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Hiking the Trans Catalina Trail

Catalina Island lies peacefully twenty-some miles off the coast of Southern California. This delightful tourist favorite destination is known for glass bottom boat rides, snorkeling, pristine beaches and some of the best scuba diving in the SoCal area.

But, the most surprising aspect of Catalina Island is not the panoramic views of the Pacific, the casino where no gambling takes place, or the relaxing cabanas. No, the most notable aspect of Catalina Island is it’s most notorious residents – a herd of about 150 big and beautiful bison brought over to film silent westerns in the early 1920’s. The silent movie producers made the executive decision to simply leave the wild beasts believing they would naturally die off. Needless to say, about a hundred years later, these resilient creatures remain thriving and give a quirky experience to all who visit. 

In connection to its unique historic charm, Catalina Island is also a popular wilderness location for any nature lover who enjoys hiking and exploring. The arguably crowning jewel of the island’s more than 165 miles of trails and roads in my opinion belongs to the Trans Catalina Trail. 

Hiking The Trans Catalina Trail

What Is The Trans Catalina Trail?

It is commonly referred to as the abbreviated TCT. The TCT is the, at times rugged, 38.5 mile trail that spans the two sister islands that make up the whole of what is Catalina Island. Typically hikers start this thru hike in the city of Avalon and end in the city of Two Harbors. While on this journey, thru hikers will get to traverse past clear blue water beaches, soapstone quarries, and a massive amount of wildlife. Lucky hikers will even get to come up close and personal, like my family did, with the island’s herd of bison. But that is not the only wildlife encounter on Catalina. Dolphins will jump along the shores, foxes will attempt to steal your camp food, and majestic Bald Eagles will provoke pride within your heart. 

When attempting the thru hike the first navigation begins with planning your ferry trips to and from the mainland. The Catalina Express is the easiest and most popular route with ferries leaving every 30 minutes from its mainland ports in San Pedro, Dana Point, and Long Beach. The ferry ride is about one hour and 15 minutes with inspiring views of the cities. A quicker, yet more expensive option, is the 15 minute helicopter ride through the company Island Express. The helicopter service leaves on demand from San Pedro and Long Beach. 

Trans-Catalina Trail Permits

However you arrive, the picturesque port town of Avalon will welcome you with its homey and quaint shops and restaurants. You will start your hike at the Conservancy’s Trailhead visitor center where you can pick up hiking permits and trail maps. You also can apply for your trail permit online, as well as reserve your camping spots. I recommend buying a bundle of firewood at the Von’s Express in Avalon for your first night. After purchasing you are given a key to access the firewood which is stored in lockers. 

Hiking The TCT

Now that you have managed the ferry shuttle or helicopter trek to the island – where do you stay while hiking? Most thru hikers plan on a four day trip, but unlike some wilderness forests, Catalina Island does not permit dispersed camping and requests you camp at reserved campsites. 

Located 15 miles from Avalon is the first campground along the Trans Catalina Trail – Black Jack Campground. At 1,600 feet above sea level, this nine-campsite facility is a lovely shaded oasis under pine and eucalyptus trees. If you are not too lethargic from your hike you may want to rest your legs on the nearby 2,097-foot Mt. Orizaba, Santa Catalina’s highest peak. Black Jack Campground also provides lockers to store your food from wildlife, picnic tables, and fire rings. 

After a night’s rest at Black Jack you will have a lower mileage day of 12.5 to the next campground: Two Harbors. Located right outside the village on a bluff is this 12-tent campsite campground. There you will be lulled to sleep with the sound of the Pacific Ocean right outside your tent. Here you will also find showers, toilets, fresh water, picnic tables, BBQ pits, as well as fire pits. This campground was where our family got to see our very first Bald Eagle in the wild. That, with the calls of seals, made it a magical experience. 

Day three is a short 6.5 mile hike to Parson’s Landing. Although I highly recommend continuing on to Starlight Beach – the Trans Catalina Trail’s official terminus. This will include an out and back hike passing the campground. The total mileage coming in at 15 miles. Starlight beach is a gorgeous cove surrounded by rocky cliffs. After taking in the north facing cove you can reward yourself with another unique beach camp site at Parson’s Landing. This primitive, 8-site campground unfortunately does not have fresh water. But you can easily reserve one bundle of firewood, one fire starter, and a 2.5-gallon jug of water for purchase for $20.00 that are stored at on site lockers. 

The final day on the Trans Catalina Trail will be a short and sweet 6.5 mile hike back to the sleepy village town of Two Harbors. There you can pick up your return ferry to either San Pedro or Dana Point. 

Trans-Catalina Trail Tips

The Trans Catalina Trail was our family’s first thru hike. The lower miles, well marked trail, and easy to secure supplies at campgrounds made it a perfect introduction to backpacking. 

Some helpful tips for first time thru hikers or hikers looking into trying this island trek:

  • Hiking permits are required on Catalina Island, but they are free and can be reserved ahead of time at
  • Bring plenty of water (more than you think you’ll actually need).
  • I suggest a fall or winter attempt. The trail is highly exposed and can get very hot in summer. Although you face cloudy mornings and potential rain – the risk taken means less crowds, less sunburns, and more wildlife activity! 
  • Make sure you have comfortable hiking boots, a hat, sunscreen and plenty of water.
  • Drinking water is only available on the Trail at Haypress, Black Jack Campground, Little Harbor Campground, the Airport and the Isthmus.
  • If you are a first time backpacker I highly recommend renting a complete backpacking kit from Mountainside Gear Rentals. Although located in Golden, Colorado, this local small business ships all over the United States with very affordable rates. 
  • Be wildlife smart! The bison on Catalina Island are arguably less aggressive than their cousins in Yellowstone. That being said you must maintain a safe distance of at least 25 yards. Keep an eye out for rattlesnakes on the trails. At each campsite make sure you utilize the provided lockers to ensure foxes, squirrels, and other critters do not eat your food or damage your packs in search of a meal. Leave no trace principles are mandatory while enjoying nature’s glory. 
  • Lastly make sure you have either a physical map you can purchase in Avalon or some GPS version on your smart devices. The trail is easy to follow but it is always a good idea to be prepared. The trail can also be viewed on Google Earth. Download and print the Trans-Catalina Trail map pdf here.

The Trans Catalina Trail with its wildlife, rolling hilly terrain, and Pacific Ocean vistas complete with dolphins – is a one of a kind backpacking experience that your whole family will remember for years to come! 

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Kaitlin Musser
Kaitlin is a former ballerina who now travels around the country in an 18-foot converted school bus. Her and her tall-one husband have welcomed 34 sweet children into their home the past eleven years. Although they wouldn’t be a forever home for all of them they were able to adopt their daughter buckets and are legal guardians of their son monkey.