Going on a Catalina Island day trip is one of the most unique and fun things you can do when visiting Southern California. Whether you want a break from exploring the urban landscapes of Los Angeles or want a change of scene from the beaches of Orange County, Catalina Island has a lot to offer visitors and it surprisingly quick and easy to reach from numerous ports in either area.
Catalina Island is a nature and water lover’s paradise and really has something for everyone — from a charming main town to epic outdoor activities to fun, family-friendly outings. From beautiful scenery, unique architecture, fascinating eco-systems and crystal-clear water, Catalina Island makes for an excellent day trip destination and one that you soon won’t forget!
How to Get to Catalina Island
Catalina, being an island, is really only accessible by ferry (unless you’re willing to shed the cash for a helicopter ride to the island). There are four different ferries leaving from various ports in LA and Orange County, and the journeys vary in time and frequency.
Catalina Island Day Trip from Los Angeles
If you are in LA and want to easily go on a Catalina Island day trip, the easiest ports to sail from are Long Beach and San Pedro, both located in LA County.
Catalina Island Ferry from Long Beach
Long Beach is a town located in the south of Los Angeles County and makes for the busiest port for sailing to Catalina Island. The ferry from Long Beach, operated by Catalina Express, leaves multiple times per day and has services directly to Avalon — the main town on the island.
It is recommended to arrive at the ferry terminal at least 30 minutes before the journey to ensure that you have time to park, to purchase tickets (if you haven’t already done so online) and to board the boat.
The journey takes about an hour from start to finish. Click here to pre-book tickets
Catalina Island Ferry from San Pedro
The ferry to Catalina from San Pedro is operated by the same company that operates the Long Beach Ferry — Catalina Express. Again, there are a few sailings per day between San Pedro and Avalon and the San Pedro port also has sailings to the other “city” on the island, Two Harbors, so leaving from this port is a good option if you would like to explore the area outside of Avalon.
Like the ferry from Long Beach, expect sailing time to take about an hour port-to-port and try to be at the ferry terminal at least 30 minutes before your expected departure times.
Catalina Island Tour from Los Angeles
If you would prefer to visit Catalina as part of an organised tour rather than independently and save yourself the headache of organising everything yourself, then this tour leaving from Anaheim is a great choice for you.
They will pick you up from your hotel and organise everything for you, ensuring that all you have to do on your day trip to Catalina is have fun!
There are countless optional add-ons (including a number of the activities we have listed in this article) and you can enjoy all of the highlights of the destination with none of the stress of planning! Click here to check availability.
Catalina Island Day Trip from Orange County
If you’re staying in Orange County and want to go on a day trip to Catalina from this area, then there are a couple of options available for you here, as well.
Catalina Island Ferry from Dana Point
Dana Point is a town in South Orange County that is perhaps best known for being the starting point of the iconic Pacific Coast Highway. Leaving from the iconic Dana Point Harbor (which is also filled with a lot of cool shops and great restaurants!), this ferry is also operated by the Catalina Express company.
Like the other ferry sailings, it is important to arrive in enough advance time to board your boat — parking can be a bit of a nightmare at Dana Point Harbour depending on the time of day and season you’re visiting in. The journey to Catalina will take about an hour and a half and the ferry only sails to Avalon.
Catalina Island Ferry from Newport Beach
And our final option for ferries to Catalina leaves from Newport Beach in north Orange County. Operated by Catalina Flyer, this ferry departs from Newport Beach harbour and only sails once per day — leaving Newport at 9 AM and then leaving Avalon at 4:15 PM.
The ferry company asks that passengers arrive at the terminal an hour before departing and the journey takes about an hour and fifteen minutes.
Catalina Island Day Trip from San Diego
If you’re thinking of going on a day trip to Catalina Island from San Diego, please note that you are going to be in for a very long day and it’s not entirely advisable. The closest ferry port to downtown San Diego would be in Dana Point, which is about a 90-minute drive without traffic — and it’s southern California, so you should expect there to be traffic.
Couple the drive with the fact that you will likely need to be at the ferry terminal at least 30 minutes before departure and that the ferry will take a further 90 minutes to reach Avalon, then you’re looking at spending at least six hours in transit for a simple day trip.
If you’re set on visiting Catalina from San Diego rather than LA, it is far more advisable to plan an overnight trip there to ensure that you’re able to actually have fun and not be rushed.
Things to do on a Catalina Island Day Trip
Now that we’ve discussed all of the ferry options for getting to Catalina, now it’s time to discuss what to do on your Catalina Island day trip!
As the only officially incorporated town on Catalina Island, Avalon is a must-visit on the island and it is absolutely charming. Boasting classic seaside charms, a wonderful promenade, great shops, and fantastic restaurants, Avalon has a lot to offer visitors.
Make sure to take in the iconic Catalina Casino and enjoy the views of the boats moored in the harbour. There is also a great seaside promenade that you can stroll down, taking the time to pop into various shops and support the local economy!
If you want to venture a little bit outside of the city centre, then make sure to visit the Wrigley Memorial and Botanic Garden for a pleasant stroll through well-kept gardens full of endemic plants. And if you want to learn more about Avalon’s history and top sites, consider going on this one-hour tour to give you a more holistic view of Catalina’s capital!
And if you want to explore some of the fantastic culinary scene that Avalon has going for it, consider booking this Avalon food walking tour that will take you by some of the city’s best restaurants and give you samples!
Tour the Iconic Casino
There is no way that spending a day in Catalina would be complete without visiting the iconic Catalina Casino — easily the most memorable building on the island and, at one point, the tallest building in California!
Constructed in 1928 and commissioned by chewing gum magnate William Wrigley, Jr, the Catalina Casino is a beautiful art deco-style building overlooking Avalon Bay. Contrary to what the name may suggest, there has actually never been any sort of gambling facilities here, either, and instead uses the term “casino” from the literal Italian meaning of a “gathering place.”
Today, the building is home to a swanky cinema where you can see a new release and a beautiful ballroom that hosts events from time to time. If you’d like to learn more about the history of this iconic building, consider taking this tour that will bring you behind the scenes of the Catalina Casino.
Go on a Semi Submarine
Though the island itself has a lot to offer, one of the main draws for anyone going on a one-day trip to Catalina Island would have to be the incredible aquatic activities that one can embark on. Catalina boasts a fascinating and unique underwater ecosystem with countless different species living and thriving in vast kelp forests.
If you want to have a glimpse of what lies below the surface of the crystal clear waters of Catalina without having to get too wet, then consider going for a tour on a semi-submarine!
These half-submerged boats have windows that are perfect for peering at the bright orange Garibaldi fish and looking into the depths of kelp forests without having to don a snorkel or get a SCUBA certification.
Search for Wild Bison
Catalina not only boats fascinating wildlife below the ocean’s surface — in fact, the wildlife above ground is just as fascinating. And one of the unique things about Catalina Island is that it is home to its own wild bison herd, which have lived on the island since they were imported there in 1924.
Though at one point the herd had over 600 bison, there are now about 150 bison that make up the herd. The Catalina Island bison are also not completely purebred bison, and they are believed to be a cross between the American Bison and a domestic cow.
You can spot these fascinating creatures on a jeep tour, where you can also get off-road and see just how beautiful the landscape of rural Catalina really is — an unmissable experience on any Catalina Island day trip!
Snorkel or SCUBA Dive in the Kelp Forests
As mentioned earlier, one of the highlights of any day trip to Catalina and something that should be included on any Catalina Island itinerary is exploring the incredible underwater ecosystems that reside off the shores of the island. And one of the best ways to do this is by snorkelling or SCUBA diving in the gorgeous kelp forests.
Catalina is one of the best hotspots for SCUBA divers in southern California and is actually considered to be one of the best places to go diving in the entire world. The water around the island is exceptionally clear, meaning that the visibility that you can get in the kelp forest is second-to-none.
The unique ecosystem that you will experience either SCUBA diving or snorkelling through these kelp forests is really something truly exceptional.
Try Kayaking or Stand-up Paddleboarding
If you’re not too keen to see what lies below the ocean’s surface on your Catalina Island day trip itinerary but still want to get out on the water, then consider trying your hand at kayaking or stand up paddleboarding! This is truly an oasis to try out these fun sports as there are countless other people doing exactly the same thing — meaning that it is a safe and secure location to do it!
On a kayak or paddleboard, you can get to some remote coves and areas that are hard to reach or see and you can really feel one with the water and nature surrounding. Keep an eye out for wildlife while you’re paddling along and maybe even consider taking some snorkel gear with you so you can hop in the water and see what lies beneath you!
If you’re after an adrenaline rush when visiting Catalina that also will provide incredible 360-degree views of the island and the surrounding Pacific Ocean, then consider taking the leap and going ziplining!
The Catalina Island Zip Line Eco Tour is a collection of five different zip lines that can reach up to 600 feet above sea level, go up to 35 mph, and provide you with absolutely stunning and amazing views over the entire island — along with a pretty hefty adrenaline rush!
So if you’re a bit of a daredevil and want to add quite a bit of excitement to your day trip to Catalina island, then please consider viewing the beautiful island from this heart-pounding zip line!
If you would rather explore the inland delights of Catalina on foot while on your day trip, then consider hitting one of the many trails on the island and going for a hike. Hiking opportunities are plentiful on the island and there is something for all types of fitness and skill levels.
Some of the most popular hiking trails include the Garden to Sky summit, which begins in the botanic garden, or the Trans Catalina trail, which can take you across the entire island if you’re willing to take the time to walk the whole thing.
Lounge on the Beach
If your plan for your Catalina Island day trip involves relaxation rather than adrenaline, you’ll find that the island doesn’t disappoint in this regard, either! There are countless lovely beaches that you can lounge on with varying degrees of busyness and popularity.
The most popular beach on the island is undoubtedly Descanso Beach, which is located just past the Casino on the other side of Avalon. There are also a few other beaches around Avalon that are worth visiting, including South Beach, Middle Beach and Step Beach.
If you’re in the Two Harbors area, there are plenty of beaches here that are absolutely wonderful, as well. Harbor Sands has a number of facilities, however, there is also a great beach in front of the Two Harbors Campground.
No matter where you find a good strip of sand to lay out your towel, you’re sure not to be disappointed in the quality of beaches on Catalina Island!
Where to Stay on Catalina Island
If you’re planning more of a Catalina Island weekend trip rather than a day trip (as you can see, there are so many things to do that it’s impossible to cram them into the span of just one day!), then you’re going to need to find a great place to stay. If you’re wondering where to rest your head in Catalina, check out these options:
Private Rental — If you’d rather have your own apartment or cottage during your stay in Catalina, then there are countless properties available on the island — including this beautiful villa in Avalon! Click here to browse the best private rentals in Catalina!
Catalina Island Seacrest Inn — If you’re looking for a comfortable and well-equipped mid-range hotel, then this is a great option for you! They have a range of clean and cosy rooms available and a convenient location in the heart of Avalon! Click here to see their availability
Pavilion Hotel — This Avalon hotel is located directly on the beach and is the perfect choice for those looking for a bit of luxury on their overnight trip to Catalina. They have a number of plush rooms available and fantastic grounds for you to lounge around in as well. Their location is also perfect for exploring all of the highlights of Avalon on foot. Click here to see their availability
Planning a Catalina Island day trip can seem a bit complicated at first, but with numerous ferry options and countless fun and interesting things to do on the island, there is no doubting that it makes for an excellent, unique place to visit in Southern California!
Are you planning a one-day trip to Catalina Island? Have you been? Let us know in the comments!