Trail: Trans-Catalina Trail
Distance: 38 miles round-trip
Elevation Gain: 3,138 ft.
Location: Santa Catalina Island, CA
Permits: Hiking permits are required. Self-issued permits available here.
“One, and done, and never again,” I said as I completed the Trans-Catalina Trail 5-years ago. The year was 2016, and I had only gone backpacking a handful of times within the two years of discovering my passion for backpacking. I had been to Catalina Island a few times to celebrate my birthday, and always taking advantage of their once upon a time free birthday rides on the Catalina Express. It’s where I backpacked 14-miles one weekend on my very first ever solo backpacking trip. So, you can say that Catalina Island is pretty special to me.
I’ve returned to the island many times since hiking the Trans-Catalina trail, but I was never quite interested in repeating the entire trail all over again. It wasn’t that I had a horrible experience my first time, I just wasn’t quite prepared mentally and physically, for the hike, and even though we completed the trail- I just wasn’t interested in hiking it again. Years later, and with better knowledge as to carrying less weight, proper training, and having the proper gear- I wanted nothing more than to experience hiking across Catalina Island a second time.
As if you don’t already have to walk 32-miles to say you’ve officially hiked the Trans-Catalina trail; the planning and obtaining campsite reservations can nearly be just as difficult. Thankfully, the wilderness permit needed to hike the TCT is self-issued online, however, you must camp at a designated campsite each night you are on the trail. TIP: Reservations can be made up to 6 months in advance. Plan early as sites book fast!
When I heard back in February/March that the Catalina Express and Catalina Island would start to “open back up” post COVID, I hopped online and was very grateful to have found available reservations, as the availability would determine when we would hike the Trans-Catalina Trail. We lucked out with reservations in May, and to be honest, I was a little nervous. The TCT is very exposed and can get very hot. Sure, the island vibes always help, but that elevation is no joke!
I reached out to a friend whom I had been following on Instagram for several years, Heather @mermaidlovesmountains, with an invite to hike the Trans-Catalina Trail, as I knew she was quite interested. And although we had never met in person, I knew she would be the perfect hiking partner for this trip. We spent 4-days hiking across the island, and even though we got rained on most of our trip; I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Day 1: Avalon to Black Jack Campground
From Long Beach, CA the Catalina Express boat ride to Avalon is about an hour and 30 minutes, which was just enough time to formally introduce ourselves, as this was our first time meeting in person. Heather is great. She is an avid hiker/backpacker and loves the ocean. She sometimes goes by “Mermaid” and I was happy to bring Mermaid to my favorite island.
Our boat docked in Avalon around 8 AM, and after stopping to admire the many garibaldi fish close by, we hiked with our loaded packs through Avalon, as we headed to our trailhead just outside of Hermit Gulch campground. We had 10 miles to camp, and immediately our trail was climbing out of town. Luckily the weather was on our side, as it was pretty cloudy that morning. I was surprised to see lots of wildflowers still hanging out, but unfortunately no buffalo yet.
When we reached the top of the Hermit Gulch trail, we stopped for a quick break, chatted with a day hiker who was enjoying the island with his family, and quickly delayered our clothes since the sun was starting to burn away the clouds. It’s amazing to see how far we have already climbed in the short amount of time we have been on the trail. There are trail markers every mile, and I’ve decided to take a photo of all 38. This became a fun little game on the trail, and it made the miles go by fast, or at least that how it felt.
When we reached the first gate crossing, I was reminded of my TCT trek a few years ago, and I wanted to try and re-create some of my favorite photos. It wasn’t until just after mile 5 that we came across our first buffalo. It was Heather’s first time seeing one, and she seemed excited and nervous at the same time. While he was not on our trail, we were definitely not within 100 feet of him had we continued to stay on the trail; so, we waited and watched to see if he would move. He did not. So, we hiked a bit off-trail to avoid any contact, and we continued on our way. There was another backpacker who was alone; he thanked us for the buffalo warning, cause he had headphones on, and was not paying attention.
Around 5.5 miles, we reached the Haypress Reservoir where we stopped for lunch and a water break. There is a park, restrooms, and spigot water to refill your packs. It is also next to the Airport Rd. where the shuttle has daily tours, we saw a few pass by and the tourists seemed interested in our big packs and determination. Getting back on the trail after a short break is always a quick and easy way to recharge. Soon we were passing mile 7..and then we ran into our second buffalo on the trail somewhere along mile 7.5. This guy was directly on our trail, making it difficult to walk around. We literally had to bushwhack through cacti, and thick bush to avoid him.
We ran into a group of ladies on the trail who were also hiking the TCT. They seemed like a fun group of 3, and we eventually played leapfrog until we made it to BlackJack campground. Of course, not before running into another buffalo blocking our trail, I kid you not- right at camp. 10-miles later, we are tired, we made it, and we can’t get to camp without first figuring out a way to avoid this guy on the trail. Back and forth, back and forth, we scramble to find a way with the other ladies. When we arrived at camp, we parted ways with our friends and went to settle in for the night.
BlackJack campground is the only campground on the island that is not on the beach, has no ocean views, nada. It’s the only campground on the island that will make you forget that you are camping on an island, but it’s a necessary stay if you are hiking the TCT. There are bear boxes for the foxes, and critters; a table, firepit, and nearby pit restrooms as well. I don’t remember making dinner our first night, maybe we were just too tired. It was a long day after all, and with current fire restrictions, we were not able to have a campfire that night. I do remember it being a very early evening, and already crawling into my tent right after the sun had set.
The first day was over, and it wasn’t so bad. Day 2 would be much easier day, less mileage..oh, and burgers at the airport!
Day 2: BlackJack Campground to Little Harbors Campground
BlackJack is a cool place to stay, only if you are hiking the TCT. I was happy to leave, see the ocean once again (it had been several hours too long), and was eager to check out the menu at the Airport. The morning was cloudy and wet, we started slow, and then picked up the pace as we hiked out of BlackJack, down into this canyon, and up to the Airport in the Sky, where we would stop for brunch.
It was a little more than 2 miles to get to the airport from camp, and we had perfect timing. A little hungry from skipping out on dinner the previous night, we both ended up getting a buffalo burger and it was….delicious!! I skipped out on trying it last time, just didn’t feel right. Idk. I am so happy that I tried it though. There was a black cat roaming around, and he reminded me of my sisters cat back at home. When his owner came out looking for him, he told us how this cat walked to the airport from Avalon!! LOL. Crazy cat. I guess you can say we’re kind of crazy too.
We ordered a beer, then 3, and about an hour in a half later- we were back on the trail. It was a chill day, with only 6 miles down to Little Harbor campground. Only 6 miles I say..lol. It, for the most part, was all downhill. We ran into a big herd of buffalo just chilling past the airport, and was probably the most we had seen all at once.
Mile 13 was fun. We took pictures with our to-go beers and the trail marker sign, in remembrance of good times. Until we reached mile 17 with a huge incline that we were not prepared for. Got through it nonetheless, but don’t you hate when elevation just surprises you like that?! Every so often we come to a covered bench on the trail, where we would stop for a break, snack, water, quick smoke. Around mile 18, Mermaid’s hiking boots were starting to give her problems. So we took our time making our way to Little Harbors campground, where we had reservations for the night.
Little Harbor campground is my second favorite campground on Catalina Island. Right on the beach, complete with fire pits, restrooms, tables, and grills; it was awesome to finally be camping with an ocean view! Since we were right on the beach, we were also able to have a campfire that night! When making your reservation, you can purchase a bundle of firewood, and a 5-gallon water jug; and this will be delivered to your campsite the day you arrive! Talk about convenient!
Enjoyed a small dinner by the campfire, and as much as we tried to stay up, it was yet another early night. Too soon, I thought. This trip is coming to an end all too soon.
Day 3: Little Harbors Campground to Parson’s Landing Campground
Woke up in good spirits. I was most nervous for this day, as it would be our biggest climb, longest mileage..but it’ll all be worth it because in the middle of that sufferfest is a beautiful town called Two Harbors. And I was very much looking forward to a nice cold beer in Two Harbors. The morning was a bit dark and moody. Rain was forecasted today, but we didn’t think much of it.
We packed up, got back on the trail, and not even 10 minutes later it started to rain, and then it started to pour. It was time to take out our rain jackets and rain gear and continue on our wet and muddy way. Looking back, it was sort of a blessing; the weather we experienced. That climb is no joke. Had it been hot and sunny, we would have been irritated and miserable. Besides, hiking in the rain was nice since we were prepared for it.
After the rain had stopped, we delayered from our rain gear and came upon a spot where I wanted to set up a tripod for together photos. A few backpackers had passed us as we were setting up, then we ran into our girlfriends again, and stopped to chat with them for a while. They were kicking ass, and we were sad we didn’t get to see them at Little Harbor, they had a site over at Shark Harbor, but knew we would meet up with them in town.
After snapping never enough photos, it was time for the rollercoaster at mile 21. This part of the trail I remember was the steepest, as it climbs 500 ft in less than 1 mile, immediately drops 75 ft, climbs another 400 ft in a little more than half a mile, drops again, climbs some more…it’s a rollercoaster! Looking now at the elevation profile for that part, it isn’t as intense as the entire trail seems, but when your feet are physically climbing that incline, rather than just looking at it on a screen, it’s obviously very different.
But you know what? As with any difficult thing in life, I’ve learned to just believe that it’s going to be the most difficult thing I’ve ever experienced, and when it comes down it- sometimes it’s not so bad. Maybe having done this before, returning stronger, both mentally, physically- really helped me push right on through this section. Of course, the weather helped tremendously; the mud, not so much. The mud was thick, and every step we took just layered on more thick and heavy mud. It didn’t pour very long, but it didn’t stop raining until we got to Two Harbors. As a matter of fact, the sun came out as soon as we arrived at Two Harbors, almost like we just arrived on another island.
It was time for lunch, cold beer, and- since I had been ranting and raving about it since we got off the Catalina Express 3-days ago, it was time to enjoy a Buffalos Milk. I was excited for Mermaid to try it since she had never heard of it before. We had our drinks, ate some salad, met with our friends for a quick hello, and somehow lost track of time. We ended up spending 2-hours in town before getting back on the trail! Ooops. I forgot to mention that Mermaid has ditched her hiking boots since right before Little Harbors, and had been hiking in Teva sandals since! In the rain, with all that mud! What a trooper.
There are two routes to get to Parsons Landing, our last campsite of the trip. One way, the official Trans-Catalina trail, which is stupidly steep. even more stupid steeper than the rollercoaster; and a flat ass fire road that journeys you through bullshit coves that are stupid deep. It’s a love/hate relationship with this trail if you couldn’t already tell. We opted for the fire road since 1. the TCT was already entirely too muddy, Mermaid was in sandals, and 2. it was starting to get late and we still had 7 miles to get to camp. We picked up a bottle of wine for the journey “home” that evening, and night hiked to Parson’s Landing.
We arrived at Parson’s Landing at 8:45 PM that evening. Before reaching the campground, there are lockers and restrooms. The lockers hold your (reserved in advance) 5-gallon water jug, and a bundle of firewood. We noticed that there were apple cider packets left on our bundle, and I had automatically assumed it came with the firewood. “That’s a first”, I remember thinking. “They never left these behind.” Turns out it was our girlfriends whom we had met on Day 1! We had lost track of time in town, and arrived so late to camp, everyone at camp already seemed to be sleeping or away in their tents.
Happy to finally be at my favorite campground on Catalina Island, it was our official last night on the TCT. We had beautiful weather the entire time on Two Harbors, making it difficult to leave the next day. After setting up camp, starting a fire, we opened the bottle of wine and celebrated our last night. Of course, we were probably in our tents by 9:30 PM.
Day 4: Parson’s Landing Campground to Two Harbors
You know it’s going to be a good day when you wake up on the beach. Unfortunately, it was our last day on Catalina Island, and we had to hike only 7 miles back to Two Harbors before our boat leaves around 5 PM that evening. It was a slow morning for us both. Mermaid was chatting with our neighbors that morning, and apparently, our girlfriends were looking for us the night before. They understood that we lost track of time in town. but it would have been really cool to all hang out at the end of the trail…not to mention a kickass campground like Parsons Landing.
I don’t remember sleeping in too late that morning, but we were one of two sites left. It seemed like everyone packed up and got an early start on the trail. We took our time. Being our last day, we wanted to soak in the last of our time there. We walked on the beach a little that morning, then a quick outfit change for us both, and took always never enough photos.
After packing up it was time to say good-bye to Parsons Landing, and get a start on our journey back to town. It was just decided that we were going to hike the fireroad out, as I couldn’t imagine all that mud drying up overnight. So, 7 flat-ish miles through bullshit coves it was. Now, I feel the need to explain my reasoning behind the name-calling of these coves. It’s silly. but if you have ever hiked this fire road, then you’ll understand. I forget how many there are, some larger than the others, but the very large ones- usually the camps, or boat camps, go so deep it’s ridicolous. I’m just being a big brat here, but it would make sense to build a bridge to easily connect them. Truth is- these camps seem pretty dope though. And there are many. I imagine them to be summer camps for kids.
Mermaid pulled out the wine on our last mile, and I had a silly idea to turn back around. I didn’t want to get off trail. We arrived in Two Harbors around 2:30pm with plenty time to eat, celebrate with Buffalos Milk, oh- and shop and the gift shop! lol. We had pizza, and salad, and even got job offers to come work on Catalina Island!
As our boat left Two Harbors that evening, Mermaid noticed a small boat with 3 dinosaurs floating across the harbor! It was halirious, and the perfect ending to our Trans-Catalina journey. We logged 40 miles in 4 days, as we backpacked across Catalina Island, and you know what? I said I wouldn’t come back to hike the TCT years ago, and now after completing it once again…an annual thru-hike doesn’t sound so bad!