The Trans Catalina Trail had been on my bucket list for several years, so long that I had started to hold it up on this pedestal as if it would never happen.
Thinking it was too hard to get to since we would have to fly there, it would be too expensive, the permits would be hard to get, the list went on and the TCT kept getting pushed further and further to the back burner.
Until I decided I wanted to go on an epic backpacking trip for my birthday in March, 2020. It didn’t have to be a long trail, just something awesome and out of the ordinary from our usual Colorado stomping grounds.
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Just to humor myself one day I started really looking into the details – how much are flights to LAX? What does it take to get permits/campsite reservations on Catalina Island? How long would it actually take us lazy hikers to hike it?
I almost fell over when I realized how affordable it was to fly from Denver to LAX and that the exact dates I wanted were available for campsite reservations.
My seemingly impossible bucket list trip to Catalina Island was becoming a reality!
Trans Catalina Trail Overview
The Trans Catalina Trail stretches 38.5 miles from Avalon to Parson’s Landing and then back to Two Harbors. The island sits 22 miles off the California coast and contains a 42,000 acre nature preserve home to bison, fox, rattlesnakes, hungry ravens, mule deer, sea lions and more!
- Total distance: 38.5 miles
- Total elevation change: 9,600 ft with the highest point being 1,775
- Time to hike: Hikers typical take 3-5 days to complete the TCT
- Permits: Permits are required, they are included with your campsite reservations
- Pets: Dogs are allowed on leash, however, they are not permitted at Two Harbors and Hermit Gulch campgrounds and put on extra stress on local wildlife
You can check out a digital map of the Trans Catalina Trail and the elevation profile here. I also found the Trans Catalina Trail on the Hiking Project app useful, however, not a replacement for a real, physical map.
The best time of year to hike the TCT is winter, early spring or fall. The summers get very hot and pretty much the entire trail is exposed. We hiked it the first week in March and it was perfect! The weather was warm and mild and we beat the peak season rush of visitors.
Sample Catalina Trail Itineraries
If you have 3 days: (you are a beast)
- Day 1: Avalon to Blackjack 10.7 miles
- Day 2: Blackjack to Two Harbors 13.5 miles
- Day 3: Two Harbors to Parson’s & back to Two Harbors 14.3 miles
If you have 4 days:
- Day 1: Avalon to Blackjack 10.7 miles
- Day 2: Blackjack to Little Harbor 8.2 miles
- Day 3: Little Harbor to Parsons 11.9 miles
- Day 4: Parsons to Two Harbors 7.7 miles via the road
If you have 5 days:
- Day 1: Avalon to Blackjack 10.7
- Day 2: Blackjack to Little Harbor 8.2
- Day 3: Little Harbor to Two Harbors 5.3
- Day 4: Two Harbors to Parsons Landing 6.6
- Day 5: Parsons Landing to Two Harbors 7.7 via the road
If you have 6 days: (this is what I did)
- Day 1: Avalon to Hermit Gulch 1.5 miles
- Day 2: Hermit Gulch to Black Jack 9.2 miles
- Day 3: Black Jack to Little Harbor 8.2 miles
- Day 4: Little Harbor to Two Harbors 5.3 miles
- Day 5: Two Harbors to Parsons Landing 6.6 miles
- Day 6: Parsons Landing to Two Harbors 7.7 miles via the road
Any of these itineraries could also be done in reverse, starting in Two Harbors and ending in Avalon. I chose to go from Avalon to Two Harbors because I heard such amazing things about Parson’s Landing and wanted to save the best for last. While I am glad I ended with Parson’s Landing and Two Harbors – the entire island is truly a beautiful paradise and I couldn’t imagine anyone regretting ending in Avalon.
You could also easily tack on a night in town in either Avalon or Two Harbors, or both, if you wanted to extend your trip. We did spend our last night at the Banning House Lodge in Two Harbors and I couldn’t think of a better way to end an island backpacking trip. That was a splurge for me, but totally worth it for a combined birthday and anniversary celebration.
Permits and Campsite Reservations On Catalina Island
You’ll need to reserve your campsites well in advance as space is limited and that serves as your permit to backpack the Trans Catalina Trail.
Book your campsites on Reserve America or call the Catalina Conservancy with any questions – but to be honest, at least when I called, the woman was not very helpful. For example, she didn’t know about water sources along the trail and she had no clue if I needed a bear canister or not.
Spoiler alert – there were more potable water sources than I expected and you don’t need a bear canister or bear bag. In case you were wondering!
That being said, there is no water source at Parsons Landing. Be sure to call the Two Harbors Visitor Services office to reserve a locker with bottled water and firewood if you’ll be camping there.
Booking the campsites was my first step in planning this trip. Well, I did peak at the ferry times and flights just make sure they weren’t outrageous, but I didn’t book my flight until I knew the campsites were available for the dates I wanted.
Getting To The Trans Catalina Trail
Once my campsites were booked, then I reserved my ferry ticket with the Catalina Express. I couldn’t book the exact days I wanted on the ferry and had to call to find out why it seemed unavailable. Turns out, it only runs on certain days in the ‘off season’ and we were going right on the tail end of the slow season. So that did force my hand as far as what days we would start and end the trail – which isn’t bad – just good for you to know ahead of time to factor into your plans.
Then I booked my flights from Denver to LAX. LAX is by far not my favorite airport but I believe it’s probably the cheapest and closest to the Catalina Express ferry in San Pedro. It was pretty easy then getting a Lyft or Uber between the airport and the ferry.
The ferry then drops you right off at either end of the Trans Catalina Trail.
Trans Catalina Trail Safety
One of my biggest fears before hiking TCT was the bison! They can definitely be dangerous and charge backpackers if they feel threatened. The best thing to do is give them plenty of space and don’t startle them. Luckily, we only saw the herd from a distance during our trip.
Watch out for rattlesnakes. I didn’t see any during our hike, but I know they live on the island. Again, make sure you give them plenty of space if you see one, never approach them. I’ve also heard it helps to use trekking poles since the extra movement and tapping on the ground helps snakes know you’re coming so you don’t accidentally sneak up on them.
For more Catalina Island safety tips check out the Catalina Conservancy’s precautions guide and of course, all other basic hiking safety rules apply – carry plenty of water, carry a first aid kit, carry a physical map and know how to read it, etc.
Trans Catalina Trail Tips And Things To Know Before You Go
Here are few tips on hiking the Trans Catalina Trail, and things I wish someone had told me before we actually packed up and got on a boat to head towards a remote island.
Overall, while much of the island is preserved, undeveloped land, the Trans Catalina Trail doesn’t feel very wilderness-y. You often hike on roads or 4WD dirt roads and also hike in and out of small towns, residential areas or private camps and resorts along the coast. This didn’t bother me at all since we went during the slow season and most of the facilities were still closed from the winter and the vacation homes were empty.
Just because it wasn’t as wilderness-y as I would have expected, it was still really stinking hard! Some of those elevation gains are really steep and seem to go on forever.
You won’t be able to fly with fuel for your backpacking stove, or take fuel on the ferry, which is fine. They do sell fuel in both Avalon and Two Harbors but what we didn’t realize was after taking the afternoon ferry to Avalon, the entire island closes down and there is no way to actually buy fuel or get a trail map until the next day. Everything I read made it sound super easy and obvious that you just get your map, fuel and any extra supplies when you get off the ferry….. but that proved much more difficult in reality.
We had already reserved a site at Hermit Gulch for the first night, figuring we would get our fuel and trail map on the way to Hermit Gulch and continue hiking on the next day. Having to backtrack into Avalon the next day added an extra 3 miles onto day 1, plus our start time got delayed quite a bit because there was a small ranger station at Hermit Gulch that said it opened at 9 am, and had fuel in the window. So, we naively waited at the campground until 9, hoping to just get fuel there and hike on – only to find out about island time. After getting a hold of a different ranger on the phone we found out that while the sign said Open at 9:00 am – no one would be on site until noon or later.
If I would have realized how difficult it would be to get fuel and a map in the afternoon in Avalon, I would have more seriously considered staying in the hotel in Avalon the first night and starting from there after businesses opened up the next day OR would have considered starting in Two Harbors, since we would have been let off the ferry earlier in Two Harbors and probably could have gotten supplies there on the same day.
Watch out for brave foxes and ravens who are waiting to pounce on your food! We had made the mistake of getting to a campsite, exploding all our gear and food, as you do when you get to camp, then stepped away for 5 minutes to get some water and by the time we got back, a raven had pecked it’s way through most of one of our food bags!
I also wish I would have known or realized the campground in Two Harbors is quite a ways off the beaten path, unlike the other campsites which you essentially hike right through. The Two Harbors campground was also gigantic compared to the others and rather difficult to navigate since there were no maps available of the campground. So, after hiking ~0.5 mile out of town, up a steep hill, to get to the campground, then we wandered around for almost an hour trying to guess where our designated campsite was and ultimately ended up calling the conservancy to switch to a site closer to the entrance of the campground to make walking into town for dinner easier on our lazy hiker legs.
On a final note, as much as I loved staying at the Banning House Lodge, and would absolutely stay there again, the booking and reservation process there was really bad! The booking process on their own site wasn’t very functional. Any room I viewed the details for was added to my cart, but obviously I only need one room and couldn’t figure out a way to delete any of the rooms from my cart. So, decided to book through a third party site, which worked wonderfully…. until the day we were supposed to check in and we weren’t actually in their system because we used a third party site to book. It was also very difficult to actually get a hold of someone at the Banning House Lodge since all the numbers listed go to some sort of corporate office.
For more backpacking tips and resources, check out:
- A Guide To Backpacking In The Rain
- Wilderness Backpacking: What You Need To Know
- 35 Backpacking Tips And Tricks
- 14 Things To Do While Camping Alone