Santa Catalina Island is a Meditteranean paradise 22 miles off the Los Angeles coastline. The island is full of history, from the Pimu Indians to the Chicago Cubs. Its home to endemic species and a herd of wild buffalo, leftover from a 1920’s film shoot gone broke. Most visitors flock to the island’s only incorporated city, Avalon, for shopping, gambling and relaxation on it’s charming yet filthy beach. We had other plans, a bit more Pimu than posh as we set sail from San Pedro to Two Harbors, intent on making it to Parson’s Landing by kayak, on the western tip of the island.
Two Harbors is the smaller of the two ports located on the north side of the island’s isthmus. As we glided into the turquoise harbor, the green hills covered with colorful cacti and shrubs, we felt much further than 22 miles from home. Moored boats dotted the harbor but it is much sleepier in comparison to Avalon, more charming too. Two Harbors consists of an old lodge, a campground and a restaurant. Otherwise, it is much as it was ages ago. There are crescent beaches on either side of the isthmus flanked by steep hills.
Grabbing our gear from the ferry, we had little time to soak in the harbor. We b-lined for the rental shack not far from the docks to check in for the campsite and pick up our reserved kayaks. In order to reach Parson’s Landing, one must choose between a seven mile hike or a five mile paddle. Rarely having the opportunity to boat to a camp, we jumped at the opportunity to kayak. Alli and I each rented our own and after strapping our gear for the weekend down, we shoved off from the beach.
Zig-zagging around the anchored sailboats we trimmed through crystal clear water speckled with bright orange Garibaldi hovering around the shallow rocks. Within a few minutes we rounded the bend and were at sea, hugging the cliffed out shoreline.
Not far from the bend was a fairly deep sea cave. I paddled over to inspect the inside, steering my nose in. A large wave picked up my boat and threw me into the cave, nearly smashing me against the interior wall. I made a quick move as the swell receded and got out of the cave unscathed.
Back on course we paddled swiftly. It was a beautiful day and the seas were relatively calm. We stopped for a snack after about a mile and chatted as we bobbed. I had a map but it was unclear which beach would actually be Parson’s Landing. I knew there was a boy scout camp at around the halfway mark and made note as we cruised beyond it.
In order to conserve energy we cut across coves rather than tracking their contour and were often several hundred yards offshore, making beach identification a bit of a guess.
After four miles Alli and I were both beginning to tire. Neither of us had paddled so far in the ocean before. I thought it was at least another mile, three more coves, before we reached Parson’s Landing but rounding a tall rocky point we saw picnic tables and a row of lockers high on a hill. In the wilderness of Catalina’s westside, this was undoubtably Parson’s Landing. We timed the waves and surfed our kayaks into the stone shore.
Parson’s Landing is a primitive campground consisting of eight sites along a two hundred yard beach. For $22/night you receive the site, a bundle of wood and two gallons of fresh water. Conveniently, the water and the wood were waiting for us in the aforementioned lockers on the hill above the beach. We were given a key at the rental shack to open our share. Each site comes with a picnic table, a fire ring and a aluminum pail for sea water.
There were a few sites occupied on the far end of the beach, out of site from our spot, and we otherwise felt alone. We setup camp and outlined the property with cairns and rows of stone. The beach was sandy to the tideline, then covered in grey and black golf ball rocks that played like a rain stick with every wave. In the water were blocky, jade green spires, being pounded on by frothing surf. To the right, the beach ends against a tall, golden cliff. Behind us, the island rolls and heaves toward its interior.
I brought my snorkel and swam out to see what lay beneath. The drop off is abrupt and even in the surf visibility was good. I saw a large school of perch, most of good size. I wish I had my spear and envied the party who brought theirs. Through the weekend I saw them routinely pull out 4-6 fish over ten inches on each dive. So in a way, food is waiting for you too, all for twenty-two bucks. The water was quite cold being May and I didn’t last long without a wetsuit.
We made hamburgers instead and lit a big fire as the sky got dark. The stars gleamed in the sky like shattering flashbulbs and it was a joy to be so far from LA’s polluting glow. After such a long paddle, we got to bed early and fell asleep to the percussion of the rocks rolling in surf.
The next morning we were up early, made breakfast, took a fast dip and got ready for a hike to the highest point west of the isthmus, Silver Peak (1804’). The trail, mostly fire road, winds along the coast heading west to the point of the island, before bending east, uphill higher to the summit. We were hoping to see buffalo along the trail and frequently passed tracks and dung patties. We even found dung on the beach near our campsite and dreamed of the image of a buffalo on the beach. Bizarre!
The trail features brilliant views of the Pacific, looking back at the North American continent. It rolls over golden grassy fields and has almost no shade.
We reached the summit in a few hours and turned back to follow the extension out further toward the point instead of completing the loop. We saved two of the expected eight miles in the process and was satisfied not to see the loop through in the hot sun.
When we made it back to camp, hot and fairly worked, it was a treat to lay out on the beach and do nothing. We cooled off in the ocean and had some lunch. We played with rocks and explored the bluff above the beach, coming across the most enchanting plant I’ve ever seen. What turns out to be the Common Ice Plant, oozed with shimmering bladder cells that hold water. The plants look as if they belong in a Geneva crystal shop.
In the afternoon we walked to the far end of the beach to where it becomes steep and rocky. Scrambling on the rocks we rounded the bend to find an enormous sea cave. It was a lofty, domed amphitheater, brightly lit with a glistening floor of water. We made plans to kayak into it the next morning before returning leaving camp.
The evening was much like the one before: A big fire, a big meal, stargazing galore and off to bed to the roar on the shore.
In the morning we ate dehydrated eggs and bacon, broke camp and loaded up the kayaks. The sea was rougher than it had been all weekend and launching was an exciting endeavor, pushing through waves crashing over the bow and into our laps.
Heading down the beach, away from Two Harbors, we paddled into the sea cave for an off shore look, finally giving Parson’s Landing a victory lap and a bon voyage. Out on the sea, the swell was heavy and we paddled into the wind. I couldn’t help remembering how tiring it was on the way out with calm seas and the wind at our backs and pushed on. I wished I could paddle for Alli and I both, tether our boats somehow but she kept pace if not exceeded me at times. Eventually though, the current had pushed her fifty yards further offshore than I. She’d disappear and reappear with each peak and valley of the swell. Some rollers had to be neary nine feet higher than their trough and I’d often loose sight of her for more than five seconds before her or my boat was picked up by another roll.
We paddled on and, again, was pleasantly inaccurate with our measurement, arriving back at Two Harbors sooner than we thought. We’d been so offshore that, on occasion, two coves appeared to look like one. So while we paddled past five coves on the way out we only counted three before stumbling upon the harbor, much to our delight.
I beamed, I could have kissed the Garibaldi, the fine hosts of safe harbor and let out a satisfying sigh as my kayak ran aground on the beach. When we went to the shack to return our life vests, radio and paddles, the lady said that there was a small craft advisory and that she would’ve radioed to tell us but she didn’t know we were out there.
We beat the ferry by nearly two hours and ponied up on the restaurant deck for some beers and fried food. It had been one of the most adventurous trips we’d been on, the only time we’d ever paddled to a campsite, a nearly private beach, filled with hiking, exploring, swimming, stargazing, grilling, fire, sun and calm. Catalina is a gorgeous island and I was happy to be on its primitive end, sipping a beer in its beauty and heyday charm. I asked Alli how we could live there. We couldn’t, but just made it better.