BACKPACKING THE TRANS-CATALINA TRAIL IN CALIFORNIA
Located about 60 minutes off the coast of San Pedro, California, Catalina Island is an inhabited island that offers amazing kelp forest diving, wildlife, and turns out…some pretty epic camping and hiking along the Trans-Catalina Trail.
A couple of years ago, former BFT writer Kim Vawter, spent 5 days backpacking the Trans-Catalina Trail, a 40 mile trail that traverses the entire island and shared her trail guide here on the blog. Since then I’ve been dreaming of following in her footsteps, and I finally made the trip in November 2019. I found amazing beach front camping, some challenging climbs, non-stop views, solitude (in November), and we also enjoyed a couple of restaurants along the way. It was a fantastic trip that I’d highly recommend for anyone who is looking for outdoor adventure in Southern California
In this Trans-Catalina Trail Guide, we share all the logistics for planning a backpacking trip on the Trans-Catalina Island Trail.
As it goes in all of the destinations we share, please practice good trail etiquette and remember to Leave No Trace. This means packing out all of your garbage, being respectful to others on busy trails, and following the established rules.
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 via the Catalina Express.
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 8,600 feet in elevation gain/loss. There is also a lot of sun exposure and no shade along the trail, meaning it can get very hot in peak summer months.
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. There are also some alternative route options you can take if you want to avoid some of the elevation gain and loss.
The one-way trail can be traveled in either direction, but I recommend starting in the town of Avalon and ending your hike at Parson’s Landing (returning on the ferry via Two Harbors). In this direction, the views and solitude only improve as you hike.
- Total Distance: 38.5 miles
- Total Elevation Gain Loss: +/-8,615 feet
- Difficulty: Challenging
- Dogs Allowed: Yes (except for Two Harbors Campground)
- Advanced Reservations Required: Yes (see the next section)
- Number of Recommended Nights: 4 nights / 5 days (minimum)
- Cell Service: Sporadic
One thing to keep in mind is this is not a traditional wilderness backpacking trip. Some of the hike is right on the road where you will encounter the occasional vehicle. Also, at the Aiport, you’ll find a restaurant with tasty bison burgers and in Two Harbors, they have a full-blown generals store, restaurant, and bar.
Catalina Island Weather
Catalina Island typically sees more than 260 days of sun per year. So when is the best time to backpack the Trans-Catalina Trail?
My recommendation is to hike September through early November for the most comfortable temperatures and highest liklihood for sun. The only downside of the fall months is the landscape is very brown.
With a lack of shade on the trail, the summer months can be very hot and dry. There is no water available between campgrounds on a majority of the trail, and the trail can feel much hotter than the temperature might indicate.
Most of the rainfall on Catalina Island occurs between December and March, and when it rains in California, it can pour. These months are the riskiest for weather, but then again, you could luck out. Spring is a beautifully vibrant time to hike with green hillsides and a trail full of wildflowers.
You may have heard the saying “May Gray, June Gloom” for California. During these months, there’s a good chance Catalina will be engulfed in fog. Hiking temperatures will be comfortable, but you may not get the sunny California views you are hoping for.
Trans-Catalina Trail Itinerary and Campground 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 delay 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 (which I’ve linked to below), it requires a separate reservation for each night.
You can also reserve all of your 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.
Trans-Catalina Trail Itinerary
Here is the most common Trans-Catalina Trail itinerary:
- Day 1: Avalon to Black Jack Campground (10.7 miles)
- Day 2: Black Jack to Little Harbor Campground (consider neighboring Shark Harbor for more solitude) (8.2 miles)
- Day 3: Little Harbor to Two Harbors Campground (5.3 miles)
- Day 4: Two Harbors to Parson’s Landing campground via the TCT (6.6 miles)
- Day 5: Parson’s Landing to Two Harbors via the road and Lion’s Head (7.7 miles)
Down below in the trip report, I include specific campsite recommendations and other important info for each campground.
Campsites fees are per person and vary depending on the season.
If you are on a time crunch….
If you want to experience the Trans-Catalina Trail but don’t have time to do the whole thing, here is my recommendation… Take the ferry directly to Two Harbors. From here, you can either hike to the 5 mile stretch from Two Harbors to Little Harbor and back. We all agreed this was the most scenic section of trail, and Little Harbor is also rated “One of the Best Campgrounds in the West” by Sunset Magazine. This would be a simple 1-2 night getaway.
Another option would be to take the ferry directly to Two Harbors and hike to Parson’s Landing. This was my favorite campground of the trip and would make a great basecamp for a couple of nights, with a day hike to Starlight Beach.
Trans-Catalina Hiking Permits
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.
Trans-Catalina Trail Map
When you arrive to Catalina Island, I highly recommend stopping in the Catalina Island Conservancy shop where you can purchase a detailed Trans-Catalina Island Trail map for $3. While most of the trail was well marked, there were a few areas where we got confused on the route, so having a hard copy of the map absolutely came in handy. The map also indicates the location of water sources, bathrooms, food, and other amenities along the trail.
Leave No Trace on the Catalina Trail
Before we share the trail guide, there are a few important considerations in addition to your typical Leave No Trace recommendations:
- There is wildlife all over Catalina Island, including the island fox, bison, and some fairly agressive ravens. Never leave your food unattended. Most of the campsites have fox boxes (the same as bear bins) where you can safely store your food and water.
- The bison are dangerous! Don’t approach them for photos or any other reason. They can run 35 mph and are fully capable of taking you down. They are on the trail and in the campgrounds, so stay alert and keep an eye out for any aggressive behavior.
- There are bathrooms. Please use them! And if nature calls when you are not near a bathroom, please follow Leave No Trace guidelines and pack out your toilet paper.
Getting to Catalina Island on the Catalina Express
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 San Pedro is the most logical ferry terminal to travel in and out of.
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.
Another option is a 15-minute helicopter ride from Long Beach to Avalon which runs up to $150 per person per way, depending on the day of week.
Trans-Catalina Island Backpacking Trip Report
Day 1: Avalon to Black Jack campground (10.7 miles)
- Potable Water Availability: In Avalon and at Black Jack Campground
- Best Campsite at Black Jack: #1 (most secluded)
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 6:6:15 and San Pedro at 9:00am, and it’s roughly an hour ride to Avalon. Remember, you have a 11-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. You can also camp for a night in the Hermit Gulch Campground which is just a short walk from Avalon.
Once you get to Avalon, your first stop is 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. You can also get your permit here.
Next, make sure to fill up your water in town at one of several spigots.
We took our time and grabbed breakfast, which means we got a late start on the trail. To shave off a little bit of mileage, we hiked up above Avalon along Stage Road and met up with the Trans-Catalina Trail near Haypress Reservoir. It was a steep ascent along a fairly well-traveled road. Once we finally connected with the trail, it was up-down-up-down-up.
This part of the trail is the longest stretch you’ll go without seeing the ocean and is very hot and dry. You’ll want trekking poles, sun protection, and plenty of water.
We arrived at our campsite (Black Jack #1) right at sundown after 5 straight hours of hiking.
At the time of our visit, no campfires were allowed due to severe drought conditions. However, at other times of the year, you can pay for a locker full of firewood before you leave Avalon.
Black Jack Campground Map
Day 2: Black Jack to Two Harbors (8.2 miles)
- Potable Water Availability: At Black Jack, the Airport, and Little Harbor
- Best Campsite at Little Harbor: LH12, SH 8, SH 9, SH 10
- For Firewood at Two Harbors: Call 310-510-8363 the day before your arrival and place an order. It’s $10 per small bundle.
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. The DC-3 Grill (in the airport) opens at 8:30am and is open year round for delicious breakfast burritos, bison burgers, fresh baked cookies and more.
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 Wildlands Express 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 – Shark Harbor and Little Harbor – your home for night two. We had campsite LH10, which was right on the beach. The best site, in my opinion, was LH12, which was beachfront and had more privacy. For maximum solitude, snag one of the spots at next door Shark Harbor – SH 8, SH 9, or SH 10. I’m not sure what the water situation was over there, so you may want to bring a large reservoir so you can carry it back to your campsite.
Little Harbor / Shark Harbor Campground Map
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. This is also the last place you’ll have a sunset view on the TCT, since it’s the last campsite that faces west.
Day 3: Little Harbor to Two Harbors Campground (5.3 miles)
- Potable Water Availability: At Little Harbor Campground/ at Two Harbors Campground, you can purchase a 2.5 gallon jug from the ranger (we were told the tap water here is mineral-rich and doesn’t taste good)
- Best Campsite at Two Harbors: 11, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
- For Firewood at Two Harbors: Purchase when you check in at the Two Harbors Visitors Center
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. We also encountered a large herd of bison up on this ridge.
When you hit Two Harbors head to the cute little grocery store for a reward treat. Whether that’s hand scooped ice cream or a buzz pop (a boozy popsicle), you’ll have plenty of time to take a break here and even grab lunch if you want. 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.
IMPORTANT: This is also where you will want to confirm your Parson’s Landing campsite and get your Parson’s 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 for $20 each.
We had Site #11 at Two Harbors, which had a fantastic view and felt fairly private. It was a small site however with only enough flat space for 1 small tent.
Coin operated showers ($3) are available in Two Harbors if you feel you do need a bit of a clean-up!
Site 11 at Two Harbors Campground
Sites 1-4 at Two Harbors Campground
Campground Map for Two Harbors
Day 4: Two Harbors to Parson’s Landing campground via the TCT (6.6 miles)
- Potable Water Availability: For Parson’s Landing, you’ll need to purchase a locker key at Two Harbors before you start the hike which comes with 2.5 gallons of water and 1 small bundle of firewood
- Best Campsite at Parson’s Landing: 1, 2, 8
Leaving Two Harbors, you have two different options. The first is to hike through Cat Harbor and continue up and over the steep Silver Peak Trail, which is the official TCT route. On this route, you’ll gain 1800 feet of elevation in 3 miles and then drop right back down to sea level where you’ll reach Parson’s Landing.
The other option is to take the cruisy route – 8 miles along a dirt road that hugs the coastline the entire way. This is the route we chose in both directions. It felt a little like cheating, but it meant we had more time to relax and enjoy our amazing campsite at Parson’s Landing. Plus, we heard the descent from the high route was a killer on the knees.
We hiked the road on a Thursday and only encountered a couple of cars. Along the way, you’ll pass a few children’s camps, but otherwise, it was pretty quiet in November with non-stop views.
Emerald Bay on Catalina Island
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 got lucky with site 1 which had the most protection from the wind and was very private. It was also the shadiest, which is good or bad, depending on the time of year and how much sun you want.
Parson’s Landing Campground Site 1
Parson’s Landing Sites 4-8
Optional Hike to Starlight Beach
From Parson’s, it is 5 more miles to Starlight beach – 10 miles roundtrip. If you’re into bragging rights and you have the energy, you can continue on to the very far end of Catalina. We didn’t do this, but Kim (who wrote the original version of this trail guide) did. We talked to a couple of other folks on the trail who made it to Starlight and said it was nice, but they weren’t sure it was worth the extra 10 miles. If you do decide to go, make sure you store all of your food and water in your fox box at Parsons before you go and take a headlamp. I’d also only recommend this in the summer months, when the days are longer.
Day 5: Parson’s Landing to Two Harbors via the road and Lion’s Head (7.7 miles)
You’ve officially completed the Trans-Catalina Trail! Congratulations. Now you just have to hike the 7.7 miles back to Two Harbors to catch your ferry. Make sure you time your trip right as the ferry doesn’t run 7 days a week from Two Harbors. I’d recommend getting a late afternoon ferry, so you can have a nice chill morning at Parson’s.
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. 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.
Trans-Catalina Backpacking Gear
Start with this 3-day backpacking checklist. I’ll also recommend some specific pieces of gear that will be helpful on your TCT hike. With the fox boxes at the campsites, you don’t need a bear canister.
- Trekking poles (these ones are a steal!) will help protect your knees on the steep climbs and descents
- Wide-brimmed hat for sun protection
- Reef-friendly sunscreen
- Lightweight long-sleeved shirt for more sun protection
- 3-liter water reservoir
- Swimsuit (if you want to swim)
Note that in November, evenings were very cold. I was happy to have a beanie, long pants, and a warm jacket for the evenings.
Check out our “Gear Archives” for more suggestions.
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 and it’s expensive, so you’ll want to bring most of what you plan on eating with you. Check out this post on Simple Backpacking Food Ideas for my favorite easy trail meals.
New to backpacking? Check out our guide to packing a backpack for a multi-day trip.
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