Trans-Catalina Trail backpacking trip report (February 2015)
For four days, I hiked the Trans-Catalina Trail (TCT) from Avalon to Starlight Beach via the Trans-Catalina Trail and back to Two Harbors via the West End Road, with visits to nearby peaks via side trails.
My goal for this trip was to test my physical abilities and learn more about myself and my gear. To that end, I constructed an itinerary that covered approximately 15 miles a day on the Trans-Catalina Trail while carrying a typical backpacking load.
The hiking was strenuous, both due to elevation profile and hiking distance and the weather was hot with highs of about 80 F and lows of about 50 F (above average for February). The trail has no tree cover. (I saw evidence of wildfire, so it might have all burned down.) In fact, most of the trail is actually hiking along wide dirt roads made for vehicles. I did like how there is a mile marker at every mile so counting down the trail and keeping an idea of hiking pace is easy to do. (I averaged a slow 2 mph).
All camping is done in designated campgrounds (reservations here). Each campsite has a fire ring, a picnic table, and port-a-potties. Potable water is provided via a spigot in all campgrounds except for Parson’s Landing, where rangers will deliver water to you. Firewood is also delivered to campsites in lockers. Campers pick up a locker key in town the before going to the campground. Critters are very active here so I recommend bringing a hard-sided container (or an Ursack) for food. (I wish the Conservancy provided food lockers.)
All-in-all, I did not enjoy the TCT as much as other backpacking trips I’ve done. The trail was boring, mostly hiking along a gravel road with little vegetation. The road also contributed to the feeling that I wasn’t really getting away from civilization, especially since from most places on the island, I could see either Two Harbors or Avalon. Furthermore, the road is built for 4x4s with diesel engines, so many sections had ridiculously steep up and down grades. I only enjoyed the views after the airport, so the first day was especially boring to me. However, I did enjoy rerouting off trail around a herd of bison.
I like this trail for its length and its safety. Help was never more than a cell phone call away, and bail-out points were everywhere. In that sense, it was a good way to test myself but I don’t think I’d do trail for the views. (I would, however, recommend kayaking and hiking side trails from the boat-in campsites. While I didn’t do this, the views are just as nice and kayaking is easier than backpacking.)
Catalina Island is located off the coast of Los Angeles. The island and its wilderness areas seem to be managed by the Catalina Conservancy, which is a private non-governmental organization. The island has a whole suite of services mostly geared to your typical luxury traveler and weekend outdoors enthusiast, such as gear hauls, shuttle services, fine dining, and luxury hotels.
For some of the resources I used on this hike, see my Pinboard.
Day 0: Travel day
This day was my travel day so it doesn’t really belong in a backpacking trip report, but I just want to recommend a restaurant/bar in Manhattan Beach called Simmzy’s. They have plenty of regional beers on tap. The food is great, especially the haystack fries that come with their blue cheese sauce. The burger was massive and I barely finished it.
I used Airbnb to find a place to stay in San Pedro and it ended up being a cheap yet good choice. It was a good bed, okay shower, and good location near the ferry to Catalina the next day. (I won’t post the details here because I don’t know the legality of Airbnb in San Pedro and I don’t want to get anyone in trouble.)
Day 1: San Pedro, CA to Avalon to Black Jack Campground
I caught the earliest Catalina Express ferry to Avalon from the San Pedro Port (schedule here, parking is $12/day in an open, unsecured lot, or you may be able to find street parking among the residences nearby). The ferry left San Pedro at 9 AM and arrived in Avalon at about 10:30 AM. Federal regulations apparently prohibit bringing fuel onboard, but they don’t check. You may be able to buy fuel at Chet’s Hardware in Avalon or at the Two Harbors General Store.
After arriving on the island, I went to Original Jack’s Country Kitchen for a breakfast burrito. It was massive, but their idea of a to-go burrito is a burrito in a box eaten with a knife and fork, instead of a wrapped foil monstrosity like Chipotle. (Albuquerque seems to be about the only place in America that does the portable breakfast burrito correctly).
After the burrito, my next stop was at the Catalina Island Conservancy to buy a map. (The map is not a legitimate backcountry map, but there were a few confusing areas where the map helped). Then, at either the Hotel Atwater or the Avalon Hotel, campers can pick up a key for the lockers of firewood at Black Jack Campground.
It wasn’t until 11 AM that I hit Wrigley Rd for a (insert distance here) hike to the TCT trailhead. This was a ridiculously late start and I still had about 16 miles ahead of me. Indeed, I wouldn’t reach Black Jack Campground until well after dark. I would recommend either a shorter start by camping at Hermit Gulch Campground, or spending the night at a hotel on Catalina and getting a decent early start.
The hike was rather uneventful, but strenuous. The first five miles take you from sea level to 1563-foot high Black Mountain. From there, you go up and down along the ridge, gaining or losing a couple hundred feet. I was not watching my water consumption and drank 3 of my 4 liters of water by mile 7. Luckily there was a water source at Haypress Recreation Area at mile 9 where I refilled. At Haypress, the trail goes off the road (trailhead is behind all the playground equipment, look around for it). It was a very welcome change of pace to be hiking a narrow trail among the plants.
Around dusk, about a mile before Black Jack Campground, I ran into my first bison. It was a lone animal chewing on some vegetation off-trail. We looked at each other and I moved on.
The campground itself is poorly marked and campsites are difficult to find in the dark. Look for numbers painted on the picnic tables to find your campsite. Arriving at Black Jack, I could not find my campsite and I was about to camp at another campsite, which I probably could have done given that I was the only person in the entire campground. I eventually dug out my smartphone and looked up a campground map on the reservation website to find my campsite.
Day 2: Black Jack Campground to Two Harbors Campground
I started the day by leaving my stuff at camp and hiking up to the 2010-foot Black Jack Mountain (past a chain barrier, but whatever). I eventually hit a fenced off area that was protecting some microwave antennas, so I wasn’t able to get to the top and get a 360 view. The road up to this area had a lot of bees buzzing around.
On my way back to camp I ran into a herd of maybe two dozen bison that were standing in the middle of the road/trail. We looked at each other and I decided to go off-trail and find another way around them.
The hike to the airport goes into a small valley so the hiking is very easy and the temperature is very cool. At the airport, I ate a Big Buffalo Scramble and it was fantastic, but that might have been the hunger talking. I also bought bison jerky here. I refilled enough water here from their bathroom to get to Little Harbor (where there is a water spigot to refill).
After the airport, the trail rejoins a disused vehicle road, with all the attendant annoyances I wrote about earlier. It was very hot and very exposed to the sun. Thankfully, only a few places were very steep and most of it was at a pretty boring grade. While hiking this trail I spotted a US Marine V-22 Osprey buzzing the island and flying overhead, which was pretty cool.
Little Harbor was my favorite point on the hike. When I arrived, there was not another soul in sight. The beach looked like those Corona commercials, with the waves lazily crashing on the beach. I lingered on a bench underneath a palm tree facing the beach for some time, eating some buffalo jerky and some trail mix. I could barely tear myself away from the beauty of the scene.
The hike from the Little Harbor to Two Harbors was beautiful. The trail essentially follows a ridge line that borders the Pacific Ocean on the west side of the island. Close to Two Harbors, the trail becomes a very steep downhill as the trail leaves the ridge and drops to sea level.
I got to Two Harbors just before the Visitor Center closed, which allowed me to grab a locker key for water the next night at Parsons’ Landing. (If I hadn’t gotten the key that evening, I’d have to wait until they opened, well after my usual wake-up time.)
I ate dinner at the only restaurant/bar in town, Harbor Reef Restaurant. Although the food was nothing to write home about and the beer was damned expensive, it was food that I didn’t have to cook myself and they had a place to charge my phone. So I can’t complain too much.
The Two Harbors campground was relatively populated. Again there were no lockers to protect food from animals, and nearby trees were too small to hang anything. When I woke up, I saw some teeth marks on a dry bag I used to store food.
Day 3: Two Harbors to Starlight Beach to Parson’s Landing
I woke up during the morning twilight, quickly broke camp, and left town. There are no water sources between Two Harbors and Parson’s, so I had to carry a full day’s worth of water on this day.
Just past Wells Beach, where the trail turns right towards the northwest is an incredibly strenuous climb up Mt. Torquemada. Although the trail doesn’t hit the summit of this mountain, it does climb it very quickly. It felt like the steepest uphill grade of the hike.
The Silver Peak trail forms a loop with the Trans-Catalina Trail, so I took the Silver Peak trail up to Silver Peak (1804 feet). I found a survey marker and a geocache, signed it, and moved on. The hike down from Silver Peak to Starlight Beach was steeper than the hike up Mt. Torquemada, but at least it was downhill so it was easy but came with a sense of potential death by falling off the mountain.
Upon reaching Starlight Beach (end of the TCT), I couldn’t find a way down to the actual beach, so I could only enjoy the waves from a cliff above. I ate a bit of food and moved on down towards Parsons’ Landing.
The hike from Starlight Beach and Parsons’ Landing was very easy, with none of the steep grades earlier in the day. I encountered my first and only fellow backpacker on this part of the trail. We had the same trekking poles and agreed that they were awesome. This part of the trail had more vegetation, so it never felt like hiking in the sun. Additionally, by this time, the sun was on setting, so the shadows were getting long on the trail that runs along the east side of the island.
I arrived at Parsons’ Landing, where all the campsites are on the beach. There are port-a-potties and lockers for pre-reserved water and wood. Weirdly enough, the rangers also set out some water for all the campers with each person’s last name written on it. So I had more water than I could use that night.
My campsite was the furthest away from the bathrooms and bordered on three sides by cliffs. I’m convinced that this terrain contributed to some rather high winds and cold temperatures that night. My tent would not stay up unless I used all the guy lines. No critters that night.
Day 4: Parsons’ Landing to Two Harbors (via West End Rd)
From Parsons’ Landing, one could hike the TCT back to Two Harbors, which means going up a steep grade on Fenceline Road and then back down a steep grade down Mt. Torquemada. Or one can hike the West End Rd back to Two Harbors that basically hugs the eastern coastline, with no real grade changes.
I chose the West End Rd and was treated to oceanside views, sights of fishing boats and yachts, and breezes and cool temperatures the entire way.
I arrived at Two Harbors with a couple hours to kill, ate some breakfast, and by 11:30, I was on the ferry with a satisfied smile on my face.