Catalina Island Adventure with Your Dog
Over the last weekend, we decided to take a day trip to Catalina to explore the island and to see how dog friendly it was. I have heard and read a lot of mixed reviews on Catalina’s dog friendliness and wanted to get some first hand experience. Overall, we had a lot of fun but definitely learned some lessons on where to go and how to get there with a dog. We started our day at the San Pedro Catalina Express port. The Catalina Express is the main ferry that will take you to the island and runs out of Long Beach, San Pedro, and Dana Point. Many people, including myself, are pleasantly surprised when they find out that the Catalina Express does allow dogs on their boats. They do have a few restrictions when bringing a dog on board, but they are minimal. Here are the regulations for dogs directly from their website:
Personal domestic pets are to be leashed and muzzled or in a pet carrying case while waiting to board the boat and for the duration of the trip. One pet per passenger. Pets are to stay close to the owner on the deck. Pets are not allowed in passenger seats or in the aisles where they may obstruct traffic. Pets must be secure in a muzzle, leash and collar or a muzzle and harness sufficiently strong and tight fitting to securely hold the pet, or the pet must be enclosed in a suitable animal carrier throughout the duration of the trip. Catalina Express will not assume obligations to store or care for pets at ports, docks or on board vessels. Animals must not have an offensive odor. Animals are not permitted in the Commodore’s Lounge.
A few things regarding their policies:
- If your dog hasn’t worn a muzzle before, please don’t make the boat ride their first time. Get your dog used to the look, smell and fit of the muzzle at least a week in advance. We did this by putting treats on the inside of the muzzle so our dog, Sierra, would have to put her nose in it to get the treat out. After a few days of this, we had her get the treat and then we would leave it on for a few seconds at a time and gradually increased it to a few minutes. If you have time to do this, it will save you the headache of trying to hold your dog down while you put the muzzle on, and more importantly, it will help keep your dog’s stress level down which will help keep them in a calmer state of mind during the boat ride.
- Depending on the size of boat you board (Catalina Express has a few different sizes) the inside of the boat can get crowded. If your dog doesn’t do well in tight spaces with a lot of people, I would recommend getting a spot outside, preferably on the second level, which will keep the motor noise to a minimum (we made the mistake of sitting outside on the first deck and the motor noise was so loud that it was impossible to even hold a conversation). If you do choose to sit outside, you will probably want to pack a light jacket to keep you warm on the ride over and back. The wind and the ocean spray from the boat can make it a little chilly if you end up sitting on the outside edges of the outdoor area.
We arrived about 45 minutes before our boat was scheduled to take off. They recommend an hour, but as usual, we were running a little late. It was actually a good thing for us because Sierra didn’t get her morning bike ride and was full of energy. Sitting in a line, waiting to board the boat was not her idea of a good time, which brings us to one of the more eventful parts of our day. As we were waiting in line, Sierra was getting more and more anxious from sitting still. I had a hold of her leash and bent down to grab some water from my backpack and as soon as I took my eye off her, she decided to bound into a full-on sprint toward the boat. I didn’t have a tight grip on her leash, so she pulled it right out of my hands, ran through the line of about 75 people, down the boarding ramp, and onto the dock. She then decided that it was a good morning for a swim, so before I could catch up to her, she jumped into the harbor and started leisurely swimming around. Eventually, I was able to jump a fence and find a way down to a portion of the harbor where the water meets with some large rocks and was able to call her to me. We eventually got her out of the water. She shook herself off and was ready for her next adventure. We both got back up to the boat ramp, I lifted her over the fence to my wife Kelly, and the crew was kind enough to give us some old rags to dry her off with. Definitely not the way we wanted to start the day. So, some friendly advice, make sure you have a good hold of your dog if they love the water!
Once we actually boarded, we headed to the back of the boat and to the outside area to help Sierra dry off and to give her some space to lie down without blocking the aisles inside the boat. She was a bit anxious at first but eventually laid down for most of the trip over. The boat ride is a little over an hour so if you are able to give your dog some exercise before the trip, it would probably be a good idea so they are nice and tired before the ride over. You will also want to take your dog to the bathroom shortly before you board to prevent any accidents on the boat ride over. There is a dirt area in the parking lot full of palm trees that we used before taking her into the main boarding facility.
Once we docked, it was a quick process getting off the boat and onto Avalon. Because we were planning on hiking, our first stop was to get our hiking permits, which are required for anyone hiking outside Avalon’s main city area. The permits are free for hikers, but need to be obtained in case there is an emergency so they know where to find you. If you know what trail you plan on taking, you can obtain your permit online or, if like us, you wait until you get there to pick your hike you can stop by the Catalina Conservancy House at 125 Clarissa Avenue in Avalon to get your permit. After some contemplation, we decided to do the “Garden to the Sky” hike and finish at Hermit Gulch. After we got our permit we decided to eat some lunch before departing on the 8-mile hike. This was the first time that we were limited in our decision because we had our dog. Dogs are not allowed in the main shopping and food area, which includes not only the inside of the shops but the boardwalk as well. This severely limits what you and your dog can do when visiting Avalon. If you are not planning on hiking while there, your options for shopping, laying out by the beach and eating at restaurants will be limited. Because of these limitations, we ended up going to a walk-up window restaurant on the corner of Clarissa Avenue called Pic Nic Fry. Here is an example of their menu:
We ate our food at a small park area a block away from the restaurant and then we packed up, put on some sunscreen and headed out on our hike to the top of Hermit Gulch.
This hike is rated moderately difficult because of the uphill switchbacks in the beginning, but the payoffs for the added sweat are the beautiful views and scenery, which are well worth the effort.
To get to the trailhead, you need to first hike about 1.75 miles through town to the Wrigley Memorial & Botanic Gardens. Here you will have to pay a $7 per person entry fee to get into the gardens and to the trailhead. This is where we encountered our second problem having a dog. The lady at the booth initially told us that dogs were not allowed in the gardens or on the trails unless it was a service dog. We had to show her that the permit itself says that dogs are allowed on a leash in the gardens and trails. Even after that, she had to call a supervisor to get clearance for us to go. I am not sure if this happened because this particular employee was new to the position, or that they just don’t see a lot of dogs accompanying their owners on hikes. Either way, it was another disappointment for us because if we hadn’t been adamant about our request with the employee, she would have turned us away. After we finally got into the botanic gardens, we refilled our water bottles at the water fountain (this will be the last water you will have access to for the remainder of the hike), and then hiked to the end of the Botanic Gardens arriving at the trailhead, which is to the right of the entrance to the Wrigley Memorial.
This is where the official hike begins, but at this point, you have already walked 2 miles, so we are also factoring that into the total hike distance. Once you pass through the gates and enter the trail, it quickly turns into a challenging uphill climb. This is by far the most challenging 2 miles of the trail; make sure you and your dog take plenty of breaks for water, as there is little shade along this hike. There are plenty of look-out points in this section of the hike that give you a good view of Avalon so take your time, admire the scenery and wildlife, and bring a camera to get some great shots.
You know you have reached the top when you get to this sign:
At this point we took a break to admire the view and for Sierra to cool down (It’s not easy hiking in 78 degree weather with a fur coat on!) and lets be honest, we needed a break too! This is one of the two most scenic points in the hike. You are at the top of the Catalina hills and are able to see the ocean on both sides of you. You will also experience a nice cool ocean breeze that is swept up from the canyons to the top of the hill, which makes this spot perfect for a break.
After we cooled off and finished taking in the scenery, we continued on the trail to get to our final destination, Hermit Gulch lookout. This portion of the hike is much more enjoyable as the terrain is relatively flat and the views are amazing. After another mile we got to the top of Hermit Gulch trail where we all stopped to enjoy a well-earned snack. (If you start the hike earlier and pack a lunch, this would be a perfect spot to eat as it has a man-made shade structure that will keep you cool while you enjoy your food and the views).
At this point you can either continue down to the Hermit Gulch campground and back out through the botanical gardens or take the longer way back down the way you came, we decided to do the latter. The way down was much more enjoyable, not only because it was downhill the whole way, but also because the late afternoon provided plenty of shade for us, which kept us cool. As we approached end of our hike and the entrance back into the Botanic Gardens, we came across a deer that was crossing the road. It was a great way to end the hike and a reminder of just how many different types of wildlife live on this island. On the way back through the Botanic Garden, we decided to take our time and view the many different types of palms, cacti and other plant life that were all part of the garden. It was a great way to finish cooling off from the hike and if you have time you could probably spend an hour touring the gardens. (The Botanic Gardens close at 5pm so make sure you are done with your hike before then because they do lock up the gates after 5pm and you will have to do some fence jumping to get out).
We walked back down to Avalon and back to the place we had lunch. We got a milk shake and a large drink and sat down to relax and take in the sights and sounds of Avalon. After about and hour, we boarded the Catalina Express, found some seats on the outside of the second deck and enjoyed a sunset trip back to the mainland. Before you board with your dog, make sure they have properly cooled down and stopped panting. Once you board and the muzzle goes back on, your dog won’t be able to pant to release heat. This can be very dangerous because it can lead to your dog overheating on the way home.
Overall this was a great way to spend our day. If you love the outdoors and hiking, this is a great place to go to take some unique hikes and experience the scenic wonders of Catalina. However, if you were planning a trip to Catalina to relax and unwind, you might be better of leaving the dog at home. Here is a quick summary of the biggest problems when bringing a dog to Avalon:
- Dogs are not allowed on the beach at Avalon
- Dogs are not allowed in most of the major shops, restaurants, or boardwalks at Avalon
- Because there are not a lot of dog visitors, some of the staff may not know all of the dog related regulations
- You might find some resistance from locals when bringing a dog because about 10 years ago domestic dogs spread disease to the local fox population, killing many of them leading to the island fox being put on the endangered species list in 2004. So please make sure you are picking up after your dog and keeping them on a short leash to prevent any more disruptions with the island’s wildlife.
Here are a few pictures of the boardwalk area dogs are not allowed on followed by the two small sand areas that they are:
On a separate note, Catalina also has another port called Two Harbors that we did not have time to visit during this trip. If you are planning to spend multiple days on the island, this might be a good place to explore. It is not as populated, but I have heard from others that it might be more dog friendly than Avalon. Next time we go, we will be heading here to see if this is true and will post a detailed review of that trip as well.
Have you ever taken your dog to Catalina? If so, please comment below on your experience and provide some tips from your trip that might be beneficial to other dog owners looking to explore the island with their best friend.