn’t think about this until it was too late. It is also important to note that you are required to have knobby mountain bike tires to ride on the island. I have been told that park rangers may stop you to have a word about your tires if they do not meet tread requirements, so be aware of that.

The second thing we had to do was reserve a seat on the Catalina Express ferry. Our plan was to leave on the first ferry out of Long Beach and come back on an afternoon ferry from Catalina the following day. The cost of the fare was $74.50 for a round trip ticket + $7 bike handling fee. Be sure you check in with one of the attendees when you get to the ticket terminal. We thought we didn’t have to do that since we bought it online and printed the confirmation, but they required us to bring the confirmation to get an actual boarding ticket.

The third and last logistical step was to secure a campsite. This was very difficult in the summer time as reservations required a 2 night minimum stay and costed $22 each night per person. Besides the high price, which we can use our Conservancy membership to get half off, we only wanted to stay 1 night and their online reservation would not allow us to reserve just 1. We were told that it was a first come first serve situation to secure a campsite the day when we arrived.

Thumbs up

Thumbs up view of Avalon Waterfront. Photo by Henry Pan.

All Aboard!

The plan was to meet at the Catalina Express terminal in Long Beach at 5:30AM on August 22nd. I came with my brother-in-law, Sang Hyun, and Joge. Upon arrival, we were joined by Jeremy, Chris, Bruce, and Amoxeh. Our ferry was suppose to leave at 6:15AM. We all made it onboard right when our last 2 riders, Henry and Hyeran, showed up at the terminal. They had to take the next ferry. This was fine as we needed to wait for the Conservancy to open so that we can have them issue us the riding passes. There was another rider who went the night before,whom I had never met. I was looking for a guy named Nick when we make it on land.

The boat ride to the island took 45 minutes. Our group didn’t get to sit next to each other, but I think everybody was still recovering from waking up early in the morning, so we were dozing in and out of consciousness (at least that was what I was doing).

Catalina Island Airport

The Waiting Game

As soon as we got off and retrieved our bikes, we rode out to the Catalina Conservancy office to discover that they were not open until 9AM. It was barely 7:30AM. We decided to grab breakfast. Nick showed up right when we got to the restaurant. We greeted him and everyone went in.

The restaurant took a good hour and half to get us our food. I suppose serving 8 people that early in the morning was a challenge for the restaurant staff, but that was pretty ridiculous. We quickly finished our breakfast and left the restaurant. The delay allowed Henry and Hyeran to join us right when we were enroute to the Catalina Conservancy office. With the 10 of us ready to roll, we all acquired the biking pass which allowed us to ride the unpaved roads of the island.

Half of us who were finished with the conservancy headed towards the tourist information kiosk to see if we can reserve our campsite for the night. After about 30 minutes and nobody showing up, I had half of the group start the ride up while the other half shopped for groceries for dinner. We ended up waiting for another 2+ hours before I asked the other tour attraction operators about camping, and they told me to go talk to the people at Hotel Atwater. They gave me a business card for someone to call and talk about camping. Because it was a Saturday, the office was closed, so I had no luck in getting a hold of the person who overlooked the camping reservation. I went back to Hotel Atwater to explain the situation again and they dialed another number. This time they found someone who was able to help us book for the night. The cost was $220 + $10 for firewood bundle. I was so glad we got a place to camp, I completely forgot to ask about the 50% discount. I actually ended up calling the office the following Monday to get the charge credited.

Finally! We were going to ride our bikes!

Riding up

Up, up, up

Right off the bat, we started our bike ride with a pretty challenging climb up out of Avalon using Stagecoach Road. We almost reached the first plateau near where the zipline attraction started, the first half of our group was there cheering us on as they waited for us patiently.

We continued our ascent towards the airport on poorly maintained roads, which eventually turned into gravel roads. The toughest climb of the entire trip was in front of us as we kept going higher and higher until we were 1500 feet above sea level. It took some time for all of us to gather at the first stop which had a set of benches and a 180 degree view of the east side of the island. We rehydrated, rested, and continued on the road to the Catalina Airport. We got to see a few bisons who were roaming freely around the area as they watched us, disinterested. Luckily, none of them charged us like the goring incident that happened a few days after we left.  Our group eventually was separated into multiple groups as we all reached the airport at different times. Amoxeh and Bruce were the first ones there when I arrived. They had already finished a meal at the DC3 Gifts & Grill when I rolled in to join. Lunch was served and everybody trickled in one-by-one to refuel and cool off from the rough road and warm weather.

Little Harbor Camping

Rolling into Camp

We left the airport with full bellies as we navigated towards our campsite at Little Harbors. We were the only group of people on our bikes rolling through the rough and dusty roads from the east to west side of the island by El Rancho Escondido Road. It took about an hour to get to Shark Harbor (I didn’t see any sharks) which is the beach area where the Little Harbor Campgrounds were located.

Our campsite was nice and big with several benches and tables for us to park our gear while we set up our shelter for the night. The facilities was fairly primitive with just a spigot as our source of water. The bathrooms were porta-potties and the shower was a dip in the ocean (only 2 guys took advantage of this). There were several bisons scattered throughout the campgrounds grazing.

Four guys decided that they needed to go make a beer and snacks run over at Twin Harbors, which was the nearest location that sold food 6 miles away. They left at 4PM and we didn’t see them until close to 7PM when they arrived before sunset. Everyone cooked their dinners and enjoyed the beers that were purchased. Not long after, everyone was huddled around the fire that was blazing until 11PM when we all retreated to our shelter for the night.

Riding to Little Harbor

Tough Riding

A few of us woke up at 6 in the morning and was having our favorite beverage while we waited for the rest of our group to get up and pack their stuff for our journey home. We didn’t leave until close to 10AM. We retraced our tracks back up to El Rancho Escondido Road, but instead of going back where we came from, we decided to ride on Middle Ranch Road. It was another gravelly ride, which included some areas of loose sand.  We all made it out unscathed despite squirreling through it.

The road undulated through the Southwest part of the island until we got to an area with a few ranchers tending to their horses. Before we could see the finish line on Airport Road, we were once again challenged to climb up to the same elevation from the day before. Everyone huffed and puffed up the steep switchbacks. Some people walked it while others gritted their teeth and churned their cranks slowly and steadily. We were glad to be on Airport Road as that meant an eventual long downhill back into Avalon. And boy was that a downhill! My fingers and hands were cramping up from feathering the brakes down the descent. I was the first one down, so I waited for everyone back at the zipline area once again. Everyone made it down without any incidents. We continued along the one-way Chimes Tower Road which directed us to a beautiful balcony view of Avalon. We decided to grab lunch at Antonio’s Pizzeria & Cabaret overlooking the waterfront where we all ordered incredible amounts of food and drinks to celebrate our accomplishment.  We topped off our meals with some Dreyer’s ice cream at the shop next door while we waited for our scheduled ferry to board.

The trip back went smoothly as we all checked our bikes in. I quickly succumbed to the exhaustion and was asleep pretty much the entire 45 minutes only to wake up when we started to dock at Long Beach. We took one last photo together before each of us went our separate ways.

Shark Harbor

View of Shark Harbor

Final Thoughts

Even though our ride wasn’t very far, this was probably the most fun and challenging one I’ve experienced in a while. The weather was perfect, the company was top notched as everyone got along and joked around. While some parts were tough, all our riders were tougher and powered their way back into “civilization.” I’m proud of our little group who brought an idea to fruition. I enjoyed it so much, I’m planning on going back during the winter as Bruce mentioned that there will be fewer people in camp and the fees are not so bad. Hopefully, I’ll get to see more of the island next time. I almost forgot to mention that this was the first time I got to bike tour with an ultralight setup (bikepacking). More on this in a later blog post.

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About Johnny Lam

Johnny is an avid cyclist who enjoys bicycle touring as well as anything bicycle related. Johnny has traveled the entire Pacific Coast by bike from Vancouver to the border of California and Mexico. He’s also toured through-out locations in Southern California. Johnny is also a League of American Bicyclists League Certified Instructor (LCI) and also completed the Adventure Cycling Association’s Leadership Training Course (LTC). He is an active member in Los Angeles bicycling community being involved in organizations like the Los Angeles County Bicycling Coalition (LACBC), C.I.C.L.E. (Cyclists Inciting Change through Live Exchange), and Bike San Gabriel Valley (Bike SGV) by taking part in ride marshaling, pedestrian & bike counts, and other volunteering opportunities.

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