Two Harbors, Catalina – It always seems like a good idea at the time

November 10 – 12, 2014

Doing day mountain bike trips on Catalina Island is challenging due to the need to coordinate with mainland ferry schedules. The situation is further complicated in that almost all ferries go in and out of Avalon, and any riding out of Avalon involves some sort of craptastic climb (unless you cheat like we did with the airport shuttle).

A more intriguing possibility is offered by being based out of the tiny village of Two Harbors. It’s much more quiet and rural than Avalon. The northwest ride out of Two Harbors, toward Parson’s Landing, is damn near flat. The southeast ride towards the airport and ultimately Avalon, does have a climb, but not as bad as the climb out of Avalon.

The big downside to Two Harbors is there’s barely a there there. Unless you are into some form of camping or are fortunate to have a boat you can anchor in the harbor, the only lodging is the Banning House. It has 12 rooms and is sort of a bed and breakfasty type of place. But it had good reviews and offered the chance of soft beds and clean showers. So I booked us a couple of nights in November when it was sure to be cooler.

A screen grab from Google Earth showing a perspective view of Two Harbors. Yes, it's that small.

A screen grab from Google Earth showing a perspective view of Two Harbors. Yes, it’s that small.

Ferry service to Two Harbors is much more limited than Avalon. The only way to do a morning arrival is via a 9 AM boat out of San Pedro. That departure time sort of sucks if you’re coming from Orange County, as it puts you smack into the morning traffic peak. We avoid that by leaving early, ahead of the usual traffic, and enjoy a long, leisurely breakfast at the obviously named “Omelette & Waffle Shop” in San Pedro. It’s a great, old school diner just a few minutes from the ferry terminal. Yay for Yelp.

The 9 AM boat to Two Harbors stops first in Avalon before heading on to Two Harbors then returning to San Pedro. This makes for 2 hour trip to Two Harbors, but the ride along the Catalina Island coast from Avalon to Two Harbors is very scenic and enjoyable.

We arrived just after 11 AM and were met at the pier by a van from Banning House to take us and our stuff up the hill. Since we had the bikes along and were already dressed for our first ride, I asked if we could just ride on up and let the van bring our luggage. Seemed like a good idea at the time (a recurring theme for this trip). Although Banning House is only a third of a mile from the Two Harbors pier, it’s 150′ up. And that 150′ pretty much happens on their driveway. We know that now. We didn’t then. Blech.

Having used one of our nine daily biking lives to get to Banning House, we were really pleased with what we found. It’s situated with views of both harbors of the Greater Two Harbors area. The room was large, clean and well furnished. The common areas (patios and lounges) were really comfortable with great views. It had very much an “Ahwahnee Lodge” sort of vibe to it, but much smaller. Anyway, We thought Banning House was a great place.

The view from Banning House toward beautiful downtown Two Harbors. That nice flat road is the distance is the start of the ride out to Parson's Landing.

The view from Banning House toward beautiful downtown Two Harbors. That nice flat road is the distance is the start of the ride out to Parson’s Landing.

View from Banning House toward Catalina Harbor, the "other" side of Two Harbors.

View from Banning House toward Catalina Harbor, the “other” side of Two Harbors.

Since it was early on day one, our plan was to do a repeat of our previous ride to Parsons Landing. And since we were staying in Two Harbors, we were much less encumbered with “stuff”, making for easier riding. Not that it mattered much, as it’s a damn easy ride to start with. We both decided it was our favorite ride on the island and would be suitable for someone who wasn’t even in great biking shape. Seeing as how we already had a buttfull of climbing just getting to Banning House, we decided to forgo the rather pointless steep climb at the end and then descent to Parson’s Landing, and turned back at the 7 mile mark. Since the summer camps were mostly closed for the season there was virtually no traffic on the road and we had an excellent ride. Completing the ride we again did the shit climb to Banning House, indulged in getting cleaned up and killed time until dinner.

The profile of the bike ride from Two Harbors to Parson's Landing, stolen from the Catalina Conservancy's biking map. Except for the pointless up and down just past mile 7, it's a great ride.

The profile of the bike ride from Two Harbors to Parson’s Landing, stolen from the Catalina Conservancy’s biking map. Except for the pointless up and down just past mile 7, it’s a great ride.

Dining options at Two Harbors are limited but adequate, as long as you’re OK with no choices. There’s a cafe/grill that’s open from 8 AM until about 3 PM. The other food place is a decent restaurant, the Harbor Reef, that opens from 5 PM to 8 or 9 PM. These two facilities share the same kitchen. Beyond these two eateries (wow, I got to use the pretentious word “eateries”!), the only other “food source” in Two Harbors is the general store. It’s actually not bad, catering to campers and those living on their boats. But those are the three food outlets in Two Harbors. We were careful to pace ourselves. In any case, dinner at the Harbor Reef that night was very good, but we probably ate too much.

The next morning, after breakfast at Banning House, we set off on our next adventure, this time toward Little Harbor. Little Harbor is about 6 miles from Two Harbors but involves a friggin’ 800′ climb. Fortunately the climbing came up front, when we were fresh. On top of that the weather was overcast and cool, unlike our earlier Catalina visits, so we made it to the crest with surprisingly little difficulty. After that there was the screaming downhill to Two Harbors. A more pessimistic member of our party pointed out we would have to climb back up that same fun downhill to get back home. Me? I live in the moment.

At the first crest. I'm torn between two captions for this. Either "Truth in labeling" or "Stockholm Syndrome: Still smiling after 40 years of abusive adventures!" Both work.

At the first crest. I’m torn between two captions for this. Either “Truth in labeling” or “Stockholm Syndrome: Still smiling after 40 years of abusive adventures!” Both work.

Jeri and I had actually been to Little Harbor many years earlier during our initial mountain biking adventures on the island. Someone (guess who) had got the fine idea it would be fun to bike to the nice beachfront campground at Little Harbor, spend the night and go skin diving around the harbor’s rocks. This meant the bikes, of course, but also panniers loaded with a tent, sleeping bags, food mask, fins, snorkel and even stinkin’ wet suits. To add insult to injury, I didn’t know about the considerable climb between Two Harbors and Little Harbor. But somehow we pulled it off, probably because we were young and stupid. Or stupid and young. Not sure which is more important but it helps to have both. Again, it seemed like a good idea at the time, which is why that phrase will be on my headstone. But for now we are old and smart and weren’t carrying pounds of camping crap.

Future airport tacos on the way to Little Harbor.

Future airport tacos on the way to Little Harbor.

We reached Little Harbor and were feeling pretty good. And why not, because we were well rested from the downhill. Turning back to Two Harbors would have made for a really nice ride, and not terribly hard. Yeah….well about that…..

When I was looking for ride ideas to fill that day I had briefly considered making an attempt to reach the airport from Little Harbor. There are a couple of roads that do so. The shortest route, and very steep, heads directly for the airport. There’s a somewhat longer route, running from Little Harbor to the road we rode between the airport and Avalon, but the Catalina biking map showed the grades to be less. I somehow got it in my mind it might be feasible to take this longer route up to the airport, then descend back to Little Harbor via the steeper, more direct route. But after the previous day’s ride to Parson’s Landing it seemed anything beyond Little Harbor would be a stupid thing.

Little Harbor. The connecting road to Two Harbors can be seen climbing of toward the right. "Climbing" is the important word.

Little Harbor. The connecting road to Two Harbors can be seen climbing of toward the right. “Climbing” is the important word.

We were now at the literal fork in the road, a couple hundred feet above Little Harbor and trying to decide what to do. We both felt fairly strong and not worn out…..so maybe we’d try riding a bit farther. We could see both routes heading off in their respective directions and were oddly drawn toward the steeper, direct one. First off, it didn’t look THAT steep, at least what we could see of it. And secondly, the longer, less steep route actually started off by descending and we were loathe to give up any of our present altitude. So we decided (I say “we” but we all know who I mean) to just head up the steeper route towards the airport and see how it goes. Anytime we had enough, we could turn it around and coast back down to Little Harbor. Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? That’s how shit rides always start.

So up we went, and it wasn’t too bad. The road was good and the scenery excellent. After about a mile and a half we crested a local high point and got a view of what lie ahead. Immediately below us was, to our surprise, a vineyard (Interesting story about it here). Turned out this was Rancho Escondido. Continuing on meant giving up about 150 feet of elevation, which wasn’t appealing. However off in the distance we could see our road continuing its climb and well….it didn’t look that bad (it never does). But more seductively, in the far distance at the crest of the ridgeline, we could see the end of the airport runway! To create the airport many years ago the top of a mountain had been leveled and the grading at the end of the runway is obvious. And it didn’t look THAT far away. As an engineer I should have a good understanding of “sense of scale”, but I guess I don’t. So on we pushed. Again, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

The vineyard at Rancho Escondido. Didn't expect to see something like this. Wine growers are crazy people.....

The vineyard at Rancho Escondido. Didn’t expect to see something like this. Wine growers are crazy people…..

The further we climbed the less fun this was becoming. And we also noted an odd time dilation effect in that the passage of time slowed considerably. What felt like a half hour was only ten minutes and the damn runway wasn’t any closer. But somewhere along the climb we passed an invisible pivot point and the idea of just turning around and coasting went away. We had to make it to the airport. There were two reasons for this.

The first was “We’re almost there” (we weren’t). This is, of course, a completely stupid reason but one I am all too familiar with. Note the use of “I” and not “we”. One of us has sense.

The second reason was a lot more….reasonable and somewhat pressing. Despite the cool overcast Jeri was sweating quite a bit and had burned through most of her water supply. And we were both tired, hungry and in need of rest. Given where we were it made more sense to push on to the airport for water, rest and buffalo tacos than to immediately turn back and start the very long (at this point) return to Two Harbors. So we sucked it up and continued the climb.

It wasn’t until the road passed immediately under the runway’s end that we (I mean I) saw how big a feature it was. And the weather was taking on this disturbing and odd quality, “cold” I’ve heard people refer to it as. We put on our jackets and made the last push to the airport.

Almost at the airport at God damned last.  Just to the left of Jeri is a hangar and to its left is the control tower. The pic fails to convey how cold it was.

Almost at the airport at God damned last. Just to the left of Jeri is a hangar and to its left is the control tower. The pic fails to convey how cold it was.

It was as we had dreamed! Buffalo tacos and a pleasant (non-bike) place to sit. It was very cold and windy outside and a few tour loads of Avalon tourists came in all bundled up. We were in shorts and thin wind shells. But we had made it. All we had to do was to get back. How hard could that be?

Due to the cold weather and short days I was getting nervous about starting back, so at 1 PM we started downhill. This was less enjoyable than one would think, due to the constant breaking and the ongoing wind chill. We quickly got back down to Rancho Escondido and were faced with the 150′ climb we had given up earlier. The difficulty of that lousy, short climb was a foreshadowing of what was to come. But in only a few more minutes we were back down in the warm air of Little Harbor and starting up the final grind.

On our screaming descent first coming into Little Harbor earlier I tried to note the grades and seemed to recall there were two especially steep areas we’d have to deal with on the return climb. Sadly that was now several hours ago and I completely forgot where they might be. As far as I could tell, it all sucked, with some sections sucking more than others. The main problem was that we were exhausted, with no energy reserves. The lunch hadn’t refilled our tanks as I had hoped. The secondary problem (but really primary) was we hadn’t ridden the bikes in many months and were in terrible shape, bike-wise. Yeah, I know….pretty stupid.

Time again slowed to a crawl as we ground our way up out of Little Harbor. The dirt road was wide and smooth enough that we started to traverse back and forth across the road as we climbed, effectively lessening the grade. By this time we had spent enough hours on the bikes we were experiencing the advanced stages of anal necrosis. There were, um….lots of stops. There may have even been some walking. Not gonna say. Those two steep areas I had noted? I was wrong. I think there were twenty of them.

But as they say, all bad things must come to an end and we reached the summit. It wasn’t until later, when I was reviewing the map info that I realized how bad a condition we were in at that moment. The climb we had made from Little Harbor to the airport was 1,600′. That we were able to pull off. But it left us in such a burnt out condition that the much smaller 800′ climb out of Little Harbor felt far worse.

The profile from Two Harbors to the airport, combined and tweaked from two separate profiles on the Catalina Conservancy bike map.

The profile from Two Harbors to the airport, combined and tweaked from two separate profiles on the Catalina Conservancy bike map.

Note to self: Don’t do this again.

While we were exhausted on the descent back into Two Harbors, we felt a little bit better knowing that we were going to make it. Well, at least I felt a little better. Jeri was well beyond feeling by that point and I made sure I kept further away than she could possibly throw a rock. In successful relationships each person understands the other.

But wait, there’s more! Remember that climb back up to Banning House? Well neither did I. But I’d be damned if I’d let a driveway stop me. Good thing I didn’t have a heart monitor on at the moment. Jeri just looked at me like I was a moron and leisurely walked her bike up. She is often far wiser than I.

The next morning we did our best impressions of vegetables trying out the assorted chairs in the Banning House lounges and sighing a lot. We did manage to eventually get vertical and do some mild walking around what passes for town. At 11:30 AM the ferry arrived and we got a direct ride back to San Pedro.

From our last morning's walk at Catalina Harbor. Banning House is that clump of stuff on the ridge to the right of the saddle.

From our last morning’s walk at Catalina Harbor. Banning House is that clump of stuff on the ridge to the right of the saddle.

While the passage of a few days it’s become a better and better adventure (this is a sad pattern). Banning House was excellent and we’ll look for an excuse to go back. The peace and quiet in Two Harbors was just amazing. At night we could see the distant lights of the Palos Verdes Peninsula, San Pedro and the extraterrestrially lit Long Beach Harbor and felt we were in a whole different plane of existence. If you’re looking for a place to veg out and do nothing, Two Harbors is a great place to escape.

But think carefully about bringing a bike.