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Everything You Need to Know About Kayaking the Catalina Coast

a woman in a green kayak kayaking the catalina coast(Photo/Rebecca Parsons)
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Located less than 50 miles from Los Angeles, Santa Catalina is an island oasis for adventurers and laid-back beachgoers alike.

Part of California’s Channel Islands, Catalina is famous for diving, hiking, fishing, and a multitude of watersports. Just an hour by boat from the mainland, it’s the ultimate local getaway.

Residents of Southern California, my best friend and I were searching for a quick spring break trip to satisfy our wanderlust and landed on Catalina. After discovering campsites were booked for the Trans-Catalina Trail, we decided to leave our hiking boots behind and kayak the coast instead.

Although planning the trip took a bit of legwork, the combination of sunshine, salty air, and breathtaking scenery made it well worth the effort.

catalina coast
Photo credit: Rebecca Parsons

Catalina Coast: Getting There

The most common way to get to Catalina is via the Catalina Flyer or the Catalina Express. Ferries leave daily, so you’ll want to check the schedule and plan accordingly.

Heading out, you should take the earliest ferry so you’ll have plenty of time to kayak to your first campsite. On the return trip, you should book the latest ferry to ensure you’ll have plenty of time to catch it.

Planning Your Route

There are a couple of options when it comes to the route. Most people opt to begin in Two Harbors and finish in Avalon — the journey is approximately 13 miles.

If you want to make the trip longer, head 7 miles west to Parson’s Landing. Then, retrace your steps the next day and continue toward Avalon. Or, if you prefer to go against the curve, begin in Avalon and finish in Two Harbors.

Regardless, of the route you choose, make sure the ferry schedules line up accordingly.

planning your route - catalina coast
Photo credit: Rebecca Parsons

Camping on Catalina

Before heading out, be sure to make your kayak and campsite reservations. To rent single or double kayaks as well as camping gear, check out Descanso Beach Ocean Sports. For an added trucking fee, they met us in Two Harbors, took the gear we didn’t need, and then met us again in Avalon at the end of our trip.

When it comes to campgrounds, you have lots of options — although we found that some were definitely better than others. Between Two Harbors and Avalon, there are nine boat-in campgrounds that can only be accessed by boat or kayak.

Although any will suffice, our favorites were Rippers, Cabrillo, Goat Harbor, and Willow Cove, as they offered larger beaches with more options for spreading out. We found it was easiest to call to make reservations.

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What to Bring

Careful packing is essential for this trip, as space is limited and there are no resources along the way. When planning out supplies, think minimalist, like backpacking. Kayaks usually have two hatches for storage, so you can fit a fair amount. But the more you pack, the harder it will be to kayak.

Essentials include all your basic backpacking gear plus dry bags, lots of trash bags (for trash, and to act as additional dry bags), food, water (we packed a gallon per day per person), WAG bags, snorkeling/fishing gear, a microfiber towel, water shoes, and a map. Other kayak-specific equipment includes something to bilge out your boat (bilge pump or a sponge) and a PFD. (Safety first!)

We found the combination of sun and exercise made us very hungry and were grateful to have brought a variety of snacks as well as calorie-heavy freeze-dried meals from Good To-Go and RightOnTrek.

For more insight, check out Descanso Beach Ocean Sports’ trip planning advice or our article on kayaking 101.

meals - catalina coast
Photo credit: Rebecca Parsons

Kayaking the Catalina Coast

Born and raised in Orange County, Calif., I’m no stranger to the ocean and have been to Catalina numerous times. Although a trip to Avalon is fun, getting out of the “city” and exploring the remote coastline is preferred. I’ve now kayaked the leeward side of the island three times, and it’s safe to say my most recent trip won’t be my last.

On a warm day in late March, my friend and I boarded the Catalina Express in San Pedro under a warm and cloudless sky to embark on our journey. To make the most of our trip to the island, we opted to make the trip in 4 days and 3 nights.

Day One

This day brought us to Rippers, one of the northernmost campsites, where we set up camp for the night and quickly donned our wetsuits to do some snorkeling and spearfishing. After dinner, we took advantage of the hike-able terrain and enjoyed a sunset hike, complete with views of the windward side of the island.

snorkeling catalina coast
Photo credit: Rebecca Parsons

Day Two

The next day, we arose with the sun and set off heading east to our next campsite: Cabrillo. We overshot the campground by a couple of miles, which gave us the opportunity to explore sea caves that dotted the coast and enjoy a lunch break at Italian Gardens before retracing our steps.

exploring sea caves - catalina coast kayaking
Photo credit: Rebecca Parsons

Day Three

On the third day of our trip, we woke to aching muscles and a strong headwind. Despite the day being our shortest distance, it proved to be the most challenging. We were relieved when we made it to Long Point, where we lounged on the beach and set up a makeshift “game night.” We fell asleep early, drifting off to the sounds of the ocean under a star-studded sky.

sunset - catalina coast
Photo credit: Rebecca Parsons

Day Four: The Final Day

This day was our most eventful. We took our time on the return trip to Avalon, exploring more sea caves and pulling over occasionally to do some cliff jumping. We were in awe of the local seabirds and watched playful sea lions frolicking in the Pacific.

Around lunchtime, we pulled into Avalon, returned our kayaks, and enjoyed a day in town, complete with a hearty lunch, window shopping, and snorkeling in front of the casino before boarding the ferry to head home. As you can probably gather, Santa Catalina is an eclectic coastal destination, with plenty to do on and offshore.

Don’t Miss the Opportunity to Disconnect

While there were too many highlights to name, one of our favorite parts about the trip was being off the grid for a few days. In a fast-paced society, it’s so nice to unplug for a few days and spend time in nature alone with your thoughts, your friends, and the local wildlife.

I’m glad to know that when life gets too hectic, the island will always be there. I’m already counting down the days until I can go back.

Photo credit: Rebecca Parsons
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