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Byline: Story by Eric Noland Travel Editor

AVALON - As the tour bus wheezed to a stop, the windows lowered slightly and camera lenses slowly protruded, like wheeled cannons on an 18th-century man-of-war. Shutters snapped and camcorders whirred to capture the scene of Avalon Bay far below, dotted with boats. And then the bus, having paused at this viewpoint for perhaps 20 seconds, belched a plume of diesel exhaust and lumbered on down the steep road.

This is one way to see Catalina Island. But certainly not the only way - or, arguably, the best way. As the bus hurried to keep its schedule, a couple of bicyclists lingered next to a nostalgic, white-clapboard guardrail and drank in the scene for quite a while longer: the cool breezes, scented of ocean and eucalyptus; the views of Descanso Beach, Casino Point, the expanse of the San Pedro Channel.

An unhurried exploration of the island - deep into the interior, far beyond the T-shirt shops and ice-cream parlors of Crescent Avenue - awaits anyone with the energy and inclination to hop aboard a mountain bike and take to the island's network of untrammeled roads.

It requires a little bit of patience, persistence and means, though. The Catalina Island Conservancy, which is entrusted with management of the island just off Los Angeles' coast, meticulously regulates its traffic, and that includes bikes.

To head beyond the bounds of Avalon, riders are required to purchase a permit that carries with it liability insurance. The permit fees are prorated over the one-year term of the conservancy's insurance policy, such that at some times of the year a rider might have to pay $50 for a permit good for 11 months, at other times $12.50 for a permit good for a few weeks - even though a rider might only want to use the thing for a single day.

Riders are also required to sign a lengthy waiver document, while also agreeing to observe a strict set of rules (including mandatory use of a helmet).

But after leaping through this series of hoops, you might find that the payoff is well worth the nuisance and expense.

Once you're deep in the island's heart, perhaps pedaling along its eastern spine or coasting along the windward side toward Little Harbor, it's difficult not to be impressed with how blissfully unsettled this wayward chunk of Southern California real estate is.

There are few signs of human life out here, just the stray water tank or TV tower. Open land spreads out for miles, and after the prodigious rains of late winter and spring, Catalina has been enjoying an Irish-green hue, accented with wildflowers.

If you're lucky, as we were, you might be treated to a truly incongruous sight: a herd of chestnut-brown bison casually munching on that emerald grass. The people on the tour bus had to peer at them from perhaps a half-mile away during a brief stop. We were able to leave our bikes at the side of the road, ascend a cactus-studded ridge and observe them from a respectful distance of about 100 yards.

The buffalo were brought to the island in the 1920s for the filming of a movie based on a Zane Grey novel (Grey, an avid fisherman, had a home here). The animals took well to the land, and with the ocean serving as a watery range fence, there was no danger of them wandering off. Now they're part of the island's quirky lore and landscape.

When exploring the island at a pedal-power pace, you get a better sense of its topography. And this much is certain: Catalina has some knife-edge ridges running through its center, with precipitous ravines tumbling toward the ocean, particularly along its northeastern side.

For the novice cyclist, that can mean placing an important emphasis on pacing while also considering an assist - a shuttle ride.

The vans run regularly from Avalon to the airport (and beyond, to Two Harbors, if you're interested). If given advance notice, the shuttle can carry a couple of bikes on a rack at the front of the vehicle. Bicycling purists might not want to avail themselves of this shortcut, but it eliminates the most precarious - and arduous - part of a ride into the interior.

The road out of Avalon is an absolute bear for 3.5 miles. It climbs a grade of 10 percent and more and follows a narrow, corkscrew course. That might present welcome conditions to fitness fanatics if they could get the road to themselves, but they rarely can. As the only feeder into Avalon, this road gets some heavy use from all sorts of official transport: jeeps, trucks, boxy vans - and the scourge of anything on two wheels, the tractor- trailer tour bus.

The buses gobble up the road as they sweep around the narrow curves. There is a fence of eucalyptus trees along some of the cliffs. Although this might stop one of the airport shuttle vans (a blaring of horns preceded our screech to a halt when we encountered one of the behemoth buses head-on), it would probably only serve to bruise a bicyclist on the way down.

After unloading your bike at the airport, there are many touring options. One popular ride is to the windward-side beach known as Little Harbor (seven miles). The isthmus and Two Harbors lie 6.8 miles farther on. But before embarking on a hefty day trek, bear a couple of things in mind: There are a lot of 10 percent grades to negotiate, and the conservancy does not permit any riding after dark.

The ride from the airport back to Avalon - 10.4 miles - is along an asphalt track that is in a dreadful state, potholed and pockmarked. But the ride otherwise has much to recommend it. It was along here that we encountered the buffalo. Also, the near-constant breezes off the Pacific serve to provide continual air-cooling for your exertions.

The views to both the east and west are sweeping. You can peer down at the idyllic cove that is Whites Landing; that settlement down there is a camp operated by the Glendale YMCA. A little farther along is Toyon Bay, where the Catalina Island Marine Institute maintains a base of operations.

Since the road roughly follows the island's spine, there are no killer ascents. And that tough stretch of road just out of Avalon? At least you get to coast downhill on that.

Just before we headed back into town, we stopped for lunch at the East Summit, next to the Wrigley Reservoir. A ranger soon pulled up in a truck, and his first words after ``hello'' were, ``Do you have your permits?'' The conservancy obviously takes this revenue stream seriously.

But on this day's excursion, that was nothing new.

--Catalina Express charged an extra $6 to transport one of our bikes on the boat ride over - it was placed in the stern, exposed to salt spray.

--If you need to rent wheels, you can get a 21-speed mountain bike at Brown's Bikes (a short walk from the boat dock) for $20 for the day, but you'll probably want to pop for another $5 to get one with front shock absorbers.

--The shuttle ride to the airport costs $11, but another $5 is tacked on if you need a bike transported. Even at that price, it's a do-it-yourself proposition - the driver handed us a tangle of bungee cords and said, ``I'll let you put them on there the way you want.''

--And then there's the permit. The policy term began May 1, so in this first quarter the fee is $50 per person, good until the end of next April (whether you plan to return to the island or not). If you wait until the final quarter next spring, you'll pay only $12.50, as we did.

``Everything's expensive here,'' said a fellow passenger on the shuttle bus when he heard what a day's bike ride was costing us. He was heading into the interior with his adolescent son for some hiking and camping. The cost of his camping permits for three nights: $75.

Catalina Island Conservancy spokeswoman Rebecca Guay said of the bike permits: ``All of the money goes into administering the program and paying the premium on the policy. We have to maintain 250 miles of roads on the island.'' (About 50 miles are open to bicyclists, and the paved airport road is desperately in need of some of that permit money.)

``If there's anything left over, it goes into our programs, keeping the island undeveloped and pristine. We have a lot of people who show up thinking (Catalina) is a state- or government-held property. They don't know it's privately held property, (administered) by a nonprofit conservation company.''

Even for those who don't want to brave the island's inner reaches, Catalina is a fairly bicycle-friendly place. That's because the number of cars permitted on the island is so tightly limited. While pedaling around Avalon, you'll only have to be wary of the occasional manic golf-cart driver.

The bike, in fact, seems to be one of the preferred modes of transport. You'll see parents carting kids in little trailers and couples pedaling about on six-speed tandems ($12 per hour, $30 for the day at Brown's).

The terrain is pretty flat from Pebbly Beach at the south end of the shoreline to the Descanso Beach Club at the north, as well as on the first few blocks of town. Be advised that bikes are not permitted - whether ridden or walked - on the decorative brick walkway of the Crescent Avenue waterfront.

If you choose to head up the canyon to the Wrigley Memorial & Botanical Gardens, you'll want at least six gears. It's a steady and stiff little climb of just over a mile, but it's an exceedingly pleasant one - taking in the golf course, the horse stables, a picnic area and terminating at the sprawling hillside gardens themselves.

Of course, it's all downhill back to the boat dock. When turning in my bike at Brown's, I recalled my shaky, 3.5 miles of 10 percent-plus descent (or was it a plunge?) into Avalon, and was tempted to slip the guy an extra $10 for wear on the brakes. But by then, the cash reserves were getting low.

Some bicyclists might grumble over the multiple tiers of expenses for this excursion, or the long-as-your-arm sheet of regulations handed out by the conservancy folks before you're ever allowed to climb into the saddle.

Once you get out in the center of the island, however, it quickly becomes well worth the expense and trouble. The unspoiled nature of Catalina and its relative dearth of traffic ensure that.

Besides, the ability to linger over a view of Avalon Bay - as the tour bus stops briefly then lurches on its way - defies pricing.


GETTING THERE: Catalina Express offers regular passenger boat service from San Pedro and Long Beach to Avalon and Two Harbors. With fuel surcharges, the round-trip fare is $41 for adults, $31.50 for children ages 2 to 11, $37.50 for seniors age 55 and up. The cost of transporting a bike is $6. Information and reservations: (800) 481-3470;

RENTALS: Brown's Bikes is a short walk from the Avalon boat dock, near the intersection of Crescent Avenue and Lower Terrace. Mountain bikes with front shock absorbers rent for $25 per day. A bike for tooling around Avalon can be had for as little as $5 an hour. Information: (310) 510-0986.

PERMITS: No permit is needed to ride on most of Avalon's roads, but to venture into the interior, a permit issued by the Catalina Island Conservancy is required. It currently costs $50 and is good until the end of April 2002. Fees for new permits will be lowered over each quarter of that term. The permits are issued at the conservancy office, 125 Claressa, Avalon (also at the airport and at Two Harbors). Permits must be obtained in person - none issued by mail or over the phone. Important tip: The conservancy office opens at 9 a.m. daily, so if you want to embark on a bike excursion in the early morning, it is imperative to obtain one the day before. Information: (310) 510-2595;

SHUTTLE: If you want to reach the island's interior without pedaling up the difficult and precarious 3 1/2 miles immediately out of Avalon, you can catch a shuttle ride to the airport. The cost is $11 per person, plus $5 for the bike. Because of limited space on the van's bike rack, it's important to call ahead to reserve bike space. Information and reservations: (310) 510-0143.

INFORMATION: General tourist information on Catalina can be obtained from its visitors' bureau: (310) 510-1520. Its Web site,, is comprehensive.


8 photos, box

Photo: (1 -- 5 color) You can rent a mountain bike, top, or a tandem for you and your partner, center. Or you can park your bike and make friends with some of the local fauna, above. When the legs get tired, pause at an overlook for a view of of blue Avalon Bay, right. Bikers can often catch sight of the island's bison herd.

(6) Toting a bike to and from Catalina Island can prove costly due to permits and transport fees - not to mention the exposure of a salty boat ride - but the rewards of touring the largely unspoiled area are worth the trouble.

(7) At Brown's Bikes in Avalon, visitors to Catalina Island can rent a 21-speed mountain bike for the day (shock absorbers are recommended) and set out with young explorers in tow.

(8) Even for those who don't want to brave the island's inner reaches, Catalina is a fairly bicycle-friendly place.

Tina Burch/Staff Photographer

Box: IF YOU GO (See text)
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Title Annotation:Travel
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:May 13, 2001

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