Camping on Catalina Means Friends and Stars

Times Staff Writer

On a clear day, you can't see forever, perhaps, but you can see across the channel to Catalina Island, reminding you that "getting away from it all" is not so far away after all.

The festive little town of Avalon is the first choice on the island, especially if getting away involves a party mood. Avalon's restaurants, shops, open-air bars on patios that face the marina, all lend themselves to all-day-and-half-the-night partying. From sun seekers towel-to-towel on the sliver of a beach to margarita quaffers singing along at a piano bar, Avalon's the place for summertime fun.

A Little More Remote

But if your idea of a getaway is a little more remote, you can find that on the island as well, especially if you feel the need to escape coming on in time to make reservations. Let's face it, with millions of Angelenos looking for places to go, solitude is a precious commodity, and that will probably mean waiting until space is available.

On the west end of the island there are three campgrounds. Little Fisherman's Cove, just over the hill from Two Harbors, and the easiest to reach (and so also the most popular); Parson's Landing, seven miles west of Two Harbors, quiet and rustic; and Little Harbor, six miles from Two Harbors, across the island on the windward side.

Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation maintains the Little Harbor campground along with Camp Black Jack 10 miles inland from Avalon and the Bird Park camp at Avalon. Phone (213) 510-0688 for reservations. Little Fisherman's and Parson's are operated by Cove & Camp Agency, phone (213) 510-0303.

A Natural Isthmus

At Two Harbors the hillsides dip down to the sea, forming a natural isthmus with harbors on each side. It can be seen from Los Angeles on a clear day, about two-thirds of the way along the island.

You take the ferry to the Isthmus, which usually means that you cross from San Pedro or Long Beach over to Avalon, and then chug up the coast to Two Harbors. For reservations, call Catalina Cruises, (213) 775-6111.

Campsites are Spartan, just bare pads on which to pitch your tent, and a concrete table that is mercifully covered by a palm-frond canopy. Portable outhouses are nearby and so are other campsites, so this is not exactly a wilderness experience.

But it is definitely an outdoor experience, and not for lovers of luxury. The rewards are the sights and sounds of nature, days spent swimming and hiking, the gentle lapping of water a stone's throw from your tent, the closeness of friends sitting around the campfire as night falls, the visibility of a million stars on a moonless night.

Forget your propane stove, if you have one. They won't allow it on the boat. They are very strict about that. No stoves, lanterns, fuel, firewood, charcoal or flammable materials of any kind.

The Island Ranger

However, when you arrive at your campsite, you will be met by an island ranger. Ours identified himself as "Ranger Rick." He gave us a rundown of the rules and regulations, then offered us a propane stove for rent ($4 a day) and as many boxes of firewood as we cared to purchase. You may also rent your camping and snorkel gear. For 50 cents you can take a shower at the bathhouse in the community of Two Harbors. The cost of a campsite is $5 a night per person, a bargain at today's prices.

After roughing it for a night or two, with hot dogs from the nearby general store or dehydrated camp food from a Los Angeles sporting goods outlet, there is a treat in store for you: a steak or seafood dinner at Doug's Harbor Reef restaurant and saloon, a very popular place.

You need reservations at the restaurant, too (same phone number), especially on weekends when the little harbor fills up with big yachts and sleek sailboats. With a captive audience, you might think that the Harbor Reef would take advantage, but both the food and the service are fine.

Granted, this is not a return to primitive life, but if you look beyond the community itself and the facilities for boats, your view is not so very different from what Cabrillo found when he came to Catalina in 1542 or what the Chumash Indians enjoyed about the place, with its balmy breezes, golden hillsides, stony beaches and pretty tide pools.

The Buffalo Herd

You share the bounties of the island with its famous herd of buffalo as well, a surprise to the unwary. No, they weren't there with the Indians. They came later, in 1924, when Hollywood brought a few buffaloes over for a cowboy movie and left them behind. Now there are 400 and they are thriving, with a little help from island management to keep the herd from getting any larger. (Buffalo burgers are sold at the Catalina Airport.)

The Isthmus even had a little silver rush of its own, back in 1862, and remnants are scattered around today, old mines and rusty equipment in the Cherry and Fourth of July valleys. In the early 1900s it was discovered by tourists who came to kick up their heels at a dance hall and bar, a 1,000-seat dining hall, souvenir shops and 300 cottages 26 miles off the California coast. The movie makers followed.

Talking pictures nixed the island as a movie site, however, what with the noisy surf and other background interference. They reverted to the back lots of Hollywood and tranquillity returned to the Isthmus.

Deserted coves are still there to be discovered anew and mountains to be climbed and views of forever to be enjoyed.

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