One day in Catalina Island is just enough time to discover the magic of this California destination, though it will likely make you want to plan a return trip to the Channel Islands.
Located approximately 22 miles southwest of Los Angeles, this gem of southern California has wide appeal and is easily accessible. It’s known as “California’s Island Escape,” and visitors can expect everything from history to adventure, all under the bright California sunshine, cooled by Pacific Ocean breezes.
Read on to discover the ultimate guide to spending one day on Catalina Island.
9:00 a.m.: Browse the Shops
Avalon’s scenic waterfront has a plethora of boutiques and shops selling everything from clothing to unique gifts.
Browse gourmet foods, ceramics, jewelry, candy, swimsuits, candles, books, and much more. With everything located within a handful of the city’s blocks, it’s easy to walk around and pop into any of the shops that pique your interest.
Purchase some local artwork or delicious saltwater taffy to enjoy as you wander the palm-tree-lined lanes. Highlights include Catalina Pottery & Tile Co., Buoys & Gulls, and Two’s Company.
If you opted for a light breakfast and it’s a sunny day, it’s never too early for ice cream. Drop into Sailor’s Delight Ice Cream Shop, where you can choose from classic flavors such as Mint Chip or Butter Pecan.
Or try one of their specialty flavors like Lemon Meringue or Heaps of Love, which packs everything from Oreos and brownies to pecans and cookie dough in one sweet scoop.
10:00 a.m.: Embark on a Bison-Spotting Expedition
Head out on a thrilling land-based adventure with an off-road, eco-friendly tour around the island, searching for the island’s famous bison.
With your guide and the open-air Hummer, you’ll venture through the grazing grounds of these massive creatures that roam the interior of Catalina Island.
The bison are a feature of Catalina; a few individuals were brought over by a film crew in the 1920s and left here, growing to a large herd but today managed by the Catalina Conservancy at a population of around 100.
Bison aren’t the only wildlife to keep an eye out for though; you’ll have the opportunity to look for bald eagles and the Catalina Island gray fox, which was once an endangered species, saved by the island’s Conservancy.
You’ll learn about the history of Catalina Island, too, which stretches back 7,000 years. It was claimed first by the Europeans for the Spanish Empire, and then was turned over to Mexico, before becoming part of the United States. Pirates, gold hunters, and army missionaries have all made this their base.
Top off your thrilling adventure with a beautiful viewpoint stop at Black Jack Mountain, an ideal spot for taking photographs and soaking in the awe-inspiring vista.
The route back to Avalon will take you along the original 19th-century stagecoach route where more views await of the Catalina coast and the sparkling Pacific Ocean.
12:00 p.m.: Explore the Historic Catalina Casino
Perhaps the island’s most well-known landmark, the Catalina Casino is a treat to explore. Encircled by the ocean on three sides, the round structure is 12 stories tall and the largest building on the island.
It was built by William Wrigley, Jr in 1929. The chewing gum entrepreneur came to Catalina Island in the early 1900s, bought almost every share in the island, and invested millions in creating what he dubbed “a playground for all”. Ever since, Catalina Island has been a coveted resort destination.
The Casino, meanwhile, has been a hub for entertainment, with live music and dancing ever since. Learn about why this entertainment venue doesn’t actually have anything to do with gambling as you take a guided tour through the grounds.
Your visit will immerse you in Old Hollywood California, as you step into the Avalon Theatre, adorned with art deco murals and a pipe organ dating back to 1929. Hear about how the facility hosted numerous big bands in the 1930s and 40s.
Venture into the Casino Ballroom where you’ll marvel at 50-foot ceilings and five Tiffany-style chandeliers are suspended glamorously over the elevated stage and wooden dance floor. Here, it’ll be easy to imagine fantastic ballroom dancers gracefully entertaining the crowds.
Capture some photos of the sweeping views of Avalon Bay from the veranda as you make your way outside.
If you’d like to see more behind-the-scenes aspects, a narrated tour will grant you access to portions of the Casino previously closed to the public such as the green rooms, projection room, and private viewing rooms.
1:00 p.m.: Enjoy Lunch at Descanso Beach Club
All of that exploring has most likely worked up an appetite at this point, and what better place to eat lunch than with your feet in the sand at the Descanso Beach Club?
Catalina’s only beachside restaurant and bar is a must for soaking up the sun with a cocktail in hand and a delicious lunch with ocean views.
Indulge in coconut shrimp or homemade guacamole to start, and then fill up with an Ahi Tuna Poke bowl or their signature street tacos, stuffed with carne asada. If you’re interested in sipping a seaside cocktail, there are colorful options.
Try the Descanso Destroyer, a mix of spiced rum, Amaretto, Crème de Noyaux, and orange and pineapple juice, or a classic and refreshing margarita.
If you’re still full from breakfast, enjoy the scenery here instead. Spend some time relaxing by the water in one of the private cabanas or chaise lounges. Soak up the sun, take a nap, read a book, or take a dip in the water.
2:00 p.m.: Take a Glass-Bottom Boat Tour
Hop aboard a glass-bottom boat from Avalon Bay and view the marine life surrounding Catalina Island. The transparent-bottomed boats serve as a portal to the underwater world as you make your way to Lover’s Cove Marine Preserve.
Put fish food through a tube into the water and watch as it attracts a variety of fish underneath the boat. It’s a great alternative to snorkeling while still viewing plenty of marine life.
Discover colorful fish such as the Garibaldi, the bright orange state fish that California is known for, and rockfish swimming in the crystal clear waters. Keep an eye out for marine flora and fauna, and other sea life like urchins and bat rays, which will be identified by your onboard guide.
Take photos of the stunning scenery along the coastline as well—when you can take your eyes away from the exciting glass-bottom viewing, of course. Lover’s Cove is also one of the best places to kayak in California.
3:00 p.m.: Wander the Wrigley Memorial & Botanical Gardens
Now that you’ve had some time for rest and relaxation, take a short hike through the scenic stretch of Avalon Canyon, one of the most unique places in California.
In about 30 minutes, you’ll reach the Wrigley Memorial & Botanical Gardens, run by the Catalina Conservancy. Alternatively, the gardens can be reached by taxi, golf cart or bicycle hire, or trolley.
Here, you’ll have the opportunity to view flora and fauna native to the island as well as the Wrigley Memorial. The almost 38-acre property was the brainchild of Mr. Wrigley’s wife Ada in 1969, in order to showcase the Channel Islands’ endemic plants, as well as plants from all over the world.
View the Desert Plant collection, and the rare endemic plants such as the Catalina Ironwood, Catalina Bedstraw, Catalina Mahogany, Catalina Live-Forever, Catalina Manzanita, and St. Catherine’s Lace.
Take note of the monument, dedicated to Mr. Wrigley and his love for the island, built as the centerpiece of the botanical gardens using native crushed stones like blue flagstone rock and vibrant glazed tiles from the Catalina Pottery Plant.
Experience one day in Catalina Island for an unforgettable escape that’s sure to inspire a return trip. Browse Catalina Island cruises and book your adventure today.