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.
- 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)
- 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.
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.
- Catalina Express – San Pedro, Long Beach and Dana Point to Avalon; San Pedro to Two Harbors
- Catalina Flyer – Newport Beach to Avalon
- Island Express – 15 minute helicopter service from Long Beach or San Pedro
Trans-Catalina Trail Trip Report – Day One
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.
In the first five miles, we climbed up, up and up over 1600 feet to the Divide Road. The views at the east end of the island were phenomenal.
Divide Road dips up and down like a roller coaster. At 7 miles, we reached a junction with the Hermit Gulch Trail. This is the most direct route to Avalon, and popular with day hikers.
At 9.6 miles, the TCT splits off from the Divide Road, veering left into the hills. At times, the trail almost seemed to disappear in the new growth of grass.
At 10 miles, we reached Haypress Reservoir. This makes a great place to break for lunch. The last 6 miles dove deep into the backcountry of Catalina Island, letting us enjoy some of the most remote sections and solitude.
One unexpected surprise? The gates we had to pass through where sections are fenced off to control movement of the island’s bison population.
Black Jack campground has lockers shade, picnic tables and fire rings. We reached the area after sunset, mainly because of our late morning start time.
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 if we had, we wouldn’t have hiked the entire Trans-Catalina Trail.
Day Two on the Trans-Catalina Trail
Day Two started lazily with hot coffee around the campfire at Black Jack. We wanted to make a stop at the Catalina Airport — only about 2-1/4 miles away — for lunch of buffalo burgers. Be sure to check out the soapstone — used by Native Americans to craft items for trade on the mainland.
From the airport, the trail loops around eventually beginning a long downhill to Little Harbor, on the island’s south coast. On the map, this is generously labeled as Sheep Chute Road. The ruts indicated otherwise.
Little Harbor is about 7 miles from Black Jack, and next time I hike the TCT, I’ll stop here for a night. The harbor is quiet but windy, and the sites have picnic tables and some include shade structures. There is a restroom facility – a relative luxury for a backpacking trail.
As with all of the campgrounds on Catalina, there are roads that lead here. Most of the people we saw camping had been driven in and dropped off. In fact, there are services that will lug your gear from campground to campground on the TCT for a fee, leaving you to travel even lighter, or bring a cooler and more gear.
We stopped for a break at Little Harbor, then started another big climb. We had already hiked 7 miles, but our final destination for the day was the Two Harbors campground — another 6 miles away.
Fortunately, our climb was rewarded. The Ridgeline Trail from Little Harbor to Two Harbors was quite possibly the most beautiful section of the Trans-Catalina Trail. 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.
Day Three on the Trans-Catalina Trail
I awoke early on Day Three and headed down to the beach to get some pictures as the sun came up. The morning cloud cover made it difficult, but there were a few breaks where the sunlight shone through brightly.
After breakfast, we broke camp and stopped at the Two Harbors Visitors Center (located on the pier) to pick up our locker key for Parson’s Landing. The staff at the visitors center were great, and even had a better map of the Trans-Catalina Trail. From there, we headed across the isthmus and back up the ridge line following the Silver Peak Trail on the western section of the island.
Much of this part of the island appears to have new vegetation after the brush fire in 2007. Everything looked very fresh and green, and the wildflowers were in full bloom.
The Silver Peak Trail climbs over 1,600 feet, then descends sharply down the Fenceline Trail to Parson’s Landing. 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 (over 9 miles round-trip), 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.
Next time, I would spend two nights at Parson’s Landing, and hike to Starlight Beach after a good night’s rest. This breaks up the hiking and gives you more time to really enjoy and explore the area.
I did follow a little Santa Catalina fox along the trail for a while , and the trail was very tranquil.
Day Four on the Trans-Catalina Trail
On our last day we woke up to light rain, ate a no-cook breakfast and took the relatively flat coastal trail back to Two Harbors.
Technically, this six mile stretch is not part of the Trans-Catalina Trail; that ended at Starlight Beach. But you still have to get back to town to get to the ferry home.
Unfortunately we 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.
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.
Trans-Catalina Trail Map
Click the icon in the top right to go full-screen. Click anywhere on the trail to get the mileage and elevation at that location.
Click on an image for a larger version.
Additional Trans-Catalina Trail Resources
- GPS user? Download the GPS file
- View the trail on Google Earth
- The Catalina Island Conservancy has a great video overview on the Trans-Catalina Trail
- Get my complete Trans-Catalina Trail guide on EveryTrail. You can download to the EveryTrail app on your iPhone, Android, Windows Mobile or Blackberry device.
Weather Forecast for Catalina Island