Trans Catalina Trail

Trans Catalina Trail, Catalina Island, California

Earlier this April, Claudia and I trekked the Trans Catalina Trail – a 45 mile hike across the entire length of Catalina Island, off the coast of southern California. Below are some photo highlights and a brief trip report of this interesting trek.

Avalon, Catalina Island, California, sunset

Avalon : Prints Available

Postcard view of the town of Avalon at sunset.

Catalina Island is only a one hour ferry ride away from Los Angeles, but it’s a world apart. Unlike the hectic, traffic-clogged city of millions, Avalon just oozes a relaxed vibe, kind of like the Californian equivalent of a quiet Mediterranean seaside town. We spent a relaxing evening here before getting an early start on the trek the next morning.

Trans Catalina Trail

The first day of hiking from Avalon to the Blackjack campground was a killer – 15 miles of ups and downs following the main ridge crest of the island. The entire trail, for that matter, is almost never flat – just constant up and down hiking! With a full pack and hot sun, those 15 miles pretty much whooped my butt!

Catalina Island, California, Blackjack, sunset, Pacific Ocean

Blackjack Sunset : Prints Available

Sunset over the Pacific Ocean, as seen from the top of Catalina Island near the Blackjack campground – April.

The Blackjack campground is located high on the island, right below the tallest mountain, Mt. Orizaba which is 2,103 feet above the ocean. Despite our tired legs and sore feet we walked a short ways over the hill to watch the sun set over the Pacific.

Lots more below the fold!

Bison on Catalina Island

No trip report from Catalina Island would be complete without mentioning the bison – yes you read that right, there are bison on the island! In the 1940’s a few bison were brought to the island as props for a western movie. When the filming was done, they just left the bison on the island and they ended up doing just fine there! Now there’s a big herd and almost every day we saw at least a few bison. This one wandered right past our tent through the Blackjack campground.

Little Harbor, Catalina Island, California

Overlooking the turquoise water of Little Harbor on the west side of Catalina Island – April.

The next day we hiked down to the west side of the island to camp at the Little Harbor campground. (We made sure to stop at the Airport in the Sky along the way for excellent bison burgers!) We were excited to camp by the beach, quite a novelty for us mountain dwellers.

Camping at Little Harbor, Catalina Island

Here’s our camp right next to the beach at Little Harbor. Unfortunately we quickly discovered a terrible nuisance here – the squirrels! While we were out for a 10 minute stroll on the beach, those nasty buggers actually tore a big hole through the side of our tent and chewed a bunch of holes in Claudia’s backpack! Although we had already hung our food up outside the tent, we think they were trying to get to the toothpaste in her backpack. The squirrels kept attempting attack at any chance they could get, so we actually had to take turns visiting the beach while one of us guarded the tent… kind of a bummer of a situation for such an otherwise idyllic camping spot.

Catalina Island

The stretch of trail between Little Harbor and Two Harbors is the most fantastic of the entire trip, in my opinion, with dramatic views the entire time as it winds along atop the high ridge line.

Isthmus Cove, Two Harbors, camping, Catalina Island, California

Camping along Isthmus Cove at Two Harbors.

Two Harbors is a tiny town located on an isthmus between the lovely turquoise Catalina Harbor and Isthmus Cove. We picked a spot at the campground right next to the ocean, went for a refreshing swim at the beach, then enjoyed a good dinner at the local restaurant. While sipping our “Buffalo Milk” cocktails in the restaurant I had to chuckle at the thought that we were still technically backpacking! Since we knew about the grocery store at Two Harbors, we were able to carry less food on the first stretch of the trek, and stock up again here. We also indulged in hot showers at the public pay showers here.

Hiking Catalina Island

The next day’s trail took us again up and over a high ridge, now on the northern/western end of the island. The further north we hiked, the more green the island became. Whereas the southern half of the island was quite dry and brown, the northern end was very green with larger trees and meadowy hillsides. It also became colder and wetter, with foggy, cloudy weather now.

Parsons Landing, Catalina Island, California, sunset, beach

The sun peaks out from under the clouds at sunset overlooking the beach at Parsons Landing – April.

Our next campground for two nights was at Parsons Landing, a remote, broad, and beautiful beach on the northern shore of the island. While all the other campgrounds we’d stayed at so far had water faucets, here at Parsons Landing the rangers drop off water jugs and firewood for the campers to use.

Starlight Beach, Catalina Island

Despite my aching feet and the misty/almost-rainy weather, we spent our “rest” day hiking to and from Starlight Beach, the western-most beach on the island and the endpoint of the official Trans Catalina Trail. Starlight Beach itself is not particularly enchanting, and honestly unless you’re hell bent on hiking the entire trail I’d say you could forget this section and just relax at Parsons Landing, or spend a day hiking up Silver Peak instead. But we had come so far already I figured we might as well finish the entire trail, so we did.

Parsons Landing, campfire, Catalina Island, California

Enjoying the warmth of our oceanside bonfire at Parsons Landing.

Emerald Bay, Catalina Island

Our final day of hiking took us along the coastal road back to Two Harbors. This day was notable for being the only flat hiking day so far – which was welcome – and also the road takes you past a number of beautiful bays and coves, like Emerald Bay above.

When I was a kid growing up in San Diego my family had a sailboat which we’d take to Catalina every summer for a couple weeks, anchoring in different bays up and down the island. Those were some of my fondest childhood memories, so it was really neat to come back here so many years later and see these places again with “grown-up” eyes. Though, I’ve got to say that although trekking was a fun way to explore the island, boating is definitely the way to do it in style!

happy trekkers

We did it! After 45 miles and despite squirrel invasions and a near-crippling blister, we’re finally back in Two Harbors where we enjoyed cold beers and lunch before catching the ferry back to the mainland.

Trans Catalina Trail map

Here’s the map of the island, showing the Trans Catalina Trail which we trekked from southeast to northwest over six days. (See the actual map here). I think most people tend to do the trek in a much shorter timeframe, but in our typical fashion we wanted to take more time to relax and enjoy the different campspots rather than brutalize ourselves with endless hiking the whole time.

If you’re interested in hiking this trail, you can find more info about it at SoCal Hiker.

I will also offer some general advise about the trek. There are two main ways to do the Trans Catalina Trail: the entire official route (just to say you did it), or the more logical, more relaxing version. If I ever do this trek again in the future, I’ll do the more logical, relaxing version. What this entails is shaving five (imo unnecessary) miles off the first day by taking the direct shortcut from Hermit Gulch near Avalon to the trail. This turns a brutal 15 mile first day into a more reasonable 9-10 mile day. Secondly, Starlight Beach at the north end of the trail is not really a great attraction, so don’t feel bad about skipping that section of trail either, which saves about 9 miles of hiking and possibly an extra day. Also, I would highly recommend hiking the trail from southeast to northwest, which in my opinion saves the better scenery for last.

17 thoughts on “Trans Catalina Trail

  1. Nice trip and photos. After a couple of trips recently that included brief excursions into civilisation I’ve found it quite enjoyable.

  2. Cool trip, Jack. I can honestly say I haven’t seen much from Catalina — it certainly appears to possess some amazing landscapes. Sounds like the only downer was the crazy squirrels.

    1. Thanks Paul, yes those squirrels were little bastards. I’ve never had them actually eat through a tent before! A slingshot would have been awesome for that campground. 😉

  3. I’ve been to Avalon several times with my sister’s family on their boat, and have eye’d this trail. I love how the landscape changes so much in such a small distance. Looks like you had a great trip!

  4. Hey jack this seems so awesome!! I really want to do it with a buddy of mine, but neither of us are experienced backpackers. I have done some pretty intense camping, but it is generally car camping. If I don’t have any backpacking gear would I still be able to make the trip if I wanted to take the easier route? Thanks

    1. Hi Sam, thanks for your comment. This is definitely a backpacking trek, so you’ll need to bring a backpack for all your clothes, camping gear, and food. If you just want to experience camping on Catalina without backpacking across it, you could take the ferry to Two Harbors and just walk over to the campground with your stuff. You could then take another ferry to Avalon to do the same there (or vice versa). Here’s a post about backpacking gear, if you’re interested: http://www.mountainphotographer.com/my-backpacking-gear/

    1. Thanks Sara! Unfortunately I do not remember the campsite number. When we were there in April, there was only one other group camping there, so we basically had our choice of campsites, so naturally we chose the one closest to the beach! Beware the killer squirrels! 😉

  5. The trans catalina trail was named for my brother in law who hiked it twice. The entire way in one day. Then the next time he sailed to the island he hiked it the other way in one day. His name was Thaddeus (Thad Jones).

    1. Thanks Ken. I think the only property that can be bought on the island would be around the only two towns of Avalon and Two Harbors. The rest is conservation land. Not sure where they get their water from…

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