Trans Catalina Trail Overview
Over the 4th of July break my girlfriend, and I decided to go on her first ever backpacking trip, and she crushed it! We did a "Mini" Trans Catalina Hike as a result of not being able to get reservations at Parsons Campground, and we opted for a beer, and beach day instead of a 14-mile loop from two harbors campground and back.
If you want more information on planning a Trans Catalina hike and the different options take a look at this post here which has everything you need to know about planning this hike.
For our hike, we booked the 7:00 am ferry from the San Pedro Catalina Express Terminal. This called for an awesome 4:00 am wake up in northern San Diego for us to make it to the terminal in time to catch our boat.
Since we were not able to get last minute permits to camp in Parsons landing, out schedule had us arriving on the island around 8:00 am and taking off to hike 11 miles to Black Jack Campground. Day two we decided to not hike straight to Two Harbours Campground and instead take a short 8-mile hike to Little Harbours campground and spend the night at the beach there. In a lot of the trip reports, I read while planning this trip, a common theme was Little Harbours was gorgeous and they wish they spent the night. Our third and final day of hiking was a little over 5 miles from Little Harbor to Two Harbors Campground. We then spend the next day enjoying great food, drinks, and the beach before spending one more night at Two Harbors and then taking the ferry back to the mainland.
Our overall hike looked something like this and can be downloaded and viewed in more detail on Caltopo here:
Avalon to Black Jack Campground (11 miles)
Once off the boat in Avalon, the first part of the hike goes through the beautiful town of Avalon. If you never been before you should plan a trip just to spend the night in this beautiful town.
If you need one reason to spend the night in Avalon, look at a picture I took at night last time my girlfriend and I went and explored Avalon for a weekend:
The first mile or so of the hike will take you through the paved streets of Avalon, and the actual trail portion starts once you get passed Hermit Gulch Campground.
Once passed Hermit Gulch Campground the real hiking begins with the trips first fun uphill climb. The Terrain profile for the day will look something like this:
We started hiking up the trail from Hermit Gulch Campground a little after 9:30 am if I remember correctly. We stopped at a small little coffee shop in Avalon before starting the hike, and I must say I have a Honey Ice Tea which was probably the best Ice Tea I have ever had.
As you climb out of Hermit Gulch Campground, it's fairly easy switchbacks with a few minor steep sections. This is a good wake up call for your legs but by no means the steepest or most challenging climb of the trip.
When we arrived on the island, it was a bit overcast in cool, if you can try and start your climb before the marine layer of clouds burns off. For us, the Marine layer started burning off right as we started the first climb of the day.
As you climb, do not forget to take a bunch of breaks and look at the impressive views of Avalon as you slowly climb above it. The view from the top is excellent!
At the top of this first climb is a great little-shaded bench and a little bit around the corner from the bench is a "real" bathroom aka a really nice pit toilet. But seriously this was the nicest pit toilet I have ever seen in my life.
Once you hike past the nice pit toilet, the trail widens out to a nice dirt road, with sweeping views of the ocean below. It's flat and easy going from here until you get closer to Blackjack campground.
One unique aspect to his hike are the Bison... they are a real danger you need to pay attention to. Last time we were on the Island, a hiker had to be flown off the island in a helicopter after being charged by a bison.
And yes they are Bison, not buffalo, we debated it the entire hike and looked it up when we got back.
Not everyone knows the difference between buffalo and bison. Calling a bison a buffalo is inaccurate, but a common mistake. It’s so common, in fact, that we sometimes use the two interchangeably. But if you really want to know the difference between a buffalo and a bison, the American Bison is native to North and South America and Europe, while the other two buffalo species reside in Africa and Asia. Bison and buffalo share the same family, but there are over 38 types of buffalo and, unlike bison, many of them have been domesticated.
A few more fun facts; North American bison have a beard, while their Asian relatives don’t and American Bison can live in really cold places, like Wyoming!
The Catalina Island Conservancy recommends you stay a good 175+ feet away. The problem with this hike is there are plenty of blind turns, and the huge Bison are surprisingly quiet for their size.
We had our first Bison encounter on the first day a little past the pit toilet at the top of the first climb. As we were hiking, there was a massive Bison hiding behind some vegetation around a turn in the dirt road. There was no way for us to see him beforehand and I was about one trekking pole away when I saw the massive head and eyes staring right at me. I grabbed my girlfriend and just said to keep walking and don't stop. Once we made some distance, I stopped, turned around and snapped this picture:
It's easy to get complacent about wildlife while hiking especially on Catalina Island, so always keep your head on a swivel. We had a little bit more of a nerve-racking encounter with a Bison on our third day of hiking right before making it to Two Harbors.
The Trans Catalina Trail eventually turns back into a trail when it heads off the dirt road. For the remainder of the first day, the trail either crosses, follows or is apart of the dirt road.
The next noticeable landmark is the Wrigley Reservoir. While on the trail above the dirt road, we looked across and could see another two Bison just relaxing just across the road from the Wrigley Reservoir.
Around the bend is the Haypress Reservoir, which if you need water keep walking I wouldn't filter from Haypress because the Catalina Trail crosses a small kids park which has drinking water.
While we were here, we took a short break, and I had a little fun on the playground. Having had the unique pleasure to glissade down Mount Whitney in the snow, I decided to practice my glissading skills on the slide in the park:
I also took in a little arm work out on the monkey bars:
For the rest of the day, the trail was mostly rolling hills, with sweeping views of the ocean.
There was one final good climb right before Black Jack Campground. The campground is easy to spot from a distance, just look for the cropping of trees just to the left of Black Jack Mountain. You can see the trees clearly in this picture between the Trans Catalina sign and Black Jack Mountain:
The final approach to Black Jack Campground:
Having mostly done wilderness backpacking in my life, I was a little curious how the established campgrounds were going to work. I expected to see a ranger to check in with or at the very least a map to be able to locate our campsite. On this particular day, there was neither, and we looked for a long time at our campsite. We seemed to find ever campsite number except our number 7. At the time we arrived there was only one other campsite taken, so we settled into campsite number 5... all the campsites were pretty much on top of one another anywho.
We ended up finding campsite number 7 about an hour after we set up... Some of the campsites are labeled on the firepits, and others were labeled on benches. Once we got settled into campsite number 5, another couple arrived, and I offered to help them since I had explored every campsite at Black Jack. Of course the only other couple there was supposed to use campsite number 5 but they graciously just used campsite number 7 even though we offered to move all our stuff.
After the campsite drama, we dove into our first meal which was a bit gourmet from what I am usually used to on the trail. I hiked in a bottle of red wine in a hydro flask along with some "travel" wine glasses. We also had fancy truffle almonds:
I had planned on a doing a little night photography after dinner, but everything started getting a little wet outside, and then in a blink of an eye, we were just in a cloud. There would be no stargazing our first night on Catalina.
Black Jack Campground to Little Harbor Campground (8 miles)
Since we woke up at 4 am on the first day of the trip we slept in a little and ate a light breakfast. Day two would be a shorter just under 8-mile hike and be mostly downhill. The terrain profile for day 2 looked like this:
The Airport in the Sky would also be along the trail in the first 2 miles and has a cafe with some awesome burgers. We planned our departure from Black Jack Campground with the intention of having a late breakfast/early lunch at the Airport in the Sky Cafe.
By the time we made it to the Airport in the Sky Cafe, we were both pretty hungry. I ordered a Bison Burger because, "when in Rome," and had a Dr. Pepper. The sweet sugary caffeine and Bison burger were both delicious. There is also a real bathroom in the cafe, which I recommend using before you head back out onto the trail.
After the airport in the sky Cafe, most of the trail until you veer off for little Harbor is along a dirt road. Again be on the lookout for Bison and motorists.
Today, like most days hiking on Catalina Island are full of sweeping views of the ocean.
Once the trail veers off the dirt road, you head up more single track trail, up to a ridgeline.
As you rise above the ridgeline, you are greeted with the first of many incredible views of little Harbor down below. It's a bit deceiving because LIttle Harbor looks so close, but is still a few miles of hiking away.
The hike is mostly downhill so despite being a few miles, you arrive in Little Harbor pretty quickly and as you approach you see the amazing desert beach oasis that it is:
Some nice camper here pointed us in the direction of our campsite, and we quickly found our site. Little Harbor Campground looks a lot nicer and more kept up than Black Jack was. If there was a ranger here, we did not see him or her. Little Harbor also has porta johns for bathrooms instead of the nice pit toilets that Black Jack Campground had. Little Harbor's campsites are also nicely spaced out and not on top of each other like Black Jack Campground was.
Our campsite here was just 50 yards or less from the beach, and we quickly dropped our packs and ran toward the amazing blue water.
After exploring the beach for a little and climbing up some rocks, we went back to set up camp and get set up so we could swim a little before sunset.
Our campsite was absolutely huge compared to what we had at Black Jack Campground, and we had an awesome little palm grove to shelter our tent in:
After a quick refreshing dip in the ocean, we set out on some rocks on the left-hand side of the beach to watch a fantastic sunset!
Day 3: Little Harbor Campground to Two Harbors Campground (5 miles)
In the morning we took another slow start, only having about 5 miles from Little Harbor Campground into Two Harbors and another half mile or so into their campground at Two Harbors.
Today may have been the shortest distance hiking, but it also had the steepest climbs.
It's almost a little deceiving because the day starts out with a climb right out of Little Harbour Campground, but they have some gradual switchbacks, so it's an easy climb out of camp. Later in the day, the Trans Catalina Trail will slam you with some steep uphills and no switchbacks.
On our way up out of Little Harbor, we stopped for a quick break while climbing the switchbacks and saw a Bison just roaming into camp.
There were some campers sound asleep in their tent while this big Bison was walking by. While you are camping on Catalina, I recommend that you open your tent up slowly in the mornings, so you do not spook a Bison if he is walking by.
After strolling through camp, the Bison decided to wait at the bus stop:
After we were done watching the bison walk through the camp like he owned it, we continued our slow climb along the coast.
The last part of the climb right before the hill with the shaded structure in the distance was pretty steep and was a tough climb. Once at the shaded structure the rest of the hike is mostly downhill to Two Harbors. There is one small "bump" right before town.
Right before hiking up the final "bump" before Two Harbors we had another close encounter with a Bison which was a little too close for comfort. This Bison I didn't even see, Rachel pointed him out to me, and right then he started to grunt and scratch the ground in front of him as a warning to us.
There wasn't much protection, and I didn't just want to start sprinting away risking spooking the Bison again. We kind of scuttled behind the poles and an old broken fence to just put something between us and the bison but he was still eying us. From here we just slowly backed away until the Bison went back to chewing on grass. We ended up going off the dirt road to the right under the crest of the ridge out of sight of the bison to pass.
After our last close call with a Bison on this trip he hiked up the final "bump," and we were greeted with our first views of Two Harbors down below!
Two Harbors is the name of the small town built between the Two Harbors. The first Harbor we see is Isthmus Cove to the right of Two Harbors as you approach from the Avalon direction.
The left Harbor as you approach from the Avalon side is Catalina Harbor and is a bit less built up but they are both beautiful.
As you approach Two Harbors the sights, sounds and smells of a small town all hit your nose, and my stomach instantly craved some real food again. After your quick walk through Avalon on the first day, Two Harbors is a crazy small town!
As we got into town, loud cheering started. I thought we were being cheered into town, but it was actually the England vs. Columbia world cup game, and the only bar in town was packed!
So, of course, we dropped our packs and joined the fun and ordered a drink that's famous on the Island called Buffalo Milk.
Buffalo Milk Recipe
Blend together with ice and top with whip cream, nutmeg and a slice of banana. Enjoy!
After enjoying some much-needed refreshments at the bar we put our packs on and hiked the last half mile or so to Two Harbors Campground. There is a beautiful path along the water's edge that leads straight into Two Harbors Campsite, and it has some great views of the harbor.
I had campsite number 12, which was one of the first ones you encounter when you enter Two Harbors Campground. Its the closest to town which we found very helpful, but is not near the waterfront at the Campground, but it does have an amazing view. The one problem with site number 12 was it was probably one of the smallest and had almost zero flat ground to pitch your tent...
The one great part of campsite 12 was right next to it was an amazing place to pitch a hammock!
One tip for Two Harbors Campground is that it was the only campsite we had the entire trip that did not have a food storage bin at each campsite. The animals were real on Catalina Island and we saw foxes in each campsite (except two harbors) that were not afraid of people. I recommend you bring some way to hang your food, and secure any empty wrappers in the trash. You can see here, the animals left my Cuben LiteAF Food Bag but something got into my girlfriends almonds:
At night there were some great views of the Harbor, and if the view is clear, you can see Los Angels off in the distance.
In the morning we decided to take an easy day and hiked about a half-mile over to Catalina Harbor (The other harbor at two harbors) and took in some incredible views on the quieter side of Two Harbors.
With 4th of July being our last full day on the island, we spent it at the beach in Two Harbors, enjoying the crystal clear cool water of Catalina Island. 4th of July night was a crystal clear night, and we had a great view from our hammock overlooking the Los Angels Coast at all the firework shows going off in the distance.
In the morning we woke up and departed our Island paradise on the 2 pm boat back to civilization and traffic on the way back home to San Diego.