The Perfect Catalina Island Day Trip: How to Spend One Day

Reviewed by Elina Ansary
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TL;DR: The perfect Catalina Island day trip begins with a ferry ride to the scenic town of Avalon, where you can take golf carts to nearby viewpoints, snorkel in the clear waters, kayak along the coves, and indulge in fresh lobster rolls—all for around $200-$300 per person.

Catalina Island boasts 75 square miles of hilly terrain, beautiful beaches, kelp forests, and one of California’s most popular multi-day treks – the 38.5-mile Trans-Catalina Trail.

The island also happens to be one of the best day trips to do in Southern California since it’s only 22 miles off the coast and only about an hour by ferry from Los Angeles and Orange County.

The perfect Catalina Island Day Trip

It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I finally made the trip to Santa Catalina Island myself. It had always been on my radar, as many of the islands off the coast of California have been for years, but I just never made it happen.

That is until I found myself with an extra day after a trip to Disneyland. I quickly decided to finally experience Catalina Island once I realized how easy it was to get to the island.

Based on that trip, this is my full itinerary for the perfect Catalina Island day trip for anyone who is also looking for a unique and easy day trip.

By the end of it, you’ll know exactly what to expect with a day trip to Catalina Island, how to get there, and what to do to soak up the best that this island has to offer.

day trip to catalina island

How to Get to Catalina Island

Unless you know someone who has a sailboat or helicopter, the easiest way to get to Catalina Island is by ferry. There are two boat companies that take passengers to the island – Catalina Express and Catalina Flyer.

The vast majority of people visiting the island will take the high-speed ferry with Catalina Express since it leaves from more locations, including San Pedro, Long Beach, and Dana Point and travels to both Avalon and Two Harbors.

The Catalina Flyer, on the other hand, only leaves from Newport Beach.

how to get to catalina island

Here are the options for doing a trip to Catalina Island from the mainland.

From Los Angeles

Long Beach

Long Beach is the most popular and active port for traveling to Catalina by ferry. The ferries that leave from the Long Beach Port take about an hour and only travel to Avalon.

During the off-season, there are only two departures and returns per day. This is when I went so I just had to be mindful of ferry times to make sure I didn’t miss the only late afternoon ferry back to the island.

You also have to squeeze in a bit more if you’re trying to do a day trip during the off-season since the earliest ferry leaves around 7:00 am from Long Beach and starts its return from Avalon at 4:15 pm.

During the summer, you’ll find up to 6-9 departures and returns per day so you can be more flexible with your day trip to Catalina Island. Shoulder seasons can fluctuate so you’ll need to check the ferry schedules ahead of time before planning your trip.

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San Pedro

San Pedro has fewer departures and returns but it’s also the only port with ferries that go to Two Harbors as well as Avalon. And similar to the Long Beach Port, the number of ferries leaving and returning per day depends on the time of year.

In the off-season, it’s usually only a couple of departures and returns per day and that goes up to around 5-6 to Avalon and 7-9 to Two Harbors in the high season.

The ferry from San Pedro to Avalon takes about an hour and 15 minutes and the ferry from San Pedro to Two Harbors takes about two hours.

Book the Catalina Express from Long Beach or San Pedro here.

From Orange County

Dana Point

If you’re coming from Orange County or San Diego, you’ll probably want to leave from Dana Point. The ferries from Dana Point travel to Avalon and there are only a couple of departures and returns year-round.

The ferry from Dana Point takes about an hour and a half one way to get to Catalina Island.

Newport Beach

The ferry that leaves from Newport Beach is run by the Catalina Flyer instead of the Catalina Express. There is only one departure and return per day from this port and it only travels to Avalon. The journey takes just over an hour.

How Much Does the Catalina Ferry Cost?

Round trip tickets for the Catalina Express are $74.50 for adults, $67.50 for seniors 55+, and $59 for children under 12. You can book them here

Round trip tickets for the Catalina Flyer are $70 for adults, $65 for seniors 60+, and $53 for children 12 and under.

Visiting Avalon vs Two Harbors

To keep things simple, I put together this Catalina day trip itinerary based on starting your day in Avalon. There are a few reasons for this.

First off, most of the ferries that travel to Catalina Island only go to Avalon and back (with the exception of the San Pedro ferries), so you have a lot more choices if you’re doing a day trip to Avalon.

Secondly, there’s a lot more to do in and around downtown Avalon compared to the more remote Two Harbors. So if you only have a day, Avalon is the better option for more things to do.

And lastly, it’s quicker to get to Avalon. Avalon takes anywhere from an hour to an hour and a half to get to depending on which port you’re leaving from, whereas Two Harbors takes two hours to travel to.

If you only have a day, you’ll want as much time as possible on the island so I recommend sticking to Avalon.

walking around the city of avalon

The Perfect Catalina Island Day Trip Itinerary: 6 Things to do on Catalina Island

Walk Around Town & Shop the Local Boutiques

Estimated Time: 30 min – 1 hour

plan a trip to catalina island - what to do
downtown avalon - shop the boutiques

When you first arrive in the city of Avalon, I’d recommend spending some time getting acquainted with the cute downtown area and exploring the local boutiques.

Also, if you plan to do an afternoon tour but haven’t already booked one ahead of time, the dock area is where you should do that once you arrive.

Stop by the Catalina Island Coffee & Cookie Co for a fresh cup of coffee and maybe a bite to eat if you haven’t had breakfast yet. I’d highly recommend trying one of their delicious cinnamon rolls (if there are any left).

Then simply walk around the small area that makes up downtown Avalon. Poke your head into shops and find some souvenirs that you might want to pick up later before you hop on the ferry back to the mainland.

If you’re a photographer, this is also a great time to get some initial shots of Catalina Island and its scenic harbor with its famous casino in the background.

Check Out the Best Viewpoints & Go for a Short Hike

Estimated time: 2-3 hours

rent a golf cart and take in the viewpoints
My favorite viewpoint on Catalina Island – 3 Palms Scenic Overlook.

Once you’re caffeinated, it’s time to explore the island by foot and golf cart.

There are hardly any cars on Catalina Island, except for those that belong to the few thousand people who actually live on the island. This means most visitors get around the island by golf cart.

You’ll find rentals near the dock area by the hour. I’d recommend going with Catalina Golf Cart Rentals.

They also have a map for a 12-mile scenic route that takes about an hour to complete which is a good place to start if it’s your first time on the island.

Note: For rentals, you have to be at least 21 years old and provide a valid driver’s license. Renting a golf cart from Catalina Golf Cart Rentals also requires a $50 deposit and it’s cash-only but there’s a nearby ATM.

Rentals run at about $50/hour and there’s usually a deal where if you buy two hours you’ll get the third hour free.

Once you have your rental sorted, make sure to include these stops while exploring the island:

  • Buena Vista Point
  • Lover’s Cove Scenic Vista
  • 3 Palms Scenic Overlook (this one is probably my favorite view on Catalina Island)
  • Ocean Scenic Overlook
  • Wrigley Botanical Garden
short hikes on catalina island

And if you’re up for a short hike, head up to the Catalina Island Conservancy near the Wrigley Botanical Garden and tackle one of these hikes:

  • Garden to Sky Trail (2.8 miles)
  • Trans-Catalina Trail to Lone Tree Viewpoint (3 miles)
  • Hermit Gulch Trail (3.4 miles)

Hit the Water

Estimated Time: 2 hours

water activities on catalina island

You can’t visit Catalina Island and not do at least one water activity while you’re in town.

The surrounding waters around the island are full of diverse marine life, kelp forests, and clear waters that are some of the warmest in Southern California.

It’s no surprise then that it’s a great spot for scuba diving, snorkeling, or exploring the water through a boat ride, kayaking, or standup paddleboarding.

Here are a few activities to choose from:

  • Snorkeling – You can either do a guided tour if you’re not familiar with snorkeling or simply rent a snorkel and go by yourself. A few of the best spots for snorkeling near Avalon include Casino Point Dive Park/Avalon Dive Park (there are snorkel rentals near the park) and Lover’s Cove (a more secluded spot so you should pick up snorkels in Avalon before heading here). If you want to do a tour, I’d recommend going with Snorkeling Catalina.
snorkeling on catalina island - lover's cove
One of the best places to go snorkeling on Catalina Island – Lover’s Cove.
  • Scuba diving – You can book a scuba tour with Catalina Scuba (they offer tours for both certified divers and those without any experience).
  • Kayaking or SUPing – If you prefer to explore above the water, renting a kayak or standup paddleboard (or going on a tour) is an ideal option. Since the water is usually very clear around the shores of Catalina, you can still see a lot from above the water. You can find kayak or SUP rentals from Wet Spot Rentals (they also have snorkel rentals) or Descanso Beach Ocean Sports offers tours and rentals.
  • Dolphin & whale watching – If you’re not a fan of getting wet but still want to experience the marine life around Catalina Island, you can go on a two-hour dolphin and whale watching tour with Catalina Diver Supply.
  • Jet skiing – If you’re just looking for a bit of fun out on the water, you can rent jet skis from Catalina Jet Ski.
  • Parasailing – If you’re looking for a thrilling water activity, one of the best ways to see the beauty of Catalina Island is from above. California Parasail offers 800-foot flights for 1, 2, and 3 people.

Note: Another very popular water activity on Catalina is the island’s semi-submersible submarine and glass-bottom boat tours. However, many of these tours feed fish to get them to swim close to the boat. These regular feedings can actually be detrimental to the local fish population as it teaches them to not search for their own food. I personally don’t recommend any tour that interacts with wildlife in a way that negatively changes their natural behavior, which is why I don’t recommend these activities if you’re going to Catalina Island. And, in general, I find these tours to be overly touristy and not the best way to experience the local sea life in its natural habitat.

Relax on the Beach

Estimated time: 1-2 hours

relax on the beach - middle beach on Santa Catalina
If you don’t want to go to Descanso Beach, Middle Beach near the dock is a good alternative.

Even though there are a lot of adventure activities you can do, it’s good to give yourself at least an hour or two to just relax on Catalina island’s beautiful beaches as well.

One of the best places to go where you can also grab a cocktail to sip out on the beach is Descanso Beach Club.

Located just past the casino, this private beach costs $2 for beach access but is the nicest beach within walking distance to downtown Avalon.

You can also rent private cabanas at Descanso if you’re with a group or choose to simply enjoy the sand with a beach towel. It’s the perfect place to relax and grab a drink or bite to eat in the off-season or during the week.

During the high season, it turns into a party beach with rotating DJs on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, so don’t expect a peaceful beach setting if you’re visiting the island on a summer weekend.

You can also rent kayaks, standup paddleboards, and sign up for the zip lining tour, rope course, and rock climbing wall at Descanso Beach if you want to fit multiple activities into one area.

If you’re not a fan of paying for beach access, you can also lay out on the small beach near the ferry dock, called Middle Beach (although it doesn’t have quite the same ambiance).

Eat Fresh Lobster Rolls

Estimated time: 45 minutes – 1 hour

grab some fresh seafood before you head back on the Catalina Express
Eating a lobster roll from the Lobster Trap before hopping back on the ferry.

Santa Catalina Island isn’t exactly known for its foodie scene, but it’s still surrounded by the ocean so if you’re a fan of seafood you should make time to grab some delicious lobster rolls before you get back on the ferry.

I went to the Lobster Trap while I was in town and although the service could’ve been friendlier, their lobster rolls were a great way to end my time on Catalina Island before making my way back to the mainland.

Optional Addition: Go on a Local Tour

Estimated Time: 1-3 hours

tours on catalina island

If you get through everything on this Catalina Island itinerary, you probably won’t have time to do a guided tour on the island as well.

However, if you choose to extend your time or want to switch out one of the above activities with a tour, there are plenty of options on the island. Here are some of the best tours on Catalina Island:

  • Catalina Casino Tour – One of the most popular tours on Catalina Island is a walking tour through the historic art deco casino. There are two tours you can take: Discover the Casino Tour and Catalina Casino Behind the Scenes Tour. The 45-minute Discover the Casino Tour is the perfect intro to the history of the Casino and it allows you to tour the main highlights, including Avalon Theatre. The 90-minute Behind the Scenes Tour goes into more detail and focuses on areas of the casino that were once closed to the public for over 70 years.
  • Jeep Tours – If you’re looking to explore more of the island than what your golf cart can handle, I’d recommend hopping on a two-hour jeep tour. This eco-friendly tour with Catalina Island Company gives you a good overview of the local wildlife around the island and even some bison spotting.
  • Zip Lining Tour – As mentioned above, there’s a zip lining tour you can sign up for at Descanso Beach. If you’re looking for some thrills, this is an easy experience to fit into your time at the beach if you have a couple of hours to spare. On the tour, you’re taken 600 feet above the beach where you’ll fly across the canyon and through some eucalyptus trees at around 35 MPH. Along the zip line course, you’ll enjoy some scenic ocean views and learn more about the flora and fauna that can be found on Catalina Island. And, if you’re looking for more activities, there’s also a rock climbing wall and ropes course at Descanso Beach.
  • Ghost Tours – If you’re staying overnight, looking for a quirky tour, and you enjoy ghost stories, doing a Haunted Catalina ghost tour can be a fun way to spend an hour. Tours start at 7 pm nightly from the base of the Green Pier in downtown Avalon.

Quick History of Catalina Island

Santa Catalina Island’s history goes back to 8,000 years when Indigenous people from the Gabrieliño/Tongva tribe first inhabited the island.

Over the years, it’s been visited by smugglers, pirates, the Union army, missionaries, celebrities, and, of course, travelers.

For a good chunk of the 19th century, the island was owned by James Lick, a real estate investor and at one point the wealthiest man in California.

He eventually sold the island to the Banning Brothers, who started the Santa Catalina Island Company in the 1890s and turned the island into the resort destination it is today.

In the early 1900s, William Wrigley Jr., who had a controlling interest in the Santa Catalina Island Company, started developing the island even more into a resort destination.

He was the one who built the Catalina Casino and he even made Avalon the Spring Training home for the Chicago Cubs until 1951. His descendants still own most of the Santa Catalina Island Company today.

For a short stint during World War II, the island closed down to the public so it could be used as a military training facility. After the war, tourism picked up again and it became a popular vacation spot for celebrities, especially from the 1930s to 1950s.

Catalina Island was and still is a popular place to shoot movies (over 500 films, tv shows, and commercials have been shot in the area).

history of catalina island - catalina casino
The historic Catalina Casino.

Best Time to Visit Catalina Island

The best time of year to explore Catalina Island is spring and fall. You’ll find the best weather during this time of the year and slightly fewer crowds than you will in summer.

Summer can be a good time to visit as well, but the weather is often overcast in the mornings with the sun not breaking through until the afternoon.

Winter is the worst time to visit with choppy waters that make water activities hard to do and the ferry ride to and from the island unpleasant.

However, if you’re looking for fewer crowds and care more about land activities, winter can be a good alternative to the busier months.

Just note that winter brings reduced ferry times so there’s less wiggle room for a day trip (although it’s still very much possible).

best time to visit catalina island

Tips for Visiting Catalina Island

  • Catalina Island isn’t the cheapest – As you can probably tell with the ferry price alone, a visit to Catalina Island isn’t always the cheapest. Transportation (including the ferry and golf cart rentals), food, and accommodation (if you’re planning a weekend trip), all come at a premium price. Make sure to budget accordingly and know that you’ll probably have to spend at least $200-$300 for a day trip to Catalina.
  • Keep track of ferry times – This is especially the case if you’re visiting in the low season when there are only 1-2 departures and returns per day. Make sure you’re keeping track of the time and that you can actually fit everything in without needing to rush back to the ferry if you’re only doing a day trip.
  • Pack water shoes – If you plan to do water activities, don’t forget a pair of water shoes. Although there are some soft sandy beaches, a lot of the shoreline around Catalina Island can be rocky and uncomfortable to walk around with bare feet.
  • Try a Buffalo Milk cocktail – You can’t make a visit to Catalina Island without trying its signature drink! This creamy cocktail is made with vodka, Kahlua, Creme de Cocoa, Cream de Banana, and half and half. You should be able to find it at any bar on Catalina Island, but a good place to start is either Descanso Beach Club or Luau Larry’s. It’s basically like ice cream in cocktail form.
visit catalina island - tips for your trip

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Mimi McFadden
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Mimi McFadden initially started The Atlas Heart in 2013 to write about her adventures abroad. But since 2019, The Atlas Heart has become a love letter to the Golden State. Mimi enjoys sharing her first-hand knowledge and expertise with the places she knows so well and making the most comprehensive travel guides possible. When she’s not hiking and exploring new places in California, she loves to travel abroad, read in her cozy chaise lounge, play basketball, and connect with friends and family over board games. Over her 28 years in California, she has lived in Santa Cruz (18 years), San Diego (5 years), and the San Francisco Bay Area (5 years), where she currently resides.

Looking for more Southern California travel inspiration? Don’t miss these related posts below! 

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Hi, I'm Mimi! I'm an outdoorsy Californian who has spent over 28 years immersed in the incredible natural beauty that California has to offer. My goal is to inspire others to get out and find their next adventure in California. Whether it’s escaping to an alpine lake in the Sierras, finding peace among the giant redwoods, or road tripping down the PCH, there’s always more to explore in this beautiful state.


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