Backpacking the Trans-Catalina Trail

Backpacking the Trans-Catalina Trail

Thru-hiking the 38.5 Trans-Catalina Trail on Catalina Island in California was the perfect short backpacking getaway and just a ferry ride away from LA. 

Hike Date: November 2021

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This Catalina Island Conservancy Hiking Map would be helpful for planning also.

Finding the Trans-Catalina Trail, a short backpacking trip near Los Angeles, California

We had an event in Los Angeles and wanted to extend our vacation to include some outdoor activities when we stumbled across the Trans-Catalina Trail, a 38.5 mile thru-hike that traverses Catalina Island. This was the perfect 3-day hiking getaway right off the coast of LA! It provided incredible views of the ocean and mountains, wildlife sightings, relatively moderate trails, interesting vegetation, and gorgeous beachside campgrounds. 

The Trans-Catalina Trail is a 38.5 mile trail that traverses Catalina Island beginning in Avalon and ending in Two Harbors. It is a combination of trails and dirt roads that weave through the mountains and along the coastline. Maintained by the Catalina Island Conservancy, the trail is pretty well-marked with signs at every juncture and small wooden mileage markers along the way. 

Trans-Catalina Trail Logistics and Resources

Why hike the Trans-Catalina Trail?

There are many reasons that we think backpacking the Trans-Catalina Trail is worth it! 

The views. From beginning to end, there were incredible views of the orange-hued mountains, Pacific Ocean, beaches, interesting vegetation, and boats in the harbors

The wildlife. We saw bison (not native to Catalina Island, but were brought to the island for a movie and left there!), foxes, many types of birds, deer, dolphins, and seals.

The balance of physical challenge and ease. There are challenging hiking spots and you do gain a fair amount of elevation, but the majority of the trails were really nice and well-graded. The hike was super pleasant and accessible for us.

Great campsites. See below for more details on campsites. Two of our three of our campsites were beachside with ocean views, which felt like paradise. 

Beautiful weather. Note: we hiked in late November, and for us (used to cold weather of New England), the 70 degree and sunny weather was perfect. 

Perfect length. Three days of backpacking was perfect for us. This trip could be longer, but with time constraints, this amount of time was great for a fulfilling but short getaway. 

Amenities. Each campground was well-outfitted and nicely maintained. Water was easily accessible at each campground, with the exception of Parsons Landing where you arrange for a container of water and firewood to be waiting in a locker for you. 

Getting to the Trans-Catalina Trail

To get to Catalina Island to hike the Trans-Catalina Trail, you need to take the Catalina Express ferry. Depending what direction you hike the Trans-Catalina Trail, there are two places to get the ferry from Los Angeles: Long Beach and San Pedro. Since we decided to hike from Avalon, which is what we recommend, we took the ferry from Long Beach to Avalon to begin and then took the ferry from Two Harbors to San Pedro at the end. The ferry took about an hour and 15 minutes. It was super convenient and had amenities on board like bathrooms and a bar for drinks and snacks.

Catalina Ferry Advice

Book your ferry reservations in advance! They do get booked up, so grab your spot online

Arrive early. They ask you to arrive one hour early and we recommend following that guidance. When we got there, many passengers were waiting and starting to line up. At the very least, be a half hour early as they start boarding then.

Pick up your physical tickets inside. Show your reservation and they will give you physical tickets to board the ferry. 

Sit by an outlet. There are some charging outlets on board. Charging up your electronics before hiking is always a benefit! 

Get your bag ready. If you have a large hiking backpack, they will ask you to put it in a storage area. Take out what you need for the ferry ride. 

Campgrounds and Hiking Permits on the Trans-Catalina Trail
Amenities Along the Trans-Catalina Trail

Trans-Catalina Conservancy Flagship Store, called the “Trailhead” in Avalon. Right in Avalon, this is a great place to grab anything you need to start the trail. They had maps, snacks, fuel, souvenirs, etc. 

Two Harbors General Store. Right in the center of Two Harbors, this is really the only place for you to get what you need. It had souvenirs, trail maps, snacks, fuel, souvenirs, food (whole fresh pizzas, some fresh produce and pre-packaged salads/sandwiches, regular groceries), alcohol, and microwaves that anybody could use if you bought frozen food or anything that needed microwaving. 

Restaurants Along the Trans-Catalina Trail 

DC-3 Airport in the Sky. There is an airport between Black Jack Campground and Little Harbor Campground with a cute restaurant where you can get a solid meal.

Harbor Reef Restaurant. Located in the center of Two Harbors, Harbor Reef Restaurant is open all year round. 

Trans-Catalina Itinerary Options

Now that we’ve completed the Trans-Catalina Trail, we have some intel on what could be the best itinerary. We absolutely loved our trip, but we wouldn’t actually recommend it as the best route. So here are a couple of other ways to do it that would probably be better. Note that you could reverse any of these routes to hike from Two Harbors to Avalon instead. Also, you can stay at Hermit Gulch Campground in Avalon on an arrival day and start the Trans-Catalina Trail the next morning if, like us, you have to travel a long way to reach the island.

Our Route:

Day 1 – Avalon to Little Harbor

Day 2 – Little Harbor to Two Harbors

Day 3 – Two Harbors to Parsons Landing then loop back to Two Harbors

Ideal Short Itinerary:

Day 1 – Avalon to Little Harbor

Day 2 – Little Harbor to Parsons Landing

Day 3 – Parsons Landing to Two Harbors 

Recommended Itinerary:

Day 1 – Avalon to Blackjack

Day 2 – Blackjack to Little Harbor

Day 3 – Little Harbor to Parsons Landing

Day 4 – Parsons Landing to Two Harbors

Skip Little Harbor:

Day 1 – Avalon to Blackjack

Day 2 – Blackjack to Two Harbors

Day 3 – Two Harbors to Parsons Landing

Day 4 – Parsons Landing to Two Harbors

Long Itinerary:

Day 1 – Avalon to Blackjack

Day 2 – Blackjack to Little Harbor

Day 3 – Little Harbor to Two Harbors 

Day 4 – Two Harbors to Parsons Landing

Day 5 – Parsons Landing to Two Harbors

Our 3-day Trans-Catalina Backpacking Itinerary

Travel Day: LAX to Avalon via Catalina Island Ferry

We arrived at LAX around 11am and took a 30 minute Lyft/Uber to the center of Long Beach to pick up a bite to eat before walking the approximately 1.5 mile distance to the Long Beach Catalina Island Ferry pick up stop. There isn’t much around the ferry building, so if you need food, plan accordingly! We went inside, showed them our reservation, picked up our physical tickets, then took our food to some of the benches right by the pier to enjoy our lunch and watch the ferry pull in. The ferry left right on time and took about an hour and 15 minutes to get to Avalon on Catalina Island. The ferry had two levels; we sat on the bottom next to the window and enjoyed looking out at the water, seeing all of the cargo ships, and watching Catalina Island appear through the smog as we got closer. Kathy was worried about seasickness, but the ferry ride was relatively smooth. 

Picture from the Catalina Express ferry
Ferry from Long Beach

The port at Avalon, the larger of the two main towns on Catalina Island, was pretty busy and lively. There were plenty of stores and restaurants, but after a long day of travel, we just wanted to get the lay of the land and head to our campsite. We stopped at the Catalina Island Conservancy Flagship store where we grabbed a trail map and looked at a Catalina Island replica, which got us even more excited about the hike! An important note: they sold essential items like camp fuel, food, etc. in case you needed to buy your fuel when you got to the island. Just check business hours. 

Pulling into the Avalon port
Catalina Island map at the Catalina Island Conservancy Trailhead
Avalon Harbor

Avalon to Hermit Gulch Campground - 1.5 miles

We followed our GPS and the map and walked directly away from the beach towards Hermit Gulch Campground, which is just about a mile and a half away from the harbor and is a very mild walk on sidewalks and sides of the road. Along the way, we passed a golf course, playgrounds, and a football/soccer field. There is also a shuttle that you can take if you don’t want to walk, but after having to sit all day to travel, we appreciated the time to stretch our legs.

Hermit Gulch Campground ahead!
Walk from Avalon to Hermit Gulch
Welcome to Hermit Gulch Campground

When we got to Hermit Gulch Campground, the caretaker greeted us and gave us the rundown of the campground. When we had booked the campsite, we opted to include a small fuel canister with our booking because we knew we were traveling by air and wouldn’t be able to take one on a flight. They just left it in the grill at our campsite, site 13. Located at the top of a very small hill and abutting some bushes and trees, site 13 was great. Each campsite was equipped with a picnic table and charcoal grill. Campsites shared all-gender bathrooms, showers, sinks, water fountains, trash cans and bear boxes (not for bears, but instead for foxes and other smaller animals). At our campsite, we saw multiple bucks and deer roaming around. 

It got pretty cold overnight. We didn’t expect the temperature to drop as much as it did, probably to somewhere in the high 40s. Luckily, we had warm enough sleeping bags and appropriate layers, but waking up in the morning and packing up camp was tough in the dark and cold! 

Campsite friends
Hermit Gulch Campsite

Day 1: Hermit Gulch Campground to Little Harbor Campground - 17.5 Miles

Hermit Gulch Campground to Black Jack Campground - 9 miles

The next morning, we woke up early to start hiking before sunrise. The Trans-Catalina Trail (TCT) begins at the end of the road. We turned right from the campground and right again at the trail sign to begin the climb. This first few miles of trail consisted of pretty long switchbacks. As we emerged from the campground, the sun began to rise and we got our first unobstructed views of the ocean, the town of Avalon, and the mountains we were climbing. The views were breathtaking and provided a preview of what was to come in the next three days. Along the way, we noticed wooden mile-markers placed at every mile for the whole trail. 

Starting the trail!
Mile marker
Sunrise coming out of Hermit Gulch
Looking back down to Avalon

At the top of this climb, there were some informational plaques about Catalina Island as well as a bathroom facility. Then, the trail turned onto a dirt road that we followed along the ridge and got great views of the ocean and the coast of California to our right. 

View of the Pacific Ocean
Walking along the dirt road

We turned off of the dirt road onto more of a “trail” and came to a gate with a clear sign to continue through the gate and beware of bison. In this section, we meandered through the center of the island, gaining and losing elevation on the undulating trail. We eventually reached Haypress Recreation Area which has bathrooms, water spigots, and picnic tables so we filled up and continued on. At the top of the next climb, we came to a viewpoint with a wooden pergola to sit at and take in the ocean views. These pergolas are placed all along the TCT, providing great places to take snack breaks. After getting back onto the cactus-lined trail, we passed a sleeping fox that was completely uninterested and unconcerned with our presence. 

Pergola with a view
Gate on the trail
Filling up water at Haypress Recreation Area
Sleeping fox

After a little more time on open trails with sweeping views, we dropped back down into the valley and saw our first bison of the trip standing atop a hill, surveying the landscape. Staying far, far away, we snapped some pictures and continued onwards. Two animal sightings in such a short span! Again, we climbed out of the valley, rejoined a dirt road, then came to another well-placed pergola and a beautiful view of the ocean. This was probably our favorite view of the day. 

Trail with ocean views
Mountain, water, and views of the California coast
Hello, bison!
Another perfectly placed pergola to rest

The next section between this view and Black Jack Campground was a little bit lackluster. We passed by a dried out pond that might be really pretty during non-drought times. It started getting pretty hot as we began the climb out of the valley towards Black Jack Campground. There were some areas that were shaded, but much of the trail was open and uncovered. Luckily, the sun wasn’t too strong and the air was dry. The steepest section of the day so far came just before getting to Black Jack Campground, which is nestled in the middle of the island. Black Jack Campground had all that you would need: water spigots, bathrooms, and picnic tables. Although it was well-placed and outfitted, we were glad that we were continuing on to stay at Little Harbor with its campsites right by the beach.

Dried up pond
Climb to Black Jack
Black Jack Campground
Black Jack Campsite

Black Jack Campground to Little Harbor Campground - 8.5 miles

We walked up the road to get out of Black Jack Campground, turned onto the road, then turned left off of the road and onto the trail that began to descend into another valley. During this section, for the first time, we were heading towards the Pacific Ocean side of the island. Then, we started the ascent up to Catalina’s Airport in the Sky, where we knew there would be a cold drink and snack waiting for us. When we got to the top of the climb, the airport’s restaurant was bumping! There were tons of hikers there who dropped their packs out front and were enjoying a meal on the patio out back. The airport restaurant had a good looking menu (apparently the bison burger is delicious), but since we just ate lunch, we opted for some french fries and a couple soft drinks.

Pacific Ocean ahead
Cacti galore
Airport in the Sky
Sign pointing to the airport
Airport in the Sky restaurant

After refueling, we continued onwards. We saw another bison and then came upon a lengthy section of dirt road walking. When we turned back onto the trail, we saw some really beautiful trees that we hadn’t seen yet. We pushed up one last climb that skirted around the side of a mountain, and made a quick detour on another connected trail to get a view of the ocean. 

Second bison sighting
Road walking
Tree and ocean views

Then, we continued on an undulating trail passing over the ridgeline and made the descent to the beach at Little Harbor: our final destination for the day. We saw the beach from a couple of miles away and the palm trees and ocean were beckoning to us! 

All smiles at 15 miles in or so
Ridgeline walking
First view of Little Harbor

Our campsite (4) was massive. It had four tables, a fire pit, a water spigot, and unbelievable amounts of room for multiple tents. It also had an amazing view of the ocean. There were some campsites right next to the beach, but ours was about a 1-2 minute walk from the shore. Still, it was incredible. We had plenty of privacy also. 

Campsite #4
Beachside campsites

Hot from the day, we immediately changed into our bathing suits, and jumped into the water. It was freezing, but felt so good after 18 miles of walking in the sun. The beach at Little Harbor faces West, so the sunset from there was incredible.

Campsite #4 sunset
Little Harbor sunset

Day 2: Little Harbor Campground to Two Harbors Campground

In the middle of the night, I woke up to the sound of an animal eating grass and snorting loudly right next to our tent. My first inclination was to panic and wake Kevin up, but to my surprise, I stayed calm and was able to lull myself back asleep. Luckily nothing happened, but when we woke up, we saw a giant fresh bison turd right next to our tent, about 3 feet away from where my head was. Scary! 

Since we only planned a 5.5 mile hike on this day to get to Two Harbors, we were able to spend a leisurely morning at Little Harbor campground. We made coffee, ate breakfast, and watched as one by one, all of the other hikers packed up and started up the trail overlooking the harbor. We also lounged on the beach for about an hour. Unfortunately, though, for as beautiful as it was, there were just swarms of flies that kept landing on us when we sat down. Fortunately, these flies didn’t bite, but they were a true nuisance. After we couldn’t take any more bugs, we packed up, turned left out of our campsite, and made another left to continue on the Trans-Catalina Trail that begins climbing immediately from the campground. At the end of one of the long switchbacks, there is a great view of Little Harbor for a picture. 

View of Little Harbor

The two miles or so of climbing out of Little Harbor provided one of the more difficult ascents of the entire thru-hike. The trail alternated between narrow track and wider dirt roads while ascending many short but steep sections. Those took a little bit more effort, but the views from atop each rise were well worth it. 

We stopped multiple times as we could start seeing Catalina Harbor, one of the 2 harbors on the isthmus including the town of Two Harbors. Also, the mountains were much more orange and red than the mountains the day before and we loved the contrast of the blue ocean and the warmth of the land. For a short section, we descended briefly and then made the last climb for the day. This section of trail felt much more “trail like” than the rest of the hike–a steeper, narrower, and rockier path. Although it was tougher, we loved it. That’s just the type of terrain that makes us feel at home!

Kathy hiking
Incredible views in this section
Kevin hiking
Biggest climb so far

When we got to the top, we saw that there was a perfectly placed pergola to take a break at for lunch. From here, we also got some incredible views toward the end of Catalina Island, where we would hike the next day.

Perfect lunch spot
View of the end of the island

The next few miles from the pergola to the campsite at Two Harbors was probably the least scenic and least enjoyable section of the entire three days. Most of it was dirt road walking. That said, it went relatively quickly. We could see Two Harbors in front of us and we could hear seals calling to one another from a mile away. Instead of going into Two Harbors, we took the trail that went straight to the Two Harbors Campground. The descent on this part of the trail was a little bit more slow-going than we expected, partially because it was a little steep, but also because it was super dusty with loose rocks. Again, nothing too hard, but just something to note! 

Kevin descending to Two Harbors

When we got to the campground, we walked all the way down to the water and found our campsite, #11. When we booked this specific campsite months earlier, we picked it because it was secluded and had a great view of the harbor–both of which ended up being true! That said, the website pictures showed much more greenery. We figured that the drought and the time of year must have made things really dusty and brown. There was a large pipe partially uncovered running next to the campsite where the trail to the Two Harbors town passed through and much of the site was pretty slanted, but all-in-all, we actually really liked our little site. It was out of the way, not right up next to any other sites, was close enough to the bathrooms, and boasted great views. 

Our campsite, #11
Waterfront campsites

After showering and getting settled at our campsite, we ventured into Two Harbors. As mentioned, there is a quarter of a mile trail that goes directly from the campsite to the center of town. Two Harbors is much smaller than Avalon and really only has a ferry port, a general store, and a restaurant. We went to the general store to grab snacks and it had everything a hiker could need: a small selection of groceries, produce, camping supplies, and souvenirs. They also make fresh pizzas that they sell by the pie. We opted to grab some pre-packaged salad (Kathy always craves freshness after hiking), some frozen hot pockets that we microwaved using the communal microwaves provided by the store, cold beverages, and chips. Just outside the store, there were a few tables to sit at and a beach bar and restaurant that was closed during the off season but seemed like an awesome spot that would be open at different times of year! When we walked back to the campsite, we saw there were two ways to get back, one that went to the higher campsites, and one that went to the special group campsite and to the lower campsites. We took the path that went to the lower campsites, but they will all get you there. 

Trail to Two Harbors from campground
Split in the trail on the way back to the campground
Two Harbors General Store
Restaurant in Two Harbors

When we got back, we played cribbage, watched the sky turn purple and pink from the sunset from our tent (the campsite faces Northeast), and went to sleep early.

Sunset from tent
Sunset

Day 3: Two Harbors to Parsons Landing and Back to Two Harbors - 14 Miles

Two Harbors to Parsons Landing - 7 miles

On our last day of the Trans-Catalina Trail, we actually didn’t have to carry all of our gear because we were staying at the same Two Harbors campsite. Ideally, we would have hiked to Parsons Landing and camped there for a night (literally right on the beach), but with only seven campsites available there, we couldn’t get a reservation. C’est la vie! 

We packed minimal gear in our backpacks and left our campground just after sunrise. Walking directly into town, we turned left towards the other harbor and started on the trail on the right when the road ended. The first couple of miles were essentially climbing straight up a wide dirt road. However, climbing up to this first peak provided incredible views of the clouds sweeping over the cove and the mountains behind us. We stopped frequently to take in that amazing moment. 

Road from Two Harbors
Trail sign
Clouds rolling over the mountains

After one last relatively steep push, we came to another well-placed pergola to pause and catch our breath. We could see that the wide dirt trail extended across the ridgeline and loved seeing exactly where we were walking towards. This section of trail undulated up and down a bit and provided some great views. We could see the ocean on both sides of us with bright red and orange mountains stretching out in front. Cacti lined the trails and it was just a breathtaking day. Right before the big descent of the day, there was another pergola and really beautiful tree standing atop the peak. Some folks continue to walk further on the island, but the official Trans-Catalina Trail goes to Parsons Landing beach and that is what we followed. 

Blue skies and surrounded by water
Still walking
View from the last peak of the day
Dirt roads

Once we started to descend, we noted a couple of surprisingly steep sections with loose slippery footing. We did a lot of zig-zagging with side steps to handle these bits of trail. Again, nothing too worrisome, just slow stepping. Just as the sun was getting higher and it started getting hotter, we approached Parson’s Landing Beach where we took our shoes off, cooled ourselves off in the freezing water, and took an early lunch break. We could see the draw of camping here, and in particular, campsite 1 looked awesome–totally secluded behind a cliff at the end of the beach. Again, the flies here were pretty bad. We ignored them as best we could, but they were relentless. 

Steep descents
Parson's Landing Campground
Campsite #3

Parson's Landing to Two Harbors - 7 miles

We climbed out of Parsons Landing and came to a section of trail that wasn’t well-marked. To the left, there was a trail leading up to a peak, to the right, the trail led down into a valley. After checking our GaiaGPS, we took the trail to the right, which was correct. This part of the trail went past a Boy Scout Camp and then emerged onto a wide road that skirted the coastline that we would walk for the last 8 miles back to Two Harbors. 

Hiking out of Parson's Landing
Trail between Parson's Landing and coastal road

During these last miles, the terrain was very mild and pleasant. It was just flat dirt road walking, moving in and out of the coastline. The views were phenomenal. The water was so blue and the beaches and rocky coastline were gorgeous. There were a couple places to walk out to the edge of points jutting out into the water. 

Last 7 miles of road walking
Ocean views for the last 7 miles

When we saw Two Harbors, we were overjoyed. We walked down to the beach feeling great having finished the 38.5 mile Trans-Catalina Trail! To celebrate, we gorged ourselves on snacks from the general store in the middle of town, took a cold shower at our campsite (they have 3-sided shower stalls), and walked back into town for a couple of cocktails and dinner. 

Woo! Finished!
View of Two Harbors

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