Hiking Santa Catalina Island
Catalina Island Cosnervancy
Never before have I hiked a place like Catalina. From a vehicle, it looks typical of Southern California with low-growing coastal sage scrub and chaparral plants. The island scrub oak woodlands look stunted. The coastal vistas are colorful contrasts of sky, land, and sea. The watchable wildlife visible from a moving car or tour bus is most often the herd of American bison (living relicts of a 1920's movie project), the abundant common raven, or an occasional Beechey ground squirrel darting across the road.
On foot, you discover that Catalina is complex. First off, you notice the widely varied natural communities. For instance, Thunder Beach, aptly named for the sound that surrounds you as the Pacific Ocean catches and throws head sized boulders in the surf, is as wild and remote as any beach on the West Coast. In Bulrush Canyon, a forest habitat rich with wildlife thrives under the dense, leafy canopy of large native oaks. There are grasslands on the island, too. Above Ripper's Cove, California bunch grasses add texture to hillsides generously sprinkled with wildflowers from February until June. Deep gorges echo birdsongs. On the West End, landslides of slippery silvery schist and raw red erosion gullies are reminders of on-going geologic changes. And then there are the views! The unpredictable hues of sky and ocean contrast with the dramatic silhouettes of a steeply sloped landscape. Most often, the sky is a dazzling blue and the Mediterranean climate is mild and appealing. But sometimes, chilly fog swirls around the shoulders of the hills, the wind whips, and waves punish the shore. On the other hand, summertime temperatures in Catalina's low-growing coastal sage scrub/chaparral communities can scorch. The island is moody; any day out is a fresh experience. It's best to expect the unexpected.
I guess it is the regularity of unanticipated events that makes hiking on the island so memorable. Sometimes the surprises are subtle, like the hum of bees on a flowering wild lilac. Other times, the surprises are dramatic: discovering a puddle that is chock full of Pacific Tree Frogs in a spring mating frenzy so noisy that it leaves your ears ringing; or the electrifying shock of witnessing a fat rattlesnake devouring a Beechy ground squirrel. But, there is always something to tuck into your memory.
To share just one memorable hike experience is torturous limitation, but one that comes to mind is the Silver Canyon descent. On a very warm, clear day in June, my hiking partner and I scouted the best route for accessing the steep gorge. We planned to lead a group hike (The HIKE, see below) into the area two days later. The hike would be challenging (Class V, see below). We wanted to scout for safety while retaining the challenge.
The spectacular canyon is unique on Catalina. It is vertical-sided in many places with fern grottos, waterfalls, willow thickets and a wide boulder strewn streambed flowing to the ocean. It is not accessible, over land, by vehicle.
The day of the trip, eight fit and prepared hikers, aged 26-65, gathered at the spot we'd determined as the "trailhead" during scouting. A dense shroud of fog swirled over the ridge. On the game trail used to begin our descent, the pungent aroma of wet sage was easier to follow than was the person in front of you. The fog swallowed people, one at a time; visibility was about ten feet at a walking pace. There would be no breathtaking vistas to share. Within the first 1/4 mile, everyone was drenched and the difficult part had not yet begun.
We dropped down into the narrow headwaters streambed. Slippery boulders and rock walls required that the group become a team; hand-over-hand we lowered each other down. It was hard to recognize landmarks in the opaque vapor. Catalina cherry tree snags cast bizarre forms in the murk. Close-up, a frog mating frenzy fascinated us, as did the natural seep of water dripping from the mossy hillside. It was a different Catalina, not the usual scrappy semi-arid rangeland.
By lunchtime, we realized that the ravine was completely unfamiliar. We had set off on the wrong ridge at the "trailhead". We never did make it into the REAL Silver Canyon. Still, the exhilaration of the challenge, the group's fine teamwork, and the opening of our non-visual senses combined to make a unanimous declaration of experiential excellence! The island is complex and moody.
You can hike Catalina. Hiking permits are available, free of charge, from the Catalina Island Conservancy. The permit allows access to a limited number of routes (Silver Canyon is not one of them), some of which are shared by vehicles. Permit information is below.
Another way to hike and get into otherwise inaccessible remote areas of the island, like Silver Canyon, is on the monthly HIKE with professional naturalists of the Catalina Island Conservancy. The Conservancy, steward of 88% of the island, has stepped up conservation and restoration efforts in the last half decade. Part of the conservation effort is to give people more opportunities to understand the elegant and fragile ecology of the island. The HIKE, on the first Saturday of every month, exposes people to island ecology with an exploratory approach.
The HIKE routes and destinations are selected for the absolute best seasonal experiences: spectacular wildflowers in May, sunny beaches in June, and shady canyons in July. You get the idea. All HIKES are rated as to difficulty level. The HIKE is always mentally stimulating and sometimes physically challenging. For those reasons, it is imperative that you bring along good walking shoes, water and an inquisitive mind.
HIKING ON SANTA CATALINA ISLAND
You can get hiking permits at:
. Catalina Island Conservancy, 125 Claressa St., Avalon
. Wrigley Memorial and Botanical Garden, 1402 Avalon Cyn. Rd., Avalon
. Catalina Airport-in-the-Sky
. Two Harbors Visitors Information Center
Permits are free but are not available by phone or mail.
A monthly exploration led by professional naturalists. The first Saturday of every month. Please check eCatalina's Calendar of Events for HIKE information. Additional information is available on the Catalina Island Conservancy website www.catalinaconservancy.org.
Space is a limiting factor on islands and on all HIKES so; please call the Catalina Island Conservancy Education Office to reserve your spot (310) 510-0954.
I - Flat, easy. Up to 2-4 miles
II - Some climbs, moderate. 3-6 miles
III - Some rough terrain, may be steep and difficult. 5-7 miles
IV - May be off trail, steep, difficult. 5-8 miles
V - Extreme, steep, off trail. 8 miles or more