The Perfect Catalina Island Day Trip Itinerary

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by Maggie Turansky

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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, Santa Catalina Island has a lot to offer visitors and it surprisingly quick and easy to reach from numerous ports in either area.

Catalina 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 ecosystems and crystal-clear water, Catalina 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.

Los Angeles to Catalina

If you are in LA, the easiest way to get to Catalina is to sail from Long Beach or San Pedro, both located in LA County.

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.

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.

Avalon Bay from the hills on Catalina Island
Avalon Bay from the hills on Catalina Island

Organised Tour from Los Angeles

If you would prefer to discover Catalina as part of an organised tour rather than independently, then this tour leaving from LA & North Orange County 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!

Alternatively, this tour leaving from Anaheim is a great option. It also includes hotel pick-up and transport.

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!

Orange County to Catalina

If you’re staying in Orange County and want to visit Catalina Island from this area, then there are a couple of options available for you here, as well.

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 Harbor 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.

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 sails multiple times per day.

The ferry company asks that passengers arrive at the terminal an hour before departing and the journey takes about an hour and fifteen minutes.

Avalon Harbour
Scenic View of Avalon Harbour

San Diego to Catalina

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 Day Trip

Now that we’ve discussed all of the ferry options for getting to the island, now it’s time to discuss what to do on Catalina Island for a day! Whether you’re looking for adventure or to simply relax in a delightful vacation destination, you’re sure to fall in love.

Explore Downtown Avalon

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 (operated by Catalina Island Conservancy) 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! There is also this private golf cart tour around the town or, if you want to go independently, you could opt to rent a golf cart yourself. You could also find a food tour to explore the local culinary scene and sample a bit of fresh seafood.

Wrigley Memorial & Botanical Gardens
Wrigley Memorial & Botanical Gardens

Tour the Iconic Casino

There is no way that taking the time to explore Catalina would be complete without visiting the iconic and famous 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.

The historic Avalon Casino
The historic Avalon 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 boat tour on a semi-submersible!

These half-submerged, glass-bottom 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.

If you’re keen to see this side of Catalina, consider taking this semi-submarine tour (also available from GetYourGuide here) and prepare to be amazed at the world under the sea.

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 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 when you visit Catalina Island!

Snorkel or SCUBA Dive in the Kelp Forests

As mentioned earlier, 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 take in the sea life 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.

A Garibaldi Fish in the waters of Catalina Island
Seeing the Garibaldi Fish is one of the highlights of a Scuba dive in Catalina

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!

Go Ziplining

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 trip to Catalina, then please consider viewing the beautiful island from this heart-pounding zip line! After getting your adrenaline pumping, consider unwinding with a cocktail at the nearby Descanso Beach Club.

Go Hiking

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.

Catalina Island view
Beautiful views to be found when hiking on Catalina Island!

Lounge on the Beach

If your plan for your 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!

Beautiful Beach on Catalina Island
Beautiful Beach on Catalina Island

Where to Stay on Catalina Island

If you’re planning more of a Catalina Island weekend 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:

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!

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 several 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.

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!

Planning a visit to Catalina 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 doubt that it makes for an excellent, unique place to visit in Southern California!

Are you planning to visit Catalina? Have any questions about this itinerary? Let us know in the comments!

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Maggie is a co-founder and writer for The World Was Here First. Originally from the US, she has lived in five different countries and has travelled to dozens more, both solo and with her partner, Michael. She particularly loves exploring Spain and spending time in the Caucasus and the Baltics. Read more about Maggie


    • It’s really up to you and how much time, but I would recommend at least a few days if you want to truly explore the island 🙂

  1. Planning a trip mid June with my husband and 95 year old Father-in-Law with all consideration he does get around pretty good but we don’t want to wear him out either, so do you think the Golf Cart would be sufficient for him or we were considering renting a power chair for him for this outing. Both my husband and he have been to Catalina Island before but it has been over 30 years. This would be a first for me.

  2. Hi there! What would you recommend taking for a day trip? Is there a place on the island to store things while there?

    • Hi AnnMarie, I don’t think you need to take anything special with you for just a day except for a swimsuit if you plan do any water activities! You can find lockers to store your things on the island.

    • Hi Gala, the Casino is about a 15-minute walk from the ferry terminal – less than a mile all along Avalon Bay.n

        • There has actually never been any gambling at the Avalon Casino (“casino” is simply the Italian word for “gathering place”). Currently, it operates as a cinema and an event space.

  3. My parents took me to Avalon 75 years ago and I have been bring my boat there as a teen and adult.
    I no longer live in California but love to see the pictures and hear about whats going on at the island

  4. Been there twice, went parasailing for the first time out there. The casino is a fantastic place to visit. This comes from a person from Appleton Wisconsin, highly recommended to go and visit.

    • The best way to get around is by golf cart! There are several places to rent them once you get to the island 🙂

  5. I’ve grew up in Los Angeles and somehow I’ve never been to Catalina Island! This definitely makes me want to go. That casino is gorgeous and those turquoise waters are to die for. That’s definitely hard to come by at most LA beaches. Thanks for sharing.


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