Welcome to the seventh installment of our “Trail Town” series. Every month we will feature an article about a trail running city that you should put on your bucket list of places to visit! This month we feature the city of Avalon (population: 3,728), on Catalina Island in California. This article was written by Brandon Hough from ATRA corporate member Spectrum Sports Management.
Twenty two miles to the southwest of Los Angeles Harbor lies Catalina Island and its main town, Avalon. At just under three square miles, the city of Avalon holds 90% of the population on the island but only occupies less than 5% of the land. Of the remaining 95%, the Catalina Island Conservancy are stewards of 88% of the total land of the island, watching over it as guardians and ensuring it remains beautiful and untouched for the over one million visitors to the island annually.
Originally inhabited by people of the Gabrielino/Tongva tribe, the island would change hands a few times in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s until William Wrigley Jr took a controlling interest in the island in 1919 (yes, the of Wrigley Gum and Wrigley Field fame!). He would go on to pour millions into the island to upgrade its infrastructure and make it a resort town. He was even responsible for bringing the Chicago Cubs to Avalon for spring training from 1921-1951.
Forty years after he passed away, Phillip Wrigley would deed the shares the Wrigley’s owned in the Santa Catalina Island Company to the Catalina Island Conservancy setting the foundation for the island to become forever protected and preserved. To this day, over 150 Bison roam the island, Eagles soar over the skies, and the elusive Catalina Island Fox (unique to the island) roams the chaparral landscape with over 50 species of plants endemic to the island.
At just under three square miles, one has to leave the city of Avalon to get some running in and whether one likes it or not, these trails are all dirt and contain some seriously climbing to get out of the city proper! With over 42,000 acres of open, the Catalina Island Conservancy has made dozens and dozens of miles of trails that interlace the island, not including the main road through most of the island is dirt.
The most famous trail on the island is the Trans Catalina Trail (TCT for short), it comes in at a whopping 37 miles in length, 64 miles if one decided to return! Stretching from the far east of the island all the way to the west end, this trail offers incredible vistas and explores just about everything Catalina has to offer.
For those who want to remain close to town the Hour Trail, so named because it used to take an hour to ride on horseback, stays close to the city but offers one’s feet a softer service, a remote feel and incredible views of the town and ocean. It is located just behind the city’s only golf course. Also of immense popularity is the Garden to Sky trail, it begins at the Wrigley Gardens and ascends a very tough 1.2 miles onto Divide Road, offering stunning vistas of both mainland California to the east and San Clemente to the west. And lastly for the gluttons of punishment, Hermit Gulch offers a rugged single track trail off the floor of Avalon canyon up to the ridge line, culminating on Divide Road and giving one views of Avalon below that are hard to describe.
Always striving to do more, the Catalina Island Conservancy announced in early October of 2017 that they are breaking ground on 27 miles worth of new trails throughout the island that they hope to have completed in the summer of 2018.
Parking and Transit:
Given that swimming twenty two miles is most likely out of the equation, the Catalina Express offers daily boat service from different areas in LA and Orange County to get people to Avalon. If money is not an issue and one wants to enjoy the views from above, the Island Express runs a helicopter service from Long Beach to Avalon.
The city of Avalon runs on golf carts with very few people having access to cars. To access the interior one needs to get a permit from the Catalina Island Conservancy which is free and can be obtained through their website. Additionally to access the Garden to Sky trailhead, one must enter through the Wrigley Gardens which does have a small fee. Lastly, for those who want to get far into the island and run or hike back, there is the Wildlands Express that takes people to different locations on the island and is managed by the Catalina Island Conservancy.
Avalon is home to one of the oldest trail marathons and one of the oldest ultras on the west coast, one can see that in how the populace supports the events on the island and those who come to the island to embrace its beauty and the trails that allow one to do so.
The Catalina Island Conservancy works tirelessly to maintain the trails and add new ones all the while giving those who use the trails all the resources they need to access them. Many local entities support the races in various ways, the school provides children to man aid stations, the Avalon Lions Club has supported all the running events on the island and uses all proceeds from the 50 miler on the island to give scholarships to the island’s youth and numerous businesses provide services to assist in the races that the island holds.
Catalina is a place where trail running was happening long before it was cool and probably happening before people even considered it “trail running”. To them, it was just running, with no paved roads except for the few in Avalon, running the trails the island over was just the natural thing to do. Many of the locals also sponsor numerous children and island youth by paying for their entries into the races on the island to aid in their ability to compete on the trails they call home.
What Avalon lacks in size, it more than makes up for in personality. Filled with all walks of life from the young to the old, the Catalina born and raised and those who simply wanted to leave the mainland, those who wanted a resort town and those who wanted a quiet life in the foothills of Avalon.
Over a million people a year are attracted to the unique island town. Where cars are rare and gas prices often hover above $6.00/gallon, the island is filled with golf carts. Visitors can rent them from places like Catalina Island Golf Carts to see every nook and cranny of the town. For the wild at heart, a zip line adventure awaits just over the saddle that hides Avalon from the rest of the island. Or if the desire exists to see a bison up close and person but with the protection of a vehicle safeguarding one’s life, the Catalina Island Conservancy offers Jeep Eco Tours to get one into the rugged interior.
This is a resort town though, when not trudging through the interior over saddle after saddle and dirt trail after dirt trail, Avalon more than has it covered in regards to relaxation. The Island Spa has everything one needs to relax, or perhaps try a massage at Catalina Sea Spa.
As the day winds down, there are numerous great little shops that dot the main strip of Avalon. One cannot go wrong swinging into Legends Island Outfitter to check out their great Patagonia collection and various other outdoor clothing selection. Or visiting the shops hiding behind the Café Metropole for and eclectic assortment of goods.
In a place with a population the size of Avalon’s, the best way to find what is good is to follow the locals. For coffee, that is a no brainer, one need to go no further that Catalina Coffee & Cookie Company to know where the good coffee is on the island. Arrive at 0500 with some of the locals who show up daily at the same time and place or in the midst of a mid-afternoon rush, either way, expect to be treated like a local and enjoy taste fantastic coffee!
If beer is what it is all about, do not expect to make it too far after exiting the Catalina Express. One of the very first establishments one walks by is the Catalina Island Brew House, expect to be sucked in by their quality beers. Offering an assortment of brewed in house beers, whether the temperature is warm or cold, sunny or overcast, there is a beer on top that will pleasantly delight.
If the timing is right, check out the Two Harbors Microbrew Festival on the other side of the island which occurs the 2nd weekend of very September and brings in big names like Stone, Ballast Point, Abita, Ninkasi, Mission, and Shipyard amongst a very healthy list of craft brewers who shop up to share the hops.
Avalon is not lacking in cuisine, the small town thrives on its one off restaurants and has plenty to write home about when it comes to food. If seafood is on the menu, the Bluewater Grille is a fantastic choice, from their Seafood Louie salad to the Swordfish, look no further than this location right on the water. Steve’s Steakhouse is a slightly upscale affair which offers incredible cuts of steak and it just is not possible to go wrong. Maggie’s Blue Rose offers a fresh take on Mexican food which is typically in no shortage in southern California.
To kick start the day, island favorite Original Jack’s Country Kitchen is a fantastic choice. As the day progresses, Ben’s Bakery tucked away in the Shops at Atwater provides great salads and sandwiches to go and a wonderful assortment of cookies and cakes. Lastly, rounding out the list is CC Gallagher, with a wide assortment of dishes being served throughout the day, swinging in for breakfast, lunch, or dinner will be a choice that is well worth it.
Catalina Island Conservancy – 310-510-2595 – The very first people that should be reached out to regarding Catalina. No one knows the island better than the conservancy, they offer hiking permits, eco tours, pamphlets, maps, etc. They are truly the stewards of Catalina Island. 877-778-8322
VisitCatalinaIsland.com – 877-778-8322 – Managed by the Santa Catalina Island Company, visit Catalina Island is a wonderful resource, it truly is a doorway to adventure.
Run Catalina – 909-399-3553 – Hard to imagine anyone who knows running on Catalina more than Run Catalina. Whether it is a question about traveling to the island, where to stay during one of their events, or how to access the trails, they can anyone the information they desire.
Trail Sharing and Competition:
Owning 88% of the island, the Catalina Island Conservancy is by all means the sole arbiter of what takes place with the 42,000 open acres of Catalina Island. They work tirelessly to keep the trails maintained and open for use by hikers and trail runners alike. As mentioned earlier, they also recently announced a plan to add 27 new miles of trail to the island by the summer of 2018. Information regarding that expansion can be found here. Upon completion of the new trails, Catalina will boast over 100 miles of single track trail in addition to many miles of scarcely used dirt roads.
Catalina Island is home to three races, two of which are nearing four decades old. A fantastic movie was made to give an overview of the events that take place on the island, produced by avid trail lovers Project Talaria, they encapsulated everything that makes running on Catalina a wonderful experience.
The most historic and famous of the three events is the Catalina Island Marathon which will enter its 40th year in March of 2017. Held annually in March, the point to point course features 26 miles that begins in Two Harbors, Catalina and ends in downtown Avalon, Catalina. The grueling course boasts over 4,000’ of elevation gain, incredible vistas that on clear days span all the way to Channel Islands National Park, and on any given day, runners can expect to see numerous Bison throughout the island. All finishers are given an event shirt and a finisher medal that is handmade on the island with Catalina clay.
Approaching its 39th year, the Avalon 50 Miler and newly announced Avalon 50k are not for the faint of heart. The 50 Miler boast 8,000’ of elevation gain. Beginning before sunrise, runners traverse all the way to Two Harbors and beyond before u-turning and heading back via a different route. What the event offers in simplicity, it matches in uniqueness and the warmth of the runners who choose to participate. Finisher medals are all handmade locally in southern California by Elevation Culture and a wonderful post-race reception caps an incredible day. All proceeds from the event stay on the island and support the Avalon Lions Club which uses the money to provide scholarships to local students.
Lastly, the Catalina Eco Marathon, Half Marathon, and 10k celebrate their 10th year in 2016. Specifically designed to show off the deep innards of the island that the other races skirt by. While the course is punishing, the sense of accomplishment upon completion is incredible. With over 4,400’ of elevation gain, the final few miles downhill to Avalon are as welcoming as the pizza and cold beer at the finish line.