Trans Catalina Trail (TCT) Hike Guide
The Trans Catalina Trail, a mini, 38.5-mile thru-hike across the rugged island of Catalina, is a very doable adventure for almost every hiker and backpacker. Most people take between two and five days to complete the trail, which winds its way around Catalina. Along the way, you’ll experience expansive ocean views, the unique Channel Islands ecology, challenging terrain, and spectacular beachside campgrounds. In this complete Trans Catalina Trail (TCT) guide, I’ll show you everything you need to know to hike the trail and plan it out so that it’s a perfect fit for your hiking abilities.
- Trans Catalina Trail Itineraries From 2 to 5 Days
- Logistics & Permits for the Trans Catalina Trail
- What to Pack
- Video, Maps, and Turn-by-Turn Directions for the Hike
When planning, always check the park website and social media to make sure the trails are open. Similarly, check the weather and road conditions.
Trans Catalina Trail Overview
- The Trans Catalina Trail, officially 38.5 miles, is generally followed from Avalon in the south of the island, to Parsons Landing in the north. Nothing stops you from going the other way or doing it in sections, but this routing is the way the TCT is officially laid out.
- The actual island of Catalina is only 22 miles long and 7 miles wide.
This is the basic layout of Catalina Island. You’ll hear people refer to the “west end” or “east end,” and they are referring to the two main landmasses connected by “the isthmus.” The narrow isthmus is where Two Harbors is located. The main center of population and visitation is Avalon, in the southeast. Outside of those two towns, the island is sparsely populated.
- The hike is usually broken into five logical segments (from south to north on the map above).
- Avalon (town) to Black Jack Campground (purple line – 11 miles) – a gentle climb out of Avalon and a series of ups and downs through the interior of the island, with a good share of sweeping vistas.
- Black Jack Campground to Little Harbor Campground (red line – 8 miles) – a climb up to the Airport in the Sky where you can get breakfast or lunch, and then a long descent into the only campground on the rugged west coast of Catalina.
- Little Harbor to Two Harbors (blue line – 5 miles) – my favorite section, with incredible views, and a tough climb up a ridge along the west bluffs.
- Two Harbors to Parsons Landing (green line – 6.5 miles) – you’ll have a tough climb out of town to a high ridge, and then a very steep descent into Parsons Landing.
- Parsons Landing to Two Harbors (orange line – 8 miles) – as the last section of the TCT, this is a flat cake-walk along the coast with views into hidden coves and beaches.
- You can take five days and do a segment a day, but most people combine segments and do it in 3-4 days.
- You’ll likely book a ferry to the start in Avalon, and then book a ferry back from the northern town of Two Harbors.
- The Catalina Island Conservancy manages most of the island and handles the camping and hiking permits.
- The hike is known for its ups and downs, with many climbs and descents steep and made tougher by the camping gear on your back.
- Leashed Dogs Allowed dogs are allowed on the TCT, except at Two Harbors and Hermit Gulch campgrounds. The harsh environment, lack of water, and presence of bison make it a pretty dog-unfriendly environment. I would strongly consider leaving your dog at home for this one.
How to Hike the Trans Catalina Trail
Planning your TCT hike is usually the biggest challenge. Lodging is the hardest thing to secure. Once you have that booked, the rest is gravy. Or bison dogs with onions and relish, like I’m eating here at the airport cafe along the trail.
The TCT isn’t a hike you just show up for and do, you have to plan and book before you go. There are a few variables that you have to align. I’ll talk in detail about each step later in the guide, but to give you an overview, here’s how you should go about it.
- Assume that you’ll go from south to north (Avalon to Parsons Landing to Two Harbors), which is how the Catalina Island Conservancy recommends the hike, at least for first-timers.
- If you have the time, choose the four-day itinerary, which is a good balance between hiking and enjoying the campgrounds. I know that not everyone can take this long to do the hike, so if you want 2 or 3 day options (or 5), I have those too.
- Check the ferry schedule for the days that you want to go. There are not ferries every hour. Often you are limited to 1-3 options per day. Once you have the ferry times, you can start planning where you are going to stay. Don’t book your ferries until you secure your lodging.
- Work backward on dates for lodging, checking the availability from north to south. Often the northernmost campground, Parsons Landing, is the toughest, and they get a tad bit easier as you go backward and work your way toward Avalon.
- Once you have lodging lined up, book it immediately.
- Then book your ferry tickets.
- Then, if you need one, apply for a free permit.
Trans Catalina Trail Campgrounds and Lodging
As I mentioned earlier, securing the lodging is key. The Catalina Island Conservancy releases camping spots on Jan 1 of every year. Ideally you’ll set this date in your calendar and try to hit the website as soon as they go live. If you don’t have that opportunity, don’t worry, people do cancel and spots do open up during the year. You just have to keep checking.
Book campsites online here or try giving the Catalina Island Company a call (310-510-4205) with the sites and dates you’d like.
- There is no backcountry camping on Catalina. You have to stay in one of the official campgrounds or a hotel.
- If you stay at a campground, it’s important that you use the food storage lockers. The rodents, crows, and foxes of Catalina Island are experts at chewing through packs and bags, and will often attempt it if given even a second or two.
- All of the campgrounds listed have toilets.
- Each campground usually has a ranger who either lives or visits the camping area. They will be able to help with any camping needs, and can also communicate with the Conservancy if there is an issue.
- You can arrange to have your camping gear shipped between campgrounds, but it’s not cheap.
- If you want to swim at one of the beach campgrounds, be aware that the Pacific Ocean is usually pretty chilly.
- If you book online and see a (summer only) two-night minimum stay, just book the stay and then call the Conservancy at 310-510-4205. They will waive the 2-day minimum and refund you one night if you are hiking the TCT.
Late winter / early spring is a great time to do the TCT. You avoid the summer crowds, the vegetation is green, and the temps are generally cooler.
Parsons Landing offers primitive camping on the beach, and is usually the toughest campsite to book.
My favorite camping spot on the Trans Catalina Trail is easily Parsons Landing. There are several camping spots located right on the beach, in a protected sandy cove. Each site has a small fire pit and area to store your food and pack. There is no running water, but you can have water and firewood delivered to your campsite upon arrival for a small fee from the Catalina Island Company.
You can check out my detailed guide of Parsons Landing here. It’s a fun hike backpack to for a weekend if you don’t have the time for the whole TCT.
If you stay at Parsons Landing and order water and firewood, it will arrive in these lockers. Pick up your key in Two Harbors before hiking up to the campground. Rangers from the Catalina Island Company deliver the water and wood each day.
Two Harbors Campground
People have mixed feelings about the Two Harbors campground. You are on the water, but the campground itself is not primitive
If you’re going to camp in Two Harbors, there is a big campground ¼ mile south of town on the bluff. The campground usually offers regular sites where you can pitch your tent, and also offers canvas tents and cots that you can rent. Avoid sites 5,6 & 7 as they are right next to the bathrooms. Sites #9, 10 and 11 have great views, and #1-4 are closest to the water with the best views. There is a water refill and cold water (open) showers. If you walk 5 minutes into town, you have access to hot showers (where there is a electrical outlet to recharge devices), a restaurant, and general store. The general store will also deliver food to this campground for a fee.
Banning House (Two Harbors)
It’s not a campground, but the Banning House is one of my favorite places to stay when hiking the TCT.
If you want a break from camping, I highly recommend treating yourself to a room at the Banning House Lodge in Two Harbors. It’s the only real non-camping option, and after a long day of hiking or a few nights in a tent, having a hot shower and comfy bed can feel incredible. The staff is very friendly and they offer wine & cheese and breakfast on the patio overlooking the ocean. If you can make it work, springing for the cliffside room will give you incredible views of the sunset and Catalina Harbor.
If you stay at the Banning House, you can enjoy breakfast or snacks on the veranda overlooking the water.
Little Harbor Campground
The Little Harbor campground has some sites that are right by the beach, and all of them have a table and fire pit.
Little Harbor is my second favorite campground. It’s more of a traditional campground and has a nice beach where you can relax. It’s the only campground on the more rugged west coast of Catalina. Just examine at the tent site map carefully, some tent sites are far away from the ocean and don’t offer any views. Unlike Parsons Landing, campers can take a shuttle bus into Little Harbor, so it’s not limited to hikers. Generally it’s very pleasant, but it can get loud when groups are here. There are cold water showers and water fills. You can get food delivered here from the Two Harbors General Store, and firewood from the Catalina Island Company.
There are three smaller, more secluded campsites in nearby Shark Harbor. These are part of the same Little Harbor campground and are booked through Little Harbor reservations.
You can rent leisure gear from Wet Spot Rentals. Confirm and book before leaving. The highlight of Little Harbor is the beach.
Black Jack Campground
Black Jack Campground is the only campground located in Catalina’s interior. It’s not the most spectacular campground, but it’s nice enough.
Black Jack Campground is a popular option because it’s the closest to Avalon, and within a day’s hiking if taking the morning ferry to the island. It’s located up on a hill in a grove of pine trees, but doesn’t offer any ocean views. There are no showers, but there is a water fill here.
Hermit Gulch (Avalon)
Hermit Gulch is a traditional campground in Avalon, away from the boozy hustle and bustle of the main part of town.
If you want to camp in Avalon, this is your only option. The nice thing about Hermit Gulch is that it’s about a 20 minute walk up Avalon Canyon, away from the waterfront. The campsites are close together, and if you have a rowdy crew staying at the campground, you’ll hear them. It is a convenient jumping-off point, right next to the beginning of the trail section of the TCT.
You can also rent canvas tents with cots at Hermit Gulch.
Avalon Hotels & Rentals
Avalon is the main town on Catalina Island, and is set up well for overnight visitors. There are several hotels, bed & breakfasts, and vacation rentals that you can book. There’s also a supermarket in Avalon if you need to stock up with supplies. When I stay in Avalon, I’ll try to find a place away from the hustle and bustle of the waterfront. I’ve found the Holiday Inn, which is a few minutes inland, is a good option.
Trans Catalina Trail Itineraries
When deciding how far to hike each day, don’t forget to account for the ups and downs along the way, which are the most challenging aspects of hiking the TCT. Aside from Black Jack, all the other campgrounds are at sea level.
Now you have an idea of how long it will take and where to stay, let’s talk about actual itineraries. Below are suggested itineraries based on popular routings. When you’re deciding how long to go, you need to not only determine what lodging you can book, but also what your fitness level will allow and how far that you’ll be comfortable hiking each day with a heavy pack on your back. It’s also important to note that the TCT is hilly, and often the climbs go straight up. This means that going up AND down is usually slow with a pack.
If you want to estimate your pace, I recommend packing your backpack with all the gear you will bring and then go for a short and hilly day hike. Expect to go slower with a full backpack than you would with a lighter day-hiking pack. Most folks average between 1.5-2.5 mph when hiking with a full backpack. If anything, based on the conditions, be conservative when planning your pace on the TCT. Worst case is that you get somewhere early and relax on a beach.
When planning your itinerary for hiking the TCT, know that hiking during dark is not permitted.
5 Days / 4 Nights
- Day 1
- Ferry to Avalon
- Hike from Avalon to Black Jack Campground – 11 miles
- Camp at Black Jack Campground
- Hike from Black Jack Campground to Little Harbor – 8 miles
- Camp at Little Harbor
- Hike from Little Harbor to Two Harbors – 5 miles
- Overnight in Two Harbors
- Hike from Two Harbors to Parsons Landing – 6.5 miles
- Camp at Parsons Landing
- Hike from Parsons Landing to Two Harbors – 8 miles
- Ferry back from Two Harbors
4 Days / 3 Nights
- Day 1
- Ferry to Avalon
- Hike from Avalon to Black Jack Campground – 11 miles
- Camp at Black Jack Campground
- Hike from Black Jack Campground to Little Harbor – 8 miles
- Overnight in Little Harbor
- Hike from Little Harbor to Parsons Landing – 11.5 miles
- Camp at Parsons Landing
- Hike from Parsons Landing to Two Harbors – 8 miles
- Ferry back from Two Harbors
3 Days / 2 Nights
- Day 1
- Ferry to Avalon
- Hike from Avalon to Black Jack Campground – 11 miles
- Camp at Black Jack Campground
- Hike from Black Jack Campground to Two Harbors – 13 miles
- Overnight in Two Harbors
- Hike from Two Harbors to Parsons Landing to Two Harbors – 14.5 miles
- Ferry back from Two Harbors
2.5 Days / 2 Nights
- Day 0
- Late Ferry to Avalon
- Overnight in Avalon
- Hike from Avalon to Two Harbors – 24 miles
- Overnight in Two Harbors
- Hike from Two Harbors to Parsons Landing to Two Harbors – 14.5 miles
- Ferry back from Two Harbors
Trans Catalina Trail in One Day
Nope. Well, if you are a trail runner and can do better than a 4-5 mph pace, you should be able to complete the 38.5 during daylight. If you are running, the uphills will be walked, and most downhills are so steep that you have to take them slow. If you are considering this, I’d say take a good look at the gradients on the elevation profile to figure out where you can make good time and where you can’t.
Trans Catalina Trail Permits
The good news is that for hiking permits, if you have a camping reservation on the island, it serves as your hiking permit. There is no need to get any other paperwork for the hike. If you are doing an itinerary that doesn’t include any camping, only lodging, then you need to get a free permit online. You don’t need to pick up or carry any paper, just make sure you have a copy on your phone (and that it’s charged). Since you are only allowed to camp at a designated campground, the (lack of) camping space serves as the quota system. Book your campsites and you are good to go.
Getting to the Start fo the Trans Catalina Trail
Unless you’re a high-roller who can fly or helicopter into Catalina, expect to take the ferry across from the mainland. The ferry usually has a bar and snacks on board. You might be asked to check your backpack in when you board.
Assuming that you’re going to do the hike along the recommended routing from Avalon to Two Harbors, you’re going to have to arrange for your ferries from each spot. There are several mainland ports that have ferries to Avalon, including downtown Long Beach, Newport Beach, Dana Point, and San Pedro (Long Beach harbor). For Two Harbors, a much smaller town, the options are limited, with a ferry to San Pedro and a seasonal shuttle to Avalon. There is no scheduled land transportation between Two Harbors and Avalon; a taxi can cost several hundred dollars. There is also a shuttle bus between different points; the schedules vary by season.
So what most people do is take the (easier) hit on the mainland side and drive to San Pedro. From there you can park (for a fee), get a one-way ferry ticket to Avalon, and then a one-way ferry ticket back from Two Harbors. Different seasons have different schedules, and the ferry website is easy enough to use and book a ticket on. Getting ferry space is usually not a problem.
The ferry from San Pedro to Avalon is about 75 minutes depending on the sea conditions. There is sometimes a direct ferry from Two Harbors to San Pedro, but most times you have to stop in Avalon, which is about a 2 hour trip in total. When there are storms, the ferries can be canceled. Make sure you stay up to date by checking their website before leaving.
You can park at the Ferry Terminal in San Pedro for a daily fee.
Trans Catalina Trail Packing List
A tale of two TCT hikes: on the left, a smaller day pack used on a two-day itinerary, on the right, a larger pack with gear for five days.
One of the biggest mistakes I see on the Trans Catalina Trail is people hauling huge backpacks with a ton of gear. For many folks, including day hikers, the TCT is often one of the first real backpacking trips that they do. If you Google “what backpacking gear do I need,” you’re going to get a lot of strong opinions. You don’t need a lot of stuff. Do yourself a favor and stick to the basics unless you backpack often and have a preferred setup. Here’s what I would get (or rent from REI). Check out my gear page for my current picks and what I’m using now.
- Get a 40+ liter backpack to carry all your gear.
- Having a 3 liter water bladder will hold enough water between refill points (more below). You don’t need a water filter. The refill points have drinkable water. Make sure you drink and refill often in the summer. According to the rangers, most summer rescues occur from dehydration.
- Get a small, light tent. Campgrounds have lockers where you can store your pack.
- I find that having an inflatable sleeping pad and pillow make my nights more comfortable.
- Nights can be cool, especially close to the ocean where winds can pick up. A 3-season sleeping bag (30F) is the most that you need to stay warm. If you already have a lighter sleeping bag, consider getting a sleeping bag liner which will make it warmer if needed.
- I use a small lightweight stove which is reliable and easy to use. When I hike the TCT I take advantage of the spots where I can buy food or have it delivered.
- Bring something to start a fire to light your campfire wood with.
- You’ll need good footwear, especially if you’re not used to hiking this much or this far. I highly recommend a hiking shoe or trail runner (see my latest picks here). Don’t make the mistake of a heavy boot that could give you blisters.
- Don’t be fooled by the “average temperature” charts that put it always between 50-72F. Generally the days are hot and the nights are cool, but it can get much hotter in the summer (90s) and very chilly when camping by the ocean (40s). Bring layers to stay warm at night and to peel off as it gets hot. The weather can change quickly in this maritime environment.
- The trail is totally exposed to the sun. Having lightweight gear for the day with sun protection is a good move.
- I’ve found ticks on me when hiking here. I use lotion-based insect repellant now and don’t have any problems. Other hazards such as poison oak or snakes are easily avoided by watching your step.
- It can rain on Catalina, and its position in the middle of the ocean means that rain can be unpredictable. I bring a lightweight shell and light rain pants with me, which I also wear at night when it gets cool.
- Comfy shoes or flip-flops are great for after you peel your hiking boots off.
- Trekking poles are a must, especially if you have a big pack on your back. The climbs and descents are steep and can be slippery. Trekking poles will save you from having to butt-scoot down some of the more extreme slopes.
- If you’re brave enough to enter the chilly Pacific, bring a bathing suit and maybe even a mask.
- Don’t forget a headlamp for navigating camp at night.
- If you look at cellphone coverage maps, some show the whole island as having coverage. You might be able to snag a signal in the interior, but don’t count on it. Two Harbors and Avalon have decent service. Make sure you download your maps on your phone and/or buy a paper map from the Conservancy visitor center in Avalon (or from some REI stores or online).
- I like to keep things simple so I load some books on my phone’s Kindle app and put a movie or two on there to watch in my tent. I have a USB charger to keep them topped off. Keep your electronics in your sleeping bag with you. If they get too cold, the batteries will drain quickly. And don’t forget to put your phone into flight mode when outside of Avalon or Two Harbors, otherwise it will drain down quickly as it searches for a signal.
If you are doing the 2-day itinerary and are staying in hotels, then you only need to bring day hiking gear and a change of clothes.
I waste my time with lousy hiking gear so you don’t have to. Only the winners get onto my gear page. There’s no fluff, sponsorships, or promotions. It’s just gear I personally use, have tested, and recommend. Right now I’m liking my inReach Mini 2 , Garmin Epix , and Lone Peak 6 shoes .
My November 2022 Top Gear Picks
LAST WEEKEND ➤ Big REI Sale On Now Including Big Discounts on Hiking Tech Like inReach / Garmin Watches
Water and Services Along the Way
The General Store at Two Harbors, where the traditional TCT route ends, is a good place to pick up a shirt, patch, or sticker to commemorate your TCT adventure.
Make sure you bring some cash with you, the credit card machines on the island (found just about everywhere) don’t always work outside of Avalon.
- San Pedro / Long Beach
- REI stores in Manhattan Beach and Huntingdon Beach
- Supermarkets in San Pedro
- Water Fill at Hermit Gulch
- Several Public Toilets
- Water Fill
- Water Fill
- Water Fill
- To-Go Food
- Dine-In Food
- Water Fills
- Cold Water Showers
- Food Delivery from Two Harbors General Store
- Firewood Delivery from the Catalina Island Company
- Pay showers
- Restaurant (which will deliver to Two Harbors campground)
- Cooked Whole Pizzas
- Food & Drinks & Alcohol
- Limited Gear (charging cables, basic hiking gear)
- Water and Firewood Delivery From Catalina Island Company (arrange beforehand)
- Often extra water is left by previous campers. Sometimes the rangers clean these up right away, sometimes you can find a few around.
Going to the bathroom off the trail is highly discouraged in this fragile ecosystem. When you need to do your serious business on the hike, try to hit one of the toilets along the way that I’ve just listed.
Trans Catalina Trail Maps
The actual Trans Catalina Trail is a bit of a mixed bag, and generally when I hear that someone was disappointed with the experience, it’s because they were expecting different types of trails and wilderness. Overall the Trans Catalina Trail, which is a route using other trails and roads, is a combination of single-track trail, small dirt roads, and short sections on “busier” dirt roads. And when I say “busier,” know that this is generally means the odd Conservancy or delivery vehicle. Most people don’t drive out of Avalon. And while Catalina is barely developed, the hike does pass through reservoirs, a small town, and some developed campgrounds. It’s off the beaten path, but it’s also not a hike through the middle of the Sierra Nevadas.
Types of Trails
Some trails are single-track like this. They’re also steep like this. Only the climb out of Avalon has switchbacks, otherwise you’ll be going straight up or down. Trekking poles are a must in some sections. Most of the TCT is on small dirt roads that are not open to traffic like this. And there are some stretches where you’ll see the odd automobile, but generally I’ll only see a handful for a whole TCT hike. Drivers will usually slow down for hikers when passing. If you ever need help along the TCT, finding the nearest road and flagging down a vehicle is your best move.
These small markers will be your best friend on the TCT. They are frequent on the trail, and usually placed right after a junction. If you make a turn and don’t see one of these, I’d check the map to make sure that you’re in the right place. You’ll also see a good number of these Catalina Island street and trail signs along the way, especially at key turns and intersections. You’ll also have these mile markers for most of the entire 38.5 mile route. They are oriented on the south-to-north route.
When I did the guide, a section before Little Harbor, on Springs Ridge, was closed, and there was a detour along the parallel Sheep Chute Road. I’ve updated the map and GPX file to have the latest route down Springs Ridge. Either way, you’ll be fine.
Guides to Help You Navigate
The Trans Catalina Trail is a story of ups and downs. After a long day or in the heat, the smaller climbs can be as tough as the bigger ones. The three major climbs are out of Avalon, out of Little Harbor, and then out of Two Harbors.
Landmarks on the Hike
Landmark Distance Elevation Avalon Dock Trailhead 10 Hermit Gulch Campground 1.5 280 Hermit Gulch Viewpoint 3.4 1500 Haypress Reservoir 6 1350 Black Jack Campground 11 1520 Airport in the Sky 13 1602 Little Harbor Campground 18 10 Two Harbors 24 10 Granite Benchmark 27 1780 Parsons Landing 30.5 10 TCT Terminus 38.5 20
From Avalon (on the left) we climb into the interior, then across the island to Little Harbor. From there, we hug the west coast until we come down to the isthmus and Two Harbors. Then it’s up in the hills of the west end, down to Parsons Landing, and back to Two Harbors.
Starlight Beach / Old Route
The old Trans Catalina Trail route used to end at rugged Starlight Beach, at the west end of the island. Photo Chris Hunkeler
Before 2017, the Trans Catalina Trail had a different route, and if you’re doing research online you may see guides that follow that route. The beginning of the hike went around Catalina’s east end, and the “end” of the hike was Starlight Beach, at the tip of the island’s west end. The Conservancy changed it to the current route outlined in this guide, and I think it’s for the better. The new route is easier logistically, focuses more on great spots to camp, and avoids the steep (and some would say dangerous) hike to Starlight Beach. If you want to see what the original route looks like, I have my old track up here.
- The island of Catalina was never connected to the mainland. Every creature or plant found on the island arrived by wind, water, or humans.
- Catalina Island’s full name is Santa Catalina Island, and it’s one of the eight channel islands of California, but not part of Channel Islands National Park.
- Native peoples like the Tongva inhabited the island for 8000 years before the Mexicans and Americans came and stamped their authority on the area. Even then, Catalina was way off the beaten path and home to smugglers, illegal mining, and hunters.
- It wasn’t until the 1920s when chewing gum millionaire William Wrigley Jr. bought most of the island and developed it into a tourist attraction. The golf course and aviary that you pass on the beginning of the hike are from of those days. You might recognize the name Wrigley from the Cubs’ Wrigley Field in Chicago. Well the team would do their spring training here until World War 2.
- In the 1970s the Catalina Island Conservancy, a private non-profit organization, took over much of the island with the aim of preserving and restoring the natural environment. Today they own 88% of the island and manage the longest publicly accessible stretch of undeveloped coastline left in Southern California. They also manage the trails and campgrounds that you’ll stay at on the TCT hike. Because of them, the TCT is a beautiful hike through native lands, not high-rise resorts and condos.
- The Trans Catalina Trail was conceived until 2009, when the Conservancy came up with the idea and encouraged backpackers to tackle this new thru-hike. The island has over 165 miles of trails.
- There are about 150 bison that roam the island. If you don’t see them, you’ll see their big dung piles (aka the “buffalo chip”) for sure. They are the (population-controlled) descendants of bison brought over in 1924 for a film shoot. It’s important to stay at least 150 feet away from them. If they feel threatened they can charge, and they are faster than you. If they are blocking the trail, you have to either wait or improvise and go around. I’ve seen a flippant group of hikers get charged once. They had to jump into a gully. Take it seriously.
This is too close. Don’t do this. And FYI, you can see bison almost anywhere except downtown Avalon. That includes campgrounds and the beaches. They generally like to follow the roads and trails. Photo David Galvan
- If you’ve seen the movie Step Brothers with Will Ferrell, I’m sure you’ll remember the Catalina Wine Mixer. The island actually capitalized on the movie’s cult status and threw the festival. The inside joke is that in the movie, the actual mixer takes place in Palos Verdes on the mainland, and in some shots you can see Catalina in the distance, way off the coast.
- While you might see some bison, bald eagles, snakes, mule deer, or other creatures, the massive winner in terms of cute is the native Catalina Island Fox. In 1999 it was was endangered; there were only 100 left. The Conservancy worked hard to restore the population, and today there are nearly 2000 on the island (and they are no longer endangered). They are docile and friendly, but obviously, don’t feed them or touch them. They will try to steal your food if it’s left alone and do bite humans when threatened.
The ultimate cutie, the Catalina Island Fox. Photo Wikipedia.
Trans Catalina Trail Hike Directions
Turn by Turn Directions
Avalon to Black Jack Campground
Hop off the ferry in Avalon and make the right along the waterfront. Head down along the waterfront to the middle of town. Once you’re in town, take any one of the streets up into the interior to Avalon Canyon Road. Avalon gets over 1 million visitors a year, and cruise ships dock here, so it can get crazy. Stay sane, make a supermarket stop if you need to, and walk back away from the waterfront to Avalon Canyon Road. Head up Avalon Canyon Road. You’ll see signs for Hermit Gulch. It should mellow out a lot compared to the waterfront area. Keep walking up the paved Avalon Canyon Road. After about a mile on the road, look for the turnoff on the right to enter Hermit Gulch Campground. We’re going to be hiking through the campground and out the other side to the trail. Head through the campground, bearing right as you head toward the back end of it. When you get to the end of the Hermit Gulch Campground, make the right. At that turn you’ll see signs for the trail. Start the climb up from Hermit Gulch on the single-track trail. So now you start the TCT proper. You’ll have a climb of about 1200 feet until you reach Divide Road. As you climb, you’ll start to get views down into Avalon Canyon. The good news about the climb out of Hermit Gulch is that, unlike the other big climbs, there are steps and switchbacks along the way, making the effort a little easier. Soon you’ll climb high enough to start seeing the ocean and the mountains on the mainland. The big mountain to the right as you climb (and not in frame here) is Saddleback Mountain, the highest point in Orange County. The mountains you see here are Angeles National Forest, and the high point is Mt Baldy. You’ll see the mile markers as you climb. When you get to about 3 miles, you’re almost at the top. Soon you’ll crest the ridge and have views over the west side of the island. On a clear day like this you’ll see San Clemente Island in the distance. San Clemente is the southernmost Channel Island and is run by the US Navy. You can’t visit unless you are a Navy SEAL or Marine who goes there to train. There’s a nice pavilion with some interpretive displays at the Hermit Gulch Viewpoint. Make the right at the Hermit Gulch Viewpoint and start hiking on Divide Road. You’ll pass a toilet at the junction with Lone Tree Road, off to the left. It’s a nice little day hike from Avalon. For us on the TCT, go straight down Divide Road. At this point, the views that the Trans Catalina Trail are famous for are before your eyes. Behind you will be the East Mountains of Catalina. You’ll get glimpses to your front of two important landmarks. On the left here is Mt Orizaba, the highest point on Catalina. But more importantly, on the right you’ll see a tall pointy peak, which is Black Jack Mountain. Just to the left of the mountain is Black Jack Campground. And as you continue on Divide Road you’ll get great ocean views toward LA. And you’ll be able to see down into Avalon, where you started the TCT. After around 5 miles in, look for the turnoff onto a trail on the left. There’s a sign here for the TCT. Here’s the sign at the last intersection. Now we’ll be on single-track trails mostly as we hike through the interior towards Black Jack. Go through the fence, following the signs. Continue hiking along the single-track trail. There will be points where you can see the busy Airport Road off to your right. You’ll always have Black Jack Mountain in the distance to give you a sense of how far you have to go. Shortly after passing the fence you’ll come to the top of a ridge and see Haypress Reservoir below you. We’re hiking down, around to the right, and then back out the other side to the left. Af the bottom of the hill, go through the gate to the right. And then make the left onto the road. And then you’ll pass by the reservoir, which is actually a natural pond, Haypress Pond. This was one of the natural water collection areas used by native peoples. The facilities are all the way on the right as you go around the reservoir. There is water and toilets. Otherwise continue around to the other side and pick up the single-track again. It’s about 6 miles from when you leave Haypress. From here until Black Jack, you’ll have a few miles of ups and downs. When you get up to the road, do the quick crossover and check out the viewpoint into Toyon Bay. Then head back across the road to continue the TCT. When you cross over from the viewpoint, there’s another Trans Catalina Trail sign. Ups and downs. Follow the single-track through the hills. When you get to the top of the hill, make the right onto the road. And shortly after that, look for the left turn to continue on the single-track trail. Another canyon to cross as you hike through the interior. You’ll be able to see the trail in front of you. Cross over Middle Ranch Road to continue on the trail. When you crest the last climb, you’ll get some expansive views. Hike downhill toward the viewpoint with interpretive displays, and then make the left. If you want to fuel up before the last big push up to Black Jack Campground, this is a good spot. Now we just have to cross Cape Canyon to get to Black Jack. The campground is in the group of pine trees to the left of Black Jack Mountain. At the bottom of Cape Canyon is this great bench made out of Catalina road signs. One of the only shady spots on the hike. When you get to the Cape Canyon Reservoir, make the right on the road. And after a minute bear off to the left onto the single-track to start the climb up the other side of Cape Canyon. You’ll pass the 10 mile marker. The climb is steep, and can be tough if you are just starting your TCT adventure and have a heavy pack on. Take your time, you’re almost there. The trail levels out and you have a relatively flat stretch before getting to the campground in the trees ahead. Here you are, Black Jack Campground! There are toilets on the right. The trail continues straight through, past the toilets. The water refill is directly across from the toilets.
Black Jack Campground to Little Harbor
Head up the road from the campsites. Make the right on the Cape Canyon Trail.
If you want to do a side hike to the highest point on Catalina, Mt Orizaba, make the left here and go up the road. It’s about an extra hour (out and back) to visit. At the top is an aviation radio beacon (VOR) used by airplanes to navigate.
The views from the trail open up to the east as you wind your way on the TCT. Keep following the dirt road, Cape Canyon Trail. TCT markers confirm that you’re in the right place. Make the left and start heading downhill into Cottonwood Canyon. As you head down into Cottonwood Canyon, you can see the airport buildings up to the right. Look for this marked turnoff to the right to continue on the TCT. As you descend into Cottonwood Canyon you’ll see the airport in front of you. That’s our next stop. At the junction, make the left to finish off the downhill. You’ll pass the 12 mile marker at the bottom of the canyon. From here you start climbing up toward the airport. As the climb eases up, you’ll see the airport in front of you. Go straight at the airport loop trail junction, following the TCT sign to the airport. If you want to visit a 2000 year-old Tongva soapstone quarry, you can do a short side trip to the right here on the airport loop. I put the waypoint in the interactive map. Please be respectful. Okay, welcome to the Airport in the Sky! To continue on the TCT, go straight. But I recommend making the side trip to the cafe, which is a traditional stop on this hike. Hikers welcome! The original airport, called Buffalo Springs Airport, was blasted out of the hills here and opened in 1941. There’s no commercial flights here now, but there have been in the past. In recent years the airport fell into disrepair and the Marines showed up to restore and repair it. The cafe is in the main airport building. You can get food and gifts here, and you’ll be sharing the experience with tourists who came up the Airport Road, bikers, and pilots. The food here is good, go crazy. Of course they have everything bison on the menu too. Some folks eat here and also order food to-go, eating it at Little Harbor later. It’s pretty much all downhill to Little Harbor, so if you’re considering buying food to-go, don’t worry about lugging it up hills. There’s a nice outdoor patio area to eat. Or if you’re hot, cool down in the indoor seating area under the gaze of a bison on the hearth. When you’re done, head back to the trail and make the right to continue on the TCT. Pass over El Rancho Escondido Road as you loop around the airport. And you’ll get your first glimpses to the ocean off the west coast of Catalina (where the fog is here). Once you’re on the other side of the runway, you’ll loop around Buffalo Springs Reservoir. When you get to the end of the reservoir, make the hard left on Empire Landing Road. Although this stretch is mostly downhill, there are some small uphills. You’ll have some nice views over to Palos Verdes before you wind away from the east coast. People actually swim the 20 miles from here to Palos Verdes, which is pretty incredible. You’ll also get your first views of Catalina’s west end, which you’ll hike after you cross the isthmus at Two Harbors. The peak in the middle is Silver Peak, and at 1804 feet is the highest point on the west end. At around 14.5 miles in, bear left onto Sheep Chute Road, which you’ll take all the way down to Little Harbor.
Note, the current route has you going right, and then down Springs Ridge. I’ve put that into the interactive map and GPX file. The route is similar to this descent down Sheep Chute Road. If you take the Springs Ridge option, just join the directions below at Little Harbor.
As you cruise downhill Little Harbor comes into view below. At the split, you can go either way. Left is a little less steep. Keep hiking straight, avoiding the side roads into the old cattle grazing areas. At the bottom of the hill make the right onto Little Harbor Road. And then make a quick left onto the road through the campground. Lots of toilets here. There are also water fills located around the various tent sites. This is a good place to fill up before heading to Two Harbors. Make sure you check out the beach, even if you are just hiking through. It’s a beautiful little cove and great place for a bite and breather.
Little Harbor to Two Harbors
To continue on the TCT, go through the campground road and look for the trail turnoff to the left. Once you hop off the road, there’s a last water fill, TCT sign, and the trail in front of you. This climb out of Little Harbor starts what many consider the prettiest stretch of the Trans Catalina Trail. It also entails about 1100 feet of climbing. As you climb the switchbacks out of Little Harbor, you’ll see the trail wind its way up along White Bluff. Keep right at the use-trail to the left. As you ascend up the small dirt road, you’ll start to get incredible views of the west end cliffs. The trail climbs up right along the edge of the bluff. Towards the end of the climb, it get really steep, and your trekking poles will help. Soon you ascend to the top and rewarded with spectacular views of the entire west end. There is a survey marker here, called the Goat Benchmark, that was first recorded in 1875 as part of a coast survey. Here you are at the viewpoint by the Goat Benchmark. The rock jutting out in front of you is called Catalina Head and it protects Catalina Harbor. Soak it all in and then continue. Now we’re hiking on a wider dirt path that follows the ridge. It’s mostly downhill but there are few bumps to climb up. The views from this stretch are still incredible. When you get toward the radio tower, keep straight on Banning House Road. Soon you’ll see the east side of Two Harbors known as Isthmus Cove in front of you. Hike through the gate. Keep heading downhill when you come to the turnoff for Cat Harbor Overlook. And soon the western part of Two Harbors comes into view. This is the official “Catalina Harbor” and is the most protected anchorage on the island. As you get closer to Two Harbors, avoid the side roads and keep heading straight downhill into town. Once at the bottom of the hill you’ll come to a big open space, with the yacht club on your left. Making the right brings you into town, which I recommend stopping at. Going left down the other side of Catalina Harbor continues on the TCT. Heading into town will bring you to the pier and visitor area. As you make your way in the pay showers and laundry are on your right. You can fill up with water here. When you get to the waterfront, look left to see the Two Harbors Campground about 0.5 miles east. There’s no need to visit there unless you’re staying there. From the waterfront the restaurant and general store are right behind you. The thing to do at the restaurant is to drink Catalina’s signature cocktail, a Buffalo Milk. The General Store is tucked in the back to the right of the restaurant. It’s a good place to stock up on food or anything else that you may need before continuing. They also serve whole pizzas all day, which comes in handy if it’s not a serving time at the restaurant.
Two Harbors to Parsons Landing
From the big intersection where you entered Two Harbors, head up the far side of the water. As you start along the water there’s another TCT sign. You’ll be on a wide dirt road over to the boat anchorage. When you get to the dinghy dock (on the left here), look right for a fence and a small picnic area. The picnic area has a water fill and toilets, the last before Parsons Landing. This section is nice as you hike alongside the harbor and can see all the boats. But then you swing away from the harbor and hike through an area that seems to be the resting place for all of the island’s old construction equipment. In the distance you can see the TCT head uphill on the Silver Peak Trail, which is where you are going. Now it’s time to work as you do the last big climb on the TCT up Silver Peak Trail. You’re going to climb about 1700 feet straight up in 2.5 miles. The Conservancy calls this “a very challenging portion of the TCT, but one of the most rewarding.” Keep hiking straight up, avoiding the side trails. Hike through the gate. Just past the gate you’ll see a TCT sign. It’s always hard to capture the steepness of the trail in a still image, but this one somewhat gives you an idea of the gradient as we pass the 26 mile marker. Don’t forget to turn around and soak in the views, which are spectacular. Go left and uphill at the junction with Water Tank Road. And shortly after that, avoid the Mt Torquemada Trail to the left and continue up along the ridge. The worst of the steep climbing is done at this point. Now that you’re so high up, the views are incredible once again. You’ll start getting glimpses of the Granite benchmark peak that you’ll be passing in the distance. To the left is the Granite benchmark, the second-highest peak on the west end. Visit if you’d like, otherwise just take the path to the right and continue along the ridge. Stay left at the intersection with Boushey Canyon Road. And then you’ll see a viewpoint pavilion, the TCT continues down to the right on Fenceline Road. You’ll get some nice views of Silver Peak from the viewpoint which is the west end’s highest peak at 1804 feet. It was the best of trails, it was the worst of trails. All the TCT climbing is done, and now you have a nice long downhill with great views. But the trail is incredibly steep, and it’s tough to keep your footing when descending, even with poles. Keep going straight, avoiding any small utility side roads. You’ll see Parsons Landing beach in front of you as you descend. Cross over the gate. At the junction close to the bottom, make the left to stay on the official TCT route. Stay left at the little turnout. The grasses around you here are all native, replanted by the Conservancy. At the T-junction, make the right. And here you are at Parsons Landing! Even if you’re not staying here, it’s nice to explore the beach and chill out for a bit.
I have a full guide to Parsons Landing here if you’d like to explore the campsites.
Parsons Landing to Two Harbors
After all the ups and downs of the last 30 or so miles, the remaining part of the Trans Catalina Trail is a cakewalk along the coast.
Continue on the small trail (marked TCT) at the top of the campground where you arrived. You’re treated to a single-track trail with some gentle uphill. When you get to the split, you can go either way. When you get to the larger road, make the left and continue downhill. Hike through the gate. And soon you’ll hike hiking through the Boy Scout’s summer camp complex at Emerald Bay. Stay on the main road that winds through the park. And soon you’ll be hiking along a dirt road on the side of the cliff, with the ocean below you to the left. The views are like this until the end.
From here until the end you’re just following the coastal road. No big climbs, just a nice cruise. There are some nice little beaches below. If you just went straight in the water to Two Harbors, it would be about 2.5 miles. But instead you’ll hug the coast, winding into the coves and canyons, for about 7 miles. There are nice viewpoints with benches along the way. Keep your eye out for the mile markers, they’re still with you! Hike on the road around Howlands Retreats, which you can book as a glamping experience. For the next few miles the routine is the same. Hike in through the cove and valley, and then back out to the ocean. There’s a toilet as you get closer to Two Harbors. The last cove is Fourth of July Cove, which houses a private yacht club. Once past the last cove, hike past the Conservancy sign as you enter Two Harbors. You did it, Two Harbors! You can cut down to the beach as you enter Two Harbors, but the official TCT route continues straight on the road, inland for a little bit, and through a residential neighborhood. And soon the road will deposit you at the big square in Two Harbors. The TCT sign there is the official terminus. That’s it, 38.5 miles or so! Grab your photos and head to the ferry. The ferries leave from the dock in the middle of town. If you booked online, get a paper ticket at the window here. You can also leave your backpack on the dock in designated line spaces ahead to the left. If you’ve got time, grab a bite and relax. But keep your eye open for the ferry. If you miss it, chances are you’ll be here for another day.
Backpacking the Trans-Catalina Trail
A number of primary and secondary roads and single-track trails come together to form the 38.5-mile Trans-Catalina Trail, and there are five unique campgrounds along the way as the trail meanders through scenic, hilly terrain between Avalon on the east end of Catalina and Two Harbors on the west.
From the 1,200-foot climb out of Avalon Canyon on Hermit Gulch Trail to the 1,500-foot, 2-mile trek up Silver Peak, the Trans-Catalina Trail challenges you with nearly 10,000 feet of total elevation gain, so whether you’re planning a 3, 4 or even 5-day Trans-Catalina Trail adventure, you should be in decent shape to truly enjoy the experience.
Consider planning your hike for the fall, winter or early spring, when cooler temps and sea breezes help make up for the lack of shade along the trail. Sturdy hiking boots and trekking poles are recommended to help navigate the difficult climbs and challenging descents you’ll encounter.
No matter when you go or how long you take to complete the Trans-Catalina Trail, the soul-stirring serenity and awe-inspiring scenery you’ll experience will leave you with a lifetime of memories. Click the drop-down menus below to learn more about hiking the Trans-Catalina Trail.
REI is offering several Guided Trans Catalina Trail Expeditions in 2022. Find out more about the REI Trans Catalina Trail Expedition.
Getting to Catalina Island
Whether you plan to hike the Trans-Catalina Trail from Avalon to Two Harbors or vice versa, you’ll first need to get to the island. Depending on the season, the following transportation services offer various departures and returns to and from the mainland to Avalon and Two Harbors. It’s best to secure Trans-Catalina Trail camping reservations before you book your boat. But even then, it takes a bit of creative planning to coordinate your departure and return with your hiking itinerary.
Transportation to Avalon
Catalina Express – Ferries from Dana Point, Long Beach and San Pedro (Face coverings are required while aboard the boat)
Catalina Flyer – Ferry from Newport Beach (Face coverings are required while aboard the boat)
Transportation to Two Harbors
Catalina Express – Ferry from San Pedro (Face coverings required aboard the boat)
Transportation Between Avalon and Two Harbors
Cyclone Power Boat – Peak season departures from the Green Pier in Avalon and Isthmus Pier in Two Harbors
Note: Adverse weather and sea conditions can lead to boat and helicopter cancellations without notice. Be sure to check the long-term forecast before planning your hike and booking your transportation.
Things to Know About the Trans-Catalina Trail
HIKING PERMITS: Your campground reservations serve as your camping/hiking permit; no additional hard copies of permits are needed.
LENGTH: 38.5 miles
HIGHEST ELEVATION: 1,775 feet
TOTAL ELEVATION CHANGE: 9,600 feet
TRAIL COMPOSITION: Primary and secondary roads and single track trails made up of mostly compacted dirt with some loose gravel.
TRAIL CONDITIONS: Rolling terrain with long uphill and downhill sections and little or no shade. Sturdy hiking shoes, trekking poles and adequate sun protection (hat, sunglasses, sunscreen) are recommended. As is enough water to make it between campsites, where you can replenish your water supply. Rain can result in trail closures. Contact Catalina Conservancy at 310.510.2595 for updates on conditions.
WILDLIFE: American Bison roam freely along many sections of the trail and can be unpredictable. You may encounter Catalina Island fox in the cooler hours of dawn and dusk. Rattlesnakes are also part of the island’s ecosystem, as are Bald Eagles and mule deer. Never approach, taunt or disrespect wildlife in any way.
CAMPING: Camping is only permitted in five designated campgrounds along the Trans-Catalina Trail: Hermit Gulch, Black Jack, Little Harbor, Two Harbors, and Parson’s Landing. All campgrounds have potable water, except for Parson’s Landing. Lockers at Parson’s Landing stocked with 2.5 gallons of water, 1 bundle of wood, and a fire starter can be preordered from Two Harbors Visitor Services at 310.510.4205. Each locker costs $25. You must stop by the Two Harbors Visitor Services Center before hiking out to Parson’s Landing to receive your locker number and combination. Lockers are not included with camping reservations.
You can also purchase firewood, charcoal, and fire starters from Visitor Services, either in person or over the phone, and have it delivered to your campsite at Little Harbor and Two Harbors. No fires are permitted at Black Jack and Hermit Gulch campgrounds.
RANGERS: Rangers are onsite at all campgrounds, except for Parson’s Landing and Black Jack.
Camping Along the Trans-Catalina Trail
From a remote mountaintop to a secluded beach to a scenic harbor on the island’s “backside,” there are five unique camping experiences along the Trans-Catalina Trail. Reservations are required and can be made online. Your camping reservations serve as your hiking permit. No additional fees are required. There is a 2-night minimum on Friday and Saturday nights during the summer season at Hermit Gulch, Little Harbor, and Two Harbors campgrounds. Trans-Catalina Trail hikers can have that minimum requirement waived by calling Two Harbors Visitor Services at 310.510.4205.
HERMIT GULCH – 1.5 miles from the Conservancy Trailhead in Avalon
The only campground in Avalon is tucked into scenic Avalon Canyon about two miles from downtown shops and restaurants. Instead of hitting the trail right off the boat, many hikers spend the night here to get an early-morning start on their Trans-Catalina Trail adventure. Amenities: 40 tent sites and 7 tent cabins, potable water, coin-op hot showers, restrooms, picnic tables, BBQs. No open fires. Wax logs and charcoal fires permitted in BBQs. Ranger on site.
BLACK JACK – 10.5 miles from Trailhead
The highest (1,600’) campground on the island offers sweeping views of rolling hills and rugged canyons. Amenities: 10 sites, potable water, cold outdoor showers, chemical toilets. No open fires permitted. No ranger on site. Restaurant available two miles up the trail at Airport-in-the-Sky.
LITTLE HARBOR – 19 miles from Trailhead
Overlooking the ocean on the “backside” of Catalina, Little Harbor was rated the “Best Campground in the West” by Sunset magazine. Amenities: 26 sites, beach access, potable water, cold showers, chemical toilets, some shade structures. Ranger on site. Fires permitted in designated fire rings. Firewood available from Visitor Services.
TWO HARBORS – 24 miles from Trailhead
Located a short walk from Two Harbors village on a scenic ocean-view bluff. Amenities: 47 tent sites, beach access, potable water, cold water outdoor showers, restrooms, picnic tables, fire pits, BBQs, and sunshades. Tent cabins (12) with 2-burner propane stoves, lanterns, fire pits, and picnic tables are also available at Two Harbors campground. Catalina Cabins (21 – available seasonally) are located in the village of Two Harbors and offer electricity, heaters, refrigerators, twin bunk beds or a 1 full-size bed, and communal kitchen. Coin-op hot showers and restrooms are also located in town and are available to all visitors.
PARSON’S LANDING – 30.8 miles from Trailhead
Secluded beachfront campground accessible only on foot or by kayak. Amenities: 8 sites, beach access, chemical toilets. No water available. No ranger on site. Fires permitted in designated fire rings. Lockers with water, firewood and starter are available for purchase through Visitor Services. Must pick up locker key in Two Harbors.
Planning Your Itinerary
There are many ways to experience the Trans-Catalina Trail. Most people take 3-5 days, starting at the Conservancy Trailhead in Avalon and finishing in the west end village of Two Harbors. The direction you go and the number of days you take largely depend on how many miles you want to log each day and how much you want to explore the surrounding trails at each campsite.
Following is a typical 5-day, 4-night Trans-Catalina Trail adventure that begins in Avalon and ends in Two Harbors.
DAY 1: 10.5 miles
Conservancy Trailhead to Black Jack Campground
Depending on the time of year, if you spend the night at Hermit Gulch Campground in Avalon and get an early morning start, you should arrive at Black Jack with plenty of daylight left. If you’re feeling up to it, consider taking the 3-mile round trip trek to the top of Mt. Orizaba (2,102’), Catalina’s highest peak, for some great views. Don’t forget to replenish your water supply before you leave Black Jack for Little Harbor.
DAY 2: 8.5 miles
Black Jack to Little Harbor Campground
It’s a relatively easy downhill hike from Black Jack to Little Harbor on the backside of Catalina Island. Consider starting out in the late morning and stopping a couple miles down the trail for lunch at Airport-in-the-Sky. The Conservancy has a Nature Exhibit there that you can explore. And DC-3 Grill serves up killer cookies and Buffalo burgers that’ll hold you over until dinner time in Little Harbor.
DAY 3: 7 miles
Little Harbor to Two Harbors Campground
The sweeping ocean views on the downhill trek into Two Harbors will make you forget the challenging climb out of Little Harbor you just completed. There are hot coin-op showers in the village to rinse off the trail dust. West End Galley is a great spot for a quick bite. Or grab a hearty sit-down meal at Harbor Reef Restaurant. You might try a cool Buffalo Milk here, but they carry a big kick and you have a difficult 1,500-foot climb up Silver Peak Trail to start Day 4. Stop by Visitor Services for the key to your Parson’s Landing locker, which contains firewood, a starter, and 2 gals of fresh water.
DAY 4: 7 miles
Two Harbors to Parson’s Landing
You just finished what is probably the most difficult section of the entire trail, so drop your pack and take a refreshing plunge in the Pacific Ocean. If you have enough energy and daylight left after that, it’s about a 9-mile round trip over rolling terrain out to Starlight Beach, the unofficial end of Catalina Island. You could also do this hike in the morning before you set out for Two Harbors. In the meantime, enjoy the incredible star-filled sky at your secluded beachfront campsite.
Day 5: 7.5 miles
Parson’s Landing back to Two Harbors
The best thing about hiking the Trans-Catalina Trail from Avalon to Two Harbors is that you finish with a 7-mile stroll on meandering West End Road that takes you around several scenic coves along some of the most incredible coastline Catalina has to offer. Before long, you’ll be back in Two Harbors, where you can grab a hot shower, kick back with a Buffalo Milk, and share trail stories while you wait for the ferry back to the mainland.
Catalina Trail Map
This topo map of Catalina Island, courtesy of the Catalina Island Conservancy, shows all trails, campgrounds, points of interest, and elevation changes to help you plan your Trans-Catalina Trail adventure. You can purchase this map before you hit the trail at the Conservancy Trailhead in Avalon or Visitor Services in Two Harbors.
What to Bring
Deciding what to stuff in your pack is one of the hardest things to do, even for experienced backpackers. Fortunately, the Trans-Catalina Trail offers water and even food options along the trail, which means less for you to carry. And there are stores in Avalon and Two Harbors to pick up those little things that you might forget. The following are items to bring that will help make your adventure more enjoyable.
HIKING BOOTS: Many people hike the Trans-Catalina Trail in trail-runners. But if you do the entire 38.5 miles, and add some auxiliary hikes along the way, you could end up coving 50 miles or more. By the last day, your feet will be much happier that you gave them proper support.
BACKPACKING PACK: Unless you plan to have your gear hauled from campsite to campsite (which can be arranged through Catalina Backcountry), you’ll want a medium to large backpack with a solid lightweight frame to carry everything you need for a 3 to 5-day trek.
SLEEPING BAG: Weight is the biggest consideration when it comes to sleeping bags. Catalina Island’s climate is pretty temperate, even in the winter, so your bag doesn’t need to be cold weather rated.
SLEEPING PAD: You’ll probably sleep better and wake more refreshed if you have one, so the added weight is well worth it.
TREKKING POLES: There are many steep uphills and downhills on the Trans-Catalina Trail. Trekking poles will not only make those sections easier to navigate, they also will take the load off your knees.
COOKING GEAR: To cook your food, you’ll need a small backpacking stove and a canister of propane. NOTE: Ferry boats to Catalina do not allow you to transport propane. You can pick up a canister in Avalon at Chet’s Hardware. If you’re starting from Two Harbors, propane is available at Two Harbors General Store.
FOOD: There are a couple of dining options along the trail (DC-3 Grill at Airport-in-the-Sky, and West End Galley and Harbor Reef Restaurant in Two Harbors) so you can save a lot on food weight. (Check restaurant hours.) REI offers backpacking meals that only need hot water. Protein bars, fruits, nuts and other on-the-trail snacks can be purchased on the island at Vons or the General Store.
WATER: The Trans-Catalina Trail can be hot and strenuous, so you’ll want to stay hydrated. Fortunately, there is running water available at all campgrounds except Parson’s Landing so you only need to carry what you need on the trail between campsites. Lockers at Parson’s Landing that contain 2 gallons of fresh water, as well as firewood and starter, can be purchased when you make you camping reservations.
CLOTHING: This is a matter of preference. But you may want a pair of lightweight long pants to protect your legs from cacti and other plants along the narrow parts of the trail. A bathing suit will come in handy at the three beachfront campgrounds. And a hat that provides protection from the sun is a must. Other than that, your best bet is to pack as little as possible and travel light.
OTHER SUPPLIES: Plenty of sunscreen; a headlamp for those nighttime bathroom trips; toilet paper (the bathrooms should be stocked, but it’s better to be safe than sorry); first aid kit with blister pads and ibuprofen to ease those aches and pains; small bag for your on-the-trail trash; a portable battery to recharge your phone. There are no electrical outlets along the trail, and your GPS hiking app and camera are sure to drain your phone battery after a couple days.
Of course this is only a partial list. There are many online resources and blogs dedicated to backpacking the Trans-Catalina Trail, including the Catalina Island Conservancy website. The more research you do, the better prepared you’ll be for this amazing, bucket-list adventure.
Trans Catalina Trail: 5 Days Hiking Across the Island of Catalina
The Trans-Catalina Trail (TCT) is one of the premier hiking adventures in the state of California. The 38.5-mile trail traverses the island of Catalina, giving you access to a stunning Mediterranean landscape, beautiful coastal views, bison roaming the hills, and campsites right on the beach. We set out to hike across the island on a 5-day adventure utilizing a gear haul service from Catalina Backcountry, here is all of the information from our time hiking the trail over five days.
- 38.5 miles
- Over 9,000 feet of elevation gain
- Must get campsites in advance
- I partnered with Catalina Backcountry for a gear haul on this adventure, click here to find out more about them
- We hiked this February 28th – March 4th, 2020
- My friend Jeff inspired me to go on this adventure, read about his trip here
Here is a video of the entire trail; it is almost an hour long. Or you can just read about the trail below.
How to Plan the Trip
Here is another video I did on planning and tips for making the journey.
To start our hike, we decided to take the first day easy, so we took the 9 AM Catalina Express Ferry from San Pedro. Note that San Pedro is the only ferry location that goes to both Avalon and Two Harbors. This makes it the best spot to take the ferry so you can arrive at Avalon and just leave from Two Harbors when you are done hiking to come back.
The ferry took about an hour and a half, and we got to Avalon at 10:30 AM. We decided to use the gear haul service from Catalina Backcountry since there were a couple of first-timers on my trip, and this allowed us to take more gear and enjoy the hike without a big pack. The service was fantastic, with our gear always waiting for us at our campsite when we arrived. I highly recommend them!
Since we had a lot of gear, we took a taxi from the ferry to our campsite and left all the gear; then, we headed back into town to get lunch and start the hike.
For lunch, we selected NDMT, which has excellent fish tacos and Scoops for some ice cream. We then headed over to the conservancy, which is the official trailhead, and began our hike on the TCT.
The hike from the conservancy to Hermit Gulch is only 1.5 miles with a gradual uphill. Many people choose to start the hike from the ferry and pass Hermit Gulch, but we wanted to take our time and explore Avalon a little bit, so we stayed at Hermit Gulch. On the way up to Hermit Gulch, we stopped by Vons to get last minute supplies as well.
Eventually, we made it back to the Hermit Gulch Campground, set up camp and relaxed. It was a beautiful campsite, and it wasn’t busy in late February.
This was the end of our first day in the trail.
- Totals – 1.5 miles, 37 left to go.
- Campsite – Hermit Gulch
After waking up at 7 AM, we got all our gear packed up for Catalina Backcountry to pick it up. It was awesome turning the gear over and getting just to use day packs.
The hike then began at the end of the campground, and we proceeded to head up on switchbacks.
The beginning of the TCT is no joke, featuring a grueling 1,500 feet of elevation in only a couple of miles.
Luckily the trail is well maintained and has a good incline that is not too bad.
Along the way, the views just get better and better as well.
The trail continues to climb, and it is easy to follow, you just have to take your time. Note that there is not much shade on this portion or any portion of the TCT for that matter.
Eventually, you will reach the end of the climb on the Hermit Gulch Trail and will connect with the road. There is a great spot to rest right at the intersection of the Hermit Gulch Trail and the TCT.
Heading on, the trail here is nice and flat with fabulous coastal views for most of the next mile.
It was a welcomed escape from the uphill we had been doing from the campground.
After climbing a small hill, you will pass by radio towers and head down towards the bison gates. These gates as used to keep the bison in one area, and you have to walk through them to continue.
It does feel like something out of Jurrasic Park, and we hoped to see bison in the section but didn’t see one.
The trail then heads downhill to a small lake right next to a park.
Don’t miss the TCT here as it heads out from the park around the other side of the lake.
Here it starts to climb, and it gains a few hundred feet of elevation.
The trail is still beautiful, but the uphills start to get tough with no real switchbacks and just straight uphill climbs.
Eventually, the trail will connect with the road, and you will cross over it and be at another bench you can relax at.
Crossing the street once more, the trail bends and heads down into the back part of the island, and it seems like it is going pretty far out of the way here.
It also starts the first of three good uphill climbs you have to do to get to Blackjack Campground. Don’t underestimate the last few miles getting to Blackjack it is way harder then you would think.
When this section gains its elevation, you will immediately start to head back down again; losing elevation on the way back to the road.
Eventually, you will get to the road, cross over, and start to go back up. Notice a pattern here?
This uphill starts ok, but then it gets steep in the last half.
We took our time here as we were starting to get tired.
It then culminates in some great coastal views before heading back down again into the inner portion.
This downhill is steep, and I imagine it is tough if you were doing it in reverse. Eventually, we made it down and were greeted with a nice bench made of trail signs.
This area is a popular spot to see bison as well, but unfortunately, we didn’t get to see any during this portion.
It’s probably the most beautiful section we saw during day one though, and I loved walking under the trees and around the lake.
As we rounded the lake, we started the uphill one last time to Blackjack Campground.
This was the worst uphill of the day, and it was tough with a very steep grade. Take your time on this one as you will need it. The uphill is especially brutal since there are no switchbacks, and it is directly up.
Eventually, you will make it to the ridge and can start the flatter portion that leads you up and over a small hill to your first view of Blackjack Campground.
As we arrived at the camp, it started to rain on us lightly, so we rushed in to set up our tent. It wasn’t bad, and we were able to escape the rain, make dinner and retire to our tent, ending our first real day of hiking on the Trans-Catalina Trail.
- Totals: 10.7 miles hiked (9.2 today)
- Campground: Blackjack
Day 3 on the TCT began with waking up to the wet tent from the previous night’s rain and finding a place to hang dry our tent in the sun before starting our adventure.
This was the longest day on the trail for us at over 14 miles, and it ended up being a full day where we got to camp after it was dark, so consider that if you do the trail the same way we did.
We left the campground and immediately went uphill to connect with a dirt road and to take it to a split, which would take us down into a canyon and up to the airport.
Getting to the airport was about 2 miles of downhill and uphill and around 300 feet of loss and gain. It was a pretty steep trail, as most of the TCT is, but it had some excellent views of the interior portion of Catalina Island, plus it had the end goal of a nice hot breakfast at the airport cafe.
We kept our eyes peeled for bison in this section as we were told that they like to hang out by the airport, but we didn’t see any. Getting to the bottom of the small canyon meant that we had to start the climb out. This climb was a good way to get the blood moving on relatively steep terrain, but eventually, the airport came into view.
The trail takes a roundabout way to the airport, and you will reach a split that brings you to the driveway for the airport and cafe.
The cafe is open pretty much every day (but do check the hours before you go). When we got there, it was 9:45 AM, and they were still serving breakfast, so we all got the three egg scramble.
It was a lot better than the backpacker food we had been eating with scrambled eggs, hash browns, and toast.
Also, don’t leave without getting their “killer cookies.” I ate one while I was there and took another for the day’s hike. They really are great.
After relaxing at the airport, we left to start the hike down to Little Harbor.
The trail starts by heading downhill and crossing two more small lakes before meeting up with the dirt road.
I had seen that this part of the hike was all downhill, but that was taking the Sheep Chute Road route, which is not part of the TCT. So at the split for Sheep Chute, we stayed on the TCT.
This part of the trail introduced us to another section of the island and eventually got us off the main road onto a single track again.
This trade off took us on a roundabout hike that had a decent amount of up and downhill and was more difficult than just taking the Sheep Chute Road.
The trail through here was pretty, and it felt nice to not be on the road. We even saw some excellent coastal views and got to see our first bison way out in the distance as well.
The trail then bent away from the coast and went across a ridgeline to bring us over towards the western portion of the island.
This area had some fantastic views since we were so high up and let us see two herds of bison roaming in the distance.
Once we got to the high point of this section is was 800 or so feet down to get to Little Harbor.
This downhill was not too bad, since it had a lot of beautiful views as you progressed. Eventually, you will start to flatten out, and there is a rest area with a bench and some shade.
We continued past this rest area on our way to Little Harbor and ran into a group of eight bison.
We had been told to be careful as they often chase hikers, so we gave them as much distance as we could. The main bison still stared at us the entire time though, which was kind of creepy.
After passing the bison, there was one more downhill to Little Harbor.
Little Harbor is a stunning camping area that is situated in a fantastic cove.
If I could do this over again, I would probably have stayed here as it was stunning, but there is always next time. We ate our lunch and explored a little bit before starting the most beautiful and one of the toughest portions of the hike, heading over to Two Harbors.
As you leave Little Harbor, the views down to the cove are crazy, and you can get some great ones as you proceed up the switchbacks (the only switchbacks on this section).
Passing the switchbacks leads to an incline that gets tougher and tougher as you progress. The total gain here is around 1,200 feet.
It wouldn’t be as severe if there were more switchbacks, but instead, the trail is just an uphill grind on loose rocks, which is pretty tough.
This is also where the trail crosses mile 20, meaning you have passed the midpoint of the trail.
This section easily has the best views of the hike though, with the undeveloped west side of the island looking like something you would see in Hawaii.
We continued to climb and eventually got to the base of the last uphill portion, which was the worst. This section had you walk up an incredibly steep ridgeline with significant drops on one side and loose rocks along the entire trail.
It was pretty tough, but when you got to the top, the views were gratifying. This section took our group a while, which is why we got to the top as the sun was beginning to set.
We rested at the bench that they have at the top for a bit before starting the downhill, which is about 1,200 feet down to Two Harbors below.
The downhill is almost as steep as the uphill, and it is on a rough dirt road as you descend.
We did this as fast as we could since the sun was setting, and we didn’t want to get caught in the dark. It was beautiful to see the island from here though.
Eventually, the trail crosses through a bison gate and begins the final descent into Two Harbors.
We even got to see the second harbor on the west side at dusk, which was pretty cool.
It was dark as we made it into town, and it was challenging to find where the campground was in the dark. The campground ended up being on the right side of the pier, so we walked down there and were greeted with a tenth of a mile uphill climb to get over to the campground.
We found our spot in the dark and set up our gear with the sound of the waves crashing since we were right next to the water. It was a long and grueling day, but it was very rewarding as well. I feel like that is an excellent way to describe the trail, rewarding yet very hard with the way the trail is laid out. That ended day 3 for us.
- Totals: 24.2 miles hike (13.5 miles today)
- Campground: Two Harbors
After the long day that we had on day 3, we got up a little later and took our time getting ready to leave for the day.
We had gotten into camp when it was dark, so it was awesome to see how beautiful the campground was during the day with its magnificent beach views.
After packing everything up and leaving it for our gear haul, we headed into Two Harbors. There we stopped to check in for Parsons Lansing and to pick up some supplies from the general store.
The general store is great for all of those last minute food and drink items, and I was surprised by how much they had.
Leaving Two Harbors, there are two ways to get to Parsons Landing. Most people elect to walk the road since it is flatter and better for carrying a large backpack. My dad did this route.
Jerrod and I decided to do the secondary way though, which is on the TCT and goes up over Silver Peak and down to Parsons Landing.
We left Two Harbors and walked along the road that took us to the back harbor. It was refreshing to see this area, and it was beautiful, with fewer boats and fewer people.
After passing the seaplane airport that they were working on, we headed up on the trail.
The trail is about 1,700 feet in 2 miles, and it is easily the hardest thing we did on the TCT.
The grade is very steep at over 20% incline most of the way, and there is very little shade. You will pray for a switchback here.
You are also walking a dirt road and not a trail, which makes it a little less fun as well.
As you go up the crazy grade, the only thing keeping you going is the views out towards mainland California.
It was so clear when we went, and you could even see snow on Mt Baldy.
Eventually (after at least 1.5 hours), we made it to the high point.
The views of the island from here were awe-inspiring, and we just soaked it all in while eating lunch.
After that, we walked along the ridgeline for about a half mile until we got to another rest spot with fabulous coastal views.
From the rest spot, the downhill gets crazy.
Jerrod and I nicknamed this area roller coaster ridge as some sections were so steep that you couldn’t even see where they went as you walked up to them, much like the pre-drop part of a roller coaster.
I can’t imagine walking this with a full pack, and I would probably just take the road if I were you, but I am sure people do it all the time.
We continued down the steep descent as we made our way towards Parsons. Eventually, the trail started to flatten out a little, which gave us a welcomed break.
Shortly after this, you come to an intersection where the TCT bends to the left and goes around a few more turns before arriving at Parsons Landing. While this section from Two Harbors is only about 6 miles, it took us over 4 hours.
Arriving at Parsons Landing made the trail seem worth it though. The campground has nine spots nestled in a beautiful cove. We had campsite two, which was a great choice. It was secluded and had a lot of space.
I took the opportunity to put my feet in the water before unpacking the gear that Catalina Backcountry hauled for us. I have to give them a special shout out here as I had a popped air mattress the night before, and they brought me a cot to use for my last night! Plus, they brought us beers to celebrate our journey with; such a top-notch crew that I enjoyed working with.
The rest of the day was setting up the tents, making dinner, admiring the views, and having a campfire. You can have a campfire here; you just have to pay for your firewood in advance, along with the water they supply (since they don’t provide water).
It was a great day four on the trail, and I was sad to have to leave and head home the next day.
- Totals: 30.8 Miles (6.6 hiked today)
- Campground: Parsons Landing
On day five, we woke to the sound of crashing waves and the sunrise. It was amazing to be able to zip open the door to the tent and see the ocean in front of us.
We had to be at the ferry by 11:30 AM, so we got up at 6 AM, made coffee, and prepared all the gear for Catalina Backcountry to pick up, before leaving at 7 AM for the hike back to Two Harbors.
The hike to Two Harbors was only 7 miles, and it was just rolling hills with not a ton of elevation loss or gain. It was an excellent way to end the trip after the two difficult previous days. The trail began by leaving Parsons Landing and heading up a single track where you gained the most elevation of the day. It was only a few hundred feet though, and it got the blood pumping on the cold morning.
From there, the trail is just a dirt road all the way back to Two Harbors. The road you are walking has beautiful coastal views with many different coves and campgrounds that you pass along the way.
The first campground we saw was one for the Boy Scouts that had a pirate ship in the middle, which was pretty cool.
The road is not very direct in this portion either, and you have to go around the camps hugging the mountainside, which makes distance that should be a quarter mile over a mile.
It is not bad though, especially if it is in the early morning since it was refreshing for us during the walk.
Eventually, the trail will get to the last of two large bends, and there will be a pit toilet and a bench to sit at.
This was my favorite coastal view along this portion of the trail, and we sat here a while to soak it all in.
From there, it was just more walking along the road to finish the last mile and a half of the trail.
When we rounded the bend, and Two Harbors came into view, it was both exciting and bittersweet. This had been a tough trail, so it was nice to get it over with, but it had been a fun adventure that I didn’t want to end.
When we made it back to Two Harbors, we celebrated with a trip to the general store, where you can get all sorts of food and drinks. I got a beer and some snacks to eat while waiting for the ferry to come in.
It was also amazing to see Catalina Backcountry roll up with our gear about 30 minutes before the boat left, and we just had to pick it up from them and carry it onto the boat.
- Totals: 38.5 Miles (7.7 miles today)
- Campground: Home
The Trans Catalina Trail was much more difficult then I thought it would be. It featured a lot of elevation gain and some truly tough uphill sections with no switchbacks and steep inclines. That being said, it was also a stunning adventure on an island off the coast of California. One with bison, beautiful beaches, and sunsets I will never forget. If you are up to it, the TCT is a great adventure, just be sure you are prepared physically and made still consider the gear haul. Let me know what you think about this trail in the comments.