Bikepacking Catalina Island

Best Time of Year - Spring and Fall
Type: Bikepacking (backpacking on your bike)
Gear Needed - A little extensive (see the list below - coming soon!).
Why You Should Go - Bikepacking Catalina allows you to experience the island in a very unique way and a lot more of it in a condensed time-frame.

A little about Catalina Island

There are more than a few contrasts - When you start your bikepacking adventure on Catalina Island, the first thing you will notice is that once you leave the comforts of Avalon, or to a lesser degree, Two Harbors, you are pretty much out in the wilderness. But the cool thing is that you are not really that far from some form of civilization. And although you are riding mostly on dirt road, you will rarely see a car. Most vehicles you will encounter are the tourist jeeps, the supply trucks, and maybe a few delivery vehicles. 

There are campgrounds, like at Two Harbors that are in close proximity to tourist activities, dining, a market, and even a cantina. Camping here is more like staying at a very cheap hotel, which isn't that bad of an option, especially if you are traveling light. There are pay showers in "town" if you need hot water or a little privacy as well as a laundry facility.

If you make your way out to Little Harbor (my favorite), you will be camping at a very secluded part of the island (relative to Two Harbors or Avalon, especially on weekdays). Here you will have to provide all of your food and amenities, and the bathrooms are just portables and not always the cleanest. There are showers, but they are just outdoor shower heads, only cold water, and with no privacy (but still incredibly nice when you need to clean up).

If you are feeling a little more adventurous, you can head out to Parson's Landing (most likely via Two Harbors), for a taste of real seclusion. The benefits are that you will be camping right on the beach, you are within a decent hike from the far West end of the island, and you might have the campground (about six campsites) all to yourself (especially if you go on a weekday during the off-season). The downside is that you are pretty isolated with minimal to no cell coverage, so any medical issue could be significantly magnified. Note - The conservancy can delivery water and firewood out to you for a fee, which I highly recommend since there is no water available anywhere near the campground. 

Planning Your Adventure

There are two places you can start your bikepacking adventure, either Avalon or Two Harbors. If this is your first bikepacking adventure and/or you are unsure of your biking abilities, starting in Two Harbors may be the best way to go. From Two Harbors, if you head out to Parson's Landing, it is relatively flat (except the last half mile which is very steep). If you opt to head to Little Harbor instead you will face a two mile steady climb which may test your abilities, but if you take it slow you should be ok.

Note - Catalina Island is covered in hills/mountains. Lots of them. In fact it is pretty much one big chain of little mountains and some valleys. If you are not up for climbing (especially with 30 to 40 pounds of gear), this may not be the best way to experience the island.

So, if you have made your way to Little Harbor, you have some decision making to do. You could finish your trip in Avalon which entails a 16 mile ride with about two thousand feet of gain (most but not all of which is up to the airport). The optimist in me always thinks that the airport is the apex (it sure seems like it), but unfortunately, it is not. The other option to get to Avalon is to take the Middle Ranch route, which is a little shorter and a little less elevation gain, but includes some ups and downs before getting to the valley which I find a little defeating (Sometimes I just want to get on with it), but may be best for you.

If this feels like a little bit too much, you can always head back to Two Harbors, maybe spend another day there, or not, then catch the afternoon ferry back to the mainland. Even with this "reduced" mileage, you will experience some of the best parts of the island without so much climbing and the extra mileage.

Should you decide to start your adventure in Avalon, which does give you, by far, the most ferry options, then I will share with you my personal favorite way to bikepack Catalina. Your first decision is to choose the time of year - I suggest, if your work schedule allows it, the Fall or Spring. Summer is crazy even during the weekdays and can really diminish the seclusion that Catalina offers, and Winter, although pretty nice for riding, but it makes the water options a little less enjoyable.

Next, I highly recommend, if possible, going during the week. The weekends on Catalina, especially in Avalon can be pretty crazy. Imagine 20 million residents of Southern California looking for a unique way to spend the day. It is shocking that the island is not completely overrun. A weekday overnight at Little Harbor during the off-season might find you with the campground to yourself.

So, we have arrived in Avalon, the first thing we do is get what supplies (snacks, water, etc) we might still need at the Vons, then we start the major climb of the journey to the airport. It helps me to picture this climb in segments. First to the zipline start, which is a one way road so no oncoming traffic to worry about. Grab some rest then hit the next section which gets you out of Avalon  and on the "plateau" toward the airport.

Note - all of this has been one steady climb, the nice thing here is that it is steady, no giving back what you have earned (again, I am an eternal optimist).

At this point it will feel like you have done all of your climbing and that the rest is flat, and on the map it may look like this, but trust me, it won't feel like it. I want to tell you that you just did all the climbing (the optimist in ma), but it won't feel like it.

After a few hours of hard riding, you have reached the airport and deserve a well-earned buffalo burger and a beer. After recovering, the good news is that Little Harbor is just six miles away, and it truly is almost all down hill. Except one short, steep climb at the vineyard. As you approach the coast, you will see Shark Harbor and Little Harbor on your right.

The next part, after staying at Little Harbor for a night or two, we head out to Two Harbors. It is about six miles, with the climb taking up about four and a half of it. This is a steady climb that takes you to a great viewing spot at the peak looking towards the mainland if it's clear. After taking in the views and maybe grabbing a snack, we take the plunge down into Two Harbors (all downhill). This is the fun part seeing Two Harbors getting closer and closer.

At Two Harbors we set up our campsite and maybe head into "town" for breakfast or lunch or something. In town there we can rent kayaks, snorkel or just take a swim. We can also resupply at the market (be prepared for a little bit of sticker shock, the prices may seem pretty steep, but keep in mind that everything they stock comes from the mainland via a small ferry or from Avalon on a slightly bigger boat. There are several extra middlemen in the process I am sure.

From Two Harbors we may head out to Parson's Landing for an overnight or maybe just a morning ride. Either one is well worth it depending on your frame of mind at the moment. Camping at Parson's is definitely something to experience at least once.

After staying at Two Harbors for a night or two, it is time to head back to Avalon. Note, you could head back to the mainland from here and avoid a day of riding, but what would be the fun in that. I recommend getting up very early for this ride. You may have a ferry for the early afternoon (give yourself plenty of time), and although you we may do this ride in three to four hours, we wouldn't want any issues mechanical or biological to keep us from making our ferry.

Once arriving back in Avalon, we take our ritualistic shower at The Descanso Beach Club. The showers, and changing rooms are nice and of no charge. They are just cold water, but it feels so refreshing. After cleaning up we head into town for lunch and find ways to spend the next few hours until we need to board the ferry.

Note - If you happen to make really good time and feel like you want to head back early, check with the ticket window for an earlier passage. Chances are good that there is something available, and it only costs five bucks or so to reschedule.

Then savor the trip back across the channel, with the memories of this fantastic adventure!

A Little About Two Harbors

A few things to note about Two Harbors - there is quite a bit to do in such a small "town". You can rent kayaks, snorkeling gear, or SUPs, at the shop at the pier (the SUPs are inflatable and can be pretty unstable once out of the calm waters of the mooring area). The conservancy has an office at the pier as well and can help with things like ordering water and firewood to be delivered to Parson's, or just getting info.

There is a market, a café, a restaurant, and an outdoor cantina, if you are in need of a little civilization. This is nice if you opt to go light and not pack much food on your bike. It adds an extra cost to the adventure, but may be well worth it during those steep climbs.

There are plenty of places to explore around Two Harbors, from hikes, to bike rides, to exploring via kayak or just snorkeling. It is a short walk across the isthmus to Cat Harbor (the second harbor of Two Harbors), but there is not much to see, but it's kinda cool anyway.

Note - If you are having doubts about you ability or desire to make the long ride back to Avalon from here, you can schedule passage on the Cyclone, which is a speed boat shuttle between Two Harbors and Avalon and costs about $20 or so.

A Little About Avalon

There is quite a bit I can say about Avalon, but I will keep it short as it pertains to this adventure. Avalon is an incredible town, but it is a town that is built almost exclusively on tourism. As a tourist town, it seems very successful (read crowded). As one of the business owners explained to me, there are three levels of people that come to Catalina - guests, visitors, and tourists. While the business owners and residents need all three types, they are least fond of tourists.

There are all kinds of things to do in Avalon, but if you are on this adventure for peace and tranquility, you probably won't find it in Avalon (especially on a weekend during tourist season). But, if you have finished your adventure and are in need of something different, then Avalon should have plenty to satisfy that need. It all depends on your frame of mind. 

So, find a part of the island that fits your level of adventure, create your plan of attack, and then just go! 

The Process

Catalina Island, or at least the people that run it, are very particular about who rides around their island, and how many at a time. So, they limit the numbers by making us jump through a few hoops, but with a little persistence and willingness to keep plugging away at something, it really isn't that difficult. So, here is what you need to do:

1) You need to join the Conservancy:
The first thing to understand is that you need to be a member of the Catalina Island Conservancy to bike on the dirt roads that connect the island. There are various membership levels, but the "Friend" level is all that is required. This membership also entitles you to important discounts like:
  • 50% discount on the Catalina Flyer (the ferry).
  • 50% discount on campground fees.
  • and more...

Lone Harbor

2) You need to get some campsites:
  • Reserve your campsites at BookYourSite (Little Harbor, Two Harbors, Parson's Landing)
3) You need to reserve your ferry ride over and back. 
Don't put this off, seats can be limited (especially on weekends), and not getting a ferry ride can make your trip a lot more difficult.
  • The main providers are Catalina Express and Catalina Flyer and the cost is around $85 (plus the cost to bring your bike - about $10) as of this writing.
4) Check in with the Conservancy
Once you get on the island, you must check in at the Conservancy office at 708 Crescent in Avalon and get your bike tag (if you don't have it yet) before you can get on the road.

Reservation Windows (For Campsites, Permits, etc...)
  • Campsites - 13 months in advance.
  • Permits - Usually can be done through the Conservancy with just a few days notice (but I wouldn't push it too close).
  • Peak Season is March 9th - Oct 28th.

Necessary Gear

  • A bike (yep, can't get around this one) - A mountain bike is required (anything less could make for a tough and maybe dangerous ride). One with front suspension only is probably best, but full suspension will work too (you just need a rack that fits the seat post only).
  • Gear Racks - There are racks for the front, middle, and back of your bike, and they can be found at all different price levels.
  • Backpack - Yep, even though most of your gear will be on the bike, it is a great idea to balance everything out by carrying some gear on your back (otherwise, your bike can be very awkward to handle). Don't make your pack too heavy though.
  • Backpacking Essentials - Basically, all the stuff you would take backpacking, but try to cut out a few items if possible (remember, you are riding).
  • Food - You really need to go light here, and by light I mean freeze dried. Any extra weight you carry, you will really feel. Normally, I really believe that when you are roughing it, you should be roughing it. But, on Catalina Island, there are plenty of opportunities to buy your food (stores, restaurants, etc...) so, maybe it's best to take advantage of that.
    • Cool side note - if you are on a budget, normally you would buy all your food at your local grocer, but there are two Vons stores in Avalon, and their pricing is the same as on the mainland. Sweet!
    • So, I would camel up when you get to Avalon and then fill up when you finish.
    • My advice - Since the cost of freeze dried food is about the same as restaurant food, go with convenience and dine on the island when possible. But bring your snacks and drink mixes to save money.

Tips and Tricks

  • Bring at least one headlamp.
  • When flying down some of the roads, be prepared to run into a buffalo or something. They do not like bikers approaching at a fast clip!
  • Keep an eye on Groupon for a discount on the ferry fare. They have a sweet discount fairly regularly, just try to get it in advance, there can be restrictions.
  • You can have firewood delivered to your campsite. And water to the campgrounds that don't have water (Parson's). Just call the Conservancy.


Reserve at BookYourSite
  • Lone Harbor
  • Two Harbors
  • Parson's Landing
  • Blackjack Campground 


  • The Airport - Buffalo burgers are highly recommended!
  • Avalon - There is an ice cream cone place right on the main drag that made for a perfect treat at the end of a long day of riding (I will get the name asap).
  • Two Harbors  - The Harbor Reef Restaurant (great opportunity to return to civilization and have a beer with dinner).