Most people who visit Santa Catalina Island cross the 26-mile channel from Los Angeles and spend the day or afternoon enjoying the sights, smells and sounds of charmingAvalon. With its spectacular views of the harbor, quaint shops and world-class people-watching, visitors leave well-satisfied.
But just beyond the tiny village of Avalon lies a cornucopia of natural delights, a land that time has forgotten. No prehistoric dinosaurs here, but make the journey into Catalina's interior and you'll likely come upon several of the 200 bison roaming the island, or see birds and wildlife found nowhere else in the world. You'll also learn the fascinating history of this island so remote, yet so close to one of the world's largest cities.
On our most recent visit to Catalina, we took the Classic Inland Motor Tour, an informative sometimes hair-raising journey 31 miles into the island's interior. Lasting about four hours, this tour gave us an entirely new perspective on an island we'd never really bothered to fully explore. Spectacular views were just the beginning; the rugged interior holds many surprises for visitors who think the edge of Avalon is where the sightseeing stops.
Thanks to the foresight of the Santa Catalina Island Conservancy, some 42,000 acres were set aside from development back in the early 70's and the result is a natural, pristine island that probably is much like the Spaniards found it when the island was discovered in the 16th Century. A few roads, buildings and small communities exist here and there but, for the most part, the island's interior is unblemished. The Conservancy owns about 88 percent of the 21-mile-long island.
Visitors can buy permits to hike or bicycle the island and camp at several campgrounds spread throughout the interior and along some of the coastline. But most people who venture into this wilderness do it on guided tours from the comfort of a bus or special vehicle. Some roads are paved but many are not — and all are narrow, barely providing space for vehicles to pass each other.
Our tour, offered by Discovery Tours, was not conducted in a typical tour bus. If you can picture a large horse trailer that has been refurbished to include seats, air-conditioning and large viewing windows, that's basically what we were riding in. This trailer was towed by a semi-cab. This setup seemed fairly benign as we ambled onto the trailer and took our seats in the second row.
What we didn't realize is that we were getting the "E-ticket" seats — perfect for travelers who want a unique experience, but perhaps a little too exciting for older folks who don't normally go in for thrill rides. The front rows could view right out the front of the trailer and the short turning radius on the cab had the effect on certain turns of making it seem — from the front rows anyway — that every time the cab turned, the trailer was going to keep on going over the edge of the narrow mountain roadways. If you enjoy Disneyland's Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, you'll love this.
It's those narrow mountain roadways that create all the excitement. Leaving from Avalon, we steadily climbed the switchbacks to the high ridges overlooking the city, each turn making the distance "over the cliff" a little further to the ground. While we actually thought the ride was fun and invigorating, there was at least one couple in our front portion of the trailer that seemed to wish they had stayed home. Suggestion for the faint-of-heart: Sit in the back of the trailer.
Once we reached the crest of the mountain, the steep mountains gave way to rolling countryside with wide valleys and jagged hillsides. We left behind the lush, tropical trees on the Avalon side of the island which were replaced by golden hills that were accented with green scrub brush and isolated stands of trees. In some places the countryside stretched far enough to the west that we couldn't see the ocean; in others the ocean was visible everywhere you looked. In every sense, the island felt like true wilderness.
Our informative tour guide/driver pointed out every mountain, reservoir, building and historical feature along the way — a four-hour tour requires a lot of talking. The steady commentary was delivered by an intercom that, interestingly, was only one-way. We had an emergency button in the trailer but couldn't ask questions of our driver until one of several stops along the way. The one-way communication became obvious when we happened on a herd of bison that apparently our driver didn't see, and none of our yelling could get the driver's attention. Later, the driver admitted he would have pointed them out if he'd seen them, adding with a smile: "Which would you rather me do, watch for bison or watch the road?"
One of the major stops on this tour was El Rancho Escondido, which was a ranch built in the 1930's by Phillip Wrigley, son of the chewing gum magnate William Wrigley, who had bought the whole island in 1919. Today the ranch is much as it was back when it was built and is still used for raising Arabian horses. Visitors are treated to a brief presentation about the Arabians and a documentary about the ranch that was put together by the Wrigley family, which still uses one building on the ranch as a vacation residence.
Not far from El Rancho Escondido is the "Airport in the Sky," Catalina's only airport and about 10 miles via mountain road from Avalon. The 3250-foot runway was constructed here back in the 1940's because there was no other location on the island that would have provided the necessary flat topography and safe access for aircraft. The "Airport in the Sky" provides a three-dimensional diorama of the island making it easy to visualize the places on the tour you have just visited. There is also an exhibit about the various people inhabiting the island over the years, as well as a gift shop and restaurant.
Add to these features several stops to enjoy breathtaking views of the ocean and various coves and beachfront areas and, it's obvious, the Inland Motor Tour packs a lot into a half-day excursion. It will whet your appetite for a return to the island and even more exploration of an island that is so close, yet so far from civilization.
AT A GLANCE
WHERE: Santa Catalina Island is about 26 miles off the coastline of Los Angeles.
WHAT: Catalina is like going to another country. Avalon has all the charm you would expect of a small town on the coast of Spain or France. Several fine accommodations are available for overnight stays. The interior of the island is a wilderness that can be explored by bike, on foot or with tour companies.
WHEN: Any time of the year.
WHY: Catalina is quick and easy to reach and yet a total change of scenery from the Los Angeles metro area.
HOW: For more information on Santa Catalina Island, call 310-510-1520, or visit www.visitcatalina.org. For more information on Discovery Tours and several tour packages they have on Catalina Island, phone 310-510-8687.
Photos: The semi-bus rig used for the inland tour; El Rancho Escondido; the "Airport in the Sky;" bison spotted along the tour route. Photo credits: Cary Ordway, Sandi Ordway