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Trans-Catalina Trail: Intro to Thru-Hiking

Last week, my husband and I completed the Trans-Catalina Trail. I was #hikingmyfeelings from one end of Catalina Island to the other for a total of 40+ miles. Now that we’re back, I believe this trail is the perfect intro to thru-hiking.

trans-catalina trail

First, if you’re new here, hello! I’m Sydney, and you can read more about this new chapter I’m embarking on (currently dubbed “Hiking My Feelings”) by clicking here.

How I Got Interested In Long-Distance Hiking

Back in 2011-2012, my friend Adam told me about the Pacific Crest Trail, and he also said to me that people hike it from start to finish every year. I had been doing some day-hiking around SoCal, but I hadn’t been on any big camping trips or backpacking before. The idea of hiking from Mexico to Canada stirred something inside of me that I didn’t recognize and didn’t frighten me. I did a bunch of initial research, realized I wasn’t in a place where this was financially feasible for me yet and tucked it away for later.

In August 2014, Adam died. He had dreams of hiking the Appalachian Trail and was the one who introduced me to the PCT. Knowing he didn’t have a chance to complete it, I started to pick my research back up. I said to myself that if I was (physically and mentally) able to hike these trails, I wanted to do it in Adam’s honor someday. I started following thru-hikers on Instagram to read their musings on trail life, see the sights, and see the community that was building around their time on the trail.

In 2016, I was working at a marketing agency that closed down all of their offices from Christmas to New Years. We had been on a big camping road trip at the end of 2015, and I was longing for some more time with Mother Nature. That’s when we found the Trans-Catalina Trail.

Me and my hiking experience

I’ve hiked the Trans-Catalina Trail twice now, the first time in 2016.  In 2016, we were unable to finish because the rain washed out the routes to Parson’s Landing. We ended our trip with 25+ miles of trail completed and feeling very accomplished, but a bit disappointed that we didn’t have the opportunity to finish. To be fair, I wouldn’t have been able to finish anyway because I was A MESS after the first day to Blackjack.

trans-catalina trail 2016

2016 MudFest leaving Little Harbor

Now that I’ve got this trail under my belt, I can confidently say I want to pursue my dreams of thru-hiking the PCT (and others before then). I can also say that I love being out in nature for more than one day at a time. And most importantly, my body is capable of handling the physical demands of the trail. I am diabetic and have to take extra precautions.

I want you to know; I’m not an expert hiker (yet). Just because I’ve hiked the Trans-Catalina Trail twice doesn’t mean that I’m ready to go thru-hike the PCT tomorrow. I’m excited for the next step, which is thru-hikes longer than 40 miles. I’ve been hiking off and on since we moved out to California in 2011. I started taking it more seriously in the last two years, and we ramped it up in preparation for the trip we just completed. FOR ME, this was a perfect trip to determine if I want to keep pursuing thru-hiking. Your results may vary. 🙂

This post isn’t a technical trail review but more of an intro to what this trail is all about. If you’d like to read a technical trail review – this is the one that got me pumped about the Trans-Catalina Trail. It’s now outdated as the trail has changed, but a lot of this is still great stuff! I’ll share updated resources and stuff in my next post. But I have hiked this trail twice, and I’m in love with the island, so I’m excited to share my excitement for the TCT with you!

In the rest of this post, I’m going to share my thoughts on this trail, and why I think it’s a great testing ground to see if you want to be a thru-hiker.

Following this post, I’ll share how we prepared for it the second time, what we brought with us, and round up some resources to make it easier for you to plan and book this trip if you’re interested in taking a long walk across the island.  When that’s all said and done, I’ll be sharing my journal entries – the #hikingmyfeelings part of every adventure I take, where I share some of the lessons I learned on the trail and how I plan to integrate those lessons into my life moving forward.

So if you’re ready for a basic overview, here we go!

TCT: The Perfect Backpacking Trip for An Aspiring Thru-Hiker

If you’re a hiker and you’re inspired to start backpacking and want to maybe do a thru-hike someday on the PCT/AT/CDT/etc., this is a BEAUTIFUL first backpacking trip to see how you like it.

trans-catalina trail map 2017

The Trans-Catalina Trail is 38.5 miles (officially) and starts in Avalon and traverses the island, with campgrounds at Blackjack Mountain, Little Harbor, Two Harbors, and Parson’s Landing.

One of the most significant barriers to entry (in my experience) for thru-hiking is time (and therefore money). The big trails take weeks if not months to complete, and if you’re not in a position to drop everything, you may never even have a chance to see if you like thru-hiking. 

That’s why I love the Trans-Catalina Trail. If you’ve never been on a backpacking trip or if you’re a newbie hiker and find yourself with a week (can be done in less) to spare, I’d recommend the itinerary below as an excellent way to ease yourself into the idea of longer trips. I’m going to be writing a ton more about the trip and my thoughts on the trail, but I couldn’t wait for another second to share how perfect this is if you’re ready to do some backpacking and see if you like the idea of thru-hiking.

Now, this trail is challenging. In 2016, it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done physically, ever. Shoe selection, socks selection, and trekking poles can make or break you on this one. I recommend doing this is the fall/winter/spring – as summer is brutal, even though the temps won’t get much higher than 75-80 degrees, there is no coverage worth noting on this trail, and you’re hiking in direct sunlight.

If you do this hike during the summer, I highly recommend one of the lightweight towels you can get wet and keep your head cool. I neglected to use mine on the first day and was struggling with the heat. On the second day from Blackjack to Little Harbor, I soaked mine with water at the airport (the morning was temperate enough that I didn’t need it) and put it over my head, draped it over my neck, tucked it into my shirt, and then put my hat on over it. It was like personal AC and made a tremendous difference in my attitude/stamina on the descent into Little Harbor after lunch.

Recommended Itinerary for a First-Time Backpacker/Thru-Hiker

When I was planning my first backpacking trip, here are some of the questions I had:

Will there be water?

How far do I have to hike each day?

Will there be showers?

Will I have cell reception?

Can we make a fire at the campground?

How much food do I need to bring?

What gear do I need?

In this section, I’ll address the information about distance, what is available to you at the different campgrounds, and some light anecdotes about each part of the trip to help you wrap your head around what you’re committing to if you set out to hike the Trans-Catalina Trail.

This itinerary can be shortened or lengthened to your liking, but I believe organizing your trip in this way gives you time to enjoy the experience, keep it challenging, and also provide you with time to rest. I’ll share some alternative routes/itineraries at the end.

ferry to the trans-catalina trail

Day 0: Mainland to Catalina Island 

Hiking Distance: Hermit Gulch Campground is less than 2 miles from where the Ferry docks in Avalon.
Campground: Hermit Gulch
Amenities: water, restrooms (pit toilets), fire is OK

Notes: Take the ferry to Avalon (I’m going to have a whole post dedicated to the resources you’ll need to access to book the trip, hang tight!). I recommend stopping by the Catalina Conservancy building to pick up a current map. NOTE: the maps on AllTrails, REI Hiking Project, and most other fitness trackers are outdated. Click here for the current map.

Both times we set out to tackle this trail, we took the 6 AM ferry from Long Beach and as soon as we got into town, started hiking to Blackjack. This year, we missed our first alarm, our first Lyft to the Ferry left without us. I don’t want that to happen again, plus it makes for very early morning and a long first day on the trail.

Next time we do the trail, we will have a Day O, and camp at Hermit Gulch Campground (less than 2-mile walk into town). Avalon is a tourist town and the heart of the island’s activity. There are restaurants, hotels, etc., so you don’t have to pack food for your stay at Hermit Gulch if you don’t want to.

trans-catalina trail mile marker 1

Day 1: Hike from Hermit Gulch to Blackjack Campground

Hiking distance: approximately 11 miles

Notes about this segment: This is the hardest day of the trail, but there are nice flat breaks between steep inclines. The first 1.7 miles from Hermit Gulch carries you up exposed switchbacks, and at the top, there is a gazebo to offer some shade and GORGEOUS views. This trail is intense in the upfront, don’t be afraid to take your time. 

If it’s extra hot out and you’re plowing through water, never fear. There is a playground at Haypress Recreation Area (almost to mile marker 6, and about halfway to the campground) with water and restrooms. After Haypress there are two more aggressive climbs, and then you’re making your way into Blackjack Campground.

Campground: Blackjack Campground (near mile marker 11)

Amenities: This campground has cell reception. I recommend sites 1-3 if you’re trying to get away from groups and other people – the rest of the camp is situated in a circle-ish and pretty close together. There is water here and pit toilets.

trans-catalina trail route to little harbor

Day 2: Hike from Blackjack Campground to Little Harbor 

Hiking Distance: approximately 9 miles (Blackjack is near mile marker 11, Little Harbor is near mile marker 19).

Notes about this segment: Two miles into your hike to Little Harbor, you’ll run into the Airport in the Sky. The airport has a restaurant so you can skip packing lunch for this day if you plan to eat at the airport to cut down on pack weight. I highly recommend the BLTA and the Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Walnut cookies – they’re soooo good when you get down to Little Harbor.

REMINDER: If you are navigating off of an app (as of 06/2018), you will likely be told to take Sheep Chute Road. That was the old trail, and it is an aggressive downhill. Follow the TCT signs; you’re looking for Big Springs Ridge Trail.

Campground: Little Harbor (near mile marker 19)

Amenities: The airport has cell reception, Little Harbor does not.

In addition to the ocean, Little Harbor also has outdoor showers (near campsites 8 and 12), drinkable water on site, and porta potties. You can have wood delivered via the Catalina Island Company, and I’d recommend at least two bundles (even if they tell you that’s a lot) if you enjoy spending time by the fire. The wood has been well cured both times we’ve been and burns pretty quickly.

NOTE: Buffalo chips (dried buffalo poop) are an efficient fuel source if you need help keeping the fire going. 

private beach on trans-catalina trail

Day 3: Stay in Little Harbor

If you’ve never hiked in fully exposed conditions with aggressive inclines, or taken the last 5 miles of a trail downhill, you might be in pain today. Little Harbor is STUNNING, and you’ll have three separate beaches to yourself during the day. If you’re feeling up to it, there are some cool rocks to explore (the “whale’s tale” rock formation between Little Harbor and Shark Harbor is fun to climb around on and has some great photo spots), some short hikes for good picture opportunities, etc.

But give yourself the delicious luxury that is an entire day at a private beach with little to no humans and no cell reception. It’s divine.

trans-catalina trail two harbors campground

Day 4: Hike from Little Harbor to Two Harbors

Hiking distance: approx 6 miles.

Notes about this segment: there are two aggressive climbs on this segment of trail, neither of which have switchbacks. One of my favorite views of this trail is at the top of the second climb, and another shade structure after that where you can set your pack down and give your legs a breather. 

Campground: Two Harbors

Amenities: If you can, stay in sites 1-4 in Two Harbors, they’re right on the water. Two Harbors is a local boating town with a restaurant and general store so you can skip packing meals for this one. Highly recommend the Emerald Bay breakfast sandwich from the Galley and the Harbor Reef Burger from Harbor Sands (the restaurant on the beach, literally on the sand).

If you drink alcohol, you cannot leave Two Harbors without trying a Buffalo Milk – it’s a frozen concoction that is the LITERAL BEST when you get done with the climbs coming into Two Harbors. There is water on site, porta-potties, and you can have wood delivered. Highly recommend getting a starter with the wood at Two Harbors, as there is NO brush to pick up, it’s a rocky beach campground.

When you get to Two Harbors, check in at the Catalina Island Company building (visitor center) at the dock. They’ll give you another permit (even though you already have one to be on the trail, to begin with) and if the ranger is back already, you can pick up your key for Parson’s Landing. Otherwise, you’d pick up your key in the morning.

parsons landing campground trans-catalina trail

Day 5: Hike from Two Harbors to Parson’s Landing

Hiking Distance: just over 6 miles if you take Silver Peak trail, not the road.

Notes about this segment: This is not as challenging as the first day to Blackjack. There are aggressive uphills straight out of Two Harbors with no switchbacks and a steep, loose gravel/rocks descent into Parson’s. This section is probably the most rewarding section of the trail view-wise if you ask me.  Definitely take this route and don’t be afraid to take your time. Highly recommend trekking poles for this trail in general, but definitely on this day on the way down into Parson’s Landing.

Campground: Parson’s Landing (near mile marker 31)

Amenities: Parson’s Landing has nothing on it – you need to order wood, fire starter, and water (the ranger will deliver and store in a locker for when you arrive).

This beach is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been on the entire planet; I highly recommend spending at least one night here, if not two.

trans-catalina trail beach at parsons landing

Day 6 (if staying at Parson’s Landing)

Hike from Parson’s Landing to Starlight beach and back for a nice 8-mile day hike. The first time we hiked this trail in 2016, Starlight beach was the end of the TCT. So from Two Harbors, you’d take the Silver Peak trail route to Starlight beach, then down to Parson’s from there. The trail was revised in 2017 and Starlight Beach is no longer part of it. But if you want to be OG and see a cool rocky beach (it’s tiny) and say you’ve been from one end of the island to the other (for realsies), then this is a great day hike.

trans-catalina trail last morning

Day 6 (if headed back to Two Harbors) / Day 7 (if two nights at Parson’s): Hike from Parson’s Landing back to Two Harbors.

Hiking distance: flat 7+ miles that hug the curves of the island on the way back. There is a minimal uphill out of Parson’s to access the road, and from there, it’s smooth sailing back to Two Harbors. There is a ferry available from Two Harbors, and it will take you back to San Pedro. The San Pedro ferry landing is a cheap Lyft/Uber back to the Long Beach terminal if you departed/parked at Long Beach. I’ll get into more details around ferry logistics on the next post, so stay tuned for that!

Alternate Itineraries & Considerations

Longer Hiking Days: A good portion of the folks we meet on the Trans-Catalina Trail go from Avalon to Blackjack (11 miles), Blackjack to Two Harbors (13 miles), Two Harbors to Parson’s (approx 6 miles), Parson’s to Two Harbors (7 miles).

Reverse: Take the ferry into Two Harbors from San Pedro. Hike out to Parson’s Landing, then back around to Two Harbors, then to Little Harbor, on to Blackjack, and then back into Avalon.

Additional Resources: The folks over at She Dreams of Alpine have done a really great job outlining the different ins and outs of the trail with some extended and shortened itineraries. Check it out! 

I think the Trans-Catalina Trail is a perfect introduction to thru-hiking because:

This trail is clearly-marked and well-maintained with a start point and end point. You can say you hiked across an entire island (similar to a thru-hike on the mainland). That alone is reason enough to do some research on this trip.

There is water available halfway through the first day, and at all of the campgrounds (delivered to Parson’s, which you have to order when you make your reservation). This cuts down on the anxiety of how much water to carry (I had a 2L bladder and a 32oz Nalgene and always had plenty of water on me between stops).

There is a break on the second hiking day to eat real food. This break is welcome because camp food takes some adjusting to, and if you’re a texture person like me, there’s only so much mush you can stand. And it reduces your pack weight, for which you will be thankful.

Little Harbor is GREAT for soaking sore and blistered feet. The water is a bit chilly which feels incredible after frolicking on your private beach all day. BONUS: super good for sore muscles!

Two Harbors has hot showers, a restaurant, a general store, and bar. By the time you get through Blackjack and Little Harbor, you’re probably feeling pretty ripe and gross if you usually shower every day. They have coin-operated hot showers in Two Harbors ($2 for the first 3 minutes) to get the trail yuckies off you.

Again, for food at Two Harbors, I highly recommend the Emerald Bay breakfast sandwich and the Harbor Reef burger from Harbor Sands. DO NOT FORGET TO GET A BUFFALO MILK if you drink alcoholic beverages – it’s a tasty frozen delight!

Parson’s Landing gives you a taste of why we do what we do as hikers/backpackers. Parson’s is the ultimate reward toward the end of this (sure to be some level of grueling) trip. It’s remote, untouched, and absolutely breathtaking. The rock formations to shield campfires and tents from the wind look like you’re on another planet. It truly is spectacular.

THE VIEWS! At multiple points throughout the trail, you will be able to see water on either side of you, and if the conditions are right, you’ll be able to see the whole island, tip to tip. It’s a beautiful trail on an island that has a unique history.

The wildlife is spectacular. Bison roam the island – they were brought to the island in the 20’s when they were filming a movie on the island, and they have called the island home since then. Catalina is also home to foxes (lock up your food), squirrels (they’ll steal your cookies!!), a ton of cool birds, as well as deer, bunnies, etc. When we were in Little Harbor the first night, our campground was a petting zoo.

Next Steps

Click here to learn more about the logistics to get to/from the island, how to get campsites, permits, etc. There are a lot of mixed resources on how to do this, so I have rounded them up into one post to make it super easy for you if you’re interested in hiking the Trans-Catalina Trail!

How many miles is the longest hike you’ve done? Have you been backpacking before? Do you have big plans to do one of the big thru-hikes someday?

Check out my TCT Pinterest Board!

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