Trans Catalina Island
Blast off! Headed on a ferry to Catalina Island where I’m about to embark on the Trans Catalina Trail, a hefty trail that starts (or ends depending on how you do the trail), at Avalon and spans the whole island at 38.5 miles and 9,600 ft. elevation change, eventually landing at Parsons Landing, where I’ll camp right smack dab on the beach. I’m stoked. I’ve been to Catalina a couple times before but never actually hiked on the island and since that’s one of my favorite things to do it’s about g-dang time! I decided to just go for this trip since the weather was still pleasant and not tooo hot (mid-April), I had time off from work, and golly-gee roger, campsites, they were available! When the stars align, you must follow those stars and go backpacking!
I hesitated initially because of the price: there’s the ferry ($74.50RT), the parking while you’re gone (another 75 bones), and the established campsites that you must stay at and are in high season prices right now. Altogether, I’m looking at $300 and that doesn’t include any food! Not quite your average price for a backpacking trip, but I figured it was going to be worth it, as it always is. I was not wrong.
I was ready for my to-do lists to fade into the mist of the ferry spray and to relax and just enjoy every moment. I could finally see the whole island peek into view. It’s amazing to think that I would be walking across it in its entirety in only a handful of days. I love all the adventures that life has led me on thus far and I was about to embark on a brand spankin’ new one. Life is pretty sweet.
I left my friend’s house in Ventura early that morning and tackled some errands as I headed towards San Pedro where I would catch my ferry to Avalon. I arrived just in time for the lining up to get on the boat and was boarded in about 10-15 minutes. I watched the water spurting out from the side of the boat as we pushed away from mainland LA, buildings becoming tinier and tinier as the distance between us and the shore stretched and took my daydreams with it. Daydreams interrupted by the welcome commotion of a pod of dolphins that joined our boat ride. Hell to the yeah.
I read, I wrote, I checked Facebook and messaged people, not sure what my reception might be like the next few days, and I definitely relaxed. Sinking more and more into my chair with every nautical mile that we soared over I felt further away from the ‘adult’ me that existed just moments ago. We’re on island time now baby! Time to put things into perspective and get out there and just really enjoy the simple things in life; the petals of a flower, the song of a bird instead of the sounds of go-carts or the humming of the soda machine, the deliciousness of a warm, delectable meal at the end of a long, strenuous hiking day, the sweat that pours down your back, reminding you of how hard you’ve been working to get to where you are.
Arriving early the day before I was to begin my hike gave me a chance to relax and to even see a few things that I hadn’t explored before on the island. A stop by the Visitor Center to pick up my permit and to purchase the map of the Trans Catalina Trail was a must, which I did right away. I also got a chance to stop by the Nature Center on the way to the campground which had some really cool exhibits to get me acquainted with what I might see on the trail. At the end of the road by the Hermit Gulch Campground (where I was staying)was the Wrigley Memorial and Botanical Gardens. I wandered up there, paid the $7 admission and ended up spending the next couple of hours being fascinated with the super cool plants and architecture of the Wrigley Memorial. Super worth it. Trust.
I stayed at the Hermit Gulch Campground my first night on the island. At 1.5 miles from the boat landing, it was a great option to walk to, set up camp, and then come back to town to explore a little before settling in for the night. Conveniently at about halfway there is a restaurant called the Sandtrap (across from a golf course obvi.) that had some pretty cheap deals on tacos. Got me 2 of those and a beer before finally heading back to my site for the night.
I highly recommend staying here or even in a hotel or Airbnb for a night and exploring the town a bit before starting out on your hike, especially if you haven’t been here before. There are plenty of good restaurant and bar options, just don’t overdo it or you’ll be regretting it for the rest of the hike. 😉
First official hiking day finally arrived! After arising sometime after six I really didn’t have the yearning to get out of my sleeping bag until 7. Seven seemed like a good time to tackle the day. Sure! So up at 7, packed up, shoved some delicious berry oatmeal in my face and on the trail by 8. Coffee to go. The trip reports did not lie, there was practically no shade on the trail and yes, indeed, you go up….and up…and up…and down….a lot! The elevation profile for this trip actually resembles something more like an off the charts EKG monitor than a trail. But after sitting at the Blackjack Campground I was thankful that I put in the 9.2 miles to get there by lunch, a late lunch albeit, but lunch.
Even though I was relaxing hard, I knew I had my work cut out for me the next few days. But like one of my favorite quotes says: “I’m not telling you it’s going to be easy, I’m telling you it’s going to be worth it.” – Art Williams
The birds at Blackjack Campground really go nuts. I listened to an undetermined amount, watching as woodpeckers surrounded my water spigot and frolicked with each other up the Eucalyptus trees.
It’s nice to be able to slow down and just sit and observe the birds. My life is more in slow motion when I’m backpacking. None of the major things in life matter. Anything can be dealt with later. All that matter is what’s happening now. On the trail. At camp. Those damn woodpeckers. They won’t shut up. They are what matter now….
Highlights of hiking today included watching a lizard running so hard & fast that it did a front flip over a stone step on the trail. Nailed the landing. I also saw my first bison today. I spotted this darker spot on the hillside that moved ever so slowly. I felt like I was far enough away but I didn’t know what the trail looked like around the bend so I stopped the music and made my way cautiously up and over the pass, turning around every now and then half expecting the bison to pop his head over the hill and say ‘Boo’! Great animal sightings for the first day on trail.
The following day was the start of realizing how hard the hiking really was. Yeah. Haha. I started out the day by being woken up by the lovely neighbors that I kept seeing on the trail….shortly after 5! I get it if you want an early start, but you should be respectful of quiet hours at night AND in the morning. These hiking hooligans were not. Heard their whole conversation. So I decided to eventually get up around 6:30, then I was on the road by 7:15, no breakfast, just coffee to go and a bar in my pocket. Once I got away from camp and hit the real meat of the trail I was all above the clouds and the memories of the early wake up faded into the fog on the horizon.
The hike to the airport was only about 2 miles (with a good uphill of course) and that was where I was planning to take a break and have a breakfast burrito. I saw my first adorable Catalina Fox right before I got off the trail at the airport. We totally had a stare down. I think I won.
I then went into the airport cafe where I ran into the early rising neighbors & they told me the kitchen wasn’t open yet. Weird, right after they left I ordered a super pricey (16.95), but quite delicious Buffalo Brisket Breakfast Burrito (Holy B’s!). I probably could’ve finished it, but decided to wrap about 1/3 of it to go. Good choice.
I saw my 2nd bison after the airport. It was just chilling, chowing on some breakfast, rolling around in the grass a little. I took a few photos of the lad and then we parted ways. Hope it doesn’t know what I just ate….
It was pretty ‘cloudy’ the rest of the hike to Little Harbor, which helped make it feel like someone was turning on the AC intermittently. I’ll take it! A welcome break from the heat of the day before. I finally made my way down to Little Harbor and it was so stinkin’ quaint! It was gorgeous, really. The only thing that appears to be there is the campground, which is super nice, and of course the turquoise bay.
I went straight for the beach, plopped my booty down & finished that there burrito. It tasted even better when eaten on a beach watching turquoise tainted waters roll slowly into shore, that’s for sure! After relaxing for a moment I went to explore an area that looked like it might have some sick tide-pools. The rocks entertained me for a bit but eventually I felt the pull to keep going.
The afternoon hiking started out pretty innocently, gradually rising above the harbor to magnificent views and then it kept going up…..and up….and just when I thought it might be a joke that the trail would go there because there’s no possible way…..up some more. It was actually comical. I had to keep repeating the engine revving sound from Mario Kart & the “here we gooo!” chant.
The island kept on being blanketed by the clouds & by the time I made it to the Instagram Spot (according to the map) it was about time I had me a dance party! I had earned it already! But there was still more climbing to be done! Never fear! Off I headed to make my my final climb and then descent into Two Harbors, where I would be spending the night. When I first caught sight of Two Harbors, the stoke level was high. How blue is that water, really??!! Gorgeousness!
After descending for what seemed like a century I was confused where to go once I reached town, ended up backtracking a bit (uphill of course), turning back around, taking the road to camp (another .5 miles), then realizing you need to check in for the campground in town (another .5 RT), oh lordy b were my feet hurting! At least I knew my site number so I set my stuff down before heading back to town. Fina-stinkingly! I got checked in for my campsite & also got my locker key for Parsons Landing. Sweet.
I arrived back at camp to the birds swarming around my pack. This campsite, being the only one not run by the Conservancy, does not have food storage systems. I mistakingly left my pack unattended and the ravens unzipped my brain to find some goods! Damn rookie mistake. Although not off to a stellar start, Two Harbors really was a nice spot to stay. The tent sites were all elevated up the hill like an amphitheater so everyone pretty much gets a view of the water. This is also a place where the ferry drops and picks up so there are a few amenities, shops, restaurants, etc.. Not as big as Avalon by a long shot, but still has a few spots in case you run out of something along the way or maybe plan to not pack food for a night and have dinner out just because you can. Either way, definitely a nice spot for me to relax for the night before the final push of the next day, ahhhh…..
The next day was the push from Two Harbors to Parsons Landing. It was a 15 mile whatever the ridiculous elevation gain it was kinda day. My feet definitely hurt. Actually, when I woke up everything hurt really, but in a good way.
I arose at about 6:15 & decided to get started since I knew this was the longest hiking day & also toughest looking elevation gain. I was on the pipeline hiking out of the campground by 7:20, around the same time as the day before. Hiking out of Two Harbors wasn’t bad until it got worse. Once I finally left the other harbor & headed uphill, that’s all it was until I reached about a 2 mile point, where I was in the middle of the clouds & I was stoked when there was any form of down, and then I finally reached the highest point above the clouds! Yeehaw! Time to descend and make my way to the final camp!!
The silhouettes of the mountains, the canyons, the islands, it was all to die for that day. This is where for me the trail really became worth it. I cruised for a bit relishing the vast views surrounding me until I got to the downhill intersection. I headed downhill & didn’t know I would be so thankful that I brought my trekking poles for the gazillionth time this trip. Bring trekking poles!! That shiz was STEEP! I almost fell a couple of times even with them. Once my feet were pounding in their hole-ridden socks & shoes I finally made it to the campground and was secretly wishing I had the desire to just stay ‘home’ for the rest of the day but I knew I must head to Starlight Beach and see what it was all about. When on the TCT…
I set up my tent, ditched my gear in it, had a little pre-lunch, and then I headed back up that mofo hill I just came down. Nine more miles to go, wahoo!!!!! I knew online they said it wasn’t an easy 4.5 to get there so I figured that meant more uphill. And of course, it did. I climbed up and over Parsons Landing for a stellar view from above. I had some apprehension about hiking though, I just kinda wanted it to be done. I wanted to be relaxed in the tent with not many worries & definitely none of them; ‘is there going to be another uphill’? I knew that heading to this beach there was going to be one more tremendous uphill before I could finally relax and feel free. And there was. But there was also something that I didn’t think about, but really wanted and needed; the chance to finally be totally alone on the trail & see less & less evidence of humans altogether. That is what made it so worth it and special for me. I did, however, run into 2 dudes that were returning from Starlight Beach, but I wasn’t sad to see them because they were beyond stoked to see another hiker and were also well equipped with flair. One had on paisley leggings and the other had a makeshift hat that looked like it came from space. I couldn’t quite figure it out but I appreciated it and they definitely raised my enthusiasm. It didn’t hurt that I had yet another fox stare-down right before I passed them.
I carried on until I went down more steep trail to finally reach the sign that said: Starlight Beach – Day Use Only, No Fires and then the land just dropped right off. Of course. I had to down-climb this sketchy crumbly piece of rock to get to the final beach. But then I was finally there…and by myself, ahhh……..I did think about skinny dipping for a brief moment, but after I took my shoes off & walked along the beach & let the cold, crisp water shock my toes I was like, eh-eh, can’t make me! So instead I soaked the toes and had a snack before heading back out. I still knew how long I had to go before I could really relax for the day.
When I left I zoned out to some tunes & the vastness of the ocean blue as I hiked back to Parsons Landing. The time was flying by. I just so happened to run into another fox on the dirt road back to my campsite. I think the count was at 5 or 6. They are so stinkin’ cute & adorbs and little I just wanted to put one in my pocket for cuddles later. And you can only find them here!
Once I finally arrived at camp and was done hiking the rest of the afternoon/evening was just divine. I made it back in time for the Reading, Writing & Rose hour. Although that hour was going to start whenever I made it back, no matter the time. Me saving all 4 of my cans of Rose for this last night on the trail was one of the best ‘life’ decisions I’ve ever made. Totes. The sun glistening on the water. The waves crashing on the rocks. I could just sit there & watch the scene for hours. I was so happy to be spending my last night on the trail in this breathtakingly beautiful spot. I wish it would last longer, not the trail per se, but this moment. Pause button, please.
But all moments pass, the intolerable & the divine & that one had spent its time. Next was dinner time. I chatted with the neighbors and since they were already doing a fire I said I would bring my firewood over so we could all chat around the fire the last night. And that we did. It was a nice end to the trip, reminiscing about all the ups and downs, and ups, and ups we had encountered on the trail.
I was stoked to be spending yet another night camping with the waves lulling me to sleep but a bit worried it’d be too dreamy and I wouldn’t wake in enough time to hike back and make the ferry. Phone = dead. Online I thought it said 6.5 relatively flat miles back to Two Harbors but when I looked at the map it said 8.5! Hmm, might have to leave earlier than I thought. But alas, I did have my trusty neighbors that woke me up every day but the first. I can rely on them!
My last day on the trail I was overwhelmed with a feeling of gratefulness. It was a recurring theme of this trip for me, actually. I reminisced as I hiked this amazing scenery some of the awesome places I’ve been in the outdoors, and the world in general and I’m just so grateful for all of those experiences that I’ve already had and the ones that I know are still in my future. I was also grateful that I was just in shape enough so this was a challenge, but not a torture to hike, that I had the time off of work, and was not only physically ready, but financially could do this trip right now. Cheers to living life and chasing adventure!
Last day, set the scene: Me under a thatch-roofed bungalow, nestled in a super comfy chair with an ottoman, palm trees to the left and right, just finished a Bloody Mary now working on a Boysenberry Wheat Ale awaiting my ferry back to the mainland. The ocean lapping away like a dog at his water bowl on a lazy summer day. I have mere hours before I step back in the ‘real’ world with its silly worries. Pause button.
Fast forward 1 hour: Upper deck and back seat of the ferry, the island disappearing in the corner view of my mind’s eye, American flag endlessly flapping in the wind, the trail of the boat leaving a momentary trace of where I’ve been, hot pink & blue dreaded hair flying in the wind while I feel the vibration of the motor, listening to great tunes and recounting the even better memories I have from this escapade. Another chapter in my life’s large adventure book has been written and I couldn’t be happier. Until we meet again Catalina……
If you want to embark on a similar journey here are some details/info. that might be useful.
Total expenses(camping prices fluctuate depending on the time of the year and can obviously be cheaper if shared!):
- Round trip Ferry Ticket: $74.50
- Parking at the Ferry: $72.00
- Camping at Hermit Gulch: $36.25
- Camping at Black Jack: $32.25
- Camping at Two Harbors: $38.55
- Camping at Parsons Landing: $52.25 (includes a bundle of wood and 2.5 gallons of water)
- Bison Burrito @ Airport in the Sky: $17.00
- Botanical Gardens: $7.00
- Day 1 – Arrive and set up camp @ Hermit Gulch – 1.5 miles
- Day 2 – Hermit Gulch to Blackjack Campground – 9.2 miles
- Day 3 – Blackjack to Two Harbors Campground – 13.5 miles
- Day 4 – Two Harbors to Parsons Landing – 6.6 miles
- Day 4 – Parsons Landing to Starlight Beach & Back – 9 miles
- Day 5 – Parsons Landing to Two Harbors – 8.5 miles
Total Mileage = 48.3 miles
- Phone: 310-510-8368
- Online: Online reservations
Wow, always wanted to do this and now you’ve provided me with the tools to do so. Thank you. Jodi
You’re welcome Jodi! When you do it report back about your journey!
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Thanks so much for the write up! Going to be doing this in two weeks! Definitely didn’t train as much as I could’ve but slow and steady is mantra and I’m not scared of super early starts haha. By chance, do you have elevation gain by day data? Thanks!