The languid pace of life on Santa Catalina Island reflects its aloofness from the increasingly frantic business of living on the Southern California mainland. A weekend visit there is truly relaxing, whether you choose to lodge in the coastal village of Avalon or prefer to rough it by camping.
The 5.5-mile hike described here, excellent on a crisp, clear fall or winter day, begins at Hermit Gulch Campground (1.5 miles inland from Avalon) and loops over the top of the hills overlooking Avalon and the ocean. (You'll need a free permit for this, available at the campground.) The highlight of the hike is a side trip over to Lone Tree Point, which commands an unparalleled view of the clifflike Palisades falling sheer to the ocean. You'll encounter a couple of very steep grades on the old firebreak leading to Lone Tree Point, so be sure to wear running shoes or boots with studs or lugs to ensure enough traction.
From the campground, start your hike by following the narrow trail up the ravine to the west (Hermit Gulch). Before long, you leave the seasonal stream in the canyon bottom and begin a twisting ascent up along a slope shaggy with chaparral vegetation. After 1.5 miles and an elevation gain of 1200 feet, you meet Divide Road, a fire road tracing the eastern spine of the island. Turn right, walk a few paces, and then climb the steep embankment to the left. Ahead you'll see an old firebreak heading southwest, up and over several rounded, barren summits. Continue for 0.7 mile or more, passing over the peaklet designated Lone Tree on most maps. That's where you'll find the best view of the ocean and the shoreline. Sometimes you can gaze south over shore-hugging fog and spy the low dome of San Clemente Island, some 40 miles across the glistening Pacific. During the best visibility you can trace the mainland coast down as far as San Diego and also spy the long crest of the Peninsular Ranges -- the chain of mountains running through Riverside and San Diego Counties into Baja California.
After taking in the visual feast, backtrack to Divide Road. From there you loop back to the starting point via a longer but more gradually descending route. Head south down Divide Road for 0.8 mile, then veer left on Memorial Road. Easy walking down this crooked dirt road takes you along a cool, north-facing slope covered by tall and luxuriant (by mainland standards) growths of scrub oak, manzanita, and toyon. At the bottom of the hill you pass through the botanical gardens started by the wife of William Wrigley (of chewing-gum fame) in the 1920s. Once beyond the garden gates, it's but a couple of hundred yards back to the campground.
Most San Diegans travel to Avalon by way of ferries from San Pedro, Long Beach, or Newport Beach. For tourist- and travel-related information, see Catalina Island's website (www.catalinatoday.com). For reservations at Hermit Gulch Campground, call 310-510-8368.