You don't need to go on safari to see wild creatures up close—just head to Catalina's back country, where bison and deer roam free and you might catch a glimpse of an animal seen nowhere else in the world.
Although more than a million people visit Catalina annually, few visit the most interesting part of the island -- the back country. They spend some time in Avalon, then return to the mainland. But Avalon is just a small part of the island; beyond it lies a place worlds apart from where you can find deserted beaches, first-rate backcountry activities and wide, open spaces.
Well, forget the part about wide open spaces. The last two times I visited the back country, once on a Jeep Eco Tour (catalinaconservancy.org) and once on an eco-friendly Hummer tour (visitcatalinaisland.com), I found the route blocked by shaggy herds of bison.
Yes, indeed. This is where the buffalo roam. And they never seem to be in any hurry. They graze on grass growing along the side of the road or amble down the middle of it.
The bison are a Catalina curiosity — 14 were left here during the filming of a movie in 1924; now about 150 roam free. Some are as much as 10 feet long, 6 feet tall and weigh up to 2,000 pounds.
"If the body tenses and the head and tail go up, you may be in trouble," a guide said on one of my tours. But the herd seemed too interested in breakfast to send us warning signals, so we eventually drove by them.
We rumbled down the road about another mile before pulling into Black Jack Campground, a sweet little oasis in the interior of the island that's shaded by pine and eucalyptus trees (visitcatalinaisland.com).
A camper was packing up his gear, ready to head out. The night before, he said, a Catalina Island Fox had come into camp. The species can only be found on Catalina, where isolation over thousands of years has created unique animals, plants and archaeological resources.
Most cross-island hikers -- there are hundreds of miles of trails here -- spend one night at Little Harbor Campground on the Pacific side of the island, one night here at Black Jack and another at Hermit Gulch Campground in Avalon.
The camper we met, a 26-year-old South Pasadena resident, was full of praise for the island. He had come because "I just needed to get out of L.A." and hadn't seen another camper or hiker until he reached Black Jack.
"There are long stretches of the trail where you can see the ocean on both sides of the island. The view is just incredible," he said. "This place is amazing."
I felt the same way, even though I was exploring the island the easy way, by four-wheel drive. Catalina is California the way it used to be, before gridlocked traffic, shopping malls and housing developments.
It's the real deal.
By Rosemary McClure