Kayakpacking Catalina Island

Best Time of Year - Spring and Fall
Type: Kayakpacking (backpacking with a kayak)
Gear Needed - A little extensive (see the list below).
Why You Should Go - Kayakpacking Catalina allows you access to areas of the island that are unaccessable to anyone else on the island.

A little about Catalina Island

The island of Catalina, for the most part, is run by the Catalina Conservancy. A long time ago, Catalina was owned by one guy, then by another guy, then by a guy named Wrigley, then by his son, and then, luckily, the island was given over to a trust designated to protect the island. All in all, this is a pretty cool thing.

So, one result of this is that you have one "urban" center (Avalon), a small outpost at Two Harbors, and then almost all wilderness covering the rest of the island. I cannot stress the wilderness part enough. The conservancy is adamant about preserving the nature of the island, even while it has become a playground for a variety of people, from boat owners (and yacht owners), to backpackers, to partiers, to whoever. The balancing act that they perform is pretty amazing!

So, the really cool thing is that if you are willing to backpack, or bikepack, or in our case, kayakpack, you have the ability to explore nature in its wildest by just heading out a few miles. In the case of kayakpacking, you can reach areas that are only accessible by boat. And not too many boaters seem all that interested in camping on an isolated beach.

If peace and solitude is what you seek, and you are willing to earn it with some paddling, then this is the adventure for you. Just keep in mind that with that peace solitude comes an isolation and ruggedness that could present some dangers, so caution is advisable. Also, not knowing your limits could present serious problems as well.

Note - Paddling against a current may not sound too concerning, but consider what it would mean if you realize that you are wearing yourself out and not getting anywhere. Then consider that you have seven miles to go in this state. Just be sure of your abilities before you put yourself in the middle of nowhere.

Also, there is no cell coverage at the boat-in campsites.

That said, let's get planning!

Planning Your Adventure

The first thing to consider when planning your kayakpacking adventure on Catalina Island is your start and end points, or more importantly which direction you are going to paddle. The key here is knowing that, generally, the ocean current flows Southeastward, or from Two Harbors toward Avalon. So, if all things are the same, it might be best to start in Two Harbors and finish in Avalon.

The boat-in campsites are a little over six miles from Two Harbors and about seven miles from Descanso Beach (Avalon).

Note - All of the boat-in campsites have no water and no bathroom facilities at all. The conservancy requires that you use wag bags for your solid bathroom stuff. And then carry them out with you.

If you rent your kayaks from Two Harbors Dive and Rec, you will need to return them to Two Harbors which might make the return trip a little more challenging. If you rent from Descanso Beach, they have a service (usually) that can transport your rented kayaks from Avalon to Two Harbors, then you can paddle to your campsite and finish in Avalon (returning the kayaks to the Descanso Beach Club).

The cost to transport the kayaks is a little over a $100 (ouch), but each additional kayak is not that much more. So if you have 4 kayaks, the cost is going to be about $30 to $40 each. The two rental companies are relatively the same cost otherwise.

So, we arrive in Two Harbors. The guy transporting your kayaks knows you are arriving on the ferry so he may spot you (a small group looking around confusedly) before you spot him. Just head to the beach and look confused. :-) He will get you set up with your kayaks. You will load your gear into the ports that the kayaks usually have inside the kayak. This would be a good time to head over to the market to get any last minute things you may need (water is a must - at least a couple gallons per person, three if its for a couple nights) or have forgotten.

After you are all loaded up, you will start your journey toward the campsites. There are lots of places along the way that you can explore and maybe even snorkel. Make sure to do this, it is what makes the adventure worthwhile.

Eventually, hopefully after just a couple hours, you will reach your campsite. Something to keep in mind, although you have been assigned an exact campsite, there seems to be a little island gray area here. There will be private boats that pull into the same harbors and off load passengers to spend the night on the beach. There seems to be a feeling that it is first-come first-serve at this point. All the sites are really cool and almost the same, so it doesn't really matter too much. The only issue I have is if I give up my reserved spot for another spot, then I may have to deal with someone when I am in there spot. So, it's up to you how to handle this, just giving a heads up.

Once you are at the campsites, your options are kinda limited. Pretty cool, but limited. You can snorkel (if you brought a mask and snorkel), you can paddle around the area, or you can even explore the beach area (although there aren't very many trails in the area). But there are a few extra adventures you might consider:
  • There is a huge rock thingy just off the beach (depending on the tide) at Cabrillo Harbor that you can jump off of. It's about 25 feet high and plenty deep enough (but always check the depth first before jumping).
  • There is a partial trail/game trail that leads up to the airport (eventually) from Goat Beach and probably Cabrillo as well. The trail is not well marked (it may not in fact be a trail) but if you just keep heading up and toward the airport, you will eventually get to Airport Road which will take you to the airport.
So, after a day or two at your campsite, it's time to head for home. If you are returning to Two Harbors, just head back the way you came. Just keep in mind that you will be paddling against the current so it will probably take a bit longer (maybe twice as long). I would leave in the morning and plan on taking some important breaks along the way.

Once back in Two Harbors, with time to spare, you can grab a quick shower (with hot water) at the shower and bathroom facilities. You can get change for the shower at the laundry room just to the right of the bathrooms. And if you still have some time, you can grab a bite at the café, the restaurant, or the market. Then enjoy your ride home!

If you are heading toward Avalon, it is a little further than the first day, but the current is with you. I would still leave in the morning, but you should have a good idea of how long it will take based on your first day's pace. Give yourself at least three to four hours. The key is to make sure you get to your ferry on time.

Return your kayaks. As you approach Avalon, you will start to see more and more moored boats as you approach Descanso Beach. If you see the hillside condos on your right you will know that Descanso is coming up. It is usually bustling with all kinds of tourist action, so you can't really miss it. If you paddle past the Casino, you passed Descanso Beach. Funny thing is that as you are paddling in toward the left side of the beach, it's almost as if the attendants recognize you and may help beach your kayak. You probably look a little different from the other beach goers on kayaks.

Once on land, it is a good idea to check in at Descanso Beach Outdoor Sports to let them know you are returning your kayak. After checking in, you can head to the right toward the grassy area and find the showers. It will be nice to get rid of the multiple layers of salt that have built up. There is a changing area at the showers as well.

Then it is about a 20 to 30 minute walk to Avalon and the ferry dock. Congratulations, you did it!

Important Note - There is little to no cell coverage as you move away from Two Harbors or Avalon, so plan accordingly.

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.

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 that's enough about the island and your adventure, now for the logistics!

The Process

Organizing the key parts of this adventure can seem a little daunting, but with a little patience and perseverance, it is not much of a challenge putting it all together.

Get Your Campsite:
  • Reserve your campsites at BookYourSite (Italian Gardens, Goat Harbor, Cabrillo Harbor, Gibraltar Beach).
  • Note - Unlike most campgrounds, on Catalina, the camping fee is per person.
  • If you are organizing for a small group, you can reserve and pay for your campsite and for each additional camper, or you can have each additional camper call the conservancy to be added to the campsite reservation.
Rent Your Kayaks
  • Rent from Descanso Beach (310-510-7410)
  • Rent from Two Harbors Dive and Rec (310-510-4272)
  • If organizing for a small group, you can reserve and pay for your kayak and even let them know that you have a group, but they probably won't hold the extra kayaks for more than a few days, so your group members will need to reserve and pay for theirs on their own (unless you want to pay for all of them upfront).
  • Note - THDR will only rent kayaks to go to the campsites and they must be returned to Two Harbors. Whereas, Descanso can transport the kayaks (for a fee) to Two Harbors and you can return them to Descanso Beach (Avalon).
Reserve Your Ferry Ride 
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.
  • If you are organizing for a small group, make sure your members get their passage as soon as possible.

*Important note - It may be very important which order you schedule each of these areas. Acquiring each one depends on the other and each may have limited availability. Here is the order that I recommend:
  1. Get your campsite - This can be done six months in advance. This item also has the most uncertainty involved.
  2. Reserve, but don't pay for your kayak yet (they will usually hold your kayak for a day or two without paying).
  3. Book ferry passage right after reserving your kayak. This can be done after getting your campsite, but it isn't necessary and could be difficult to get a refund if plans fall through.
  4. Go back and pay for your kayak.

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

  • Sunscreen (most of the island, especially where you will be camping is very exposed to the sun).
  • Dry Bag (big enough for the stuff you don't want to get wet) to go inside the kayak hatch (stuff gets wet in there) and a second one for your stuff on top is a nice extra.
  • Backpacking Essentials - Basically, all the stuff you would take backpacking, but the cool thing is that transporting via kayak is quite a bit easier than carrying that stuff on your back. So you might get away with a few extra items (but you still have to carry all that stuff on the ferry).
  • Kayakpacking Essentials - There are some items necessary for this kind of "packing"
    • Wag bags - the conservancy does not allow leaving your poop on this part of the island.
    • Toilet paper - remember, there are no bathroom facilities at the boat-in campsites.
    • Water - there is no water at the boat-in campsites.
  • Food - Going light is always ideal, and by light I mean freeze dried. But a little extra weight on a kayak is not going to hinder you too much. So, if you are just doing one night, you might get away with some heavier food that doesn't need refrigeration.
    • If you want to cut weight, you could tank up at one of the restaurants, or the market in Two Harbors. Go light during the journey, then recover at the end when back in Two Harbors. The ideal situation is probably somewhere in the middle.
  • Water - Did I forget to mention to bring lots of water?
  • Wag bags - the conservancy requires that campers/hikers pack out their waste from these campsites.
The bottom line is that you can bring what you would bring backpacking, plus a few extra items. Just not so much that it won't fit inside the kayaks hatches.

A few key essential items to always have on packing adventures:
  • Paracord (50 feet) - so many uses.
  • A knife - so many possible uses.
  • A first aid kit - especially when out in the middle of nowhere.
  • Maybe a small tarp (can be used for so many things) - may replace a rain fly as well.
  • Freeze dried water (just add water)

Tips and Tricks

  • Bring at least one headlamp.
  • Bring sunscreen (again, the island is very exposed to the sun).
  • 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.

Campgrounds (Reserve at BookYourSite)

  • Italian Gardens
  • Goat Harbor
  • Cabrillo Harbor
  • Gibraltar Beach