38 Miles Backpacking the Trans-Catalina Trail on Catalina Island
The Trans-Catalina Trail has been on my backpacking wish list for a long, long time now. It isn't the most logistically easy place to get to an co-ordinate, which is why I think it took me about 6 years of living in California to finally get the needed campsite reservations in order to complete this trail! It was totally 100% worth it though! I will caveat that it is sort of like the Havasu Falls Trail in that it will require that you spend a bit of money in order to get there and be on the trail, but just like Havasu, it was worth every penny for me! I'm so glad we got around to finally doing it, and It was a much needed break from all the hustle of daily life working the 9-5 grind. We even got a chance to test out some new backpacking gear, a backpacking pillow called the PackPillow. It also wasn't our first time out to Catalina. We took a sailboat to Catalina Island with the LA Sailing club one time, which was another amazing trip and I also ran my first half marathon on Catalina Island. It is a super special place, and it should be on your list to visit regardless if you have time to backpack the whole trail or not.
So if you're looking for a trail that is challenging but beautiful, "mountainous" but near the ocean, isolated feeling but still very close to civilization, then this is the perfect trail for you! It is one of a kind, and one you aren't likely to forget, from the boat ride over to the island, to the hilly sea-side views. In fact, this would be a great trail to go do solo, particularly if you were looking to hike your first solo-backpacking trip. All the juicy details below on how to make this dream backpacking trip a reality, and a big thanks to my partner for all his beautiful photos of the trail down in the Trip Report section. Be sure to check them out!
WHAT TO EXPECT IN THIS POST:
In case you are looking for something specific, below lists the different sections I have broken this post down into (at the top of the post you will find the resources for doing this hike and at the bottom you will find fun details from our trip report + lots of good photos:
- Quick hiking information, all the little details you want right up front
- A map of the trail with the campsites we stayed at + GPX file. I've also included our general itinerary and some other 4 and 5 day itinerary options.
- Elevation Profile
- When to plan your hike, what is the best time of the year to do this trail
- How to get there and information on the ferry
- Permit/Campsite Reservation information
- Resources and what to bring
- Our personal trip report from this hike, with all the details + photos you'd want
HIKING QUICK INFO:
- ~38.5 Miles Round Trip (Avalon to Parsons Landing to Two Harbors) is the official mileage from Catalina Island. My GPS logged just over 39 miles though.
- 8,329 feet total elevation gain for trip, 8,475 feet total descent
- Trailhead elevation: basically starting at sea level!
- Highest Point on the trail: 1,748 feet
- Recommended Days to Complete: 3-5 days depending on your preference and/or fitness level
- Several water sources along trail, no water filters needed
- Campsite reservations required!!
- Leave your dogs at home for this one.
MAP OF TRAIL:
Below is a map of our backpacking trail from my GPS. If you click on the image below you will be taken to an interactive map that you can further explore.
Our group decided to hike this trail in three days, but you can easily adapt this for 4 or 5 days. Also, I want to note that we only hiked the "official" trail out to Parson's landing and back to Two Harbors. Some people choose to extend their trip by hiking all the way out to Starlight Beach, which would require a bit more extra time to your trip planning. In the Itineraries below I assume you will only hike out to Parsons landing.
3-DAY ITINERARY - What we did!
- Day 1 – Hike ~10.7 miles from Avalon to Black Jack Campground
- Day 2 – Hike ~14.5 miles from Black Jack Campground to Two Harbors Campground
- Day 3 – Hike ~14.6 miles from Two Harbors Campground - out to Parsons Landing - back to Two Harbors Campground
Below are also some alternative itineraries to the 3-day one posted above.
- Day 1 - Avalon to Black Jack Campground
- Day 2 - Black Jack Campground to Little Harbor Campground
- Day 3 - Little Harbor Campground to Two Harbors Campground
- Day 4 - Two Harbors Campground - out to Parsons Landing - back to Two Harbors Campground
- Day 1 - Avalon to Black Jack Campground
- Day 2 - Black Jack Campground to Little Harbor Campground
- Day 3 - Little Harbor Campground to Two Harbors Campground
- Day 4 - Two Harbors Campground to Parsons Landing Campground
- Day 5 - Parsons Landing Campground to Two Harbors Camground
You can download the GPX/KML file that is shown above with the link below.
Download the GPX File
Get access to my library of GPX files with tracks and waypoints for trails loaded onto the She Dreams of Alpine blog.
Below is a look at the elevation profile for the entire Trans-Catalina trail:
WHEN TO GO:
The Trans-Catalina Trail could likely be hiked year round due to the favorable weather on the California coast, although it is more popular to hike in spring, summer, and fall.
See the chart I created below for more details.
The main obstacle of getting to this trail is coordinating all of your ferry rides to and from the island. We opted to take the ferry in to Avalon and leave Two Harbors, but you could easily decide to start at Two Harbors and take a ferry into Two Harbors and take a ferry out of Avalon. The tricky thing is that Two Harbors has less ferry time options than Avalon. Another option if you want to start at Avalon would be to take a taxi from Two Harbors to Avalon once you've completed your hike. Yes, there are Taxis on Catalina Island.
There are several ferry options as mentioned above when going to and from Avalon. From the California mainland you can take a ferry out of:
- San Pedro, California
- Long Beach, California
- Dana Point, California
However, the only place that ferries to and from Two Harbors campground (at the time of this article at least) is San Pedro.
So we decided to take the ferry from San Pedro to Avalon on their early morning 8AM ferry ride and then we left Two Harbors for San Pedro at 2PM. This meant on our third day (when we had about 13-14 miles to hike) we had to start really early in the morning. Our back up plan (if things went wrong for some reason) was to take a taxi to Avalon if we missed the ferry in Two Harbors. It didn't end up being an issue though, and we were confident we could make that timeline with a little bit of an "alpine" start mentality.
Pricing: A round trip ticket two and from Catalina Island will cost you about $70 a person. Sometimes there are Groupon deals available, but be careful before purchasing any of them because sometimes it is a different kind of boat and only leaves Avalon with bad times.
Below you can see a map of the different ports to Catalina Island.
Below are the details about the Trans-Catalina Trail permit details at the time of writing this article. You can also check my Permit Deadlines and Reservations for Popular California Hiking Trails and Campsites post for details on more trail permits in California.
When to Apply:
- For this trail you primarily need to worry about booking campsites in advance. It will ultimately depend on how many days you are splitting your trip up into, but the main campsites are Hermit Gulch Campsite, Black Jack Campground, Little Harbor, Two Harbors, and Parson’s Landing. Permits can be made roughly a year in advance.
How to Apply:
- Hermit Gulch Campsite - the only campground near Avalon, otherwise you cans stay at a hotel in Avalon, or we didn't stay in Avalon at all, and just started our hike immediately upon arriving in Avalon
- Black Jack Campground - this is a primitive campsite.
- Little Harbor - this is a beautiful campground located on a more secluded side of the Two Harbors area
- Two Harbors - this campground offers tent and cabin camping and is located closer to the town of Two Harbors
- Parson’s Landing.- this is a primitive campsite.
Permits for all campsites can be made roughly a year in advance either online at Reserveamerica.com or by phone
How Much Does it Cost:
- Campground rates vary based on time of the year and range from $8 per night to $28 per night per campsite per person. Yup you heard that right, I'm not going to sugar coat it. It is pretty expensive ESPECIALLY if you try to hike this trail on the weekends. Between all 4 of us we spent about $110 per person on campsites and $70 per person on the ferry. So that is about $180 per person for the whole thing, similar to the cost of the Havasu Falls Trail.
- There are ways to make this much cheaper though!
- Plan your trip during the weekdays! On weekends they require that you book a minimum of two nights per campground. That means, we had to book two nights at each campground even though we were only going to be at each one for only one night. Now maybe I missed something and there is a way around this, but the reservation process wouldn't let me book the sites unless I booked two nights for the weekends.
- Plan your trip during off season!
- Stay at the more primitive campgrounds. As you can see below, Black Jack (which is considered primitive according to the Catalina website) was cheaper than Two Harbors.
Now I will say, nobody came around and checked for our campsite reservations when we were backpacking. We never saw any rangers in fact, but I'm not one to gamble. Below is a look at our reservation costs for BlackJack and Two Harbors Campground.
WHAT TO BRING:
Below I have listed some basic items to remember to pack on your backpacking trip, but it is not a comprehensive list. Be sure to check the weather and pack appropriately!
*Please note that some of the below links and in this post are affiliate links.
- Backpack: Deuter's 45+ Liter backpacks make great first time backpacking backpacks. This was the first backpack I used when I started backpacking, and I still use it often to this day. It's very comfortable, has plenty of pockets and makes packing really simple!
- Tent: You will be fine with a 2-season tent, such as Marmots Crane Creek Backpacking Tent .
- Sleeping Bag & Pad: I always recommend getting a down sleeping bag if you are going to be a "serious" backpacker. If that's you, I recommend getting a 0 to 15 degree rated bag. If you will be doing more high altitude hiking, just splurge on the zero degree bag, it will be worth it. We love the Big Agnes Brand down bags. And if you've read any of my other posts, you know that the Therm-A-Rest NeoAir XTherm sleeping pad is my favorite sleeping pad. It's light weight and easy to pack. It's super comfortable (no body parts touch the ground), and it's warm!
- Headlamp: I pretty much don’t go anywhere without a headlamp. I have a Petzl headlamp, and it has been going strong for over 3 years now. It's also always good to pack an extra set of batteries too whenever you hike or backpack.
- Water Bottle and CamelBak: Camelbaks are awesome for hiking! They are the easiest way to stay hydrated, and I typically always bring one with me. I recommend getting one that has at least a 3 liter reservoir. Also consider brining a Nalgene or water bottle for backup. Then, if a leak develops in my Camelbak, I can at least transfer water to the Nalgene and still be OK.
- Water filter: Usually I recommend bringing a water filter, but you can get by on Catalina without one. I did pack my SteriPen just in case though since its fairly lightweight.
- Camping Stove: I love the MSR Reactor Stove System. I bought this after my Jet Boil broke down, and I like it a lot more. It works great at high altitude and takes only about 30 seconds to bring water to a boil.
- Spork: I like these Light My Fire Sporks because you get a spoon and fork all in one. Your bases are covered.
- Trowel: Nobody likes to talk about it, but to be a responsible outdoorsman/woman you need to bury your human waste. The Deuce of Spades Trowel is a fantastic lightweight option. When I went backpacking with my friends in Tuolumne a couple of months ago, all of my friend's trowel handles broke except for mine! Winning! On the Trans-Catalina Trail though, there are a lot of pit toilets available and port-o-potties, so you can also use these.
- Sunglasses: My favorite pair for day hikes are Goodr Sunglasses. I originally bought these glasses last year when I got into trail running. I couldn't find a pair of glasses that were comfortable and would stay on my face when I was running. These finally did the trick, and now I love wearing them hiking too! They come in a bunch of great color options and the best part... they are only $25! If you want something more classic Native Eyewear is also another good choice because they have a great lifetime warranty.
- Food and Snacks: This should be slightly obvious, but make sure to pack enough food for the appropriate number of days you will be backpacking. I like to pack cliff bars, complete cookies, and lara bars for quick snacks. Good To-Go Dehydrated Dinners are some of my favorite dehydrate meals to bring on backpacking trips as well. The ingredients are great, and they are super delicious. My favorites are the Thai Curry and the Herbed Mushroom Risotto!
- Treking Poles: I love the black diamond trail pro shock trekking poles. Michael and I both have these. They have a set for women (blue) and men (red). I've owned a pair of cheaper trekking poles in the past and they break fairly easily. These are almost indestructible. I've been using the same pair for almost 5 years now, and still going strong.
- Sunscreen & Lipbalm: This should be a no-brainer, but always wear and bring sunscreen for a hike. I really like Neutrogena brand. Just like sunscreen, it is also important to bring lip balm that has sunscreen in it on your hike. My favorite lip balm is the either the Joshua Tree brand.
- Bug Spray: If you have warmer weather, it’s always safe to just bring some of this just in case. I prefer the wipes for hiking and backpacking because it is lighter and easier to pack.
- Camera: Don't forget to pack a camera or a phone to capture your hike! You can read our post on the Outdoor Adventure Photography Gear we use if you want details on the cameras we recommend for outdoor photography, but also you can't go wrong these days with your phone camera either. Your choice!
- First Aid Kit: Another nice item to have is a small first aid kit to throw in your bag that has some basic first aid essentials in it, like the Lifeline Trail Light Day Hiker First Aid Kit. Better safe than sorry.
- GPS: I am a data nerd, and you should be too! I know so many people don’t utilize GPS when they hike, but I consider it an essential piece of gear and there are many great options. My favorite GPS is the Garmin GPS 64st.
- Maps: Whether I print out a map from online or I buy one on amazon for my specific trail, I always like to have a map of some sorts. Depending on where you are hiking, many trails can have forks and split off in different directions, so it’s good to have something to ground yourself with. My favorite maps are the National Geographic Trail Illustrated Maps or the Tom Harrison Maps, if you can find one that includes your trail. I love this super detailed National Geographic Map of the John Muir Trail! Also you can wait to grab a map from the Catalina Conservancy in Avalon.
- Clothing based on time of year you will be hiking: For details on clothing, hiking boots, and socks we recommend, I suggest reading our Essential Hiking Gear List. The weather temperature is fairly consistent on Catalina Island, so there shouldn't be too much to anticipate besides rain. As for footwear, definitely bring a good pair of hiking boots and at least 2 pairs of wool socks.
For more detailed descriptions on gear that we like and recommend, check out our Essential Hiking Gear List.
You can download my hiking gear checklist below too for easy reference:
Essential Hiking Gear Packing List
Download the essential hiking gear packing list for easy reference next time you pack for a hike.
DETAILED TRIP REPORT:
Day 1 – Hike ~10.7 miles from Avalon to Black Jack Campground
We all drove up to San Pedro the morning of our 8AM Ferry ride to Catalina Island, so it was a pretty early wake up call on the Friday morning of our first day of hiking. We already bought our ferry tickets online so we pretty much just walked in and then got in line for the Ferry. The ferry ride over is only about 45 minutes and it was a great time for us to catch up a bit since my friend Ashima now lives in the Bay Area and I never see her anymore!
It's funny because usually I am ultra prepared on backpacking trips. I have a trail GPX file pre-downloaded to my GPS, I have a map all ready to go, and I know exactly where to start, but I think because I knew this wasn't going to be the middle of nowhere in the mountains (I mean, there are two towns on Catalina Island, and lots of tourists!) I was a bit more relaxed. So we showed up and started looking for an information center, because I thought I needed to pick up hiking permits. The information center we got to on the beach told us to go to the Catalina Island Conservancy, and so we turned toward town and started hiking there.
It is pretty funny at first because you look super nerdy with all your backpacking gear, but you are hiking through the center of Avalon with tons of other tourists who are there just to enjoy Avalon. When we reached the Conservancy, they told me I didn't need an official backpacking permit as long as I had my campground reservations. So mainly I just bought a map there. The lady at the Conservancy also told us that there was plenty of water along the trail (marked on the map), and she also told us to zip our tents from bottom up.. because apparently the foxes are crafty in Catalina.
Looking at the photo below, they look more sleepy than crafty to me... but maybe that is what they want you to think?
And this is the only group photo we snapped off that has all of us in it from my iPhone, a collection of my favorite humans.
We slathered on some sunscreen and then hit the trail, or asphalt rather. You hike on the road for a bit until you reach a turning point for the trail at Hermit Gulch Campground in Avalon. Then my friends it is a steep, steep climb up. You get most of your elevation gain on the first day on the very first part of your hike toward Black Jack Campground.
Even though it was early April when we hiked this, it was pretty hot, so we were sweating big time by the time we reached the top of the first big main incline.
Once you reach the top though, you get some great views of Avalon and the trail system in Catalina. It's stunning!
At the top of the first hill Michael realized he left the micro SD card at home for the drone, so sadly he had to carry drone weight the whole trip but never got to use it!
Staying on the official trail during your Trans-Catalina hike is very straight forward. Even though there are a lot of diverting trails, there are a ton of signs and mile markers along route to keep you on the main Trans-Catalina hike. The three photos below show you the kinds of signs to keep an eye out for. As I mentioned above, I think this would make a great solo backpacking trail if you were a first timer to solo backpacking. The trail is well marked, you aren't far from civilization, and it's beautiful!
The rest of day one was a series of ups and downs on our walk toward Blackjack Campground.
We stopped at the Haypress Recreation Area to fill up on water before continuing on our hike, and we got to see our first buffalo of the trip! One of my big goals during this hike was to finally see some buffalo! I have been to Catalina 3 or some times already and never seem to run across them. We ended up seeing quite a few the first day of our hike on the Trans-Catalina Trail. Super unique to be hiking on an island with buffalo! The water at Haypress is fine to drink straight up, no need to filter it. In fact, all the designated water areas on Catalina should be OK to drink from without filtering beforehand.
Poor Michael didn't really get many photos taken of him on the trip since he was the main photographer, but we managed to snag one, so I had to add it in here. It is on this little bench made of Trans-Catalina trail signs.
We made it to our campsite area with plenty of daylight to spare. The campsites are called "primitive" online, but it is nothing like what I would call primitive. It was pretty luxurious if you ask me. There were benches, fire pits, bathrooms (with toilet paper!), and "buffalo" boxes. Your campsites are assigned in your reservation, so you just go and set up in your assigned spot. As I mentioned earlier, we never got approached by any campsite host or ranger while at the campground.
We were all really tired from waking up super early, so we didn't have any trouble falling asleep.
Day 2 – Hike ~14.5 miles from Black Jack Campground to Two Harbors Campground
We weren't in a huge rush on day 2, even though we had quite a bit of mileage to cover. So we took our time waking up and getting ready in the morning and then headed off into the foggy hills.
The whole day was super overcast, foggy, and dream-like. It turned out to be really nice because it shaded us from the heat of the sun and added a cool aspect to that part of the hike. It didn't really even feel like we were hiking on an Island.
We also saw some more buffalo.
Classic power, nerd pose.
Not that long into our hike on the 2nd day we came across the Catalina Airport and decided to go check it out and use their bathrooms. We ended up staying there for around an hour or so, grabbing food and coffee, because... why not? This backpacking was starting to feel very glamourous. First there were toilets at the "primitive" Blackjack Campground, then there was a cafe right in the middle of the trail.
We have plenty of moments of suffering in the mountains, so we decided to embrace the island blessings of food and coffee. If we had known beforehand how many options there would be along the trail for snacks and food at restaurants, I probably would've packed less food.
Once we were finished spoiling ourselves at the airport, we continued on our way, up and down, up and down. There is a surprising amount of elevation gain on the Trans-Catalina Trail. Had I done some more thorough research beforehand, I would've seen that each day had about 3,000-4000 feet of gain per day. Not too shabby.
Sometimes hikers opt to camp at Little Harbor Campground which you can see in the photo below. I really wish we could've stayed here, but it just didn't really make sense to stay there since we only had 3 days to complete the hike. If you do have more time though, I would check it out. It looks so nice and secluded, and right along the beach.
Once you get to Little Harbor you will hike another big hill up, and then travel along some beautiful coastline on the Western side of the island.
By the end of day 2, we were all feeling very exhausted, so it was so awesome to see Two Harbors in the distance! So beautiful too!
We decided to spoil ourselves again and instead of hiking straight to our campground, we ended up hiking straight into town to eat some real food.
Food and beer mid backpacking trip? Yes please. This is what true happy campers look like.
Eventually we did make our way over to the Two Harbors Campground. You will have to hike about an additional half mile to get there, but it is another beautiful campsite, right along the coast. Again, there were tons of amenities, port-o-potties, picnic tables, etc.
We had to go to bed early on day 2 because we had an early wake up call for our 3rd day on the trail.
Day 3 – Hike ~14.6 miles from Two Harbors Campground - out to Parsons Landing - back to Two Harbors Campground
If I remember correctly, we woke up around 3:30 AM so that we could be off on the trail by 4AM. An island alpine-start. Our ferry would be leaving at 2pm from Two Harbors, and we had over 14.5 miles to cover. It was a little strange starting a hike in the same place you would end it. It would have been really easy to just say, "mehhh, lets just be beach bums", but I'm glad we stuck to our guns and finished up the remaining part of the Trans-Catalina Trail, because it was awesome!
Day three was probably the most epically beautiful day out of all the hiking we did on the Trans-Catalina trail. I am guessing it is partially because we decided to get up early before sunrise to start our hike on the third day. We were rewarded with the most beautiful sunrise I've ever seen, and some amazing hiking above the clouds on Catalina Island.
And to be honest, even though on the map the uphill part of day three looks terrifying, it actually went by really fast. It was probably partially due to the fact that we did the worst bit in the dark, but also the views made the pain a bit more distracting.
Then once you get most of the uphill completed on day three you are practically done with the hard part. It is all downhill mostly to Parson's Landing.
Some portions of this trail were super steep though, so I definitely advise that you bring hiking poles. We all pretty much ate it at one point or another on this part of the trail.
I really wish we could've stayed the night at Parson's Landing. Out of all the campsites we came across, it felt the most "primitive" and isolated, and it was right on the beach. We stayed there for a bit to eat and rest our feet.
But then we were determined to finish up the hike!
From Parson's Landing back to Two Harbors is another beautiful stretch of the Trans-Catalina trail, and you get views of the ocean pretty much the entire hike back.
We enjoyed sharing the trail with some other small creatures of the island.
The last few miles were hard because our feet were pretty tired, but the views made it oh-so worth it.
We made it back to Two Harbors with a few hours to spare before our ferry boat left back for the mainland! I'm sort of glad our early ferry forced us to wake up early, because otherwise we would've missed the beautiful sunrise that morning.
All in all, it was a really great trail! Expensive yes, but really gorgeous. I also was surprised by how challenging it ended up being. I think I went into the hike thinking it would be a very "chill" hike, but I didn't realize how much gain and mileage we would be doing each day. I think if you want to challenge yourself, definitely consider hiking this in 3 days, but if you want to take your time enjoying the island extend your days there and stay at Little Harbor or Parsons Landing, those looked like great campsites! A great hike to add to the books, and another great memory of Catalina Island.