Backpacking the Trans Catalina Trail

The Trans Catalina Trail is easily one of the best hikes Southern California has to offer. Located just an hour by boat off the coast, Catalina Island is almost completely undeveloped and feels like it exists in different time and a world away. Choosing this 38.5 mile trek that requires 7 additional miles back to the nearest port as my introduction to backpacking may not have been the wisest decision, but I wanted a challenge and I regret nothing!

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That being said, the TCT is no joke and should be prepared for with plenty of research and training. Whether tackled in its entirety or enjoyed in smaller sections it has something to offer hikers of all levels whose efforts will be more than rewarded.

This behemoth of a trail winds across the entire island from Avalon at the east end to its terminus at Starlight Beach on the west end. Although 45.5 miles may not sound challenging to some the entire stretch was built without any switchbacks. Anyone planning to tackle it should become familiar with the elevation profile portion of the map and know that it requires walking straight up and straight down each and every foot of gain/loss.

Getting to the Island

The trip starts with a boat ride on the Catalina Express out of one of three ports; San Pedro, Long Beach, or Dana Point. Round trip tickets run about $70. You can chose to arrive at Avalon or Two Harbors and hike the trail in either direction. However, only San Pedro services Two Harbors and I highly recommend starting at Avalon not only for safety but also to save the more scenic spots for last. The motivation to get to the more secluded areas was a big factor in keeping my friend Mel and me going.

Once in Avalon we made the mistake of waiting for the cafes to open and having breakfast. Avalon has a lot to offer but we planned to tackle 15 miles our first day. In our inexperience we did not consider how much the elevation gain and our heavy packs would slow us down. So, after a hardy breakfast we stopped at the Hotel Atwater (120 Sumner Ave) to confirm our campsite reservations and purchase firewood to have delivered to the various sites throughout the trip (both could have been done beforehand online.) Then we made another quick stop at the Catalina Conservancy Office (opens 830am) for a map, being sure to get the Trans-Catalina map.

Finally it was time to commence with leg one of our endeavor;

Avalon to Black Jack Campground (15 miles)

Considering how time was getting away from us I had the brilliant idea to take the Hermit Gulch Trail shortcut and bypass the first 6.5 miles of the TCT. Again my naiveté was showing and I didn’t consider that taking the shortcut meant climbing straight up. Mel may never forgive me because the steep incline gave her instant blisters and even though it was October the temperature quickly rose to over 90 degrees. The TCT offers virtually no shade so we were forced to cower on the side of the trail frequently to hydrate and fight fatigue.

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As we struggled on we waged a losing battle with the sinking sun stopping only briefly to refill our hydration systems at the playground in the middle of nowhere. Soon after, Mel lost her will to live and I had to drag her onward to avoid being stuck on the trail overnight. By the grace of God, just as we busted out our flashlights campfires appeared in the distance. Sighing with relief we limped into camp, cooked a quick dehydrated meal in a bag, pitched our tent, and crawled in to rest our weary bodies.

Leg 2: Black Jack to Little Harbor (7.15 miles)

Noisy neighbors roused us at the crack of dawn and we moved slow enjoying tea with our breakfast. As we sat sipping a large buffalo nonchalantly sauntered into camp. He spent about 45 minutes scratching himself on a post near the bathrooms making a great photo op for anyone with better equipment than my iPhone. Well fed and comforted by the fact that we had a low mile day with a restaurant 2.25 miles in we set out. Instantly our overloaded packs dug deep into our aching shoulders. I started mentally eliminating things I didn’t need and resolved to ditch all unnecessary items as soon as possible. Lost in the fantasy of a lighter bag I somehow lost the trail as well. Walking along a service road instead we flagged down a passing car and discovered we just added an extra two miles between us and The Airport in the Sky where we planned to stop for lunch. Our mantra became, “beers, beers, beers!” With each passing step, the sun beat down more intensely and a cold beer sounded more like heaven. By the time we made it into the shelter of the building it was 97 degrees outside. A couple cold beers with our bison tacos were bliss.

After The Airport in the Sky the TCT slopes downhill and doesn’t stop until it meets the ocean at Little Harbor. Thankfully, we didn’t plan on skipping this campground like most hikers do. We dropped our packs and ran into the ocean fully clothed. We spent a few hours splashing like children and letting the cold winter water soothe and restore our sore muscles.

The other campsites at Little Harbor were uninhabited and we had what turned out to be our favorite night of the trip enjoying solitude and the breathtaking beauty of the sheltered cove. Our firewood was delivered right to us and we soaked in a fire’s warmth while Mel got lost in the expansive starry skies. If I were to do this trip over I would definitely book an extra night at Little Harbor.

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Mel and I awoke refreshed and renewed. Swimming in the cold ocean water and earthing in our stocking feet around the campfire healed Mel’s blisters and reduced our muscle soreness more than we ever thought possible. I was skeptical about earthing but I am a converted believer and will never backpack again without removing my boots and placing my bare feet on the ground as much as possible. After taking inventory we eliminated several unnecessary items from both our packs leaving them in a donation bag at the campground entrance. We left Little Harbor feeling brand new.

Leg 3: Little Harbor to Two Harbors (5.6 miles)

Hiking the 5.6 miles between harbors we felt a noticeable difference in our own strength. Our bodies were finally adapting to the trail. Thanks to our new understanding and respect for the daunting elevation gain of 3,525 feet we both had to mentally prepare ourselves for this leg of the journey. It should be noted that due to trail erosion and steepness this portion of the TCT is incredibly dangerous. Consider trekking poles a requirement. The risk and effort are well rewarded however because at the height of this section of the TCT there is a place to rest for lunch with the most breathtaking view of the entire trip. On a clear day, you can see the entire island end to end surrounded by deep blue waters.

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Hiking the descent was gruelingly rough on the knees but we limped into the tiny town at Two Harbors with plenty of time to get hand dipped ice cream, groceries, and beers at the only restaurant/bar before setting up camp.

Leg 4: Two Harbors to Parson’s Landing (6.57 miles)

The town of Two Harbors offers coin operated showers open 24-7 so I woke early to take full advantage. After a blissfully hot shower and a cup of fresh brewed coffee from the local coffee shop I took the short trail from town back to the campground. Unfortunately, my knees were still in tremendous pain from the incessant downhill hiking the day before. I was walking with a serious limp and grew increasingly concerned about my ability to tackle the 1728 ft. of elevation gain/loss between us and our last campsite at Parsons Landing. After brief discussion with my companion we decided to charter a small boat from Two Harbors to a boy scout camp that sits as close to Parson’s Landing as boats can safely get. Yes, we totally cheated. We trudged through the camp as new campers arrived and were sorted into their cabins.

One magnificently level mile or so later we found ourselves overlooking Parson’s Landing in all of its splendidly secluded glory. Many people don’t venture to this campground because it requires backtracking to Two Harbors to catch the boat off the island. Counting on it being less crowded and one of the most beautiful spots we reserved a two-night stay. Turned out we scored the most coveted campsite. It was situated off by itself in a cove that sheltered us from a majority of the cold winds. It was like having our own private beach.

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We spent the rest of our almost no mile day recovering in camp. The locals had mentioned that amethyst can be found on the beach so we wandered around leisurely trying our luck. Upon returning to camp we learned another hard lesson. During the whole trip, we had been diligent about storing all our food and scented items in Odor Barrier Storage Bags. The bags had been very effective in preventing encounters with food snatching critters. However, they were not at all effective against the birds perched on the cliffs above our campsite who were poised waiting for an opportunity to swoop in on anything left unattended. They got into everything! They even poked holes in the arrowhead water jug we left out on the table. Luckily since we had booked two nights we had also purchased two lockers of firewood and water. Thankfully we had left the second night’s supplies locked safely in a locker and were able to ration our water supply out over the three day stay.

After relaxing in camp and keeping those bloody backpacks off our shoulders for nearly 24 hours Mel and I felt restored enough to tackle a day hike to the TCT’s terminus at Starlight Beach.

Leg 5: Parson’s Landing to Starlight Beach and back (9.24 miles round trip)

The elevation change is listed as a mere 667ft between the two spots but it sure felt like a lot more. Even with only a light day pack I was clinging to my trekking poles and both knees where screaming in pain. The uphill portions seemed endless and the downhill sections were not any easier on the legs. In the end, it was worth it though. Starlight beach is heavily eroded and rapidly disappearing. Not much of the beach is left to enjoy but there is a section of sand on the cliff above complete with a fire pit and makeshift bench made out of a salvaged boat hull. We were the only ones on that beach for the entire day. It felt as though we were the only two people on the entire west end of the island. I’m so glad we got to experience it before is erodes completely and gets closed due to safety precautions.

After returning to camp and spending one last blissful night around the fire, under the stars, in our private cove we packed up early and headed out. Even though our supplies had dwindled and our packs were much lighter our pace had become absurdly slow. Between my ever-increasing limp and Mel’s blisters on top of blisters we feared we might miss our boat back to the main land. I’d read that the main road back to Two Harbors from Parson’s Landing not only hugged the coast providing spectacular ocean views, but was also very flat with intermittent shade. We chose the level route instead of returning via the TCT and were grateful for the ocean breezes and easy walk. A ranger stopped along his drive to check on us undoubtedly concerned by my conspicuous limp. I assured him I could continue and as he chatted with us we reflected on just how much the Trans Catalina Trail had not only blessed us but taught us as well. The entire trip was a once in a lifetime experience that ushered us into the world of backpacking for the very first time. No matter how many more trips I undertake and no matter how much more those adventures may have to offer the TCT will always have a special place in my heart. A girl never forgets her first love.

Update: As of 2017 the trailhead and terminus have been rerouted. There is now a trailhead building in Avalon and the official TCT now takes the Hermit Gultch trail instead of the East End Road. Starlight Beach is no longer part of the official route and several amenities like bathrooms were added throughout the trail as well as food storage boxes at each campsite in all campgrounds except for Two Harbors. The new TCT is 38.5 miles long with a total elevation gain of 17,230 feet.

Enjoy this story? See more trail tales:

Hiking Havasupai: A Day at the Bottom of the Grand Canyon

Road Trip To Jedediah Smith Redwoods

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5 thoughts on “Backpacking the Trans Catalina Trail

  1. In checking out regulations for getting over to the island via Catalina Express they state no propane/butane allowed on boats. Were you able to get fuel for your stoves over there on the island or how did you deal with that? Thanks, Bill

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  2. I just took mine on the boat. They didn’t ask and I didn’t tell. But if you arent comfortable with that this is what I found on the island;

    Avalon – Vons Express (120 Catalina Ave.) has stove gas and green propane canisters. I could not locate jetboil fuel in Avalon. The other Vons Express at 123 Metropole Ave. does not carry any type of fuel. 

    Two Harbors – The Two Harbors General Store has stove gas, propane canisters, and jetboil fuel in stock.

    Hope this helps and you have an epic time on the trail.

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