From the Catalina Island Conservancy:
The Trans-Catalina Trail is a rugged hike along the island’s interior with camping stops next to pristine beaches. Covering 38.5 miles in typically 4 days, you will traverse the Island starting at the Trailhead in Avalon and finishing at Two Harbors (after winding through the West End of the Island). Along the way you will have the opportunity to experience some of the Island’s wildlife. Sightings of Bison, the Catalina Island Fox, and Bald Eagles are common. Camping is available at different campsites along the trail with Conservancy members receiving 50% off.
HIKING PERMITS: Your campground reservations serve as your camping/hiking permit; no additional hard copies of permits are needed.
LENGTH: 38.5 miles
HIGHEST ELEVATION: 1,775 feet
TOTAL ELEVATION CHANGE: 9,600 feet
Why Catalina Island?
The winter in Washington is long. Like, will-I-ever-see-the-sun-again, long. In January, my girlfriend, Tynesha, and I decided it was time to visit someplace sunny just to remember what happiness felt like. @Trekkingsketches on Instagram had completed the trail in November, and listening to their episode on the @JohnFreakingMuirPodcast had us feeling inspired. Escape Washington for some sun and legitimate Mexican food? No brainer. With that, our plans were set for March.
Please note that all campgrounds, hotel stays, airline tickets, and ferry passage were booked two months in advance*
Trail Logistics: What you need to know
Backpacking the Trans-Catalina Trail has everything you need to know. I suggest using this as your base.
Getting to Catalina Island is half the battle, so read closely to follow our path:
- Uber from home to SEATAC
- Fly from SEATAC to LAX
- Uber from LAX to Redondo Beach for burritos. Then Uber to ferry terminal in Long Beach (taqueria stop optional)
- Catalina Express from Long Beach to Avalon
- Overnight at Seacrest Inn in Avalon (we enjoyed the Lighthouse Room)
- Hiked trail – ended in Two Harbors, CA
- Catalina Express from Two Harbors to San Pedro, CA
- Uber from San Pedro to Santa Anna (to get Mexican food + horchata, once again optional). Uber from Santa Anna to John Wayne Airport
- Fly John Wayne Airport to SEATAC
- Uber from Seatac to Home
A Note on Campgrounds:
“From a remote mountaintop to a secluded beach to a scenic harbor on the island’s “backside,” there are five unique camping experiences along the Trans-Catalina Trail. Reservations are required and can be made online. Your camping reservations serve as your hiking permit. No additional fees are required. There is a 2-night minimum on Friday and Saturday nights during the summer season at Hermit Gulch, Little Harbor, and Two Harbors campgrounds. Trans-Catalina Trail hikers can have that minimum requirement waived by calling Two Harbors Visitor Services at 310.510.4205.”
There are pit toilets and water spigots at every campsite on the TCT, so water filtration and a trowel are unnecessary. Temperatures for our trip were in the high 60s – low 70s. Our highs in WA have been low 50s for about a month, so we felt comfortable packing light in the warmth department. I encourage you to check out my full gear list in greater detail here: TCT Gear
Day 1 – Avalon to Black Jack (10.5 miles)
Tynesha and I slept-in and decided to grab breakfast in Avalon before heading out. After all, we only had around 10 miles to hike today. We enjoyed a tasty brunch at the Pancake Cottage before tightening our pack straps and hitting the trail. Our day 1 happened to coincide with the Catalina Island Marathon. We spent the first hour cheering on runners as they sped (or limped) into town. The trail transitioned from pavement to a traditional single-track path once we passed Hermit Gulch Campground, which is a popular place to stay for most hikers once they arrive on the island (we stayed at Seacrest Inn). The trail would take a steep incline from there, pushing us up to a shady lookout with views of Avalon and the surrounding canyon.
The next few miles followed a ridgeline upon a dirt road, where we would hike opposite the flow of the remaining marathoners. It was here that we noticed our first bison – which the island is famous for – napping in the distance. We enjoyed views of the Pacific Ocean for a little while before the trail veered through some shallow canyons and washes, dry and riddled with cactus. We would pass the first hikers we saw on trail in the early afternoon. Just as shadows began to grow longer, we capped the 10.5-mile mark and arrived at our campsite for the night: Black Jack.
The campsite itself wasn’t exactly breathtaking, but at least it had pit toilets and a water spigot. The swinging tire next to camp was a nice bonus. We played on it before going back to our picnic table for food. We enjoyed our dinner before heading up trail half a mile to catch the sunset – and what a brilliant sunset it was! Seldom do we see such a site in Washington, as there’s usually trees, mountains, or clouds in the way. Tynesha and I took a few sips of rum before adjourning to our tent for the night, grateful to have the sunset to ourselves.
Day 2 – Black Jack to Parsons Landing (20.3 Miles)
Given the permit situation, we knew hiking 20+ miles today was a must. We broke camp under starlight in the wee hours of the morning before setting off on our path again. Tynesha and I joked – “What would you do if you looked up and saw a bison right now?”. This would soon become our reality.
We reached the Catalina Island airport two miles from camp and were greeted by some of the locals: a herd of bison, perhaps 25-30 deep. At first we were intimidated, and wanting to ensure a safe distance between us, skirted around the trail to give them a wide berth. It soon became clear that these bison weren’t too different from the cattle we had become accustomed to hiking around in the SF Bay Area – a loud shout and some hand clapping and the entire herd would move out of your way.
The next two hours would be spent on single track, climbing and descending gentle ridges towards the west-end of the island. We came across a handful of hikers headed towards Black Jack before plunging back towards the coast, this time to the massive campground of Little Harbor. Tynesha, who was hiking ahead of me, came across the second famous species on the island: the Catalina Island Fox! My cumbersome gait scared it off as I approached closer. No matter: by around 9:30 we had hiked over 8 miles and arrived at Little Harbor.
Little Harbor looked like an island oasis, plucked straight from a book. Sure, there were day-use visitors, an RV, and a row of porta potties. There were also palm trees, swaying gently in the breeze, and a gorgeous beach where we enjoyed a mid-morning snack and took our shoes off. It was our own little slice of Baja, if only for 30 minutes or so. We still had about 12 miles more to hike, so we begrudgingly put our shoes back on and began our trek toward Two Harbors.
Our night’s destination, Parsons Landing, didn’t have fresh water: fortunately, the Catalina Island Conservancy had stashed firewood and fresh water for us in a locker there. The catch was that we needed to stop by the information center in Two Harbors before we got to camp. The 5 miles between Little Harbor and Two Harbors wasn’t easy, as the trail would take a steep incline over a stunning ridgeline reminiscent of the Napali Coast. The sun now stretched high in the sky, and by then we were getting a little sunburnt. We made short work of the rest of the hike after we had reached our apex, and crossed paths with many hikers going the opposite direction before we arrived in Two Harbors for lunch.
If Avalon was a bustling spring-breaker beach town, then Two Harbors was undoubtedly its sleepy, scenic cousin. The information center we needed to receive our locker code from was closed for lunch, so Tynesha and I enjoyed beers and pizza from the general store – no complaints! We spent the remaining time familiarizing ourselves with the town, as we’d be back the next day to catch our ferry back to the mainland. The two of us would throw on our backpacks and hit the trail after getting the information we needed, grateful for our full bellies.
The buzz from the beer and pizza didn’t last long. Afternoon had grown noticeably hotter, and our poor PNW bodies had trouble acclimating to the heat. Once the trail crossed the isthmus of Catalina Island, it would shoot straight up on the steepest ascent we would come across on the entire journey. Our conversation died and our smiles melted while we toiled in the sun. The climb itself was challenging, but at least it offered stunning views of the northern coast of the island. We enjoyed a quick water break before walking the next few miles on the ridgeline, our only company being ravens, gliding on a coastal breeze.
If what we had just walked up was steep, then the other side of the ridge was borderline dangerous. The trail took an impossible decline, and after 18+ miles of hiking, it was all we could do to not slide down on our booties. Here we met another hiker who was going the same direction as us, and we joked about the steepness of the trail in our shared discomfort. Eventually things mellowed out and camp was within sight: Parsons Landing at last!
Parsons Landing is a camp that is often hyped up by the community of hikers who have enjoyed the trail, and for good reason. The campsites are literally on the beach itself, it is remote, and the views of the pacific are simply stunning. Upon arrival we acquired our cached supplies and made camp. Afternoon was spent rehydrating and hanging with our toes in the sand, taking the occasional sip of rum until there was none left. That evening we lit our campfire and grubbed down on dinner before adjourning to our tent. Sleep came quickly after over 20 miles, and we were serenaded by the sound of the tide and the barks of sea lions in the distance.
Day 3 – Parsons Landing to Two Harbors (7.8 miles)
I slept through my alarm that morning. My phone must have rolled under my sleeping pad in the night and I didn’t feel its vibration. Our ferry was pre purchased and set to depart at 11:45. We were instructed to arrive 30-45 minutes prior to departure, and while we only had around 8 miles to hike that day, we didn’t want to take any chances. The camp was torn down and packed away in 30 minutes, which we hadn’t done backpacking together in many moons.
Luckily for us, the trail that day was incredibly smooth. I learned long ago to not always assume you’ll be able to hike at a certain speed regardless of the elevation profile: many things, including trail texture and weather, can still hamper your plans.
This wasn’t the case that morning. Tynesha and I enjoyed a brisk pace of around 3.3 miles per hour while basking in the morning sun from the northern shores of the island.
We arrived back in Two Harbors less than 3 hours from when we departed camp. It turns out we made even better time than we had anticipated, so we decided to take showers in town with the extra time we had bought. It always feels refreshing to wash away the grime and sweat from a hard backpacking trip, but the frozen Twix ice cream bar we got from the general store was a real treat. The rest of the hikers who we had shared Parsons Landing with the night before began to trickle in. Soon we would all board the Catalina Express and head back to San Pedro.
The ferry ride back was much more pleasurable than the ride there: instead of maskless, drunken loudmouths cracking jokes with their friends, we enjoyed a quiet ride with dolphins racing on the waves in the distance. In San Pedro we hailed and Uber (my first time in a Tesla – ooh la la) who took us to an authentic Mexican joint in Santa Anna. Veggie burritos and a tall glass of horchata later, we boarded our flight from John Wayne Airport back to Seattle and called it a day.
The Trans-Catalina Island Trail was a true respite from the Pacific Northwest. Please know: Southern California, and certainly Catalina Island, are expensive places to visit. The food, transportation, and lodging all costs a pretty-penny. The trail was beautiful and really satisfied the itch we had for warm weather hiking, but it wasn’t exactly a rugged backcountry experience. For us, going into it with the mindset that it was a vacation away from rainclouds and drippy fir trees, made it a boatload of fun. Not only would I recommend the trail to anyone who is interested in visiting the island, or feeling the same as us during the winter season, but I fully plan on returning… perhaps for the trail, spring break, or that marathon we saw at the beginning!