Things to Do on Catalina Island

Explore: Catalina's Airport in the Sky

An Air Terminal Worth Visiting for Its Own Sake

In these days of anxiety-laden air travel, few folks consider a trip to any airport fun anymore. Santa Catalina Island's "Airport in the Sky," however, will reward you with beautiful scenery, great food, enjoyable souvenir shopping, and a fascinating and artfully displayed open-air exhibit on the island's natural history.

Let's start with the scenery. Built in 1946, the Airport in the Sky occupies a 1,602-foot-tall mountaintop at the center of the island, 10 miles from the city of Avalon, and is accessible by tour or shuttle bus, bicycle, or on foot–or, of course, via private or chartered small plane. Its single 3,250-foot-long runway was constructed by blasting and leveling two adjacent peaks, then using the resulting debris to fill in the gaps. In every direction, the rolling landscape of the island interior slopes away, leading to views of distant Pacific waters. Pilots generally consider takeoffs and landings here to be both challenging and spectacular, and earthbound visitors marvel at the sight of arrivals and departures, which are restricted to daylight hours.

The views are complemented by opportunities to enjoy a meal or a snack, shop a bit, and even learn–all welcome breaks however you get to the airport–and all centered on the small complex of buildings there, known as Buffalo Springs Station. The Airport in the Sky's restaurant, called the Runway Cafe, is famed for its buffalo burgers (indeed, Southern California pilots have been known just to fly there for lunch); and you can also get regular beef, chicken, and vegetarian burgers, other sandwiches, Mexican specialties (including buffalo tacos), and hearty breakfasts. Better still, reserve a place at one of Buffalo Springs Station's bimonthly summer or less frequent winter Saturday afternoon–early evening barbecues, starring beef tri-tip and such accompaniments as roasted corn-on-the-cob, Caesar salad, garlic mashed potatoes, and freshly baked garlic bread.

Before or after your meal, browse through the gift shop for a souvenir of your visit, including Airport in the Sky coffee mugs, T-shirts, and key rings; buffalo jerky; and a collectible glazed tile in the style of the famed Catalina Pottery, depicting the Grumman "Goose" Seaplane that brought visitors to Avalon between 1955 and 1980.

Then, wrap up a visit with a stroll through the Catalina Island Nature Center, just outside. Here, the Catalina Island Conservancy presents a lovely garden of native island plants along with well-designed interpretive exhibits on Catalina's geology, animal and plant life, and the history of the Native Americans who once lived here. Don't miss the large horizontal map of the island, which you can walk around on all sides to get a unique bird's-eye view of Catalina–the perfect way to wrap up your visit to the Airport in the Sky.

Visiting the Airport in the Sky
The Airport in the Sky has landing hours of 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. from mid-April to mid-October, and 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. from mid-October to mid-April. The Buffalo Springs Station airport complex closes at 8 p.m.

If you fly in, the landing fee is $25 per plane. To get there by bus take the Conservancy's Wildlands Express Shuttle from Avalon (310-510-0143); or the Two Harbor's Safari Shuttle Bus (310-510-0143) from either Two Harbors or Little Harbor. Hikers and bicyclists will need permits from the Catalina Island Conservancy (310-510-2495) to access the island roads and trails outside of Avalon.

If you want to attend one of the popular barbecues at Buffalo Springs Station, reserve a spot well in advance. Phone the airport (310-510-0143) for reservations.

Time to Allow: Three hours to all day.
Reservations are not required for transportation and barbecues.
Prices and availability are subject to change.