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How to Plan Your Hike on the Trans-Catalina Trail

Good things take time, and planning/booking a hike across the Trans-Catalina Trail is no exception. There are currently several steps you need to follow, and the last two times we did this trip we could have saved some money. This post will serve as a one-stop shop for the logistics of planning/booking your trip on the TCT. I highly recommend reading all the way through this post before starting the planning/booking process.

If this is your first stop here – check out why I think the TCT is a great intro to thru-hiking for an overview of the trail. If you don’t know me, I’m Sydney, and you can read more about my hiking adventures (and how I’m #hikingmyfeelings) here.

LAST UPDATED: June 12, 2018

Step 1: Understand Who’s Involved with the Trans-Catalina Trail

If you’re here, you’ve likely already heard of the Trans-Catalina Trail, or perhaps you’re considering long-distance thru-hiking and want to use the TCT as your test run. As you get started on the planning process, you’re going to hear a lot of Catalina-based companies thrown around. Here’s who is involved in getting you to the trail, and who’s maintaining it once you get there.

Catalina Island Conservancy: When you google “trans catalina trail” – this is likely the first link that pops up, the Catalina Conservancy website. From their website: Founded in 1972 as a non-profit organization, the Catalina Island Conservancy is one of the oldest private land trusts in Southern California. It protects 88 percent of Catalina Island, including more than 62 miles of unspoiled beaches and secluded coves—the longest publicly accessible stretch of undeveloped coastline left in Southern California. Catalina Island is home to more than 60 plant, animal and insect species found nowhere else in the world. It is visited by more than one million people annually. More than sixty thousand school children each year visit camps on Conservancy lands.

Catalina Island Company: (from their website) In October, 1894, the Banning Brothers – William, Hancock and Joseph – incorporated the Catalina Island Company, placed title to the Catalina Island land holdings they had acquired two years earlier into their newly-formed company, and then started building for the future. The Banning’s planned to develop the island as a resort, and much of the initial development of Avalon took place during their ownership.

When William Wrigley Jr. (NOTE: Yes, like the gum!!) acquired a majority interest in the Catalina Island Company from the Banning’s in 1919, the destiny of the Island began to change forever. This now-historic event cast the die for permanently preserving substantially all of Santa Catalina Island in its natural state. During the next 56 years, various conservation practices were initiated by the Wrigley-led Catalina Island Company, including much-needed animal controls, protection of watersheds and reseeding of overgrazed areas.

Catalina Express: Catalina Express offers daily ferry service to and from Catalina Island. There are multiple ports you can depart from on the mainland. Catalina Express offers service to Avalon (primary hub) and Two Harbors.

Step 2: Getting Excited about the Trans-Catalina Trail

You’re here – so that’s a great first step! I’m only one woman with a couple experiences on this trail, and my videos from our first trek across the island are below. If you’d like to see some other perspectives of the trail, here are some posts, videos, and accounts to follow:

Our First TCT Hike in 2016 

Trans-Catalina Trail / DAY 1: Avalon to Blackjack from Sydney Williams on Vimeo.

Trans-Catalina Trail / Days 2 & 3 from Sydney Williams on Vimeo.

Trans-Catalina Trail / Day 4 from Sydney Williams on Vimeo.

Additional Awesome Videos (NOTE: The trail changed in 2017 so anything from 2016 or older is out of date for the route, but the views are still incredible!)

Trans-Catalina Trail – March 2018 from Deja Chappell on Vimeo.

Backpacking the Trans-Catalina Trail from The Hirsches on Vimeo.

If you’re on instagram, check out the #transcatalinatrail hashtag, there are a lot of great photos/videos floating around!

Step 3: Pick Your Dates to Hike the Trans-Catalina Trail

This is where things can get tricky. I highly recommend doing this hike October-early June. Even though the temperatures on the island rarely exceed temps in the 80’s, there is no coverage on this trail and you’re hiking in direct sunlight for the majority of it.

Once you’ve landed on a time of year, your route will likely be influenced by the availability of the campsites. This is why we initially spent two days in Little Harbor during our first hike across the island. It wasn’t planned, we had to stay a minimum of two nights (we were there between Christmas and New Years) at one of the campgrounds and those dates shifted our whole trip around.

For the sake of doing research on when campsites are available, it’s a clunky process, but here’s my recommended plan of attack:

Start at ReserveAmerica.com. This can be your starting place to have all the campgrounds listed in one place. This is the order you’ll visit the campgrounds, assuming you’re starting in Avalon. If you’re doing the reverse route, start with Parson’s.

Hermit Gulch (if you’re doing a Day 0)
Blackjack
Little Harbor
Two Harbors
Parson’s Landing

If you’re coming in the night before your hike and staying at Hermit Gulch, use that as the start of your journey. If you’re taking the ferry on the morning of your hike, start at Blackjack.

Determine your itinerary based on campsite availability. DO NOT BOOK ANYTHING YET.

Step 4: Get to Catalina Island

My recommended mode of transportation to the island is by ferry via Catalina Express. There is also an airport on the island, so if you have a friend with a plane or want to take a helicopter ride to start your journey, by all means, go for it. But a Ferry to Avalon (or Two Harbors if you’re doing the route reversed) is the easiest and most cost-efficient way to get over there.

The Ferry/Campsite situation can be a bit chicken vs. egg, so stick with me here.

NOTE: The Catalina Express used to offer a free ticket to Catalina on your birthday, but they discontinued that program in 2017.

Before you book your campsites, check the ferry schedule at CatalinaExpress.com. Make sure that the ferry you want to take is available before you book your campsites. I’ve never run into a problem here, but in the event that there is a large group going over to the island the same time you are, you’ll want to be sure your ferry schedule aligns to your camping schedule.

Most people take the ferry out of Long Beach or San Pedro. You can only get to/from Two Harbors out of San Pedro, so plan accordingly.

My recommended Ferry itinerary: 

Long Beach to Avalon
Two Harbors back to San Pedro
Lyft to Long Beach Terminal (approx 6 miles away)

PARKING: Parking at Long Beach Terminal is $17/day, $18/day at San Pedro. Depending on how many days you’re gone and how far you live from Long Beach, I highly recommend taking a Lyft/Uber to the terminal or have a friend drop you off to save the money on parking.

If you want to go round-trip out of Avalon, you will need to find a way from Two Harbors to Avalon. The cheapest way I’ve found is to take the Safari Bus. This adds another $57 (plus baggage fees) to your trip per person. We saved money here by parking at a friend’s house in Long Beach, taking a $17 Lyft to the Long Beach Terminal, then taking another $17 Lyft from the San Pedro terminal back to where our car was parked. Our total costs for getting to/from the island (aside from Ferry tickets) was a whopping $34, compared to $114 it would have cost us to take the Safari bus, plus the $85+ we would have had to pay for parking. As you can see, this part of the trip can get costly, quickly.

Once you’ve confirmed your preferred ferry times are available on the days you want them, keep that browser window open, but don’t purchase yet.

NOT LOCAL? Where do I fly? If you are NOT local to Southern California, if you’re able to fly into Long Beach (LGB), it’s about $20 to get a Lyft from the airport to the Long Beach terminal for Catalina Express, $25 to San Pedro. If you’re flying into LAX, it’s about $35 for a Lyft to the San Pedro or Long Beach terminals. If flying into OC/John Wayne, it’s around $40-50 to get to the Dana Point, Long Beach or San Pedro ferry terminals for Catalina Express or you can take the Catalina Flyer out of Newport Beach (note, Catalina Flyer only goes in/out of Avalon and there is only one ferry per day). Of course, all prices subject to change based on whatever extra fees/tips/surge pricing.

Step 5: Book Your Campsites along the Trans-Catalina Trail

NOTE: If you call the Catalina Island Company to book your sites, you’re subject to a $10 fee. If you book online, a $9.75 service fee is added. Either way, you’re going to pay a service fee.

If you’re doing the whole trail, sign up for a Catalina Island Conservancy membership. Individual memberships are $35 and you’ll save 50% off your camping fees at Blackjack, Little Harbor, and Parson’s Landing. If you’re traveling with your significant other, roommate, or someone else that you live with, you can sign up for an Explorer membership that covers two people for $65. Depending on how much time you’re spending on the island, the membership will pay for itself and then some.

Now that you’ve got your dates picked out, let’s continue with the planning/booking process!

Call the Catalina Island Company at 310-510-TENT (8368). More than 80,000 scouts/students come to the island every year for camp and conservation programs, so unless you love sharing campgrounds with pre-pubescent screaming boys, ask the Catalina Island Company about any big groups at the campgrounds on the days you’ve selected.

Assuming you’re good to go and you’ve found dates that work, I recommend booking with the Catalina Island Company. They are the folks who handle the wood/starter/water deliveries and you can handle everything in one call. You will not be able to get your Conservancy discount if you book through Reserve America. If you book online, then do the membership, you can retroactively be refunded BUT ONLY BEFORE YOU STAY.

As you book your campsites, they will ask you about water/fire/fire starters. As of our trip in June 2018, fires were not allowed at Blackjack campground, so we didn’t have anything delivered to us there. If you’re good at building a fire, there is plenty of brush (and buffalo poop makes a great fuel source, really!) at Little Harbor and you can probably skip the fire starter. But for Two Harbors and Parson’s Landing, definitely get the wood and fire starter. At Parson’s Landing, there is no running water so they will deliver a 2.5 gallon jug of water, a bundle of wood, and fire starter to a locker for you. You can pick up the key at the Two Harbors Visitors Center (on the dock) before you leave for Parson’s Landing. IF YOU DO NOT PICK UP YOUR KEY YOU WILL NOT HAVE ACCESS TO YOUR WATER, WOOD, AND FIRE STARTER.

Once your campsites are booked, book your ferry tickets and you’re good to go!

Our Total Costs for Campsites & Getting to the Island

Campsites (without Conservancy membership): $279.59
Wood/Water delivery: $80 (4 bundles of wood for two nights at Little Harbor, two bundles at Two Harbors, 1 wood/starter/water pack for Parson’s Landing)
Ferry tickets: $73.50 x 2 = $147

Total: $506.59

Step 6: Secure Your Permit / Check In

This part of the journey is a bit confusing depending on where you start looking.

A permit is required to hike the Trans-Catalina Trail and they are currently free through the Catalina Island Conservancy.

Now, when you click through that link, it says that if you’re doing the TCT, that your camping reservations serve as your permit, and that you don’t need this one. I’ve never been asked for this permit, but the Conservancy website for the Trans-Catalina Trail says you should have one. Go ahead and fill that form out.

On our most recent trip, we got an email from the ranger at Hermit Gulch campground the night before our stay in Blackjack, asking us to call and check in when we arrived at the island. When we got to Hermit Gulch campground (the start of the TCT), I left a message for the ranger giving my campsite at Blackjack, confirmation number, and my name. I didn’t get a callback and they didn’t come looking for us, so I’m guessing we did that right. I met the VP of Outdoor Activities for the Catalina Island Company on the ferry over from Long Beach, and he said that’s a new thing that they’re having the rangers do.

There was no check-in at Little Harbor, but the live-in ranger, Leonard, was available to answer any questions we had.

When we got to Two Harbors to check in, they had us fill out a slip for another camping permit. While your Conservancy permit serves as your overall hiking permit, Two Harbors Campground is not Conservancy land, so they’ll have you fill out an additional camping permit for Two Harbors Campground. They also have you do this for Parson’s. While Parson’s IS Conservancy land, the Catalina Island Company manages the lockers for wood/water drops, and the permits for Parson’s help them keep track of the keys for the lockers.

Now, if you didn’t call, didn’t read this blog post, and were just following instructions, you could very well arrive at Two Harbors (after some brutal uphills on the way in from Little Harbor) and be (hungry and) confused as to why there is additional permitting. At least, I was. Sometimes it’s hard to tell what is necessary between the Conservancy and the Catalina Island Company, and it seems like there are some gaps in communications between the two organizations, but now we know how permits on the island work!

Next Steps: What Do I Bring? How do I prepare?

So your trip is booked, congratulations! My next post will include our packing lists, recommended meals, and some extra tips for hikers with Type 2 Diabetes since this was my first long-distance, multi-day hike since I was diagnosed in September 2017. I’ll also share some of the prep we did since we hiked this trail the first time in 2016.

Hint: the 5 Peaks Challenge at Mission Trails Regional Park in San Diego is the perfect training hike for the first day on the TCT. If you can complete that challenge, you can get to Avalon to Blackjack (and the rest of the trail, as the daily mileage decreases after the first day), no problem.

Stay tuned!

Are there any questions you have about planning or booking this trip that I didn’t answer here?

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