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The Wild West of Los Angeles: Bikepacking Catalina Island

How big are bison? 2,000 pounds? 4,000 pounds? I wonder if I’ll see one. How did bison get on an island anyway?

By: Aaron Rickel Jones + Save to a List

It’s all I can do to keep my mind off my burning legs on the grueling climb out of Avalon to the East Summit—consider the bison. An underwhelming sequel to David Foster Wallace’s literary masterpiece. Sweat drips into my eyes. Do bison eat anything other than grass? Quads are surely becoming acidic lead. How much grass does a bison eat per day? Damn, I should have taken a warm up spin before heading up this hill. If I ate only grass could I grow as big as a bison? How big are bison—wait, I wondered that already. Okay, focus. Just make it to that next tree. Wow, I had no idea my body could sweat this much.

My girlfriend says I have too many bags and backpacks (I don’t think there is such a thing) so when I decided to try bikepacking I had to figure out how to do it without purchasing more bags. Or at least as few as possible. I managed to check out of REI with one 8L dry bag, one 4L dry bag, and 4 ski straps. I think I deserve a medal for self control.

The guy at the checkout gave me a warning: “Catalina is super hot, make sure you bring sunscreen and lots of water.”

Yeah, sure thing, REI checkout guy. The forecast says 75 degrees. Not hot. But thanks anyway.

It was 75 degrees. In Avalon. On the water. With a breeze. You want to know where it wasn’t 75 degrees? The top of East Summit, 1,700 feet higher up. I have never sweat this much in my life. My shirt is drenched and my belly button is dripping sweat into the crotch of my pants. Nice. I don’t know how sweaty my ass is, but the tour bus rolling up behind me is about to find out. “I promise I didn't pee myself, this is just sweat dumping off my belly button. I'm also not sure that's any better. Please, just ignore me.” However, I can’t help but feel superior to all the tourists rolling past me in their off-road jeeps and busses. I’m doing it right. Human powered adventure.

I read about the ride beforehand: 23 miles across the island. Two big climbs. Beautiful views. not much shade, and multiplied by two for the way back. All true. Terraced houses on the shores of cobalt water—I could have been in the Mediterranean for all I knew.

Most people don’t know there’s an airport on Catalina Island. Lots of people don’t even know there’s an island an hour ferry ride from Los Angeles at all. Local pilots fly into Catalina just for lunch. The “hundred dollar burger” they call it. Honestly, by the time I get to the grill at the airport I’m about ready to pay a hundred bucks for a burger myself. I should have eaten more breakfast. Those two Lara bars aren't quite cutting it. Luckily, the burger is only twelve bucks, not a hundred.

Here’s a lesson in going off the designated bike trails: don’t. I tried to take an alternate way down the mountain from the airport and turned what would have been a well-earned descent into a spill over the bars and a shambly hike-a-bike. Everything on Catalina is steep. The island is young, geologically speaking, which is what makes its terrain so striking. A 26 mile mountain range stranded out in the Pacific ocean.

Two Harbors is a welcome sight at the end of the ride. I set up camp and cruise into town for a hot meal and a brew. One cool thing about bikepacking Catalina is how supported the ride is. There’s plenty of water and a couple stores and restaurants at each end. Not having to carry meals made it a great introductory trip—although I did still bring my jet boil to make coffee in camp. It was worth it. Coffee is always worth it.

Turns out, I did see a bison, and bison are f***ing huge. When you look into a bison’s eyes something sacred happens. Your heart starts beating faster. You all at once want to run away as fast as you can and stay still, holding eye contact just a little bit longer. There’s something intangible about a 160 pound creature locking eyes with a 2,000 pound creature in the middle of an island with nobody else around. 

Oh, I also found out how they got there. Back in 1924, a western movie left fourteen bison on the island because it was cheaper than ferrying them back to the mainland. Now the herd hovers right around a hundred. One hundred of the luckiest bison in Hollywood if you ask me.

Total Miles: 58.2

Total Elevation: 6,533 ft.

If you want to do the trip for yourself, check out the guide I posted here!

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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