Trans-Catalina Trail

The rugged and beautiful Catalina coastline

Santa Catalina is a beautiful island located only 27 miles off the coast of southern California. Though Catalina is a short 90 minute boat ride away, it feels like another world. There are two small, quaint towns on the island — Avalon and Two Harbors — and the remainder of the island is primarily wilderness managed by the Catalina Island Conservancy.

The 37.2 mile Trans-Catalina Trail traverses the entire island, from Avalon on the eastern tip to Starlight beach at the western end. Of course, once you get to the end, you’ve still got to hike back to Two Harbors to catch a boat back to the mainland. This adds another nine miles, making the total mileage a bit over 46 miles — perfect for a long weekend backpack getaway.

Trail Overview

  • Distance: 37.2 miles officially, though we logged a total of 53.3 miles (you have to hike back to Two Harbors)
  • Total elevation gain/loss: 9600′
  • Hiking time: 3-4 days backpack (11+ miles/day)

Trip Itinerary

  • Day 1:  Avalon to Black Jack – 15 miles
  • Day 2: Black Jack to Two Harbors – 12.5 miles
  • Day 3: Two Harbors to Parson’s Landing to Starlight Beach (the official terminus) and back to Parson’s Landing – 15 miles
  • Day 4: Parson’s Landing back to Two Harbors – 6.5 miles

Though surrounded by the Pacific, there’s no reliable water sources on the island. This isn’t much of a problem though, as you’ll find water provided at each of the campgrounds. Campsites can be reserved online through the Santa Catalina Land Company, and generally run about $16 per person, per night.

Getting There

Most people take a ferry from either San Pedro, Long Beach, Newport Beach or Dana Point to Avalon. Boats run daily to Avalon, and the fare runs about $32. The tricky part is the return trip. There is limited ferry service from Two Harbors back to the mainland, and at the time of writing, San Pedro was the only port with a ferry to Two Harbors. The alternative is to take a cab from Two Harbors to Avalon.

Trans-Catalina Trail Trip Report

We left Dana Point marina on Friday morning, taking the 7:45am Catalina Express to Avalon. I’ve heard that they don’t allow you to bring fuel on the boat, but they didn’t ask and I didn’t tell. Arrived in Avalon a little after 9am. Stopped at the Von’s Express to pick up last minute supplies (chapstick!) and then picked up our campground reservations (which double as your hiking permit) at the Atwater Hotel. Note that you pick up your reservations at the front desk, which is manned 24/7 (so you can start early, which I highly recommend). We paid an extra 8 bucks for a bundle of firewood for our first night camp. They store the firewood in lockers, and give you a key — a pretty good system.

From the Atwater, we wandered over to the Catalina Conservancy office and picked up another map. They have maps with the Trans-Catalina Trail on them, but gave us an older 2005 map that didn’t show the trail. Be sure to get the Trans-Catalina map. From here, we hiked a couple miles up Wrigley Terrace to the trailhead.

Our first day was long. We logged over15 miles, with decent elevation gain. You climb to the top of the island, then run along the ridge with views down both sides until you reach the wider interior section of the trail. This is probably the newest section of the entire trail. In some places the trail is so faint, if it weren’t for the markers it would be difficult to follow.

I would recommend either taking an earlier boat (you can get one from San Pedro) or spending a night in Avalon (Hermit Gulch campground) and getting an earlier start. As it was, we didn’t really hit the trail until nearly 11am, and didn’t reach Black Jack until 7pm. We took our time and enjoyed the hike, but would’ve rather had a little more daylight at the end of our hike. As an alternative, we could’ve gone up the Hermit Gulch Trail to the ridgeline and shaved about 7 miles off Day One, but then we wouldn’t be doing the entire Trans-Catalina Trail.

Day Two included an impromptu lunch of buffalo burgers at the airport (just off the trail) a nice long downhill to Little Harbor, and what we thought was the most beautiful section of the hike — the Ridgeline Trail from Little Harbor to Two Harbors. The coastline views were incredible.

Two Harbors was quaint, though the campground was nearly full and somewhat noisy. There is a restaurant/bar and a general store where you can find pretty much anything you need.

On Day Three we stopped at the Two Harbors visitors center to pick up our locker key for Parson’s Landing. They were great, and even had a better map. We headed across the isthmus and back up the ridge line on the western section of the island. Much of this part of the island appears to have new vegetation after the brush fires from a few years ago. Everything looked very fresh and green, and the wildflowers were in full bloom.

NOTE: the Fenceline Trail down toward Parson’s Landing is really not designed for hiking, let alone backpacking. It is ridiculously sleep and treacherously slippery. Even with trekking poles, we had to make our way down this trail very carefully.

We reached Parsons Landing in the early afternoon, and setup our camp. The campsites are right on the beach, and this was our favorite place to camp on the island. Very beautiful, very remote, and the water was crystal clear. As at the other campgrounds, Parson’s Landing has chemical toilets, but no potable water. Your campsite reservation includes one bundle of firewood and a 2-1/2 gallon container of water (plenty for the two of us).

Once camp was setup, I set off for the western terminus of the Trans-Catalina Trail — Starlight Beach. It’s 4.6 miles from Parson’s Landing to Starlight, so I had to hustle to make it there and back before dark. Thankfully, I only needed to carry a few supplies and not my backpack. This trail doesn’t go more than 600 feet above sea level, but somehow it manages to go up and down that you accumulate a lot of elevation gain.

I did follow a little Santa Catalina fox along the trail for a while (check the photo gallery below), and the trail was very tranquil.

On Day Four, we woke up to light rain, ate a no-cook breakfast and took the relatively flat coastal trail back to Two Harbors…but missed the safari bus to Avalon (it leaves Two Harbors daily at noon). At the Two Harbors visitors center we were able to swap our Avalon-Dana Point tickets for a ferry ride from Two Harbors to San Pedro, and (lucky for us) were able to get a ride to pick us up.

One of the remarkable things about this trip was the solitude. While there were always others at the various campgrounds, we rarely saw a soul on the trails. When we finally finished our 53.3 miles and were waiting for the ferry, we ran into another couple who had also completed the Trans-Catalina Trail on the same schedule, but we had only seen them at Parson’s Landing.

The weather this time of year was perfect for the trip. The daytime temperature was in the 60′s with cooling breezes. Nights were chilly, but we were comfortable in our sleeping  bag and tent. Because so much of this trail is exposed to the sun, I would recommend doing this fall through spring and avoiding the worst summer heat.

Final Tips

There’s a lot of wildlife on Catalina, including bald eagles, bison and fox. Food and supplies available in both Avalon and Two Harbors. If you plan to take the ferry from Two Harbors back to the mainland, check the ferry schedule. You’ll probably need to plan your schedule around the Two Harbor ferry schedule.

Campsites in Two Harbors book up months in advance, especially for weekends in warmer months.

Photo Gallery

Click on an image for a larger version.

Additional Trans-Catalina Trail Resources

Weather Forecast for Catalina Island

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It is forcast to be Partly Cloudy at 11:00 PM PDT on April 18, 2014
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It is forcast to be Partly Cloudy at 11:00 PM PDT on April 19, 2014
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It is forcast to be Partly Cloudy at 11:00 PM PDT on April 20, 2014
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It is forcast to be Clear at 11:00 PM PDT on April 21, 2014
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Comments

  1. says

    Lesley, I don’t see why not! It will be cold, and you should be prepared for rain. But there’s a certain beauty in that weather, too! Let me know how it goes.

  2. Jonathan says

    Great website! Do you know if it is mandatory for backpackers to stay at the campgrounds? Can one just procure water there?

  3. says

    Jonathan wrote: …Do you know if it is mandatory for backpackers to stay at the campgrounds? Can one just procure water there?

    The Conservancy only permits camping in established campgrounds. There is no free water available at Blackjack, Little Harbor or Parsons Landing. Your campground reservation includes a key to a locker at the campground where you’ll get jugs of water.

    The campgrounds are okay. When we went, the only one that was crowded was Two Harbors (which is typical). Parsons Landing was fantastic, and next time I’ll stretch the trip and spend two nights there.

    Samantha wrote: Wow! You make planning this backpacking trip easy. Thank you!

    You’re welcome. :)

  4. Kevin says

    Hi,

    I’m interested doing the same trip at end of the April.
    I called Ferry and was told that canister fuel is not allow on the boat, I’m using Jetboil for cooking, do you know if there is any store in Avalon that sells that? I was told that Chad’s hardware have them but when I called they say they don’t have the particular one I’m looking for

    Thanks

  5. says

    Kevin wrote: “…was told that canister fuel is not allow on the boat”

    First, I don’t know whether any store in Avalon sells Jetboil canisters (sorry).

    I will say that the ferries don’t ask or inspect your backpacks. I’m sure many people have brought canisters tucked away in their backpack with no problem. Typically you will throw your pack on the deck at the back of the boat (where all the bikes are stored as well) and no one inspects them. I’m not advocating that you break any rules, just pointing out what I’ve observed.

  6. says

    I have been meaning for awhile now to post a follow up since we successfully completed the TCT back in September of last year. We used this website for extensive planning purposes, which helped immensely. We had a wonderful trip, covering just north of 55 miles in four days (13,000+’ of elevation gain).

    We have posted an HD video of our journey: https://vimeo.com/75033767

    As well as some still photos: http://styleandsyntax.com/2013/09/backpacking-the-tct-photos/

    If there’s any advice I’d offer to anyone contemplating this trip, it’s the following:

    (1) Take at least four days (we did: Avalon-Black Jack, Black Jack-Two Harbors, Two Harbors-Parson’s, Parson’s-Two Harbors).

    (2) Bring hiking poles.

    (3) Add extra water for delivery to Parson’s.

    (4) Be prepared for long days and a lot of elevation change. The TCT is no joke.

    (5) Consider 3L hydration inserts (we took 2L ones and everyone ran out of water the first day a few miles from Black Jack).

    (6) For a relaxing final day, return via the coastal route (it’s flat and has nice views; you will have already hiked the entire TCT the day before).

    Thanks again to SoCalHiker for the detailed notes!

  7. says

    Christopher, I loved your video! You did a great job capturing the essence of the Trans-Catalina Trail (sans the sweat). Great photos, too. Everyone who reads this post should also take a look at both the video and photo links you shared… seriously!

  8. monkeyfeet says

    Hello, I was wondering if its safe to ride your bike on this trail or if theres any trails that can connect you from Avalon to Two Harbors via bicycle

  9. Diane Ohara says

    Jeff, I love this site! I’m a 64 yr old grannie, but I do a fair amount of hiking. I want to plan two days of hiking and follow with two days of “lounging”. What is your recommendation for the hike?

  10. Matthew Hicks says

    Thanks for this, I followed your itinerary exactly over the last four days and just got home. The trail is beautiful, but could really stand some switchbacks, especially when the rain turns it into mud.

  11. says

    Diane, it’s a rigorous trail. If I were to do just two days of hiking, I would probably start at Two Harbors and hike to Parsons Landing the first day. If you follow the Trans-Catalina Trail, it’s a rigorous climb to the ridge and then an VERY steep descent to Parsons Landing (trekking poles are essential). On Day Two, I’d do a day hike out-and-back to Starlight Beach (the western terminus of the trail) and back to Parsons Landing. Then I’d spend an extra day in Parsons Landing, then take the “easy” coastal route back to Two Harbors, spend one night at the campground there and then the ferry back to the mainland.

  12. sharon says

    My daughter wants me to fly to CA and do the hike mid-June with her. How is the weather during that time? I am concerned about the heat.

  13. says

    I’ve added a picture to the gallery with the monthly average high/low temperatures for Avalon, CA: http://socalhiker.net/hiking-trans-catalina-trail/#jp-carousel-12464

    According to that chart, the average high in June is 71, and the average low is 60. Not bad.

    But keep in mind that you will have a lot of sun exposure. It can feel a lot hotter when you’re hiking up a steep hill with a pack on your back and the sun beating down on you.

    Hope this helps.

  14. Herb says

    hiking TCT in May , is there any advantage / disadvantage to starting at Two Harbors to Parson’s Landing day one , Parsons to starlight bch. then back to Two Harbors the easy way day two , Two Harbors to Black Jack day Three , Black Jack to Avalon day four.

  15. says

    Hmmm… better check with the Island to make sure you can pickup a locker key for Blackjack at Two Harbors. Not sure if they’re setup for that direction.

  16. Jerry says

    Goodday!

    I will doing the Trans-Catalina Trial next month from March 14-17. I’ve been reading your blog, in fact this is the site which swayed my decision to do the TCT rather than the San Bernardino Trail, I currently live in Albuquerque, and would much rather be surrounded by the ocean. Anyway I’m hoping to get your take on the route in which to take. I was planning on Landing at Avalon, and hiking to the Blackjack campground, I believe the next stop is going to be Two Harbors; this is where I get a little perplexed on which way to go, either the Silver Peak Trail, or the other trail that appears to run along the coast of the island. I have four days set aside for this and I am doing this my first backpacking trip, at that solo as well. So I’m looking for an experience beauty and challenges, I heard from someone that there are water falls on the island I think would be awesome to see even if it is out of my way. Hints, pointers, or direction as to where I could find some of this info would be greatly, greatly, appreciated.
    -Thanks

  17. says

    Well, if your goal is to hike the TCT, you need to go up the Silver Peak Trail. The coastal route between Two Harbors and Parson’s Landing is not part of the TCT. If you’re looking for a challenge, the Silver Peak Trail portion between TH and PL is, IMO, the hardest part of the TCT (around every corner you realize the trail just keeps climbing!). I’m glad we didn’t skip it, but do be prepared for a hard hike up and a very steep descent coming down. Hiking poles are a real asset.

    Now, once you finish the TCT at Starlight, no reason not to enjoy an easy hike back to Two Harbors along the coast. :)

  18. says

    Sick of answering TCT questions yet? LOL. Hey I read somewhere that there is storage available at the dock on Catalina. Do you know if this is true? I am flying down from Seattle to do the Catalina next month but plan on doing some other stuff while I’m in SoCal and might bring a smallish suitcase along with my pack. Do you know of any other luggage storage options available for someone wanting to do something like this?

  19. says

    Thanks for the detailed guide! I noticed that without this, it would’ve been incredibly confusing just using the individual Catalina websites. Thanks for that! This inspired me to do a short 3-day trip from Two Harbors to Parsons Landing during spring break. (I’m not as hardcore as you folks. Slow and steady is my game.^^) Want to some day do the TCT, but for now I’ll be satisfied to do one leg of the trip. :)

  20. says

    I had the joy of living on Catalina for about four months over the 2012-13 school year as a camp counselor in Emerald Bay and loved every minute of it. I never had the time to do the trail while we were there but I hope to go back someday to do the TCT!

  21. Bill says

    Due to campsite limited availability at Parson’s we will need to start at 2 Harbors and hike back to Avalon, vs the original plan was Avalon to 2 Harbors. So I was wondering if there is a bus that runs between Avalaon and 2 Harbors in the morning (our ferry drops us off at Avalon, not 2 Harbors, so we need transport to @ Harbors to start the hike. Any advice?

  22. says

    Bill, I’m certain that the bus goes from Avalon to Two Harbors first. I’m not certain about what time it leaves. Check with their site — they can fill in on the details.

    I’m traveling this week, but I’ll make a note to add this info to the site when I get a chance.

  23. Bill says

    Hi Jeff

    Hi Jeff: Thanks for the reply. I decided to take ferry to Two Harbors, hike the island and them take the suttle from Avalon. Just did it in reverse. I was able to get the last reservation at Parson’s that matched our itinerary, so we are in good shpe now. Bill

  24. says

    Hey Jeff thanks for the great post and information. I have a quick question for you, do you know if its possible to filter water from the many reservoirs on TCT instead of paying 9 bucks for the lockers every night? Thanks!

  25. says

    It’s not allowed. The fee is for the permit to camp. You’re assigned a specific campsite, and it includes the water. You have the option of adding firewood to the permit as well, but you can’t camp without a permit, and the permit includes the water.

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