Backpacking the Trans Catalina Trail on Catalina Island

catalina island

Nestled within the old-world charm of small island towns and rustic territory is the Trans Catalina Trail: a 38.5 mile-long backpacking trail located on Santa Catalina Island, California. A short hour-long ferry ride from mainland Southern California, the Trans Catalina Trail is an ideal escape for those not wanting to travel far to get both seclusion and adventure.  A backpacker’s dream, the trail boasts elevation gains as high as 1,600 feet, isolated campgrounds, and stops along some of the state’s most beautiful beaches.  

Catalina Island.

Before hitting the trail, a short walk through Avalon to the trailhead exhibits the charm of life on Catalina Island.

The Trail Basics

The TCT trail specs:

  • Total length: 38.5 miles
  • Elevation change: 8,600 feet. 
  • Time to complete: 3 to 5 days 
  • Number of designated campgrounds on the trail: 5

The TCT extends the entire length of Catalina Island.  From Avalon, the epicenter of the island and its only incorporated city, to Starlight Beach at the northernmost tip of the Island, the trail takes hikers through small towns, high peaks, and secluded beaches from beginning to end.  

If you are planning on camping overnight, your campsite reservations will function as your hiking permit, no check-in needed.  If you are just taking a day trip to Catalina Island and want to spend an afternoon hiking, you’ll need to pick up in person or print from online a hiking permit issued by the Catalina Island Conservancy visitors center.  There, you can also get a trail map and fill up your water.

What to Expect and How to Prepare for Backpacking the TCT

The TCT is a challenging trail made up of a series of continuous climbs and descents.  While the trail is made up of mostly clear dirt roads, the backcountry can be rocky and unstable at some points.  

Just about all of the TCT is exposed to direct sunlight as very few tall trees cover the trail, making the heat brutal during the summer months.  With the exception of the area surrounding Blackjack campground, you’ll most likely be in the sun all day.  

Be sure you’re prepared for the hike by packing with you:

  • Trekking poles
  • Sturdy hiking boots
  • sunscreen
  • Hat and sunglasses
  • Potable water canisters 
  • Headlamp

Additionally, be prepared to encounter some furry friends along the trail including bison, the Catalina Island Fox, and the Southern Pacific Rattlesnake.

Getting to Catalina Island

The most common and convenient method of getting to Catalina Island is by ferry.  The Catalina Express and the Catalina Flyer both depart multiple times throughout the day from Los Angeles to Avalon, Catalina Island.

The Catalina Flyer departs once per day from Newport Beach at 9 a.m..  The Catalina Express departs multiple times throughout the day from the following cities: 

  • Long Beach
  • San Pedro
  • Dana Point

In order to get the most out of a backpacking trip, taking the earliest available ferry to arrive at around 8 or 9 a.m. on Catalina Island is the best option.  If you are unable to arrive early in the morning on Catalina Island, the second-best option is to arrive late in the evening to Avalon, camp overnight at the nearby Hermit Gulch Campground, and then begin hiking the following morning.  

Backpacking Itinerary

If you’re a camper wanting to hike the entire trail while getting the most of it, plan for a 5-day trip to ensure that you’re not rushing through from start to finish. 

5 Day Backpacking and Camping Itinerary 

Day 1:  Renton Mine Road Trailhead to Black Jack Campground

Trail specs:

  • Total length: 13.8 miles
  • Elevation change: 3,339 feet
  • Total hike time: 7 to 14 hours
  • Level of difficulty: difficult

The first day of the trail is the most difficult, making an early start essential for getting into the campground before dark. Once you get to the island’s inland, there are views of the ocean, wildflowers, cacti, and, sometimes, wild bison. Arriving at the Blackjack Campground, you will then have the option to settle in at your campsite or take a 2 mile walk out to Airport in the Sky for dinner where they’re famous for their bison burgers.

Day 2: Blackjack Campground to Little Harbor Campground

Trail specs:

  • Total length: 7.15 miles
  • Elevation change: 1,754 feet
  • Total hike time: 2.5 to 4.5 hours
  • Level of difficulty: moderate

After setting out in the morning, and if you hadn’t already gone to the Airport in the Sky, then that’s a good first stop in the morning for coffee and brunch. Once you arrive at the Little Harbor Campground in the afternoon, you’ll be happy it was a short hike as the Little Harbor beach and its neighboring beach at Shark Harbor make for some of the best water activities on the entire island.

This is the only campground located on the remote west end of the island so you’ll really feel the seclusion once you’re there.  To make up for the remoteness, the Two Harbors general store is available to deliver food, water, and other supplies directly to your campsite.  

a view of catalina island

While having breakfast or dinner at the Airport in the Sky, plane-watching is a must.

Day 3:  Little Harbor Campground to Two Harbors Campground 

Trail specs:

  • Total length: 5.14 miles
  • Elevation change: 1,212 feet
  • Total hike time: 2 to 3.5 hours
  • Level of difficulty: moderate

The hike from Little Harbor Campground to Two Harbors Campground will take you across Catalina Island to its east end and second of two towns, Two Harbors. The first half of the trek will include a few consecutive, steep climbs.  At the top, you’ll be able to look down and see the ocean on both the east and west sides of the island. After a short break, the remainder of the trail is mostly downhill as you make your way into the small town of Two Harbors.

Once you arrive at the campground, you can take another afternoon for water activities where equipment rental is available.  There is also a small grocery store known for its ice cream as well as seaside restaurants famous for their seafood. Before departing Two Harbors, be sure to call the Two Harbors Visitor Service Center to order a locker and locker key for your stay at Parsons Landing.

Day 4: Two Harbors Campground to Parsons Landing Campground

Trail specs:

  • Total length: 6.57 miles
  • Elevation change: 1,728 feet
  • Total hike time: 3 to 6 hours
  • Level of difficulty: difficult

Just after departing Two Harbors Campground comes a steep 1,800 foot uphill climb with panoramic views of the island.  After ascending to the top, the climb is followed by a quick drop down to sea level where Parsons Landing is located.

Parsons Landing is the more secluded of the two seaside, east-end campgrounds. This campground has only 8 primitive campsites on the beach, giving each campsite a private beach-like feel. Because it is so far removed, there is no place to get food, water, or supplies at the camp, so you’ll have to be sure to either bring your supplies or have already purchased a locker stocked with water and firewood before arriving.  

Day 5: Parsons Landing Campground to Starlight Beach to Two Harbors

Trail specs:

  • Total length: 15.81 miles
  • Elevation change: 3,060 feet
  • Total hike time: 7 to 12 hours
  • Level of difficulty: moderate/hard

If you’re going to make a day hike to Starlight Beach from Parsons Landing and then make it back to Two Harbors by the end of the day, then you’d better be ready for a long hike! Starlight Beach, with its many rocky cliffs and coves, makes a great place to stop and picnic during the late morning.  This is the last stop opportunity for some water activities before closing out the adventure.

By early afternoon and after a couple of hours on the beach, it’s time to head back to Two Harbors to close out the trip.  You’ll head back the same way you came, covering just over 11 miles and expecting to arrive at Two Harbors within 5 to 8 hours of leaving the beach.

Points of Interest Along the TCT

Not only is the TCT in itself a destination, but points of interest along the trail also offer an opportunity to rest and take in the beauty of Catalina Island.

1. Airport in the Sky

Located two miles north of Black Jack Campground is Airport in the Sky, the island’s only airport where plane watching, dining, and the nature center can all be found.  At 1,600 feet above sea level, Airport in the Sky sits on a plateau and boasts spectacular views of the islands inland and sea.  

DC-3 Gifts and Grill is one of the only places along the TCT where you can stop and have a restaurant meal.  Known for their famous buffalo burgers and Mexican classics, DC-3 makes a great breakfast on your way to Little Harbor or for dinner while staying at Blackjack Campground.  Even better, in the summertime, you won’t want to miss the live music from local island bands outside on the barbecue.

2. Shark Harbor

Connected to the Little Harbor Campground and adjacent to Little Harbor beach is Shark Harbor beach.  While right next to Little Harbor, Shark Harbor offers completely different conditions for water activities than its neighbor. Often considered one of the best locations for surfing in the country, Shark Harbor is an easy and must-stop along the TCT.

3. Starlight Beach

Situated at the very end of the TCT is Starlight Beach.  Located at the island’s northernmost point, the beach makes a great day trip from Parsons Landing. A much rockier beach than those at Two Harbor and Little Harbor, Starlight Beach is full of cliffs and coves all worth exploring.  Near the end of the entire trip, Starlight Beach is a great spot to get in some final few water activities before heading back to the mainland.

4. Haypress Reservoir

A perfect midday stop along the climb towards Blackjack Campground is the Hapress Reservoir, a picnic and rest stop that embodies the inland landscape of Catalina Island. Picnic tables, a playground, and a small lake often surrounded by bison make this spot perfect for a short (or long) hiking break.   

Campsites Along the TCT 

Five campgrounds are found along the length of the TCT, each conveniently spread about a days’ hike between one another and with points of interest located along the way. Each campground requires a reservation in advance which comes with the basic campsite amenities.

With the exception of Parsons Landing Campground in which you will need to reserve a locker in order to have drinking water, reservations at each other location include drinking water.  Additionally, firewood is available for purchase at the locations where fires are permitted including Little Harbor, Two Harbors, and Parsons Landing.   

1. Hermit Gulch Campground

Starting off at the top of the trailhead, the Hermit Gulch Campground is the only campground within the Avalon City limits.  Walking distance to all the activities within the town as well as the TCT, the campground is a nice hybrid of city and scenic.

If you’re arriving on Catalina in the evening and looking for a place to sleep that night before backpacking the next day, Hermit Gulch is an easy choice. In addition to tent sites, the campground also offers tent cabins for rent which come with a propane stove and an electric lantern.

Amenities: 

  • Picnic tables 
  • Barbecue stands
  • Flush toilets
  • Showers
  • Coin-operated lockers
  • Vending machines
  • Equipment rental

2. Black Jack Campground

Midway between the towns of Avalon and Two Harbors, Black Jack Campground is Catalina Island’s highest altitude campground.  1,600 feet above sea level and covered in eucalyptus trees, Black Jack Campground ensures sprawling views of the entire island. With no fires permitted at the campground, another option for meals is the restaurant located at Airport in the Sky. 

Amenities:

  • Picnic tables
  • Barbecue and fire rings
  • Drinking water
  • Chemical toilets
  • Showers

3. Little Harbor Campground

In between Avalon and Two Harbors, the most secluded campground on Catalina is Little Harbor Campground.  Isolated on the island’s “backside”, Little Harbor is the dream for any backpacker in search of sprawling, sandy beaches, and water activities.

Activities available at Little Harbor include sailing, kayaking, and even scuba diving.  Named the “World’s Healthiest Marine Environment”, taking a break from backpacking may be worth it to take an afternoon and go for a scuba diving lesson. Being so far removed from the rest of the island, Little Harbor also has its own general store with everything from fresh fruit to sandwiches available to be delivered directly to your campsite.   

Amenities:

  • Picnic tables
  • Barbecue and fire rings
  • Cold-water, outdoor showers
  • Drinking water
  • Chemical toilets
  • Kayak rental
  • Equipment rental

4. Two Harbors Campground

Sitting just outside the town of Two Harbors, the campground sits on top of a bluff overlooking the Pacific ocean, giving it a secluded feel despite being a walking distance to town. Similar to Little Harbor Campground, Two Harbors also has a general store and equipment for activities like kayaking, fishing, and paddleboarding. Two Harbors also offers tent cabins with propane stoves and electric lanterns for rent offering a more comfortable camping experience.

Amenities:

  • Picnic tables
  • Barbecue and fire rings
  • Showers
  • Chemical toilets
  • Drinking water
  • Equipment rental

5. Parsons Landing Campground

The northernmost campground along the TCT is Parsons Landing Campground, a small, secluded location on the island’s east side. Backpackers looking to make a day excursion out to Starlight Beach should plan on beginning and ending their excursion from Parsons Landing as it is the most conveniently located campground to the beach.  

Amenities:

  • Picnic tables
  • Barbecue and fire rings
  • Chemical toilets

Is the Trans Catalina Trail Worth the Trip?

The Trans Catalina Trail is great for backpackers both looking for a nearby getaway from hectic Southern California and for those ready for a challenging, multi-day backpacking trip. If you’re looking for a challenging hike that incorporates other activities, is in a beautiful location, and has some of the country’s best campgrounds, then you need to check out the Trans Catalina Trail.

 

Bonus tip: While you’re at it, check out this awesome video on hiking the Trans Catalina Trail!

 

 

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    Riley Draper

    Riley Draper is a writer and entrepreneur from Chattanooga, Tennessee. As a world traveler, he has been to more than fifty countries and hiked some of the most elusive trails in the world. He is the co-founder of WeCounsel Solutions and has published work in both national and global outlets, including the Times Free Press, Patch, and Healthcare Global. When he's not writing, he's probably on a hiking trip or climbing in the mountains.