Much of Two Harbor’s infrastructure is built on the north side of the island.
Banning Harbor in Two Harbors, California
Banning Harbor is the harbor on the north side of the village. The north side is where you go if you want to grab a bite to eat, have a drink, stock up on munchies or take a shower (there are pay-for showers that accept quarters in the public bathrooms).
There’s a gigantic mooring field in the part of Banning Harbor known as “Isthmus Cove”. Isthmus Cove is a fun spot to stay if you’re visiting Catalina Island on a lovely summer day when weather conditions are favorable.
Near the beach in Isthmus Cove, there’s a public dinghy dock you can tie up to if you have a dinghy.
Little Fisherman’s Cove — A Free Anchorage in Two Harbors, California
Far out from the mooring field in Banning Harbor is a free anchorage known as Little Fisherman’s Cove.
Little Fisherman’s Cove is an excellent fair-weather anchorage. My husband, Mike, and I spent many pleasant weeks anchored there aboard the boat we used to own, Typhoon — a sahweet vintage 24′ wooden sailboat.
Little Fisherman’s Cove is well named. If you enjoy spear fishing or fishing with a pole, either way, Little Fisherman’s Cove is a great spot for that.
Our friend Christian is an excellent spear fisher, and he’s been pretty successful with fishing in Little Fisherman’s Cove. His best successes in the area have been a result of the fact that he is fearless. He doesn’t hesitate to head into the kelp beds in the cove, which, admittedly, can be dark and scary. He says the fish like to hide in the kelp beds — so if you venture in, you’re likely to find something worth catching.
If you row ashore from Little Fisherman’s Cove to the closest spot, there’s a lovely sandy beach where you can leave your dinghy — but do be sure to drag it alllllllll the way up onto the beach, so you don’t lose it if the tide comes up while you’re ashore.
You also have the option to row to the public dinghy dock — but that’s a looooong distance to row.
Uphill from the closest sandy beach, you’ll find the campgrounds. Past the campground is a walking trail that takes you into town. If you venture off the trail, you’ll occasionally find lovely little hideouts with scenic picnic areas and / or benches where you can sit and relax.
Flying Fish Around Catalina Island
You might not even have to actually fish in order to enjoy a fish dinner in Little Fisherman’s cove. I lost count of how many flying fish flew up onto our deck and landed there.
If you’ve never had that happen to you before, be warned, it can be a little freaky. A flying fish caught out of water on the deck of a boat usually makes a loud, weird, startling, flapping, thunking sound as it tries to orient itself and get back in the water.
When flying fish have decided to grace us with their presence, they’d usually choose the middle of the night — like 3 a.m. — to make their appearance. So, don’t be surprised if they pay you a middle-of-the-night visit, too.
Some fish snobs consider them to be “trash fish”, but never mind that — you can eat the flying fish that frequent the waters around Catalina Island. Their flavor is mild, not too “fishy” and perhaps not amazing, but pleasant overall. Their biggest downsides are being small and bony (although we happened to get some decent sized ones landing on our boat). They make good bait, so if you don’t want to eat ’em, at least you can put them to use that way.
Anchoring vs Mooring in Banning Harbor
Even when the weather is good, it can get a bit bumpy if you’re staying on a boat in the anchorage — and it can also get pretty crowded at peak times. If you’re just planning to go out to Catalina Island for a summer weekend, I’d definitely recommend paying for a mooring in Isthmus Cove instead of anchoring in Little Fisherman’s Cove. You’ll get a better night’s sleep if you do.
If you decide to anchor out in Little Fisherman’s Cove, particularly when it’s busy, it is smart to keep an anchor watch. Sad to say, even if you know what you’re doing, it isn’t uncommon to encounter people in the area who do not.
I’ve seen boats come un-anchored. I’ve seen people anchor their boats too close to other peoples’ boats, and collide. I’ve also seen onshore winds pick up, and anchors drag.
Watch out for the “sundowners”. It can be calm all morning and afternoon — and then at around 5 or 6 PM or perhaps later, strong winds can pick up, catching people by surprise.
If there’s someone aboard your boat with an alert eye, potential disasters can be averted.
Catalina Harbor (AKA “Cat Harbor”) in Two Harbors, California
Catalina Harbor (nicknamed “Cat Harbor”) is on the south side of the island.
Cat Harbor is another excellent fishing spot. If you want to catch GIGANTIC Halibut, Cat Harbor is the place to go for that. Do make sure you brush up on the current laws regarding how long the halibut have to be before you’re legally allowed to take them. You have to be sure to let the babies go — and the babies can be bigger than you’d think.
Mike and I never actually caught any halibut of our own in Cat Harbor, but we observed fishermen who caught bunches of them.
Honestly, we didn’t actually have much success at all when fishing in Cat Harbor; we had better success around the other side, in Little Fisherman’s Cove. But if you’re experienced at fishing, don’t let our lack of success stop you. We’re total amateurs. (In fact, Mike is now a vegetarian, so he’s permanently given up on fishing).
Two Harbors is on the west end of Catalina Island. Mike and I have often sailed around the west end of the island to get from one of the harbors to the other. When we were actively cruising around Catalina island, we often attempted to fish, and we enjoyed our best successes when rounding the west end of the island.
Cat Harbor Offers the Most Protected Shelter for Boats Anywhere on Catalina Island
If you’re visiting Catalina Island on a private boat, Cat Harbor should definitely be on your radar — even if you don’t initially plan to moor there.
Why do I make this recommendation?
Because Cat Harbor, behind Lower Ballast Point, is generally the safest spot on the entire island to take your boat if the Santa Ana winds kick up.
No place on earth is totally safe, and Cat Harbor is no exception. But if a weather event were to come up suddenly, in most situations, I’d take my chances in Cat Harbor over anywhere else on Catalina Island.
My husband Mike and I spent 2 winters and countless weeks during the summer months there aboard our boat, Typhoon — and we’d recommend it. It was as safe as you could get in an uncertain world.
But, there are always stories.
One that sticks out in my mind is a story I heard from Tom, who was working as Harbor Patrol at the time we were cruising around Catalina Island. He told us about a storm that arose with water spouts that were sweeping through Cat Harbor. Apparently, a water spout displaced one row of mooring cans by a few rows, knocking boats into each other and tangling them up in a chaotic whirl.
And, now that I think about it, there was that Tsunami in 2011. We were actually there in Cat Harbor for that. It was a crazy day that resulted in 2 of the 3 dinghy docks in the harbor being broken apart — among other things. Remind me to tell you that story some other time.
Anyway, all that said, I obviously can’t guarantee you that Cat Harbor would be totally safe in all circumstances. But, when the weather is looking gnarly, I’d definitely consider Cat Harbor first and foremost as the spot to go to ride it out, depending on the circumstances.
Cat Harbor vs Avalon
Under no circumstances would I ever want to try to ride out a weather incident in Avalon. We spent a couple of weeks in the late fall in Avalon, and a brief encounter with the swells and the weather at the time was enough to convince us of that. Later, hearing about the great storm of December 2014 was enough to reinforce our already-firm opinions on that matter.
If you’re in Avalon and it looks like it’s going to start blowing hard, especially if Santa Ana winds are involved, give some serious thought to beating it out of there as fast as you can. Then evaluate what to do next based on the circumstances. Ditto that if you’re in Little Fisherman’s Cove or even Isthmus Cove. The locals have told me, and I believe them, that you don’t want to be in Banning Harbor during a weather event. In some cases, it might be better to head back to the mainland, and in some cases, it might be better to head over to Cat Harbor.
Lower Ballast Point in Cat Harbor
So, I mentioned Lower Ballast Point above. Let me tell you a little bit more about that.
Lower Ballast Point is a natural sand spit that extends across a portion of the Harbor entrance, which helps to protect everything on the other side of it from any swells that might happen to be rolling through. If you’re looking for a protected spot to put your boat, ask Harbor Patrol to put you on one of the mooring cans behind Lower Ballast Point.
At the time we were spending a lot of time on Catalina Island, there was a structure on Lower Ballast Point that was designated as a yacht club — although it was used infrequently, or perhaps never. I have no idea what’s there now, if anything. The most current map I’ve seen of the area doesn’t note anything in particular as being there.
At the time, there was a dinghy dock that I don’t think was necessarily supposed to be open to the public. That was destroyed in the Tsunami, and I am not sure whether it was ever replaced.
At the time, there was nothing technically stopping us from tying up to the dinghy dock that was there on the point. But, we quickly learned that it was not the ideal spot to go ashore in winter time — unless conditions in the water were too dangerous for making the longer row to the public dinghy dock.
Why row to the public dinghy dock instead of simply rowing to Lower Ballast Point? Well, if you decide to row to Lower Ballast Point and go ashore from there, during the winter months, you’re looking at a long, muddy walk into town. And your path might be blocked by frisky, unpredictable bison.
Then if it’s after dark when you decide to return to your boat, good luck with getting back. You’ll be making the trek in near darkness, unless you happen to have a flashlight with you. Even if you bring a flashlight, that stretch of path is pretty darned dark.
Oh, and watch out for the rattlesnakes.
Ask me how I know all this. Been there, done that.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s a gorgeous, idyllic walk when conditions are good — and, sometimes they are.
But, usually I think it’s just easier to row to the public dinghy dock — unless you’re seeing water spouts in the water, or something…
Anchoring vs Mooring in Cat Harbor
Cat Harbor has quite a few places to anchor. Perhaps you’re wondering if you should anchor, or if you should stay on a mooring. My opinion: If you have the cash to pay for a mooring, it’s a no-brainer. Just pay for it. You’ll have a LOT more fun — plus fewer worries about whether your boat is OK.
But if you’re short on cash, anchoring in Cat Harbor is fine, too.
There’s sometimes another option for smaller vessels. It’s the string line (some people call it the “sand line”.) They set that up at peak times when conditions are favorable. We’ve done that, and it’s a good option if your vessel is suitable for it.
Our favorite anchoring spot is ALLLLLllll the way into the harbor, past the mooring field. I wouldn’t recommend trying it unless you have a depth sounder, and you can keep a hawk eye on your depth, because it gets really shallow, really fast at that end of the harbor.
Right about now, I should mention that Catalina Island experiences a fascinating phenomenon with the tides. I confess that I do not understand it, or the science behind it, well. You don’t necessarily have to understand it either; you just have to be aware of it.
This is my perhaps-faulty understanding of the situation. In addition to the usual high tides and low tides, Catalina Island experiences high-high tides and low-low tides. So, the low-low tides are what you have to watch out for when you anchor in the shallow end of Cat Harbor. If you’re in a sailboat with a substantial keel, hitting the bottom is a possibility.
There was one night when a low-low tide snuck up on us while we were anchored in that spot in Cat Harbor in our boat, Typhoon. Typhoon is only 24′, but she has a 4’10” keel. There was another guy, also named Mike, who was anchored alongside us in a larger boat than ours.
At about 4:30 in the morning, I jerked awake when I heard a metallic “ping” noise and felt a jolt. “Mike! Wake up!” I yelled to my husband. “We just hit bottom!”
“No we didn’t. Go back to sleep,” was Mike’s sleepy response.
“We did, too!” I insisted. But the truth is, I wasn’t sure we’d hit bottom. The ping I’d heard could have been anything, and I was half asleep, myself. So, I went topside to investigate.
It was nearly pitch black and hard to make out anything in the dark. I let my eyes adjust for a moment and tried to make sense of what I was seeing. My eyes settled on the other Mike’s boat, not far from us. It was tipped over at an insane angle. I had never seen anything like it. Typhoon was better off, with a shorter keel and a more advantageous spot in the anchorage — but even in the inky darkness, I could tell she was also tipped over at a dangerous angle.
My first impuse was to grab the camera and take pictures. But, there wasn’t enough light, even with the flash, for the pictures to look like anything recognizable.
I went below and yelled at Mike, “We did, too, hit bottom. You gotta come up and see this!”
Later when I went ashore, I ran into the other Mike. I asked him, “Hey, did you feel that low-low tide at about 4:30 this morning?” His response: “If I didn’t feel that, you’d have to come and pry my cold, dead body out of my boat. Because I’d definitely be DEAD if I didn’t feel that!”
So, yeah. Watch out for those low-low tides if you decide to pick that particular spot for anchoring. The General Store always used to have tide charts available for sale; if you don’t keep one aboard your boat, grabbing one of those would be money well spent, I’m thinking.
It’s also possible to anchor closer to the mouth of Cat Harbor, before you get to the mooring field. We’ve done that too. It’s a long, long, long row to the public dinghy dock from there. Also, there are a few slippery spots back there where it is tough to get an anchor to hold. So, do be alert, and consider keeping an anchor watch, at least until you are absolutely certain your anchor is well set.
Things to Do in and Around Two Harbors, California
There are zillions of fun things to do in Two Harbors, but it’s up to you to create your own adventure there. Two Harbors does not offer extensive amenities the way Avalon does. If you are seeking a vacation where you can wine and dine, shop and be entertained, Two Harbors is not for you. Go to Avalon — or skip Catalina Island all together and go to Santa Barbara.
BUT if you’re seeking an epic outdoor adventure, or you simply want to relax and chill with your dog / friends / family, Two Harbors is absolutely the place to go for that.
At the time we were actively cruising around Catalina Island, Two Harbors amenities included one bar / restaurant called the Harbor Reef, one General Store and one hotel called the Banning House. Staff on the island has added some amenities since those days — including furnished palapas, beachside lounge chairs and ocean view tables.
There are comfortable campgrounds and extensive hiking trails. There’s a visitors center with computers available. Transient boats can pick up mail right there at the visitor center.
Hiking in Two Harbors3>
The Trans Catalina Trail
There are some amazing hikes waiting for you in Two Harbors. One of the most famous hikes on the island is the Trans Catalina Trail. Part of the trail stretches from Two Harbors to Little Harbor. Little Harbor has comfortable campgrounds, and it’s a fantastic place to relax after you’ve hiked that far. It also looks like a worthwhile spot spend the night if you’re so inclined.
Mike and I never actually spent the night in the campgrounds there, although we’ve spent the night aboard our boat in the anchorage at Little Harbor. You can see pictures of the Little Harbor campgrounds and anchorage in my Little Harbor Travel Guide.
When we would hike from Two Harbors to Little Harbor, it was usually during the winter months when we had our boat moored in Cat Harbor. So, we’d hike to Little Harbor, have a picnic lunch in Little Harbor, and then hike back to our boat in Cat Harbor. Round trip, it would take us ALL DAY, from sunrise until slightly after dark.
The Hammock Hike
The Cat Harbor Overlook Hike (Some of the Locals Call It the “Upper Ballast Point Hike”)
There are at least two different hikes you can do from the Ballast Point side of Cat Harbor. One is a super easy hike that simply goes straight out as far as you can get until the trail ends and you reach a cliff overlooking the water.
If you want to do the other, harder hike, you can access it by starting from the Trans Catalina Trail. It isn’t an easy hike, but it’s a rewarding one. From the top, there’s an amazing view of the isthmus. On a clear day, you can see everyone coming and going into and out of Cat Harbor.
For maps and more precise directions on how to locate the hiking trails on Catalina Island, I’ll refer you to the Conservancy’s PDF instruction booklet.
Camping in Two Harbors
If you enjoy camping but not totally roughing it, you’ll definitely want to consider camping in Two Harbors. You have several options for how primitive you want to go. One option is traditional tent camping. You could also opt to stay in unique tent cabins. Nowadays there’s also an option to try out the new convenience camping sites.
The campgrounds in Two Harbors are uphill from one of the beaches, with a spectacular view of the beach and Little Fisherman’s Cove:
Amenities for each campsite include shade, a picnic table, a barbecue and a fire pit. There are also chemical toilets, a shower and a sink with running water accessible to each campsite.
When Mike and I were cruising around Catalina Island, there was another campground on the island known as “Buffalo Campground”. It was hardly ever used as a campground except when the other campgrounds filled up on holidays and at other peak times.
Nowadays they’re calling it “Buffalo Park”. Whatever you call it, it’s a spot where I spent a LOT of time when I was cruising the island. At the time, the locals even liked to joke with me that it was my office — because most days when I was in Two Harbors, I brought my computer there to work.
Buccaneer Days in Two Harbors
At the end of each summer season, Two Harbors has a fascinating tradition called “Buccaneer Days” (also known as “Buccaneer Week”). Revelers come to the island, dress up as pirates and have a festival celebrating the pirate life. Two Harbors staff decorates the village with pirate flags and related decorations. Here are some pictures from past Buccaneer Days events:
How to Get to Two Harbors, California
- Most people arrive in Two Harbors via private boat.
- It’s also possible to hop aboard the Catalina Express ferry in San Pedro for a direct trip to Two Harbors.
- In the summertime, there’s a “Discover Two Harbors Tour” that takes you round trip from Avalon to Two Harbors by boat.
- Taxi service is available in Avalon, and I’m guessing you could pay a taxi driver to take you across the island given favorable weather conditions. (There are times when it’s too muddy to easily drive across the island). But, be warned — I’m certain that would be an expensive taxi trip.
So there you have it: That’s my Two Harbors, California Travel Guide. I hope you found it helpful. Two Harbors is one of my all-time favorite sailing destinations. If you decide to travel to Two Harbors, I hope you’ll enjoy the experience as much as I did.
More California Travel Guides
- Catalina Island Travel Guide
- Santa Barbara, California Travel Guide
- Fun Things to Do in Santa Barbara
- Oxnard, California Travel Guide
- Long Beach, California Travel Guide
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This page was last updated on 4-27-2019.