Backpacking the Trans-Catalina Trail
The first (and one of the only) family camping trips I ever went on as a young kid was to Catalina Island. I have fond memories of popping Jiffy pop over the fire and snuggling with my parents in our tent. I also remember wandering to the bathroom in the morning only to come across a pair of wild boars doing the dirty deed. I still laugh when I think about my dad trying to explain that one.
Anyways, I’ve always thought about going back and spending a little more time exploring. Located about 60 minutes off the coast of Long Beach, California, Catalina is an inhabited island that offers amazing kelp forest diving, fun nightlife, and turns out…some pretty epic backpacking with beach front camping and endless ocean views.
Bearfoot Theory reader and contributor Kimberly Vawter recently traversed 40+ miles across the entire island on foot, and in her guest post below she shares her best pictures and all the logistics for planning a trip on the Trans-Catalina Trail. And with the weather turning in the mountains, this southern California island is the perfect destination for an off-season adventure.
When I hear “island,” I instantly think sun, sand, relaxation, cool breeze, ease of life (okay and also a margarita with an upside down Corona….). So first off, let’s get one thing straight…the Trans-Catalina Trail is no walk in the park — it is hard. Over the course of the trip, there is plenty of up, down, up, down…totally over 10,000 feet in elevation gain/loss. There is also a lot of sun exposure depending on the weather. With those two things being said, as part of the Channel Islands archipelago, it is an incredibly unique and beautiful ecosystem, and the experience was more than worth the challenge.
Trans-Catalina Trail Basics
The trail runs East-West along Catalina Island, which is 22 miles off the coast of Southern California. Getting there is an adventure in itself, with the opportunity to encounter some big marine life during the 60-90 minute boat ride.
The one-way trail can be traveled in either direction, and I started in the town of Avalon and hiked towards Starlight Beach. While the trail itself is 37.2 miles once you get to the end, you have to hike an additional 7 miles to Two Harbors where you can catch a ferry back to the mainland. With this extra mileage, you end up hiking about 45 miles.
To fully enjoy the trip, you’ll need at least 3 nights/4 full days to complete the trail. If I did it again I would allow for an extra day/night to camp at Little Harbor making it a 4 night/5 day trip.
If you are on a time crunch….
If you want to experience the trail but don’t have time to do the whole thing, here is my recommendation… Take the ferry directly to Two Harbors and hike the 5 mile stretch from Two Harbors to Little Harbor and back. This would be a simple 1 night or 2 night getaway. Both of my hiking partners plan to come back with their friends to redo this small section that we considered to be the most scenic section of the entire trail. Little Harbor was also rated “One of the Best Campgrounds in the West” by Sunset Magazine—you will not be disappointed.
Catalina typically sees sun year-round, with the exception being May and June when southern California can be engulfed in thick fog. I completed this trip with two close friends in mid-July, and it was really hot. Again the trail has no shade, so the sun was beating down on us pretty much the entire time. As Kristen mentioned in her post on Santa Cruz Island to the north, September and October can be really pleasant months to visit, and the monthly temperature highs on Catalina do not vary more than 8 degrees throughout the year.
Trans-Catalina Trail Campsite Reservations
Backpacking the Trans-Catalina Trail does take a good bit of planning. Campsites do book up during the busy summer months, so don’t dally in making your plans, especially if you are headed to Catalina on a weekend. Campsites can be booked up to a year in advance.
Campsites can be reserved online at ReserveAmerica.com. However, since you will be staying at a different campsite each night, it requires a separate reservation for each night. So it’s actually easier to reserve campsites over the phone through the Santa Catalina Island Company. Before you call, browse the website which has a ton of information about each campsite, and then the reservation specialists can help set up your itinerary over the phone based on availability for your entire trip.
To book a reservation over the phone, call (310) 510-8368.
This is the most common 3-night itinerary for the Trans-Catalina Trail:
- Day 1: Avalon to Black Jack campground (15 miles)
- Day 2: Black Jack to Two Harbors campground (12.5 miles)
- Day 3: Two Harbors to Parson’s Landing campground (with an afternoon side hike to Starlight Beach (15 miles)
- Day 4: Parson’s Landing to Two Harbors (6.5 miles)
Click on the annotated map (courtesy of the Catalina Island Conservancy) for the larger version.
Campsites fees are per person and vary depending on the season.
In addition to the campsite reservations, you also need to obtain a permit from the Catalina Island Conservancy. These permits are free and can be obtained online or in person once you are in Avalon.
Getting to Catalina Island
The most common way to get out to Catalina is by boat on the Catalina Express. Boats headed to Avalon leave from San Pedro, Long Beach, and Dana Point. However, boats heading back to the mainland from Two Harbors where you finish your hike only go to San Pedro. So if you can depart from San Pedro, that is most convenient for your return trip.
Round trip adult fares from San Pedro run about $75 and the schedule varies depending on the season. For more information or to make reservations, head to the Catalina Express website.
If you would rather depart from Long Beach or Dana Point, you should consider taking the Safari Bus at the end of your hike which will transport you from Two Harbors back to Avalon.
Be aware that the seas can get rough, so if you are prone to sea sickness, plan ahead.
You are going to want to pack as light as possible because you will need to carry a lot of water. While there is no potable water on the trail in between the campgrounds, water is available at Black Jack, Little Harbor, and Two Harbors. For the last night at Parsons, your campsite reservation comes with 2.5 gallons of water.
I recommend that when you hit the trail each morning, you have at least 3-4 liters of water.
If you need any last minute forgotten items there is Vons Express right down the road from the ferry terminal (they are open daily from 7am-10pm). However, it’s not like a big grocery store on the mainland, so you’ll want to bring most of what you plan on eating with you. I’d recommend checking out Kristen’s post on Simple Backpacking Food Ideas. I personally enjoyed jerky with Instant Idaho potatoes as a warm, filling, and high protein meal.
*** EXPLORE MORE OF SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA ***
Trans-Catalina Island Trip Report
Day 1: Avalon to Black Jack campground (15 miles)
There’s a couple of options for starting out. The first is to take the earliest ferry of the day so you get to the island first thing. The earliest ferry leaves Long Beach at 6:15am and San Pedro at 9:00am, and it’s roughly an hour ride to Avalon. Remember, you have a 15 mile day ahead of you so time is of the essence.
Alternatively if you’d rather leave the night before and a hotel is in your budget, Avalon has a limited number of hotels to choose from. The Aurora Hotel and Spa is a hip boutique hotel right in town with an ocean view that has free continental breakfast and a Friday night wine and cheese happy hour. Just don’t have too much fun…you need to get on the trail early.
Once you get to Avalon your first stop is the Atwater Hotel (120 Sumner Avenue) to confirm your campsite reservation. They will also give you a key to a campsite locker that contains a bundle of firewood that is included in your reservation fee…(at the time of writing, there are additional restrictions on campfires, so make sure to check with the rangers before you set off).
Next, you might want to head over to the Catalina Conservancy office (it’s on the way to the trailhead) to grab maps, learn a little bit about the wildlife and island, and have any last minute questions answered. Note that they don’t open till 8:30am.
Now if you’re like me, when you set your mind to hiking the Trans-Cat trail it would seem essential that you travel all 37.2 miles of the trail, in other words you need to start at Mile 0. To do this: You need to walk back towards the ferry building and continue to follow the road as it curves around to the eastern end of the island. Eventually the road will take a take a turn to the right and up, up, up you’ll go! Alternatively, some people start the trail at mile-marker 7. If you are okay with a little shortcut then you can hike directly from town on the Hermit Gulch Trail to its junction with the Trans-Catalina trail at mile 7. In all honesty, the first few miles of the trail aren’t the highlight – so if I did it again I would consider hiking from town.
There is a great little “lookout gazebo” at this junction and is a great place to stop for an early lunch break, reapply some sunscreen, and enjoy the ocean breeze. Don’t chill for too long, buffalo country awaits you—and yes we did see some of these free-roaming beasts on our trek! The trail will continue along into some of the most remote backcountry areas of the island. Once you approach the Black Jack campground, the landscape becomes more lush. The campground is nicely shaded with fairly secluded and large campsites. We fell asleep early after a yummy meal around the campfire (thanks to our locker full of firewood!). The next morning we learned from our neighbors that two buffalo were grazing right outside our tent so do be careful if you get up in the middle of the night!
Day 2: Black Jack to Two Harbors (12.5 miles)
Rise and shine! One of the best parts of today’s hike is that you get a quick break after a short 2.25 miles when you arrive at the Catalina Island airport. During summer season the DC-3 Grill (in the airport) opens at 8:30am, and they have bomb breakfast burritos. There are also displays in the grill/gift shop and outside that are definitely worth checking out.
From the airport it is a little more than 5 miles to Little Harbor. Along the way you’ll notice a VERY green patch of land, which is actually home to the Santa Catalina Island Vineyard. Don’t get too excited…they don’t offer tastings, but it is still a pretty unique sight to see. You’ll also notice some very nice buildings which comprise the El Rancho Escondido – the former working Arabian Horse Ranch owned by the Wrigley family (as in the founder of Wrigley’s gum). The family who owns the vineyard and winery is working to restore the ranch.
*Side Note: If you are hurting or the trail is proving to be harder than you thought it would be – you do have the option to take a shuttle from the airport to Little Harbor for $32 per person.
Once you start walking downhill, you’ll know you are getting close to Little Harbor which consists of two gorgeous tiny coves. If you have an extra day you should totally spend a night camping at Little Harbor — I 100% regret not spending the night here. Either way, Little Harbor is a great place for a lunch stop if you are on the 4 day itinerary. Apparently the snorkeling and fishing in this area are among the best on the island. At a minimum, you should strip off your boots and soak in the sand and water.
After leaving Little Harbor the hike to Two Harbors is no joke — it is a difficult vertical climb, but you’ll be rewarded with some of the best views of the entire trip. As you are approaching Two Harbors you’ll be able to stand on top of the ridge and literally see both sides of the ocean encompassing the western end of the island.
When you hit Two Harbors head to the cute little grocery store for some reward ice cream—its hand scooped! You’ll see the small pier that you’ll return to two days later when you are ready to board the Catalina Express back to the mainland.
Checking in for the Two Harbors campground can be completed at the little building attached to the pier. This is also where you will want to confirm your Parson’s Landing campsite and get your storage key for water/firewood. As a reminder, there is no running water at Parson’s so you need to make sure you reserve the appropriate number of keys for your group so you have enough water for the rest of the journey. Each locker comes with 1 bundle of wood and 2.5 gallons of water. One key is included with each reservation, and you can purchase more as needed.
Coin operated showers ($3) are available in Two Harbors if you feel you do need a bit of a clean-up! Oh and don’t stare too long at the gorgeous 1910 craftsman-style Banning House Lodge that offers impeccable lodging options. The bed and breakfast is perched on a hilltop above Two Harbors just to tempt you. On second thought, maybe a nice reward after you finish the trail in two days?
Day 3: Two Harbors to Parson’s Landing to Starlight Beach (15 miles)
Leaving Two Harbors you’ll walk around Cat Harbor which is separated from Two Harbors by a short half mile strip of land. From Cat Harbor you’ll start climbing up and up to more rewarding panoramic views. You’ll be able to spot Parson’s Landing from up high prior to beginning the 1,728 foot descent into Parson’s Landing.
There are only eight primitive beach front campsites at Parson’s so you are going to feel that you are at a private beach. We set up camp and enjoyed some water, sun and lunch.
From Parson’s, it is 5 more miles to Starlight beach. Since you’ve come this far, you really should go to the end—even if it is just for bragging rights! So after getting camp set up, we stowed our heavy packs and set off to Starlight Beach for a sunset dinner. There is no overnight camping at Starlight Beach, so don’t stay too late as it is 5 miles back to your campsite. Make sure to pack your headlamps for the walk back to camp just in case it gets dark.
Day 4: Parson’s Landing to Two Harbors (6.5 miles)
You’ve officially completed the Trans-Catalina trail! Nice job! Mission accomplished.
Hope you aren’t too tired because you do have to walk 6.5 miles back to Two Harbors to catch the ferry! Good news is you can actually take the main road back to create a loop versus traveling back along the route that brought you to Parson’s. The road follows the curves of the island in and out of several little coves. It is a flat walk along the water – a non-sweaty stretch to reflect on your journey and soak in some final island views. You’ll also pass all of the summer camps and private yacht clubs on the island.
Now, it is essential you arrive to Two Harbors with at least an hour buffer before your ferry boarding to enjoy some Buffalo’s Milk at the Harbor Reef Restaurant. Seriously, don’t miss this. And no, it doesn’t involve any by-products of a buffalo…but yes, it is alcoholic AND DELICIOUS. Grab a seat outside on the patio bar and let all the tension in your muscles melt away. We arrived just in time for HAPPY HOUR, which meant half-price drinks — HH is Sunday-Thursday from 3-5pm. If you are feeling you need some time in the actual water you can also camp another evening at Two Harbors and rent snorkel equipment or kayaks for the day.
Thanks Kim for putting together such a detailed post. If you have questions, let us know!