Trip Reports: Trans Catalina Trail, California - April 2013
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.