Sleep In The Dirt

Bikepacking Catalina Island: Exploring LA’s Tropical Escape

The Campfire Chronicles

Standing in the middle of the trail and plucking cactus needles from my backside was not part of my original plan for bikepacking across Catalina Island, but this was where I found myself. Twenty-three years old and here I am with my dad, tweezers in hand, doing a little trail-side maintenance.

Forty-eight hours before that I landed in nature’s worst camp chair. We were disembarking the Catalina Express after catching the 6:00 A.M. ferry from Long Beach. Looking forward to a few days of adventure, we grabbed a quick pancake breakfast in town, picked up our permits from the local conservancy office, and hit the road.

After climbing up and out of town in an unexpected downpour, we reached our first stop for the day which was the island airport. Starting at sea level meant earning every foot of elevation, so arriving at the airport was both a victory and a relief. We spread our soaked clothes on the backs of chairs and grabbed one of the island’s famous bison burgers as a reward for completing the first leg of our journey. What started as a backdrop for a movie in 1924, the imported herd of 14 bison soon grew in size and popularity. They’re now one of the island’s quirky and iconic attractions, and they also make for a great burger.

After chatting with fellow bikepackers who had spent the last ten years making treks across the island every few months (and raved about their new AXL Air pad), we pushed on to our campsite for the night. Descending from the airport toward the ocean, we were rewarded with incredible vistas and fast, flowing fire-roads of tacky dirt seemingly made for two wheels. We spent the night camping a few hundred feet from the water and early the next morning loaded up our Fly Creek HV UL2 Bikepack tent for our push to the northern-most campground on the island, Parsons Landing.

Riding through the island’s only other town, Two Harbors, we couldn’t resist a mid-day steak and cheese sandwich before the final seven miles to our campsite. Somehow, a sandwich lead to ice cream, and ice cream led to a Snickers bar, but soon enough we were back on the saddle burning said calories. Possibly the most beautiful section of the ride, we found ourselves pedaling past private coves of azure water and remote sea caves.

Accessible only by foot, bike, or boat, four of the eight campsites at Parsons Landing were empty that night. An incredible sunset definitely made up for the heavy morning fog.
A mile into our trek back to Avalon the next morning, stoked on a nicely sloped section of fire road and fueled by Huma energy gels and instant oatmeal, I let it fly. Not thinking about the extra weight from my loaded packs, I approached a corner at mach speed and soon found my brakes weren’t going to cut it. Deciding dead brush would make for a softer landing than hardpacked dirt, I aimed for nature’s emergency brake at the outside corner of the turn and immediately became acquainted with the local cacti hiding in the brush.

Thirty one miles later we rolled into Avalon. At Dad’s suggestion, we grabbed pizza and ice cream before boarding the 7:30 P.M. ferry headed back to Long Beach. Our three day escape from LA might be over, but sitting in a coffee shop one day later with sore legs and an even sorer backside, I can’t help but start planning what’s next…just somewhere without cactus.


Parker Amstutz is a photographer who focuses on outdoor/adventure photography and stories. 

Comments (1)

One response

  1. Dave Valdez

    Catalina is a gorgeous retreat. Incredible that this gem is so close to the busy hustle and bustle of mainland CA. Biking the island is a perfect getaway! The views are spectacular! Biking allows you to stop and smell the cactus, er, roses!

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