Tips for Backpacking the Trans-Catalina Trail in California

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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.

The Trans-Catalina Trail on Catalina Island

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.

Backpacking the Trans-Catalina Trail on Catalina Island

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.

Island Weather

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.

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Trans-Catalina Trail Campsite Reservations

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.

Trans-Catalina Trail Hiking Map

Campsites fees are per person and vary depending on the season. Catalina Island Campsite Reservation Fees

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.

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.

Gear

Backpacking Gear

First, check out Kristen’s post on her favorite lightweight backpacking gear.  I also recommend a wide-brimmed hat for sun protection, ample sunscreen, and chap stick.

 

Water

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.

 

Food

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.

A warm, filling, and protein packed backpacking meal

*** EXPLORE MORE OF SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA ***

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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 view of Avalon from the Trans-Catalina Island Trail 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!

Buffalo on Catalina Island

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.

Little Harbor Camping on Catalina Island

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.

Backpacking the Trans-Catalina Trail on Catalina 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.

Awesome beach camping at Parson's Landing on Catalina Island

Awesome beach camping at Parson's Landing on Catalina Island

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.

Gorgeous views at Starlight Beach on Catalina Island - the end of the Trans-Catalina Trail

Gorgeous views at Starlight Beach on Catalina Island - the end of the Trans-Catalina Trail

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.

Buffalo’s Milk - a delicious cocktail at the Harbor Reef Restaurant on Catalina Island

 

Thanks Kim for putting together such a detailed post. If you have questions, let us know!

HAVE YOU EVER CAMPED ON THE BEACH? LEAVE A COMMENT BELOW, TWEET ME, OR WRITE ME A POST ON FACEBOOK

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There are 37 comments on this post.

About the author

Kim is a former principal who quit her job to solo hike all 2,650 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. In other words…she’s a badass. She currently lives in Santa Barbara where she is practicing yoga, whipping up some tasty vegetarian food, and working as a guide leading kayaking, hiking, and biking. At Bearfoot Theory, she runs our editorial calendar, and helps us deliver top-notch goods. Follow Kim on Instagram.

37 Comments on “Tips for Backpacking the Trans-Catalina Trail in California

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  1. Having spent many of my summers lounging around on Catalina, the CTC has been on my bucket list for awhile. What a great write-up!

    Also happy to see you discovered Buffalo Milk – no trip to Two Harbors is complete without one (or two)!

      Thanks Megan! Kim did a great job with this and taking note of the details.

    Do you recommend hiking poles? I\’ve heard mixed feedback. Thanks!

      I like them when I’m backpacking. They help stabalize and distribute the weight and also help your knees on descents. For day hiking, I find them to be a nuisance unless the trail is really steep.

    Hi! This website/blog is so helpful!! I’m looking to hike the trans-catalina trail this summer with a friend. She and I are both in great shape. However, this is her first time backpacking, and I was wondering if there was any way to cut down the mileage for days 1 and 3 (the 15 mile days) and split it into two separate days? We don’t mind making the trip longer but I’d want to know if there were rules against pitching our tent off-trail somewhere. Thanks so much!

      You should call the rangers office to check, but I’m pretty sure they require that you camp in established campgrounds. This is also a good idea because I believe its the only place where there is water available. Have fun out there and come back and tell me about it!

    Thanks so much for all of the information. I hiked the trail last week for four days from Avalon to Starlight/Parsons. We lucked out with cloud cover most of the time, otherwise it would have been very hot. On the west side of the island, I ended up hiking the Silver Peak Trail all the way to starlight beach, then took the TCT trail back to Parson’s landing. The Silver Peak Trail cuts the miles down by one or two, you avoid the steep descent to Parsons, and you avoid doing 3.5 miles of the TCT twice. I missed about 2 miles of the actual TCT that descends to Parsons, but would highly recommend this approach as the scenery from the ridge was amazing.

    How did you handle the food and smellables when it was time to sleep? The last thing any backpacker would want is to have all their food stolen by cheeky small mammals and such.

      I believe there are lockers at each of the campsites. You can also store your food in a bear/critter resistant container.

    i just booked our campsites for October! I’m so excited, and now wondering if I should add in another night so we can enjoy the Harbor Reef or camp at Little Harbor!

    Follow up!

    Is it worth it do spend time in Avalon at all? I’m wondering how to fit that into the plan.

      I think it’s worth at least a couple of hours. There’s a campground not too far from town that you can stay if you don’t want to pay for a hotel

    Hello and thanks for the great post!

    For the first 15 mile day one hike from Avalon, if you hike from town from the mile 7 marker instead of mile 0, does that mean the hike to the black jack would only be 8 miles. Only asking because we probably won’t be able to say our hike till about 11 am realistically. We’re heading down from San Francisco and will have about 4 nights/4.5 days and want to get as much of the trail in as we can.

    Thanks so much and hope the PCT rocked!

    Thx so much for the info! I will be doing the entire trail and staying a night at Little Harbor as reccomended. I have 2 questions. 1. Do I pick up my firewood key for little horbor in Avalon? 2. The HARDEST part of booking this entire trip is finding isoprophel fuel for my stove?? I cant find anyone in Avalon that sells it. Im flying into LAX so I cant carry it on the plane. thx!!

      Could you get it from the REI not too far from the airport?

    Great post! Thanks for the info and beautiful pictures 🙂 I am considering doing this hike over Christmas/New Years, but cannot seem to find any precedent for it. In your opinion, would the campsites and trail provide a good time during December? Thanks!

      It might be cold at night and it could rain. But December can also be a very nice time in California.

      Khevin, from our trip there a few weeks ago I didn’t see any lockers at Little Harbor. They have a water spigot there and you can have your firewood delivered by a ranger and you can put that order in at Hermit Gulch in Avalon. Sometimes there is a resident ranger staying there and we actually got our firewood from him.

      The place where you check in for your locker is at Two Harbors for Parsons Landing. Happy and safe travels!

    Headed down in November and used this post for 95% of our info! Thanks so much!

    One thing I would add for budgeting purposes is that EACH site has a $9.50 service fee and at least for Thanksgiving week there’s a three day minimum at two harbors and the cabins and tent cabins all have “per person” fees making them almost $100 a night.

    We just got back! Thanks again for the guidelines for this trip!
    When we got to Two Harbors they refunded is the extra 2 nights they had required previously in the above comment. Originally when I called to reserve I mentioned I was hiking and they said it would still be a three night minimum but the awesome gentleman at the office refunded us for the two nights we weren’t planning to use. AWESOME!

    Also if you’re a beer person like me and take the San Pedro ferry hit up this beer garden on your way out of town.( just a few miles from the dock)
    http://www.latimes.com/food/dailydish/la-dd-brouwerij-west-brings-established-craft-brew-credentials-to-san-pedro-20140522-story.html

    My wife and I just got back as well! It was a FANTASTIC trip and we even got stuck in a thunderstorm on our 3rd day at Little Harbor! We got some absolutely gorgeous rain-washed views the next couple days!

    We’ll be doing a full write-up soon, but one word of WARNING, NO STORES IN AVALON SELL BUTANE fuel canisters, only propane. We were recommended to try the hardware store, but that closed at 6 pm. However, we completely lucked out in that the ranger at Hermit Gulch was 1. Incredibly nice and helpful, and 2. had butane canisters for sale. Thanks so much, Josh!

    The general store in Two Harbors sells butane, so you’re good to go if you’re starting from there. Suggestion: get your butane from the mainland. As long as it’s safely stored, it’ll be fine on the ferry. They don’t check your bags at all (shhh) Happy travels!

    L&M

    How did you keep your food safe from wild life? I\\\’m planning on hiking this for my first solo trip.

      Hello Caroline! I didn’t have a problem with wildlife at all since the island is fairly remote. I generally pack all of my food in one large ziploc bag. If you are concerned you could use a simple bear box or an Ursack bear bag.

    This is great info! Will be hiking this trail later this month and am getting all my research in! Quick question: Where were you able to buy the Catalina Trail patch?

    This has been very helpful. Thank you! My daughters, good friend and myself will be hiking this in June 2017. First backpacking trip with my girls.

      Heather, that is really awesome to hear! You are going to love the trip! Have a Buffalo Milk for me at the end. Congrats on your upcoming hike. -Kim

        We just got home last night. Hard hike but we finished. The info was awesome thanks!

    Hey! I am backpacking Catalina Island in a little less than a week, and I am so excited! Thanks for your post it was super helpful in planning… I have one logistical questions… did you park your car at the San Pedro Ferry Terminal parking lot for the duration of your trip? I am wondering how safe the parking lot it, and if I should plan to leave my car there, or figure out another way.

    Thanks so much!

      Hello Aimee, I did indeed park my car at the San Pedro Ferry Terminal and it was perfectly fine. I think there are so many people there everyday for day trips to Catalina that it was completely safe.

    I love this! Thank you. Im planning on the trail for thanksgiving break, is that a good time of year to go? Also, where did you get the trail patch?! Definitely need that when I complete the trail!

      Hello! Thanksgiving break is an awesome time to go! So exciting to hear you are spending your break outdoors exploring. I got the patch in Two Harbors at the little general store–I love it as well!

    Thanks for this awesome guide, it’s been my bible in planning my upcoming trip in late-October.
    Did you have any problems with bugs? No sure if we should waste the weight of repellent or not.

      Hi Carina, so great to hear the guide has been helpful! We’d love to hear post trip how your experience went. We did not have any problems with bugs at all. You could bring a really small container as a back-up just to be safe as island conditions can change based on numerous factors.

    Thank you for sharing your experience, this has been very helpful. I am doing the hike with my aunt in March 2018 – so excited! I’m curious to know what I can do to train for this considering the climate and elevation change from CO to CA. I’m hoping the dry Colorado air and higher elevation will help me train better for the trip, but I’m no expert. What are your thoughts?

      Hello! I think you are going to do great coming from Colorado. I’d find some short hikes with high elevation gain for training. Also, do you enjoy yoga at all? It is really helpful for strengthening your joints. Don’t forget to train a bit on some hikes with your backpack on and fully loaded, start with flat hikes then add elevation.

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