NEMO’s Theresa Conn grabbed the chance for a quick three-day backpacking trip along the Trans-Catalina Trail on Catalina Island. She shares about her time and a few pro-tips for making the most of this beautiful trail.
Just the Bison and I
Just an hour ferry ride away from the hustle and bustle of Los Angeles, Catalina Island offers adventurers miles of deserted trails, beautiful campsites, and bison. Lots and lots of cute, terrifying, sedan-sized bison.
Spanning about 37 miles, the Trans-Catalina Trail (TCT) traverses the spine of the island, from Avalon to Two Harbors. Don’t be fooled by the max elevation of 2,000 feet; the trek comes in at about 17,500 feet in total elevation gain. Although it can be tough, hikers are rewarded with beautiful views of the Pacific and surprising opportunities for alone time in nature. Once you step beyond the busy cruise-stop port of Avalon, expect plenty of quiet. During my mid-week hike, I only encountered four other people backpacking the trail.
Most explorers tackling the TCT in its entirety spread the hike over 3 nights, camping at Hermit Gulch, Black Jack, and Two Harbors. But, by doing so, you miss out on the opportunity to watch one of the best shows in greater LA: sunset over the ocean from your tent at Little Harbor Campground. Being a bit tight on time, and wanting to spend a night at Little Harbor, I decided to take it easy on the mileage and leave the last section of trail for another trip. My three nights on the TCT ended up being the perfect beginner backpack adventure.
Day 1: Avalon to Hermit Gulch Campground (1.7 miles)
The Catalina Express connects the ports of Avalon and Two Harbors to multiple spots in LA, including San Pedro and Long Beach. It’s a perfect setup for a point-to-point adventure on the TCT, with no backtracking required. The ferry, and parking at the ferry, are by far the biggest expenses for the hike. At $70 round trip, the ferry cost is reasonable for the hour boat trip across the x channel. But another $70 to park for 4 days was rough. Finding a cheaper offsite parking option and Uber-ing to the ferry would be a good solution to keep your budget in check.
About half an hour into the ride, Catalina rises over the horizon. Steep cliffs and hidden beaches can be spotted from the boat; keep an eye out for bald eagles and harbor seals. Avalon looks like something out of a movie, with beautiful houses nestled high above the port. Cars are under strict restrictions on the island, but the hilly terrain and narrow streets aren’t great for walking. Solution? Golf carts. Everywhere.
Dodge the carts and cruise-bound tourists on the way to your first stop: the Catalina Island Conservancy, which carries TCT trail maps. The map was the single most important thing I had on the trail. A printed-off version from online does not do the trick. Get the map! The trail has mile markers and other occasional signage, but it’s easy to get turned around.
Map in hand, it’s an easy 20-minute walk to Hermit Gulch Campground.
Day 2: Hermit Gulch Campground to Black Jack Campground (9.3 miles)
Today, the real hiking begins. The trail winds up through gullies and canyons before finally cresting the first ridge. To the east lies mainland California. To the west, massive Channel Islands jut out of the great, blue Pacific. Once I picked my jaw up from the ground, I spent the rest of the day hiking on a mix of singletrack and dirt 4×4 roads. The trail is not easy, and is almost always exposed to the elements; luckily, most of my trip was unseasonably cool and cloudy.
About four miles into my adventure, I turned a corner and came up close and personal with my first bison. Pictures and movies make the creatures look harmless and cuddly, but in reality bison are horrifyingly huge and consider solo hikers a rare and delicious delicacy. (Kidding… sort of).
There are herds of wild bison all over the island. Allegedly, during the golden age of movies, a director ordered a boat of bison to Catalina for the filming of a Western film. They didn’t end up using the animals in the film, but it was cheaper to leave them there. Thus, beasts now roam free just 22 miles from LA.
I managed to avoid my furry friends, and made it to Black Jack campground just in time to set up camp and make some Good to-Go Bibimbap before nightfall.
Day 3: Black Jack Campground to Little Harbor Campground (8 miles)
Although I loved the whole hike, this was my favorite day. The trail wound downhill (a welcome change!) through groves and fields, crossed a creek, and then pushed upward towards Catalina Airport. The tiny airport has seen better days, but still is fully operational. Most importantly, there is a restaurant that cooks up amazing breakfast burritos.
Thoroughly fueled up, I followed the trail as it took me across a beautiful ridgeline that reminded me of hikes at home in New Hampshire.
As the sun started to set, I neared my campsite. I started having visions of hanging out at some fun bar at Little Harbor, where I could have a beer, chat with locals, and watch the sun set. Considering how developed Avalon was, I figured Little Harbor would be the same.
Wrong. Little Harbor is a campsite, a row of porta potties, and one trailer. So, no beer, but I still chatted with locals and watched the sun set. Overall, a win.
I also picked up a GREAT book in the gift shop, Mysterious Island. True stories of aliens, pirates, WWII spies, forgotten mines, buried treasure, ghosts, and portals to other dimensions… all at Catalina! After dark, I curled up in my Jam bag and read the whole thing.
Day 4: Little Harbor Campground to Two Harbors
The last day of my trip did not disappoint (and had only 1 bison sighting, from a lovely, very far distance). There’s lots of elevation to handle before the ferry trip home, but the incredible views and cool sea breeze were well worth it.
After cresting my last ridge, I ran into a pair who were hiking the TCT in the opposite direction. Although my feet were sore, and I was happy a shower was in my near future, I couldn’t help but be a bit jealous of the awesome adventure they were about to embark on.
- Catalina Island Conservancy Trail Info
- Catalina Express Ferry Schedule & Fares
- Mysterious Island: Catalina – the great book I mentioned
- WiSpa – after hiking the TCT, a hot shower is a dream. At WiSpa, $25 gets you 24 hours in a 5 story complex with multiple saunas and a full Korean restaurant.
- Hornet 2P Ultralight Backpacking Tent
- Jam 15 Degree Down Bag, Long (a bit overkill but I sleep cold)
- Vector Insulated 20R (footpump = worth the extra space and weight)
- Fillo (so worth it)
- Good To-Go breakfasts and dinners: Granola, Oatmeal, Bibimbap, Pad Thai, Mushroom Risotto
- First Aid Kit
- Ear Plugs/Eye Mask