Backpacking the Trans Catalina Trail

trans catalina thru hike trip report

Overall Trip Summary:

As far as mile per view goes, backpacking the Trans Catalina trail is hard to beat for the amount of effort and miles you need to put in for the grand, sweeping ridge views! Although this thru hike has low mileage and a non technical trail, don't let the mile markers fool you into thinking this is a simple backpacking trip along a fire road. You'll climb up to the ridge, down to the ocean, and back up to the ridge, pretty much every single day. While this trip can be condensed into a two or three nighter, to enjoy the beauty of the island and the uniqueness of this trek, I definitely suggest taking all 5 days and enjoying a slow paced trip.

  • Easy, yet excellent backpacking trip for the winter season as the mileage between campsites is low enough to accomplish in limited winter daylight hours.
  • Great trip for a gear shakeout if you're testing out new gear or simply looking to see what items you can go without.
  • Forgiving intro to backpacking as there’s a lot of trail support or low stress, minimal planning trip for experienced backpackers.

Pros:

 Cons:

  • Stunning ridge views for the elevation gain
  • No dispersed camping allowed / Advanced campsite registration
  • Unique feature of hiking between towns
  • Dogs not allowed to thru hike
  • Doesn’t require water scavenging or caching
  • Low mileage between way points
  • Bear boxes and fire pits at each campsite
  • Not a backcountry or wilderness feel
  • Camping along the ocean with killer sunset views
  • Expensive ($$$)
  • Bison viewings
  • High tourism

    Planning Your Trip:

    trans catalina trail elevation map

    Our Approximate Hiking Details:

    The below is "book miles"; we added on more mileage each day with little side trip explorations.

    • Total days: 5 days, 4 nights
    • Total Trans Catalina Trail miles: 38.5
      • Day 1: 10.7 miles
      • Day 2: 8.2 miles
      • Day 3: 5.3 miles
      • Day 4: 6.6 miles
      • Day 5: 7.7 miles

    Trip Report!

    Enjoy our write up of our Trans Catalina thru hike. 

    Day Zero:

    Car packed, backpacks loaded, and tank full of gas – our new years eve backpacking trip officially started as we flew down Highway 5 from San Francisco to LA. Although I’ve lived in the Bay Area for several years, Californian winters amaze me! I may have moved, but I’m still a New England girl at heart, and while the sun warmed my face and a light breeze tickled my bare shoulders (tank top! December!), I couldn’t shake the simultaneous weird yet oh so cool giddiness of backpacking in December/January!

    Parking

    Since I had booked the Catalina Flyer out of Newport Beach at 9am the next morning, we headed directly to our motel. The only item I had not sorted was where to leave the car while we backpacked around Catalina, and, as I chatted with the motel receptionist, I inquired if I could park my car in the corner for a few days and scored a free parking pass. Who says there’s no free parking in Southern California!

    With that taken care of, the only thing that remained was turning in for the evening and setting a morning alarm. Trails, here we come!  

     

    Day One:

    Ferry Ride to Avalon:

    With the car situation already sorted, we debated about walking to the ferry terminal but ultimately decided to take an uber (~5 minute drive) to catch our 9:00am ferry. The line wasn’t long, and we queued up at around 8:45am. Blessedly, the ferry ride over was quick and smooth; I didn’t have to pop a single ginger pill! We had three other backpackers on the ferry with us, and we crossed paths with them each day along the trek.

    Avalon:

    I’m not much of a planner and I had done very, very little research on Catalina. I’ll admit, Avalon was not what I expected. From my previous backpacking trips where the trail starts at the foothills of a town, I had pictured Avalon to be similar to trail towns with a mountain lodge vibe, and I think my jaw literally hit the floor in shock when we stepped off the ferry and I looked around. If you’ve been to Avalon, then you know it very much does NOT have a mountain town feel!

    We wandered around Avalon for an hour grabbing a quick breakfast and a coffee, and generally spend the entire time bumping into people with our big packs and feeling out of place. I was quickly coming to terms that while Avalon was nestled on the shore and between beautiful mountains, not many were there to backpack or hit the trails. 

    backpacker getting ready for the trails

    My "muddy" self, pre-trail

    As we were topping up our water bladders at an outdoor fountain, a man came up to me and inquired where I had been to have gotten so muddy! I looked down at my freshly laundered trail pants and then back up to him and said, “But I haven’t been on the trails yet!” We both laughed, and he apologized (profusely.) It was definitely time to get out of Avalon and onto the trail!

    Hiking from Avalon to Black Jack Campground:

    To properly get onto the trail, you need to first hike through the town, next to the golf course, and then to Hermit Gulch campsite. This is when the trail really begins, and you’ll start to switchback up on single track until you hit the ridge and a lookout location.  We bumped into the three guys from the ferry at the lookout. We passed them just as they began a friendly quarrel of whom would get the 7th slice of spam and thus their trail name was christened: Spamelot. We left them to their provisions and took to the fire road to continue along the ridge.

    freeze dried food for backpacking the trans catalina trail

    It's not official until you find a trail sign!
    We didn’t see anyone else until we were almost at Black Jack; on the last stretch uphill, we passed a solo hiker going in the same direction and for the next few days we would leapfrog each other as he would tend to get up earlier than us, but we had a slightly faster hiking pace. And thus we met Buddy, the second of our little tramily.

    Croaking frogs chorused our passage up into the campsite and we had just enough remaining daylight to make camp and a quick dinner before laying out with some hot tea to star gaze.

    last climb to black jack

    Last section before Black Jack

    The wind forced us into the tent early; I have never experienced wind like that before and several moments during the night we joked that we were in a Wizard of Oz tornado and might be blown away. This is why I always bring ear plugs on trips – as a light, restless sleeper 10 out of 10 chances I would not have been able to sleep through the gales!

    rehydrating backpacking freeze dried food on the trail

    Testing out a new solid fuel stove. 0/10 recommend.

    Day Two:

    Black Jack to Airport in the Sky

    Day two started with one of my biggest trail fears finally happening – I woke up to a missing contact. It just wasn’t in its little contact case home. This was also the first trip that I didn’t bring backup contacts (though I always bring my glasses) as I had run out just before the trip.

    backpackers at Black Jack campground Catalina island

    Me, wondering how many times I will trip with my glasses on

    After searching the entire tent for a solid 10 minutes, I resigned myself to glasses for the remainder of the trek (I HATE glasses!). And against all odds, I then found the contact lens stuck to the bottom of my boyfriend’s sleeping pad! I have no idea how it got there, and it was dry, pressed in half, and completely unwearable. Since we were stopping at Airport in the Sky for the famed bison burgers, I decided to let it soak until then and see what I was working with later.

    With bags packed, we did the quick jaunt to the Airport in the Sky where we both got a bison burger for breakfast. I’ll admit; it’s overpriced and overrated, but you should totally do it still. What other trail has a burger joint along the way?!

    backpacking along a ridge

    Almost at bison burger!

    Airport in the Sky Catalina island bison burger

    Bison burger acquired!

    Airport in the Sky to Shark Harbor

    With bellies filled and contacts now in eyes, we continued along and made our first mistake on the trail. Instead of continuing along the Trans Catalina Trail, we somehow turned onto Sheep Chute Road. For the first half mile of the descent we kept joking that we had somehow outpaced everyone at the burger stop; then, when we rounded the bend and found a herd of bison, we pulled out the map to check the contour lines of dropping into the valley to realize we were no longer on the correct trail! We were in Buffalo Spring Canyon, rather aptly named we thought!

    Both sides of the trail dropped off sharply, and it took us a few attempts to get a line that dropped us low enough from the bison but not too low to make a difficult climb back up. The first two tries the bison started coming towards us, so we slowly backed away and gave the animals some time to settle before we attempted again. Bison are no joke! 

    cold soaked lunch

    Cold soaked freeze dried lunch!

    camping on the beach

    Camping at Sharks Cove

    Finally, we made our way around the herd and finished our descent into Sharks Cove (which is to the side of Little Harbor with a small trail connecting the two) – I highly recommend camping at Shark Cove instead of in the main Little Harbor campsite area! We arrived around 1:30 pm, set up camp, and had our firewood delivered at around 3pm (again, highly recommend!)  This was New Years Eve, so we relaxed around an early fire and watched the sun set over the ocean.

    sharks cove catalina island

    Nothing beats a fire on the ocean!

     

    Day Three:

    Shark Harbor to Two Harbors

    Camping on sand is so comfortable but such a pain for cleanup! We packed up and hit the trail, but in retrospect I would instead recommend taking a half day to explore the bluffs around Little Harbor and the side trails before continuing to Two Harbors.

    ridge hiking on catalina island

    Making the climb back up to the ridge
    lookout stop at two harbors
    The trail had lots of resting spots like this along the ridge. 

    The section between Little Harbor and Two Harbors is short and mostly unremarkable; since we had already had a short day yesterday, we had itchy feet after setting up camp and we decided to split lunch and then go hike along the road to Parsons Landing until daylight faded.

    There’s no way to say this nicely… I did not like camping at Two Harbors. So much depends on your fellow campers, and we were next to a big group that was dirty and loud; plus, the campsite layout feels very public and exposed even though it's tucked to the side of the town. We did enjoy another beautiful sunset over the water, but our camp neighbors spoiled the tranquil mood with loud music and a (presumably??) drunken attempt to light their fire with hair spray.  

    freeze dried dinner on trail

    Dinner time = happy time

    two harbors catalina island

    Mother nature showing off!
    camping along the ocean
    Gorgeous views

    Because the trail between Little Harbors and Two Harbors is short and there’s little to explore around Two Harbors, if I did this trip again I would either spend most of the day exploring around Little Harbors and get into Two Harbors for evening or get up early, stop for lunch in Two Harbors, and then continue to Parsons Landing and spend an extra day there. 

     

    Day Four:

    Two Harbors to Parsons Landing

    We woke on day #4 eager to leave Two Harbors. The trail winds through the town, and we stopped at the Visitor Center to inquire about a return ferry the next day and collect our locker key for the water drop at Parsons Landing. Because most seats on the ferry were open, we decided to skip booking the ferry until we were back in Two Harbors. Most Trans Catalina blogs mentioned a locker key for the firewood and water, but the Visitor Center staff said they would drop off water/firewood in an open area and no locker key was needed. Perfect!

    Even though we were on the trail early, this was the most exposed and hottest day of the trip, and I had to whip out my "stylish" hiking hat to keep the sun off my face.

    This section of the trail was bittersweet as it was the last hike up to the ridge as well as our highest elevation before our final descent to the ocean to camp at Parsons Landing. As we climbed, an ambulance and fire engine passed us on the trail. When we met back up with them, we discovered that a ranger's engine had overheated and started a localized fire!

    A portion of the Silver Peak Trail was closed, and so we began the descent on Fenceline Road back to the ocean. Overall, the trail hadn’t been technical and we both agreed that the steep descent down to Parsons Landing was the trickiest we had encountered, and that we would not want to descend in the loose gravel in the rain. 10/10 recommend hiking poles for this section.

    As promised, our water and wood awaited us in the open clearing at the campsite, and we brought it down to the beach where we split a quick lunch of Rice Puddin', set up camp, and then filled a daypack with water to go explore along West End Road. In retrospect, I would have preferred having a second night at Parsons Landing and having skipped over Two Harbors.

    freeze dried dessert bushkas kitchen

    Yum! Dessert for lunch.

    We returned to the beach just as the sun set over the waves and reflected on what a fun and different backpacking experience the Trans Catalina had been! We bad farewell to the stars and went to bed. Hands down the most comfortable night sleep on a trail due to the soft sand (stomach sleeper).

     

    Day Five:

    Parsons Landing to Two Harbors

    We had two ferry options out of Two Harbors: 11:30 am (direct) or 5:45pm (via Avalon). My phone alarm chirped us awake at around 7am. We enjoyed a cold soaked Chia Morning Bowl on the beach before hitting the trail just before 8am.

    freeze dried breakfast on the beach

    Loading up on that Vitamin Sea!

     cold soaked backpacking breakfast

    Quick cold soaked breakfast

    The hike back to Two Harbors is relatively flat, but exposed with the sun rising, and starting early enough to still hike in the cool air was a good choice.

    We arrived back to Two Harbors around 10:15am and caught the 11:30am ferry back to the mainland; we grabbed our car and then made the long drive back up to San Francisco.

    Back to home!

    Re-emerging into civilization (though, I admit I don’t think we actually left it during this trip) is bittersweet as I love the comforts of home, yet, I always feel I leave part of my soul out on the trail and I never feel quite whole until my boots hit the ground again.

     

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