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Mountain Biking Santa Catalina Island

Somewhere on the order of 20 years ago, when mountain bikes were much newer and something of an amusing novelty to the hikers whose paths were crossed, Jeri and I did a bit of mountain biking on Santa Catalina Island.

Catalina, as it’s known by anyone in Southern California, is one of California’s coastal islands located about 22 miles off the coast of Long Beach. It’s a big sucker at about 22 miles in length, and on those rare, clear Southern California days it’s visible from the mainland. So much for the geography.

Most of the island is not public land. In the 1900s  it was the private property of the William Wrigley family (as in Wrigley gum and the Chicago Cubs, and so on), and other than the small town of Avalon, wasn’t open to the public. That changed in the 1970’s when ownership was transferred to the Catalina Island Conservancy, a nonprofit organization established to protect the island’s resources. Suddenly, vast amounts of previously off limits land was now opening to some public access. And with that we’re done with history.

So sometime in the mid-1980s we must have read a story in the LA Times about mountain bikes being allowed on the island and thought that sounded like a cool thing to do. Remember kids,  this was in the dark times before the Internet and information was spread by things called newspapers.

There were, and are, regularly scheduled ferries between Catalina and the mainland, taking just over an hour to make the trip. And for just a few dollars more, they would also haul your bike. Sure, why not….we’re in. We also managed to convince (ever notice the word “convince” starts with the word con??) a number of friends and coworkers into also thinking this was a good idea. And over the period of one fun Summer made multiple trips to Catalina, riding just about every trail that was available. We were so deranged we even thought it would be fun to bike into a remote beach campground and go skin diving. Biking and salt water don’t mix well.

This adventure period all drew to a close for a couple of reasons. One was that we saw all that was available for us to see at the time. There were still a great number of dirt roads left on the island, but the Conservancy hadn’t opened them to bikes. The other consideration was that the Conservancy was tightening up control of the assorted crazy bikers it was letting into the back country. Instead of the free bike permits we were used to getting, we were going to be required to join the Conservancy and have to pay dollars. This didn’t sit well with the cheapskate engineer-type bunch that typically made up our riding group, so we moved on elsewhere and happily let Catalina recede into the fog banks. And now we’re done with the backstory….aren’t you glad?

So, kicking a plodding narrative along, we flash forward to January of 2014. Hey, it’s now the Internet age and I happen to wonder if they still do mountain biking on Catalina? Jeri and I are now both old but still in need of at least a little adventure. So I point da Google toward the Catalina Island Conservancy to see what turns up. Oh, wow….

Seems that much more of the island has been opened to both hiking and biking. You can now hike the entire island length on the Trans-Catalina Trail, and bike almost the entire length. There are now even two ways to ride out of the town of Avalon. Plenty of hiking and biking maps available online. Membership in the Conservancy at some level is still required but that feels like less of an objection these days. In fact, at the higher membership levels (i.e., you give them more tax-deductable money) you get fringe benefits. Things like discounts on ferry transportation, enhanced camping locations and a friggin’ annual bike permit.

I pitched the idea of joining the Conservancy to Jeri and she eyed me warily. She was all up for visiting the island, as she had been in the past. But she’s older and wiser now and well aware of the stupid ideas I can concoct and how nasty-hard the terrain can be to bike. I, OTOH, have gotten more sneaky in my pitches to compensate for her defenses. I suggested we join, then just do a day trip to “check things out”. No bikes, just in and out of Avalon on the ferry, and maybe a short hike up out of town. She acknowledged this could be fun and cautiously agreed.

So we planned a proof of concept trip for the end of March, 2014. There is a high speed ferry running between Newport Beach and Avalon (the Catalina Flyer) that takes only 1:15 for the crossing. This particular ferry (there are two companies doing this) only does one trip daily, arriving in Avalon at 10:15 AM and leaving Avalon for Orange County at 4:30 PM. Not a lot of time for biking, but plenty for us to do some hiking and see how Avalon has changed in 20 years.

The trip turned out great. Avalon was….well…a big surprise. The last time we were there it was a tacky tourist trap with marginal restaurants we weren’t eager to stop at. Now, well it’s all damn nice! It looks like the town has spent a lot of redevelopment money sprucing things up and closing off streets to create pedestrian malls. A cruising through Yelp turned up quite a number of what appeared to be good restaurants in town.

Part of Avalon’s revival seems to be due to the presence of large cruise ships that anchor for the day just outside the harbor. The ships then spew forth their Norovirus-laden passengers to wander around Avalon in annoying, stinky golf carts bothering the locals. At the end of the day the cruise ships move on somewhere else to inflict their overfed clients on another coastal community. That’s the downside. The upside is it all paid for a really nice docking area the ferries also use. But if you can ignore the temporary cruisers, Avalon is a very fine place. And, important note here, the cruisers seldom leave town. Go for a hike or bike and humanity vanishes.

So Jeri and I did the tourist thing, hitting the various places that were free to us as higher level members of the Conservancy. And the hike was very fine too. We did a 4 mile loop called the Garden to the Sky trail that climbed to the very spine of the island at 1,500′. While it was cruiser-crazy below in town, we saw a total of four people on the hike.

The screen grab below I stole from the Conservancy shows our hiking route. It’s the path in light blue. Those other colors? Ah, yes, those. Those are part of the mountain bike trail system with the colors showing the steepness along the way. We will ignore that for the moment….at our own peril.

Catalina hike route

So Jeri and I wrapped up the hike and managed to find Original Jack’s Country Kitchen, breakfast served all day (or until they close at 3 PM or whenever the hell they feel like it, whichever comes first). Bacon and cheese omelets: They not just for breakfast anymore! Seriously, excellent food, and after chowing down, we dragged our sorry asses back to the ferry and the mainland.

So we were both really surprised at how nice Avalon was, the great food opportunities, the ease of making the crossing and the possibility of some very nice bike rides. The problem was, I was doing the planning. I should never, ever be allowed to plan these sorts of things. It can result in, oh I don’t know, the Avalon Circle of Death Ride.