Jeep Eco-Tour: Four-Wheeling to Adventure
Jeep Eco Tours
It's been called an "educational experience in the great outdoors." It's also been called a "white-knuckle ride of a lifetime!" It is the Catalina Island Conservancy's Jeep(r) Eco- Tour that takes visitors along the back roads, behind locked gates where there are 2,000-foot peaks, 1,600-foot canyons, isolated coves and near-vertical shoreline palisades.
Fred Freeman, a Conservancy Volunteer and Jeep driver has been taking visitors on their four-wheel drive adventures almost since the program began in 1983. A trained naturalist, Freeman relishes his job behind the wheel and always gives his passengers a smile along with their tour.
"Because the Conservancy has full access to the Islands 42,000 acres of wildlands, we can take visitors to parts of the Island not serviced by the other tours," Freeman said.
He advises visitors that to see some of the more remote locations in the Island, a full-day tour is recommended. "This way, our visitors can fully customize their trip and experience. "It's a whole new Island out there!"
Just east of Avalon on Pebbly Beach Road, Freeman can take riders up the Renton Mine Road, which is actually the official Trail Head of the Trans-Catalina Trail. Much easier to ride than hike for most people, the Renton Mine Road comes out high above Avalon. From their vantage point on the East End Road/Divide Road, visitors can see both sides of the Island. If they are lucky and the weather is clear, San Clemente Island can be seen far to the south east.
Freeman said this beautiful vista can also be gained by driving through the Wrigley Memorial & Botanic Garden, through the gate just to the right of the Memorial, and up the twisty Memorial Road.
Continuing on along Airport Road, Freeman can take a left turn at KBRT Road near Ground Zero for the 2007 fire that consumed 4,750 acres. Visitors are rewarded with beautiful views of the rarely seen Grand Canyon and Silver Canyon - two of the deepest canyons on the Island. "Silver canyon is about 1,600 feet deep," Freeman says. "There is usually water running through it most of the year."
To the left of the road is Coffee Pot Canyon. Why is it called that his visitors always ask.
"I don't know," is usually his reply. "Some rancher must have found a coffee pot down there one day."
This is where the road gets interesting. Freeman shifts his Jeep into low and begins the descent into the Valley of the Moons. This is a weirdly, otherworld expanse some also call the "Badlands." Comprised of diatomaceous earth - the fossilized remains of microscopic algae - the region is without vegetation and highly eroded and unlike the rest of the Island, not very welcoming.
"It's thought that this was the first part of the Island to rise from the ocean floor millions of years ago," Freeman said. "It is obviously very ancient."
The road ends at Thunder Beach were millions of smooth oval rocks have been pounded for eons by the raging surf experience on the windward side of the Island. The "thunder" of the rocks can compete with the ambient noise of the surf. This is an excellent vantage point to view the Island's majestic Palisades that rise up vertically from the ocean below. There is a fairly shallow underwater shelf that extends about four miles south from the Palisades that Freeman conjectures was probably formed over millions of years as tsunamis crumbled the cliffs with the residue washing out to sea.
Again, with the Jeep in low, Freeman climbs up through the Valley of the Moons back out on the Ridge Road and heads west to the steep, rolling hills above Salta Verde. At times passengers in the jeep feel as if they are either flat on their backs going up the steep hills, or almost standing up while going down There, visitors can see World War II gun emplacements - actually where the emplacements were - the guns are long gone. Additionally there are other bunkers there, too. One large bunker still has linoleum tile still stuck on the floor. Another set of bunkers to the northwest above Ben Weston Beach overlook, was one of the first radar installations near the mainland during World War II. Visitors lucky enough to take the Jeep Tour out there can see the large electrical generating room and the concrete pad where the radar - considered experimental at the time - was bolted on.
Not far from the Ben Weston radar site along the Ridge Road is another legendary WWII site not visited by visitors who don't know it's there. It's Camp Cactus, home to the U.S. Army Signal Corps that housed between 700 and 800 troops during the war. Apparently not built to last, all that remains are piles of lumber with a couple of frames still standing, all surrounded by - yes, cactus.
On the Jeep Tour along the Ridge Road, visitors can get a breathtaking view of Thompson Reservoir and Middle Canyon, home of the Conservancy's Middle Ranch offices for Conservation and Facilities. Thompson Reservoir was named after a Water Commissioner in Chicago who designed the dam for William Wrigley Jr., so that water could be collected for the burgeoning community of Avalon. Before it was dammed up, Thompson Reservoir was the original location of the Middle Ranch barn and bunkhouses for Island Company ranch hands.
Further along the Ridge Road is the Conservancy's Captive Breeding Facility that back in the early 2000s was instrumental in saving the Catalina Island Fox species from almost certain extinction following a bout with canine distemper that crashed the fox population from about 1,300 to about 100. Healthy foxes were captured and bred in enclosures that simulated their native habitat. Their offspring were released into the wild. There are now 950 federally endangered foxes on the Island.
And, did you know that the Island has only one natural lake? All the others are manmade. You'll find Echo Lake, just off of the Airport Road at the Cape Canyon turnoff. Whether it was formed from volcanic activity, no one knows for sure. But one this is for sure, you can only visit it on a Conservancy Jeep(r) Eco- Tour.
Sit down, buckle up and hang on. It is going to be a ride of a lifetime!
-By Bob Rhein