For my birthday last year, my husband Pedro surprised me with a three-day hike across Santa Catalina Island on the Trans Catalina Trail. What a great hubby, right? Known for its picturesque landscapes, free-roaming bison, and water activities, the southernmost island of the Channel Islands archipelago is a fun destination for a backpacking adventure.
Hike the Trans Catalina Trail
Getting to Santa Catalina Island
We started by catching a Catalina Express Ferry from San Pedro. (Not to be confused with Pedro the saint who planned this birthday extravaganza). You must get the ferry from The Port of Los Angeles in San Pedro instead of the Dana Point or Long Beach options. The San Pedro route is the only one that operates to Two Harbors. That way you’ll be ending your hike and getting the ferry back to your car.
You have two overnight parking options while you’re gone for up to two days. The first is the Catalina Express parking lot, just beside the ticket office and dock. It is gated at night and seems very secure for your car. It is free for the first hour, then $2 per hour, or $18 per day. For the three days we were hiking Catalina Island, we would have paid $54 if we had gone with this option.
We opted to go with option two: a parking lot on the street outside the port, about a 10-minute walk from the Catalina Express ticket office. We were running a bit behind, so we speed-walked the distance in about 8.273 minutes. It was worth the walk because the parking lot was free. Generally, the rule of thumb is that you can park in one spot in California for 72 hours, unless otherwise posted. The parking lot we found had no restrictions posted, so we felt confident that we could leave our car there for the time we would be gone. It is very important to note that there is no security and you are parking there at your own risk. We had driven there in an older car and had taken all our belongings with us, so we didn’t feel like our car would be a target for theft.
Read More: 7 Day California Coast Road Trip
The Catalina Express ferry currently (as of March 2019) costs $73.50 round trip for an adult. You can check out the rest of their fares and schedule here.
We took the first ferry scheduled to leave San Pedro towards Avalon on a Monday morning. The ferry arrived in Avalon in about an hour later. We had breakfast at Original Jack’s Country Kitchen, a moderately priced (for Avalon) diner style restaurant. After a hefty breakfast, we walked up a big hill to get to the trailhead. It was about a mile walk from the dock to the official start of the trail. Since we were walking with all our camping gear on our backs, we started counting our miles trekked from the harbor.
Day 1 Getting to the Trailhead
It can be a bit tricky to get to the trailhead. We walked uphill, following a paved road, with the ocean to our left. You’ll see a bunch of people riding golf carts on this road. After about a mile, we saw a dirt trail on our right, with a wooden sign that read Trans-Catalina Trail. From there, it was just one foot after the other, following a clearly marked trail.
Just a few hours into the hike, we followed the trail through a gate to a fenced area. We turned the corner to find wild bison roaming the land. Bison are known to be gentle giants, but we were still glad to have a tall fence between us and them. Even though they are not known to attack humans, it’s important to stay a safe distance away from them and all wild animals on Catalina Island. Bison are huge creatures that can jump over 6 feet and run as fast as 35 mph, so be cautious when you encounter them.
The Bison of Santa Catalina
This herd is not indigenous to Catalina Island, but are said to have been imported for a silent film shot in 1924. They were left on the island and multiplied to as many as 600 bison at one point. Over time, some of the population were auctioned off or relocated to the Great Plains. The Catalina Island bison herd now stands at a population of about 150, which has been determined to be ecologically sustainable for the island and good for the bison. They are now maintained at this number through birth control by the Catalina Island Conservancy. They are a protected species that are important to the culture of the island.
After a few more hours, we completed the 15.9 miles to our first camping spot. We arrived at Black Jack Campground just as it was getting dark, but still had our pick of places to set up. It was late August and we were one of two groups camping there that night. We had booked all three campgrounds we would be staying at ahead of time, which I think is the only way you can stay there. It’s probably the way to go regardless, as we didn’t see anyone working at any of the campgrounds. We set up camp in the dark, had some dinner, and passed out for the night.
Planning the Trip
Keep in mind that you do not need to pay for a hiking permit, but it is mandatory to have one. The great thing is that you automatically get registered as a hiker when you make your camping reservations at www.ReserveAmerica.com.
The printed out copy of your reservation acts as your permit, so make sure you bring it with you. If you plan to do a day hike only, you must obtain a free day-use permit online at http://catalinaconservancy.org/community/.
You can also get a permit in person at the Conservancy House or Nature Center in Avalon, Airport in the Sky, or Two Harbors Visitor Information Center.
Day 2 on the Trans Catalina Trail
The next morning, I woke up to the sound of gentle hoofs on dirt at Black Jack Campground. I immediately sat up and poked my head out the zippered door of our tent to find out what kind of creature it was coming from. I was amazed to discover two giant bison a few feet away, walking casually around the campground. It was an unforgettable experience that was both exhilarating and a little intimidating. Both bison moved on after a few minutes, and we got day two started.
We started our trek to the Airport in the Sky, which is about two miles from the campground. We though, “two miles, no problem”, until we saw the actual trail. It started with a knee-pressuring decline that led to a steep, sweaty, buns-of-steel-making incline. Although the hike was steep, it was reassuring to be able to see our intended destination atop the mountain and know there was a cold drink waiting for us there.
A Hike to the Top
Finally getting to the top, we were rewarded with a delicious lunch, aforementioned cold drinks, and beautiful views. If you’re not interested in hiking but would like to visit the airport, you’ll be happy to know that there is a shuttle, Wildlands Express, that will take you there from Avalon. You can also get there by custom Jeep Eco tour, by bike, or by private plane if your wallet allows. It was nice to relax and interact with other people for an hour, but we had much farther to go for the day.
After our break at the airport, we continued six more hilly miles to our next camping spot, Little Harbor Campground. Unlike the last campground, this one was beachfront. There were a few people around, but we still had the beach almost to ourselves. If you plan ahead, you can go kayaking and the rentals will be dropped off at your campsite here. We didn’t do that, but it was still amazing to dip our tired feet in the cold water and relax beachfront for a few hours.
Day 3 Hiking Along the Ocean
The next morning started with another big uphill. This last leg of our three-day hike was all along the ocean. The views from the trail were spectacular. It got windy at some parts, which was refreshing until it got too cold for me. The journey from Little Harbor to Two Harbors was about 7 miles. We were greeted by a family of deer as soon as we got to the town. The last few steps to the camp sight were tough and we were feeling sore, but so accomplished. The total distance walked was 31.4 miles with an elevation gain of 1,818 feet. We got to Two Harbors on my birthday, so Pedro treated us to dinner at one of the few restaurants in town. The eating-out options in Two Harbors are fewer and more expensive than in Avalon.
We had another great night of camping near the beach and got plenty of rest. We took showers in the coin-operated public restrooms in the center of the tiny town. After breakfast, we boarded the ferry back to San Pedro. Although our bodies were in pain from carrying food and shelter on our backs for three days, it was totally worth the experience.
Planning for Next Time
We plan on doing the hike again. Next time adding a day or two so that we can hike to Starlight Beach. That is the official terminus of the Trans Catalina Trail. It is another 11 miles to get there, but you must hike back to Two Harbors as there is no ferry service at Starlight Beach. The total distance hiked would end up being about 53 miles. That’ll be an adventure for another time. If you backpack Catalina Island, keep in mind that the area you will be hiking is pack in, pack out. Make sure to leave no trace so that we can keep the area beautiful for the animals, campers and hikers. Happy trails!
Guest Blogger Bio
Zolo is one half of the Roaming Adventurers with her husband Pedro. They travel in their truck camper part time, exploring mostly California and Baja for now. They also go abroad as often as they can, usually looking for waves to surf or mountains to hike. Their objective on their trips is to get out in nature and adventure as much as possible. You can follow their travels at www.roamingadventurers.com and on Instagram @roamingadventurers.