I first heard about the Tran Catalina Trail a couple of years back when I first got into overnight backpacking. It all kicked off with a quick google search for "Coolest Overnight Backpacking Trip in SoCal". A couple YouTube videos of people being chased by buffalo later, I was sold!
At the time I didn't have much in terms of gear. I had everything I owned for overnight camping sprawled out on the living room floor, and it seemed to check off everything i thought I needed, "Backpack? Check! Sleeping bag? Check!" Yeah... seriously.. that's all I had and was ready to charge! It took my sweet wife looking at me gear and asking, "What are you going to do to heat water? Don't you need a tent? What about first aid?" She was right about all these things (and then some) so we made a complete checklist and headed to REI.
Once geared up, I came up with my plan of action which was a 5 day hiking trip that went from Avalon to Blackjack Camp Ground, then Blackjack to Two Harbors, then Two Harbors to Parson's Landing, and finish the hike off with my final leg to Starlight Beach. Plan was set I was ready to head off.
Getting to Catalina There are couple of ways to get over to Catalina. The cheapest option is to take the ferry from either San Pedro, Long Beach, Newport, or Dana Point, and head over to Avalon. I've taken the trip over from Dana Point and from San Pedro. Each has it's merits that I will get into later. Your other alternative is to take a private flight or helicopter. This is well beyond my hiker's budget, but the option is still there for you if you're pulling in Benjamins like Balky from Perfect Strangers while in his prime.
Couple of things to note before we get too deep into the details. I hiked in November of 2016. It was hot! Unusually hot! And the days were really short as we were in standard time. I expected sun to set at about 5:00pm, and imagined I'd be hiking int he dark at some point. In addition, I was hiking in brand spanking new boots, and had probably packed way more than I needed due to the wife's checklist. That being said... on to the hike...
Everything I read suggested that you should "Check in" to your campsite at a couple different hotels in Avalon. I was hiking in the middle of November, and the days were really short that time of year, so I was trying my best to jam through any check in process before I hit the trail. After running to two hotels, I came to find the camps sites automatically check you in and realized I had burned about an hour of daylight trying to figure this out.
So... I was on my way, and headed off to the trail. This is another important point that gets overlooked from time to time; You will have to walk about 1.5 miles on the side of a road before you ever hit the start of the trail, and some of this portion you get a pretty good incline on the road. It's not tough... just unexpected.
(Day 1 - The buffalo walked right passed me at Haypress Recreational Area)
Once you actually hit the trail, you are pretty much hiking on a fire road for the first 10 miles. At around mile 8 you realize you did a large loop around the east side of the island. What does this mean? Means you've hiked about 10 miles with no great views, other than the fire road, and have seen next to no one, other than the rangers.
Around mile 12.5 I had reached the first taste of some single track trail, and was nearly out of water. I brought my 2 liter bladder with me, which ran out pretty quick considering how hot it was. Luckily I was close to the Haypress Recreational area which was pumping some of Catalina's finest filtered hose water! You can definitely tell this water had been treated, re-treated, hose filtered, and perhaps passed through a piece of buffalo shit for the final filter, but it was water!
About 5 miles later you end up at Blackjack camp site, which can be hard to find in the dark. My last three miles were completed via moonlight. Luckily this was the night before we had a super moon, so the trail was plenty lit for hiking and didn't require my headlamp. I was pretty exhausted for the last 5 miles of the first left as I had kept a grueling pace over the first 12.5 miles to try and hike in as much daylight as possible. When I had a quarter mile left, the ranger pulled up next to me and asked if he could take me the final way into camp. Normally i would refuse this type of offer, but he also had a cooler of water and Gatorade in the bed of his truck, so I hopped in the back, cracked a cold G-ade and settled for my short ride down.
I pitched camp right away once we got to camp, puked my brains out from exhaustion, slammed more Gatorade, powered down some turkey jerky and powered potatoes, then passed out!
The next morning I realized I had set too aggressive of a day for day one, so I added an additional stop on day two, and decided to stay the night at Shark Harbor camp ground.
Day two was a much easier hike! There is a little little climb up to the airport, but after that, it's pretty much a straight shot to camp.
The airport has a little diner attached to it, that it a great spot to refill. Given it was about 10:00am I took the opportunity to order a buffalo burger, and chased it down with 3 ice cold beers. Let's face it... I needed the electrolytes in them after a grueling day 1, and cold beer did the trick! Once refilled on food and booze (i mean electrolytes) it was time to head to camp.
You have two options when it comes to camp in this area; Little Harbor and Shark Harbor. Little Harbor gets a ton of great reviews, but it you want solitude and sleeping on the beach, go with Shark Harbor. You'll pitch camp here with the thought of getting washed away by the surf at night. The waves got to within a few feet of my tent, which made for a fantastic night's sleep!
(Getting a little laundry done at Shark Harbor)
(Another view from inside the tent)
Another important thing to note here; When you make your reservation for your campsite, do it through the visitor's center in Two Harbors. There's a number you can call directly ((310) 510-4205) and take care of all your campsite reservations, and coordinate a drop for firewood, which is not offered through their website.
After a great night's sleep, it was time to pack it up and head to Two Harbors. The hike between Little Harbor and Two Harbors is one of my favorite stretches on this hike. You get beautiful views of the ocean while you're hiking at nice ridge. Keep in mind you are climbing a good portion of this hike, so I highly recommend poles here.
(Ridge between Little Harbor and Two Harbors)
Another thing to note here; although I have passed buffalo here a number of times without any problems, I have been chased by buffalo on this stretch of the trail. I was hiking with a buddy here once and ended having to do some delicate maneuvering between cactus bushes to fend off these big guys. Makes for fun stories in hindsight, but can be pretty scary when you are tired and just want to get to camp.
At last... Two Harbors! This is pretty nice campsite as well. I had campsite 6 when i stayed here and loved it. There are 3 campsite that are right on the water at this camp ground, but there is absolutely no shade at these sites (I believe they are sites 1,2, and 3). 5 and 6 and perched right between some big palm trees, so you get plenty of shade to keep the mid day sun at bay.
I got lucky when I camped here! The guys who had campsite 5 happened to be a group of guys I met on the trail the day before. They had a few friends join the group who came from San Pedro with a cooler full of drinks and food, so we managed to get a bit more hydrated on some cold Modelo Especial throughout the evening.
(View from campsites 5 and 6 from at two harbors)
Two Harbors also has a little diner, a small market, and a bar. If you need to refill on any supplies, this is your spot!
Now... if you don't care about doing the full Trans Catalina Trail, and just want really nice hiking and camping, I'd recommend taking the ferry from San Pedro to Two Harbors, and scheduling your camping from there. Once in Two Harbors you have the option of hiking over to Shark Harbor (about an 8 mile hike) or hiking to Parson's Landing (another 8 mile hike). All great hiking and camping without monotonous day 1 on the fire road.
As night came around at Two Harbors, one of the guys mentioned, "Hey.. Want to go grab a buffalo milk at the bar?" I am not one to say "No" so we made our way over to the bar and started powering down Buffalo Milk. This is pretty much like a white Russian... full of booze and pretty damn sweet! It took about 2 of these before I switched back to my suds, but you still have to try them if you're there.
Day 4 I was back out on the trail solo again with Parson's landing on the horizon for my final camp. Before you head to camp, make sure you stop by the visitor's center and check in. There is no running water at this camp, but they do give you a key to a locker at camp that has a 2.5 Gallon jug of water, and a couple bundles of fire wood. The hike to Parson's Landing is a little rough. You start a pretty brutal climb almost right away, then there is a flat spot (Yes... Singular) before you have a steep descent into camp. Even with poles I nearly feel a dozen times due to the gravel surface.
Once you are at camp... you're there! The campsites here are pretty secluded, and it feels like you have your own beach. I pitched camp, settled in for a nap, before I hike the remaining 4 miles of the trail to Starlight Beach.
Upon arriving back to camp, I got my campfire started and settled in for my favorite re-hydrated meal, Chana Masala by Backpackers Pantry. I got lucky on my final night there. It was a super moon, and only one other campsite was booked. There was next to no one there, and had the perfect opportunity to relax, watch the lights of Palos Verdes on the horizon, and finish whatever whiskey was left in my flask, before I called it quits for my last night.
(super moon at Parson's Landing)
One more thing to note... There is no taxi that runs from Parson's Landing back to Two Hrabors. My final day included a long walk back to town on a flat road. Be prepared to walk back to town, which will put your total mileage for the trip around 50 something miles.
Also be prepared for hills! When I tell people, "Catalina is actually pretty hilly!" they naturally think I am almost completely full of shit. I'm not! It's hilly! Be prepared!
Oh yeah... Back to those boots... My feet were absolutely wrecked at the end of this hike! I had some of the biggest blisters I've ever had hiking! So yeah.. don't set off for a few day hike with brand new boots.
Thanks for reading this far! Hope you enjoyed the details... If you have any questions at all, please feel free to drop me a line!