Welcome to Paria's “Hike of the Week” series. Each week we highlight one of the best trails North America has to offer. Our goal is to inspire you to get out there and check these amazing trails out for yourself!
This week's feature is the Trans-Catalina Trail off the coast of southern California.
Featured Photo: Catalina Coastline (Photo by briandjan607)
Why This Hike?
Located 25 miles south off the coast of San Pedro, this 40-mile trek takes you on a unique island backpacking adventure unlike any other in the United States. From sweeping mountaintop views to secluded beach harbors, you'll experience all of the beauty Santa Catalina Island has to offer.
- Mileage: 40 miles point-to-point
- Time: 5-days, 4-nights
- Elevation gain: 9,600 feet
- Rated as strenuous
- Best time to visit: Fall and early spring
- Highlights: Expansive views of the Pacific Ocean, Silver Peak, roller-coaster-like rolling hills, steep climbs, private ocean-side campsites, wildlife viewing
- Wildlife includes: Herds of bison, fox, rattlesnakes, and bald eagles
- There is an extra loop to Starlight Beach if you wish to extend your trip another 6 miles. A 3-mile side trip to Mt. Orizaba, the island's highest point, is another add-on option for some extra spectacular views.
- You can arrange to have extra supplies, such as firewood, delivered to your campsite at Little Harbor and Two Harbors. Potable water is available at all of the campgrounds but Parson's Landing.
Before you pack your bags, keep the following in mind:
- There is very little shade along the trail.
- You must camp at designated campgrounds.
- Water sources are sparse between campsites.
- Fires are not allowed at Hermit Gulch and Black Jack campgrounds.
How Do I Get There?
Getting to the island is an adventure in and of itself. You will need to take a boat or helicopter to get to the island, which we have left links to in the Resources section below. Once you arrive in Avalon, walk a couple of miles through town to get to Divide Road, where the route actually begins on the road.
The following map outlines our recommended route. For more detailed mapping, including being able to print a copy for yourself, we recommend opening the map in CalTopo.
- Day 1 - Avalon to Black Jack Camp (10.7 miles)
- Day 2 - Black Jack Camp to Little Harbor (8.2 miles)
- Day 3 - Little Harbor to Two Harbors (5.3 miles)
- Day 4 - Two Harbors to Parsons Landing (6.7 miles)
- Day 5 - Parsons Landing to Two Harbors (7 miles)
Your first day will be the longest and arguably the least spectacular of the trip due to its shortage of ocean views. No worry, though. There will be plenty of those on subsequent days! Be sure to get an early start to avoid arriving at camp in the dark. There are several routes to get you to the main trailhead, so you can choose whichever you fancy, but for this article we've chosen walking up Divide Road. The ups and downs along this road can be likened to that of a roller-coaster as you steadily make your way higher up the mountain. At around 9.5 miles, you will finally make your way off the road and into more rolling hills. At about 10 miles in you'll reach Haypress Reservoir. A couple of miles further and you should get the chance to see some of the island's famous bison before finally reaching Black Jack Camp for the night.
Day 2 will take you mostly downhill toward Little Harbor, your next stop along the trail. Speaking of the bison, you may want to stop at Airport in the Sky for lunch along the way and try one of their popular bison burgers. It's a short 5-mile hike to Little Harbor from the airport, so take your time if the sun isn't scorching you along the exposed trail. You'll notice a lush green area, part of the island's vineyard, as well as a horse ranch previously owned by the inventor of Wrigley's gum. There are actually two neighboring bays to choose from for camp: Little Harbor or Shark Harbor. The latter is usually less busy, so you may opt for one of those in your planning instead. The sunset views from either are fantastic.
Don't take for granted the short distance of day 3. Many steep ascents await you on your journey towards Two Harbors. However, this upward climb also affords some of the best views on the island, especially the view of the Pacific Ocean surrounding the western point of Catalina Island as you make your way along the ridgeline. Although you won't be able to see the sunset from this side of the island, a nice sunrise may be in your cards from the Two Harbors campground if you wake early enough and you will be parked on the beach again. Be sure to pick up your keys for the Parson's Landing storage lockers here as well to ensure you have plenty of water for the rest of your trip.
If you still have plenty of energy, you can extend today's mileage by about double by choosing to hit up Starlight Beach on your circuitous path towards Parson's Landing. Though the route is obviously longer, it is also easier, traveling mostly along the low-lying coastline. If not, be prepared for a steep climb up to Silver Peak, gaining 1,800ft in 3 miles to get there. Again, the ridgeline walk does offer great views of the ocean and surrounding hills. It's worth noting that the descent toward Parson's Landing is very precipitous and can be very slippery under the right conditions. Fortunately, Parson's Landing's campsites are much fewer and more private than some of the other campgrounds along the trail, offering some much-needed relaxation after a taxing day of hiking.
Your final day on the trail will be much easier than the previous, featuring rolling hills and views of the bays along the coastline. If you have plenty of time to get back to Two Harbors before your boat back to the mainland leaves, take your time and savor the ocean views one last time.
What Will I Need?
Temperatures stay pleasant year-round here, but, not being far off of the coast of California, it experiences the same rainy season as the rest of the state, which generally falls in the winter months. For the best times to hit this trail, average highs range between the mid-60s and low-70s with lows between the mid-50s and 60s. A versatile down quilt will suit your needs just fine as well as a UL or trekking pole tent to save you on pack weight for this strenuous journey. A compact down pillow will be a nice addition to your sleeping arrangements as well. As always, don't forget a quality sleeping pad to get some good sleep!
Don't underestimate the climbs along this trail. Trekking poles are HIGHLY recommended for covering the rugged terrain.
A pair or lightweight trekking poles like our Tri-Fold Carbon Cork trekking poles can be a lifesaver on the steep climbs along the Trans-Catalina Trail.
As mentioned previously, many areas of the trail are exposed. Sunscreen, a hat, and sunglasses are a must!
For a comprehensive list of what to pack, head over to our Ultimate Backpacker's Packing List and print your own to use as a guide while you pack!
Do I Need a Permit?
Yes. Your campground reservations serve as your camping/hiking permit. Online reservations are required and campgrounds fill up quickly, so planning well in advance is in your best interest.
If you're looking for a unique, several-day island backpacking excursion full of sweeping ocean views and challenging terrain, head out on the Trans-Catalina Trail. Have you completed this trail or any other interesting ones lately? We'd love to hear about them in the comments below!