Exploring Catalina Island

Many Southern California pilots have flown 26 miles across the sea to the Island in the Sky airport on Catalina (AVX) for its famous buffalo burger, and many of those have ventured into Avalon on the airport shuttle for a day trip or weekend getaway. But there’s more to Catalina than Avalon and the airport. The annual BZ Jones Cross Catalina Hike, which includes a jeep tour, is a great way to get an in-depth island experience and support the Catalina Island Conservancy with a great bunch of people.

Brad Avery, president of the Catalina Marinaros, is the visionary behind the weekend event. The Marinaros is one of several special interest groups that are part of and support the Conservancy programs and, as the name suggests, they are all about boating. Graham “BZ” Jones was a sailing enthusiast, a vigorous supporter of the Conservancy, and one of the founding members of the Marinaros. The hike and jeep tour in his memory is a fund-raiser for the Conservancy. Members of the Catalina Aero Club, also part of the Conservancy, got invitations to join the weekend adventure, and it was a smoking hot deal yet I was the only pilot that flew in for the weekend. There was a choice of an 11-mile hike from the west coast of the island to the east coast (orange route on the map) or a jeep tour of the Conservancy wildlands (red route on the map) followed by a dinner at one of the major hotels in Avalon.

Catalina Hike Trail Map

Catalina Hike Trail Map

If I had wanted to hike and camp out, I would have joined the Army instead of the Air Force; so I opted for the jeep tour. Besides, the hikers departed at 6:30 while the jeep tour didn’t leave until 8:00 on Saturday morning. Another plus for the jeep tour was having a knowledgeable driver to provide information about the island and the places we visited.

One benefit of being an Aero Club member is not having to pay landing fees any time you go to Catalina, and another is that many businesses and hotels on the island give member discounts. I made weekend reservations at the Hotel Catalina and flew out Friday afternoon.

Hotel Catalina

Hotel Catalina

It was a quintessential Catalina day: A marine layer of clouds blanketed the Southern California coast and enveloped lower Catalina Island, while the airport sat above the clouds offering a beautiful VFR day on top of the island. On Friday evening, Gary and Sandy Hill hosted a reception on board their nicely converted tugboat, the WILLIAM B, and those of us who were new to the Marinaros got a chance to get acquainted.

Welcome aboard the WILLIAM B

Welcome aboard the WILLIAM B

Sasha Villacis is the Conservancy staff member who coordinates this three-ring circus and makes it happen. She was at the Avalon transportation plaza bright and early Saturday morning to get everyone going in the right direction. The jeep safari departed with two jeeps from Jeep Eco Tours and eleven adventurers. http://catalinatours.com/

Eco Tours Jeep

Eco Tours Jeep

Our first stop was the Conservancy aviary to visit Heidi the bald eagle and Numi the golden eagle, both of whom have disabilities that preclude them from surviving in the wild. They have been rescued and restored to health by the conservancy. Next stop was the conservancy nursery, where biologists cultivate and study plants found on the island. After that we visited El Rancho Escondido, built by the Wrigleys, and the recently created adjoining vineyards. We made a quick comfort stop at the Airport in the Sky before heading to Blackjack Camp to meet up for a great lunch on the trail that Sasha and volunteers from the AmeriCorps set up for the 62 hikers and 11 four-wheelers.

Catalina Trail Lunch

Catalina Trail Lunch

That evening, after a shower and a hot tub, I met the group at the M Restaurant in the Metropole Hotel for a banquet dinner and the opportunity to share stories of the day.

On Sunday morning, the Catalina airport weather was below IFR minimums, but by the time I got from the hotel to the airport the clouds had burned off and it was VFR. Since the T-34 I was flying is a VFR-only airplane, I had to wait for the marine layer at March Air Base on the mainland to burn off. That took a couple of hours with breakfast at the DC-3 Restaurant at the airport, and then it was an uneventful flight home after a great weekend. You can get more information on the Conservancy on their website at www.catalinaconservancy.org .

Catalina Airport Hangar with new paint and logo

Catalina Airport Hangar with new paint and logo

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About Rich Martindell

Instrument flight instructor (CFII), rated airline transport pilot (ATP), former military instructor pilot in F-4s and F-15s. Aircraft accident investigator and flight safety consultant. FAA Safety Team Lead Representative.
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