Where the Buffalo Roam

Just about every weekend I ride my bike in a place called Palos Verdes, a hilly and mostly residential area that overlooks the Los Angeles metro area on one side, and the Pacific Ocean on the other side. Out there in ocean, 20 odd miles off the coast, is Santa Catalina Island. Some days we can’t see it because of clouds, marine haze and some smog. Other days it’s a vague presence, just the peaks and ridges of the island visible in the distance.

Catalina from orbit

Catalina from orbit

On days after a storm moves through and the sky is clear, Catalina stands out in sharp, attractive perspective, and I think to myself “I need to take a trip there with my mountain bike…”, but it never seems to happen. I have not been there in decades, since before my daughter was born. She’s almost 22 now, playing drums in two bands, going to a local college, leaving piles of dishes in my sink and piles of wet bath towels on the floor of her bedroom, so it was time to get away.

Voodoo on the ferry

Voodoo on the ferry

After a quick net search I found some cheap hotels in the town of Avalon on the island and bought a round-trip ferry ticket from Catalina Express. Headed out on a Sunday when most people are coming back to the mainland, found a relatively cheap room at a funky old place called La Paloma, and stopped in at the Catalina Conservancy to purchase a $35 year-long membership providing a backcountry pass that gets strapped to the handlebars, and went out for an afternoon ride, up the climb out of town and past the new zipline station.

After the ride I showered up and went to El Galleon restaurant for dinner – a 16 oz bowl of hearty scallop/potato chowder, a caesar salad, and a Paulaner Hefeweizen so tall I couldn’t even finish it. They had massive flat panel TVs with Sunday Night Football keeping me entertained.

Pix from day 1 (outbound on the ferry, hotel & afternoon ride)

Monday morning I got up early and hit the road because I knew it would be a long day. The road happens to go straight up out of town into the sky. Heading generally northwest for a place called Two Harbors, you have to go up over the spine of the island and down to sea level on the west side at a campground called Little Harbor, then back up over the spine of the island again and down to Two Harbors on the east side.

Two Harbors is located at a low lying isthmus between the large southern portion of the island and the smaller northern portion. The distance between the east shore and the west shore at the isthmus is maybe 1/2 mile at the most with perhaps a 15-20′ rise in the land between the shores. But at the western side of Two Harbors you cannot ride down the west shore back to Little Harbor. Instead you have to go up the east side and over the spine of the island again then down to Little Harbor. And to get back to Avalon, up and over once again. Tiring stuff, but… very scenic and there are buffalo! Actually, they might be called bison, but I don’t think the song goes “…where the bison roam…”. In any case, I encountered a small group of buffalo along the way, quietly took some pictures and slowly rode past them, maybe 40′ away. I really did not want to incite a stampede. The story is that these beasts were brought here to film a western movie, then just left behind to fend for themselves, which they do pretty well.

Catalina bison

Don't tread on me

Many hours and miles later I dropped back into Avalon and was slowly spinning back to the hotel when I rode past the fellow who was my waiter the previous night at El Galleon. He was walking to work and I stopped to chat with him. He asked where I had ridden and was seemingly shocked when I told him. My guess is that he’s not a cyclist. Anyway, I went back to El Galleon later (how quickly I get in a rut), he was my waiter again, and had a bowl of French onion soup with Jarlsberg cheese, another caesar salad but with grilled salmon. I went with the mango margarita (no salt please) instead of a beer. Again, massive flat panel TVs showing Monday Night Football. Heaven.

Pix from the all day ride on day 2.

Tuesday morning I got up and my eyes were sore! Not my wrists or shoulders or legs, but my eyes. In the bathroom mirror it looked like I was a week into two black eyes from a losing fistfight. Damn. Then I realized that yesterday I was out all day in the bright sunshine, and even with the dark wraparound sunglasses I was squinting. 12 hours of squinting puts the hurt on your eye muscles when you’re not used to it. Got up and took a touristic walk around town, had breakfast, packed up and headed for the ferry.

Day 3 pix (tourist shots and ferry ride back to Long Beach).

It was a great little getaway and the riding was very enjoyable, even though you can’t do any singletrack. Bikes are only allowed on certain roads, not allowed on the trails used by hikers. Mountain bikes with fat knobby tires are required by the Catalina Conservancy, no road bikes or narrow tires. You could get by with no suspension, but on some of the downhills you would have to take it very slowly while wearing a mouthguard to protect your teeth. I recommend a front suspension, full suspension is not necessary. You can take your bike right onto the ferry in ready-to-ride condition, no breakdown required.

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One Response to Where the Buffalo Roam

  1. Pingback: Bus stop, bus goes… | Velobum

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