The closest thing to hiking in Capri, Italy without leaving the U.S.

Beautiful Catalina Island
Beautiful Catalina Island

Updated December 05th, 2018

Perfect sunshine, the glittering blue sea, and rocky terrain that boasts dazzling views in every direction—you might envision the Mediterranean Island of Capri, but you don't have to dig out your passport when that same vision can be yours with a trip to Santa Catalina Island. Catalina Island boasts land and seascapes that are similar to those of Capri, Italy. However, it's much cheaper to hike Catalina--located just off the coast of California about twenty miles from the city of Los Angeles. While sometimes it's fun to hit the casino or lounge in the sun at an outdoor café, Catalina Island hiking is what I love to do most when I visit.

I've been enjoying Catalina Island hiking for about a decade and though I appreciate the Italian islands, I can't honestly say that they've impressed me more than the islands of my home state. Catalina hiking may not have the after-hike charm of made-from-scratch pasta at every café, but it does boast fresh seafood and good Napa Valley wine—my after-hike preference when it comes to California comfort food. I don't mind some fish and chips after a brisk morning hike—and that's part of Catalina's charm.

About Catalina Island

About 42 acres of Catalina Island is picture-perfect protected land that's in the care of the Catalina Island Conservancy. While the pristine tracts of island land can't be developed for the million or so tourists who visit each year, they can be explored—and hiked. As I mentioned, I have experienced other exciting activities on Catalina like whale-watching trips off the coast and golf trips, but it's the hiking and camping that lure me back. You'll always see something different. You might spot a bald eagle or the amber-hued eyes of a fox. You might meet other hikers who have their own insights about the best Catalina Island hikes. But, you'll always relish the time you spend climbing into the hills that overlook the beautiful Pacific.

I love to snorkel the reefs off the island, but to be honest, there's something about climbing high into the terrain to see an orange and pink sunset with the twinkling sea glittering in all directions. Sometimes it's chilly; sometimes it's the ideal temperature after a day in the hot sun. If you can tear yourself away from the island's celebrated sailing excursions, resorts, and spas, you should immerse yourself in its natural setting with a Catalina island camping and hiking experience.

Catalina Island Hiking

With its miles of backroads and trails, Catalina Island features hikes for level of ability whether you're a complete novice or a veteran hiker. I'd class myself as an intermediate hiker. I enjoy hikes between five and ten miles with moderately difficult terrain, but also located near civilization. Catalina Island camping is part of the island experience, but if you only have time for a day hike, you'll probably want to stick near Avalon.

If you're up for Catalina Island hiking, be sure to include hikes that lead to Long Beach, Hermit Gulch, or the popular Airport in the Sky, which is roughly 10 miles from Avalon. If you're only visiting the island for a day hike or half-day hike, consider setting aside a stroll at the Wrigley Memorial and Botanic Garden, which is famous for its desert and California-native plants. I don't typically frequent botanical gardens, but Catalina's has become part of the island experience for me. It's a relaxing spot that celebrates the natural terrain.

The Trans Catalina Trail

As I was saying, there are great hikes on the island for every skill level. The 37-mile-long Trans Catalina Trail is the backbone of Catalina Island hiking and a must for serious hikers. If you're planning to divert from Avalon, you'll need to procure hiking permits. I explore various sections of the trail each time I visit. I imagine I've been along the entire glorious stretch at this point. The trail literally traverses the whole island and features grass covered hills, rocky outcrops, and even a reservoir. A highlight for me is spotting bison grazing in the backcountry.  I love spotting wildlife in its wild habitat.

Another area I like to revisit for its natural beauty is Little Harbor. It's about six miles from where I often camp—Two Harbor's Campground. When hiking this stretch, I truly am thrilled to be in California—not Capri, not Sicily. You can easily navigate the area with your helpful trail map. It features gorgeous wildflowers, moderately difficult terrain, and enchanting views.

Catalina Island Camping

As I mentioned, Avalon boasts some luxury resorts that feature chef-prepared meals and sumptuous Egyptian cotton sheets. However, until you experience Harbor Campground after a breathless day hike, you'll never really know how beautiful the starlight is at night at Starlight Beach or how the sun goes down as the ocean breeze picks up to blow the day's heat from your shoulders. Camping on Catalina is ancient. It's timeless. It's the perfect cure for urban sickness—too much time in elevators, cubicles, and conference rooms. We all have to make a living, but I feel like I'm truly living when I'm in the middle of a fabulous Catalina Island hike.

Black Jack Campground on Mt. Orizaba will satisfy your need for a primitive camping experience. Not only can you commune with nature, you can witness majestic panoramic views of the island and the sea. Parson's Landing is also remote and will ensure that you experience Catalina's rugged beauty. On the other hand, you can find comfortable cabins at Two Harbors Campground if you prefer an indoor experience. The rustic cabins book quickly during the winter season. Keep in mind that you don't have to haul burdensome gear if you prefer to hike unencumbered. You can rent a basic tent for under $50. I like to hike light so when I head out for Catalina Island camping, I usually rent a tent. In the winter, I will either hike close to amenity-rich Avalon and stay at a comfortable hotel or, on occasion, reserve a cozy cabin.

What I Love about Catalina Island Hiking

I love Catalina Island hiking for its palm trees, Harbor Campground, and amazing ocean vistas like the one at Long Beach. I also love that it's only a 90-minute ferry ride for me to access this dazzling setting on the sea. My memorable Catalina Island hiking experiences are punctuated by fun snorkeling trips, postcard-worthy beach excursions, and long relaxing weekends at the Portofino Hotel. When I visit with my family, we do enjoy sticking around Avalon and relaxing near the water. There are charming ice cream shops and various activities like mini-golf for kids. The friendly hotels and resorts often feature events or activities of their own.

When I visit on my own or with a couple friends, we go in for terrific Catalina Island hiking and Catalina Island camping—the absolute best way to enjoy this corner of paradise if you ask me. It's never a disappointing experience. It's been about four months since I took the ferry over so I'd say I'm due for another Catalina Island hiking trip. Next time, I think I'll try to cover a good ten miles of trail outside of Avalon—maybe trek up to Airport in the Sky again. Hope to see you there.

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