Sunday, December 22, 2013

Hike 2013.058 -- Santa Catalina Island -- Stage Road, Divide Road, and Garden to Sky Trails

Hiked Friday, December 20. Despite having grown up in southern California, I had never made it to any of the Channel Islands. However, while driving back home from work one evening, I saw a billboard for Catalina Express. They're the company that runs relatively rapid ferry service between Santa Catalina Island and the mainland. In honor of the city of Avalon's 100th birthday, they're offering free roundtrip passage to anyone on their birthday. The offer is currently good through April 30, so if you've got a birthday coming up and can't decide what to do, here's an idea.

Since this was going to be worth a lot more than a Denny's Grand Slam breakfast, or the deal that the San Manuel Casino has for your birthday, I headed down to Long Beach, early Friday morning.

During the winter time, the schedule between the mainland and the Island is pretty limited. If I didn't catch the 6:15am departure, I would have to wait until 10am. That would cost me half the day, so I opted for the ridiculously early departure that would give me pretty much the whole day to enjoy the island.

The trip across the straight is supposed to take about 70 minutes. Didn't time it, but the time did pass quickly. It was pretty darn smooth, too. Not steel wheels on rail smooth, but way smoother than a whale watching or fishing boat. I even got to enjoy a wonderful sunrise (which I successfully photographed) and numerous pods of dolphins playing in the water (which I did not succeed in photographing).

Once back on land, I wandered down Crescent Street. I consulted the maps and handouts I found in the waiting area before boarding and navigated my way to the Hogsback trailhead. Made one wrong turn along the way, at a fork where neither route was signed. For future reference, if you come to an unsigned fork along Stage Road, take the bigger road.

This trail climbed smartly, giving me plenty of views across Avalon. About 1 1/2 to 2 miles after leaving the dock, I reached the Hogsback Gate. There, you'll note the requirement for a hiking permit from the Catalina Island Conservancy to go into the "interior."

You can get that on-line, but you need to register for an account on that site. You also would have needed to register on the Catalina Express site to get your code for the free ferry ride, by the way.

Since I had the permit in hand, I continued through the gate. The road continues as a paved "hiking trail" for two miles. There are several blind curves along the way, with large convex mirrors to see around the turns. I posed for my birthday portrait in front of one of them.

At the end of two miles, you reach an overlook, and a fence. I assume the fence is designed to keep the bison out of Avalon.

From the overlook, you've got a wide open view back towards the mainland. Depending on the clarity, you may see only the coast, or clear in towards the high peaks of the Angeles and San Bernardino National Forests. You can also see along the island's mainland-facing coast. Looks like a bit further hiking through the gate would be rewarded with additional views.

However, I turned around here. Just before reaching the overlook, I came across a sign indicating that this was Divide Road, and that it was 1.8 miles to Hermit Gulch Trail and 2.6 miles to Memorial Road. Either path would lead me back towards Avalon. However, the sign had no arrows. The intuitive direction would be to go left, along the lined detention basin and along a fence that protected the detention basin. This would lead me to a gate, which, I presumed, would have an opening for me to pass through.

I wasn't sure that was the right way, however. Fortunately, an eco-tour jeep pulled up, so I asked the guide the way to Hermit Gulch.

My suspicion confirmed, I turned left at the sign and passed through the gate. After a short 1/4 mile or so, I reached a sign, indicating this was the Trans-Catalina Trail. Right would take me along the spine of the island to the west side, while going straight could take me to the east side. I went straight.

From here, I had some expansive views in all directions, and a peek at a single tree, far off to the north. Later, when I reached a junction for a trail head to Lone Tree Overlook, I assumed this is the tree I'd overlook. A bit past here, while taking photos, I heard, and turned in time to see, a Channel Islands fox run past me and disappear into the brush.

It's a one mile detour each way off Divide Road to the overlook. The trail is a jeep trail, wide, but with some very steep ups and downs, right along the ridge. It was slow going, as my feet were already starting to bother me. But I reached the overlook, and was glad I did.

The view from the overlook was astound-ing. Steep drop-off, down to the ocean. Rocky crags standing against the waves. Beds of kelp, and aquamarine water. It felt like another world, or, at least, a part of the world very far away from Los Angeles.

Overall, however, hiking, at least on this portion of Santa Catalina Island, was not the trip back to see what pre-Columbian mainland southern California might have looked like. There are wide roads and firebreaks criss-crossing the island. Antenna doted hilltops. Power lines ran along ridges. It was pretty, and obviously less impacted than most of mainland California. But it was not wilderness.

With it now around noon and the tempera-tures up near 60, I changed out of my jeans and into some shorts. Put in the sunglasses, too. Probably should have put on some sun block, but it did not occur to me at the time.

I returned back to Divide Road and turned right. Almost before I had finished the turn, I came across a rest spot and a sign. This was the Hermit Gulch junction. By now, however, I had noted my boot soles starting to separate, and decided it would be safer to stay on a flatter surface, and decided to continue on the Trans-Catalina to the Memorial Road.

That junction was also well-signed. It indicated 1.2 miles down to the Memorial on my left, or straight ahead for a six-mile walk that would loop me around to the east of Avalon, then return to the city. On your left is your first view of the William Wrigley, Jr. Memorial structure, while to your right is a deep canyon that runs off to the ocean, in the distance. But you can't see the shoreline from here, so the view is not nearly as dramatic as the one from Lone Tree Overlook.

After a long, switch-back-filled descent, I was there. I climbed the stairs, walked around the structure, and took lots of photos. It's a photogenic structure, although, because it sits with the "front" more or less facing north, the only time you'd get the front of the structure in sunlight would be near sunrise or sunset in the summer months.

From the memorial, I headed down Avalon Canyon Road, passing a girls soccer match and a golf course along the way. Once in town, I passed "The Nature Center" of the Catalina Island Conservancy. While the sycamore in the parking lot were golden yellow and very attractive, the volunteers inside were fixated on completing preparations for a Christmas party. After about five minutes of being ignored while I looked for material to read or buy, and exhibits about the island (of which I found none), I left the building, snapped photos of the sycamore, then continued my walk towards Avalon. It is allegedly "about a mile" from the Botanical Garden to town, but it seems like 2 miles from the Memorial to Crescent Avenue.

Along the way, I passed a taco stand that advertised $1 tacos for happy hour. Alas, I was about 30 minutes too early for Happy Hour.

I continued into town, walked along Crescent, then found Clarisa Avenue, where the Conservancy's headquarters is located. I asked for and received a free map of the area trails, did not see any additional publications on hiking on Santa Catalina Island, and then headed back into town.

By now, I was starving. I had also confirmed, after looking at numerous menus along the way, that lunch was going to cost me about $12, no matter where I ate. Ended up eating fish and chips on the pier. They were delicious.

After my late lunch, I hobbled along, heading towards the dock. Got there several hours before my departure, so I found a bench, took off my boots, and relaxed.

Occasionally, I tried shooting pictures of passing seagulls. Then a much larger bird made its pterodactyl-like approach. The thing was huge.

It landed no more than 18 feet from where I sat. I fired off numerous shots, first with my 18-55, then with my 55-210 zoom. At this distance, even my relatively short zooms did the trick. The bird (which I figure to be a brown pelican) stayed put nice and long, I waited patiently for it to turn its face into the sun so I could get some nicer pictures of this massive bird.

It was a totally unexpected treat, watching the pelican use its ungainly beak to nip at itches in its plumage, and to use it s gangly legs to scratch an itch.

Probably shot 20 photos of just this bird, and at least that many of passing seagulls. Just waited for my ride.

I also browsed the gift shop here, but found nothing that I thought my wife would enjoy, so all she got from my trip to Catalina is a couple of stories.

As I sat waiting, it occurred to me that sunset would probably occur on the ride back. I wanted to be able to end my day with a photo of sunset, just as I had begun it with a photo of sunrise. That would mean sitting on the left side of the boat, so I hoped I would be able find a window seat on that side when I boarded. Fortunately, the boat was not that crowded, and I got on early enough to have a choice of 2 or 3 remaining left-side window seats.

I sat down, waited for departure, fired off a few shots as we headed out of the harbor, then probably (I'm not sure, but probably) fell asleep. It had been a long day, already.

I woke up when I heard the engines throttle back, indicating we were back inside the Los Angeles-Long Beach Harbor breakwater.

At this time, the sun was still well above the horizon. But with our reduced speed, the sun was approaching the horizon by the time we passed the Queen Mary. The sun was eclipsed by the old luxury line for a few seconds. When the sun emerged on the other side, I fired off a few shots, and hoped the dirty windows did not detract too much from my closing shots for the night.

Maybe 15 minutes later, I was in my car, hoping I could find my way back to the Long Beach Freeway (I-710) north. I did. Caught a little bit of rush hour traffic, but managed to stay awake during my drive home (always important). Pulled into my driveway a little over 12 hours after leaving that morning. Long day. Good day. And mostly free, except for the parking, the coffee and coffee cake for breakfast, and the fish and chips for lunch/dinner. And the gas, of course.

Hard to estimate the total mileage, since a lot of it was on city streets. About 5.5 miles from the Hogsback Gate to the Wrigley Memorial. I'd estimate between 3 and 4 miles to get to between the dock and the trailheads. Gonna call it 9 miles for the day, even though my feet felt like they had walked much longer than that.


  1. Great post! Always wanted to go there too but never made it happen. Nice shot of the pelican!

  2. Thanks, Mark! It was a fun trip, and the pelican on the dock kept me occupied for about 20 minutes while waiting for the boat home.

  3. catalina island ca is one of my family's favorite vacation spots! I love your pictures. Wish we could have been that close to a pelican.