When it comes to hiking, Catalina Island is the best of the Channel Islands in California, offering more than 165 miles of trails and roads for all levels. The Channel Islands are an eight-island archipelago that lies just off the coast of southern California and are only accessible by boat or plane.
Since there is an assortment of loop trails for day hikers to explore on Catalina, I made a reservation for the Catalina Express ferry on a warm and sunny day from Long Beach to Avalon.
The Wildlands Express
Once I arrived, I was welcomed by Hillary Holt, a Catalina Island Conservancy naturalist as I boarded The Wildlands Express. This convenient and inexpensive van service is one of the only means of transportation to reach the world-famous Airport in the Sky, a small airstrip near the island’s highest elevation. It’s the best way to reach Catalina’s backcountry. Otherwise it’s an uphill 10-mile walk or bike ride.
Holt narrated along the 35-minute ride through the town of Avalon up to the historic airport. Along the drive, we spotted a Catalina Island fox, and saw a bald eagle soaring above. Bison grazed on the distant green hills.
Catalina Island Conservancy
Recently, I joined the Catalina Island Conservancy to help support the non-profit organization dedicated to restoring and protecting Catalina Island’s interior. My $65 membership gives me access to the island’s interior and helps save animal and plant species on the verge of extinction, while maintaining unique habitats for all to enjoy, including The Airport in the Sky.
For years, the Conservancy has been patching the runway, costing approximately $250,000 a year. Caltrans’ Aeronautics Division told the Conservancy that if they wanted to continue operating the public airport, they needed a long-term repair plan. While researching solutions, the Conservancy learned about the Department of Defense’s Innovative Readiness Training Program. The program matches community needs with military training opportunities.
The collaboration brought more than 500 tons of equipment and 100 Marines and Sailors (Seabees) from Southern California to replace the runway’s crumbling asphalt surface with a more durable concrete surface.
I read once that Charlie Chaplin’s older brother, Syd Chaplin, formed one of the first scheduled airlines in the United States. From 1919 to 1920, they provided transportation between Los Angeles and Catalina Island. The airport in Catalina was covered up to prevent landings in the 1940s during WWII. When it re-opened in 1946, it became a popular destination for guests visiting the island by airplane.
“In 1972, the Catalina Island Conservancy took over the operation of the public airport that serves the Island’s businesses and 4,000 residents,” said Catalina Island Conservancy spokesperson Laura Mecoy. “Approximately 3.5 million pounds of freight, medical and emergency supplies arrive annually. “
I also met Conservancy Board member Mike Sullivan, who shared that when the condition of the runway grew worse, developing pothole and loose gravel, big and small airplane landings declined.
“The runway was so bumpy that some of the Marines thought it looked worse than runways in Afghanistan and Iraq,” said Sullivan.
Mecoy introduced me to Zachary Bonder, 2nd Lieutenant Communications Strategy Officer. The partnership with the Conservancy, Marines and Navy is a win-win for everyone.
“It’s a unique opportunity for training the Marines to develop real-world construction skills, while serving the needs of a community,” said Bodner.
Depending on the weather and other factors, the airport runway is scheduled to open in late April. Once completed, it will be called ACE Clearwater Airfield following a $1.5 Million naming gift from the Torrance-based aerospace company. The gift was facilitated by Kellie Johnson, ACE Clearwater President and CEO, and Conservancy Board Chair. Her father Tim Dodson, and her husband Gary were also instrumental in making the donation possible, creating a great family legacy.
Hiking on Catalina Island
After enjoying two bison meat tacos at the DC-3 Grill, I inquired about a hiking trail near the airport. I learned there is a 2.2-mile Airport Loop Trail that takes about one hour to hike. Along the gently sloping path are stunning summit views surrounding the Airport in the Sky. There are interpretive signs explaining the history of the extensive soapstone quarry utilized by native people.
Hiking permits are required for safety. They are free of charge to Explorer Members and above. They are available online or can be obtained at four locations including The Airport in the Sky.
For those looking for a more challenging hike, there is the 38.5 Trans-Catalina Trail that traverses the entire Island. It begins in Avalon and stretches out to Parson’s Landing on the West End, looping back to Two Harbors for the finish. This more strenuous hike takes a few days to complete.
After my hike, I stopped inside the DC-3 gift shop to purchase a few souvenirs – coffee mugs, t-shirts, and a collectible glazed tile in the style of the famed Catalina Pottery. Since DC-3 Grill bakes the best chocolate chip and oatmeal cookies on the island, I purchased two. One for the shuttle ride back to Avalon and the other during my cruise back to the Mainland.
If You Go
Hiking permits can be obtained at these locations:
The Airport in the Sky is open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (winter) 7p.m. (summer), call (310) 510-0143. The Conservancy House in Avalon, at 125 Clarissa Ave., is open daily from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.,(310) 510-2595. Nature Center at Avalon Canyon is open daily 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Two Harbors Visitor Information Center is open daily from 8 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
The Wildlands Express Service shuttle picks up visitors at the Avalon Plaza to The Airport in the Sky starting at 7:30 a.m. and runs on the hour until 7 p.m.