Southern California / USA

Bison Expedition at Catalina Island

The bison expedition at Catalina Island is an adventure-filled, bouncy jeep ride through the windy, winding hills of Catalina Island, California. Not many know about the herd of wild bison that roam the hills of Catalina. If you embark on this bison expedition, you’ll be taken to all the right spots and given the best chances to spot some of these notorious and beautiful beasts. Below are some of my experiences from the bison expedition I took on my most recent trip, as well some tips on what to expect and what to bring on tour. 

View of wildflowers and hills
Beautiful views along the drive

Why are There Bison on Catalina Island?

In 1924, a small herd of 14 bison were brought to Catalina Island to be part of a movie that was filming at the time. After film production ended, the bison were left on the island to freely roam. Since then, the herd has grown in size, and they have become local icons. The bison are protected by the Catalina Island Conservancy and are a popular tourist attraction.

bison figure carved from wood
I had to buy this cute bison wood-carved figure

The Catalina Bison (aka Buffalo) are Local Icons

Much of the Catalina Island merchandise features images of the bison, aka buffalo (the 2 terms are used interchangeably). The gift shops have bison souvenirs ranging from carved statues and jewelry to postcards and calendars. The island even has a signature cocktail called Buffalo Milk. It doesn’t actually contain milk, however. I had to try one, and it turned out to be a delicious mix of vodka, crème de cacao, crème de banana, Kailua, half n’ half, and fresh nutmeg.

Buffalo Milk Cocktail
Island Specialty: Buffalo Milk Cocktail

What to Expect on the Bison Expedition Tour at Catalina Island

The Tour Guide

Our tour guide, Halvey, met our group at the designated meeting point. We were instructed to arrive 20 minutes early, and everyone was there on time. We didn’t need printed tickets, as showing the tour purchase confirmation on or phones was just fine. I had read ahead of time that the guides on the Catalina jeep tours were fantastic, and my expectations were exceeded. Halvey had a great sense of humor and knew tons of incredible facts about the island and its history. He narrated the tour over the speakers in the jeep, and kept us smiling the whole time.

Harbor view of Avalon from Above
View of Avalon Harbor

The Jeep

The bison expedition at Catalina Island takes place in an open-air, 12 person jeep. It does have a roof for shade, although the sun will still be coming in from the sides. Our guide drove us up some winding roads that were unpaved and bumpy at times. At no point was the ride uncomfortable, however. There were large storage nets on the backs of the seats, so there is room to securely store items like purses, backpacks, and water bottles.

Open Air Expedition Jeep in front of the Airport in the Sky at Catalina Island
Taking a photo in the jeep during a stop

The Bison

There is no guarantee that you will get to see a bison, or buffalo, on your tour. They are wild animals who roam the island freely, so there is a chance they may be too far away from the roads during your expedition. I didn’t want to get my hopes up, and decided I would have fun even if the bison expedition only involved a cool jeep tour up into the hills of Catalina Island. Our whole group was on the lookout across the green and brown hills as we drove down the dirt paths. The guide said “if you see a big brown boulder, that’s most likely a bison.”

Scenic hills on Catalina Island
Keep an eye out for bison

To my surprise, we turned a corner, and there was a huge lone bison right on the side of the road, grazing on some grass. He stayed in his spot, eating his grass, seemingly unfazed at the jeep full of tourists taking his picture. Our guide stopped the engine for a bit and we just sat there for a while watching the bison. Even though he seemed like a peaceful animal, we stayed in the jeep, as they can be deadly if threatened or provoked. Along the rest of our expedition, we saw multiple other bison as well, roaming in herds across the hills with the ocean view in the background.

Wild bison grazing on grass, aka American buffalo
Spotted one right next to the Jeep!

What to Bring on the Bison Expedition at Catalina Island

  • Hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen. We took the tour that started at 2pm, and the sun was shining bright into the jeep.
  • For those with long hair, bring a hair tie or clip. The wind on that ride was no joke.
  • Water
  • Comfortable shoes or sandals. There wasn’t much walking involved, but we did have to climb a few big steps to get in and out of the jeep.
  • Camera. Even if you don’t spot any bison, the scenic view from the Catalina hills provide a ton of great photo opportunities.
  • Cash. If you’d like to tip the guide after the tour, come prepared with some cash.

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