26 Miles Across the Sea, Capturing Catalina with Mapillary

A sunny weekend full of adventures around Avalon has put Santa Catalina Island on the photo map, making its winding paths and breathtaking views open for exploration.

Twenty-six miles across the sea
Santa Catalina is a-waitin' for me
Santa Catalina, the island of romance

Santa Catalina Island, often called just Catalina, lies just a short distance off the coast of California and is widely known for its tourist appeal. The 1958 hit song captures the spirit perfectly.

Avalon Harbor in early morning from the ferry The early morning sun illuminates Avalon Harbor. Ferries arrive several times a day, beginning just after dawn.

Our first view of the island was in the early morning sunlight as the ferry approached the harbor in Avalon. The small town of Avalon is Catalina’s major port, and lies nestled along a small bay at the foot of high cliffs and arid hills. It resembles a quaint Italian fishing village, with vibrantly colorful buildings and sleepy sailboats visible from the harbor.

About 300 people live in Avalon permanently, enjoying the quietude of island life away from bustling Los Angeles. The town spans several blocks alongside Avalon Bay, with three larger roads that go along the coastlines and into the hills. While there are only a few cars and trucks on the island, it is bustling with golf cart traffic.

Hillside view on Avalon Looking down at Avalon from the hillside. These windy roads provide access into the natural areas at higher elevation.

Together with MaptimeLA, Mapillary (represented by Johan and myself) set out to lead a community effort to gather street-level imagery of Avalon and its surroundings using our handy LG 360 cameras. Altogether, a group of about 20 mappers made the voyage from the mainland, eager to gather photos as well as place points of interest onto OpenStreetMap.

On arrival, a firetruck was waiting to take us to the Los Angeles County Fire Department Station 55, where Johan and I set up our makeshift command center for the weekend. Meanwhile, our fellow mappers started settling in at the Hermit Gulch Campground. Captain Black, head of the fire station, made sure we had plenty of space as well as tables, chairs, WiFi and even coffee to get us jumpstarted.

Los Angeles County Fire Department Station 55 command center Johan Gyllenspetz and John Hickok make plans for the first day, after getting comfortable in our command center.

With great weather and mild crowds, we took the opportunity to start collecting photos right away. Walking from the fire station to the waterfront, we captured our first Mapillary sequence with the 360-degree camera. After a quick meal to keep us fueled and motivated, we split into two teams and continued mapping.

Johan and I were graciously allowed to borrow a golf cart from Catalina Island Golf Carts & Tours, and managed to cover a vast amount of ground in the scenic roads in the hills above Avalon. With our new set of wheels, we could knock out all the more remote parts of our mapping mission while leaving the downtown core for the rest of the crew to cover on foot.

Mapping from the golf cart, we found one of the best views of Avalon atop a quiet road in the hills.

The learning curve for using Mapillary isn’t too steep—everyone received the five-minute walkthrough of how to pair the cameras with their smartphones, link them to the Mapillary mobile app, and start photo mapping. By sunset, our group had captured more than half of Avalon on foot, stretching from the seaside all the way to the gates of the botanical gardens that are a 20-minute walk into the island’s interior. Excited but exhausted, the whole crew shared their adventures over dinner and we began making plans for the next day.

Johan was up early on Saturday to join an intrepid crew of hikers who set out of the Hermit Gulch Trail. By the time I had gotten my morning caffeine fix, they had already looped through the hills under the beating sun and arrived at the Wrigley Memorial and Botanic Garden, which the Catalina Island Conservancy had given us permission to include in our mapping mission.

Meanwhile, I joined the OpenStreetMap efforts and started to place businesses and other venues onto the map, helping to document the island’s amenities. By noon, everyone was ready for cold water, shade, and sandwiches, so we gathered back at the command center to relax and regroup.

The Hermit Gulch Trail climbs onto a high ridge with views of the Pacific Ocean before descending into the botanical gardens.

By Saturday afternoon, we were already hitting the streets again with cameras in hand. We piled onto a golf cart and cruised back into town, where one team split off on foot to finish photo mapping downtown, including some cozy alleyways and the waterfront. Meanwhile, we navigated the golf cart back into the hills, making our way down narrow and winding streets replete with gorgeous cottages and sweeping views.

The sun was going down fast, but we raced against the clock and finished up with plenty of time to spare. My phone chimed with a message about pizza ready for pickup, as Carto had sponsored quite the smörgåsbord for our ever-hungry mappers. We made the rounds, shuttling our crews back to the fire station and finally bringing the pizza along too.

Golf cart photo mapping Our golf cart expedition into the hills allowed us to quickly photo map an expansive area.

Saturday evening was full of hubbub as we started to upload our photos and organize the sequences. As one may expect with the laid-back pace of island life, the internet wasn’t ideal for uploading a few dozen gigabytes of imagery, so progress was slow but exciting nonetheless. Pizza in hand and eyes on the upload window, we watched as green Mapillary sequences started to grace the map. Meanwhile, the more ambitious among us had already started chattering about making a second trip to Catalina to map more trails and inland roads. Watch out—photo mapping is contagious!

Avalon Mapillary coverage after photo mapping
A shot of our map in progress: while Avalon had no street view imagery beforehand, it now has almost complete coverage.

Sunday morning we broke camp and made our way to the ferry with bags packed and memory cards heavy with imagery. The trip was a great success, with Mapillary on the lips of many members of the Maptime crew as well as spreading through the towns with rumors of new street-level photos on their way. We have been carefully sifting through the data and now our uploads are almost all in place so that Santa Catalina Island is visible to everyone.

Special thanks go out to Jon Schleuss, Nina Kin and Omar Ureta from MaptimeLA for their hard work organizing this event and allowing us to work with them, as well as the entire town of Avalon, LA County Fire Department Station 55, and the Catalina Conservancy for being our hosts! Additional thanks to John Hickok for coordinating with Station 55 and setting us up for great conditions on our excursion.

If you want to hear more about this adventure or are thinking to make your own, throw us a line at hello@mapillary.com - we'd be glad to support!


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