Saturday, June 18, 2011

Backpacking the Trans Catalina Trail: Part 2

Things you should know before backpacking the Trans Catalina Trail

Practical Advice on what to pack, how long does it take, where to get supplies, where to camp, how to get permits, where is there water ect. From your Catalina Island Expert!
Ah, the Trans Catalina Trail! Hopefully you read my brief introduction to the wonderful new backpacking trail that transverses the length of California's Catalina Island. This post is a more focused post on logistics of doing all or part of the Trans Catalina Trail. These are common questions I've received over the years of being a part-time Catalina-ian. If you're unfamiliar with the trail, click below for an introduction:

Backpacking the Trans-Catalina Trail: Part 1

How long is the Trans Catalina Trail? How long does it take to hike it?

The Trans Catalina Trail is about 37 miles long (60 km), one way. This is somewhat of a deceptive number; the western terminus of the trail is 11 miles away from any real exit point. So If you're planning on hiking it end-to-end, plan on it being a 48 mile (77 km) trek. A full trek will take about 5-6 days depending on how fast you hike.

Starting points: You can start at either Avalon or Two Harbors. Avalon is a small city on the island with all normal amenities (super markets, restaurants ect.) Two Harbors is much smaller but it has a small overpriced general store. The Catalina Express leaves from several locations in Southern California to take you to either location. Most people begin in Avalon and end in Two Harbors and you can buy boat tickets to and from either location.
Commonly Clear Skies on Catalina
Section Hiking the Trans Catalina Trail

Section hiking is possible too. Most people who try and section hike it will do either the East End-Avalon to Two Harbors Section, or the West End Loop. It also possible to take a bus to most major locations between Avalon and Two Harbors if you chose to cut out some distance.
Here's distances of a couple of commonly done section hikes-
  • Avalon to Two Harbors, one way: 26 miles (41 km): 2-3 days
  • Avalon to Two Harbors, one way, Stage Rd. Shortcut: 20 miles (32 km): 2 days (Stage Rd is the main paved road exiting Avalon and cuts off the Eastern Portion of the trip
  • Two Harbors to Starlight Beach, round trip: 22 miles (35 km): 2 days
  • Two Harbors to Parsons Beach, round trip:13 miles (20 km): 2 days
Which is the best section hike? The West End- Two Harbors to Starlight Beach back to Two Harbors will go through the least crowded part of Catalina Island. I think it is strikingly rugged and showcases the best of Catalina's ecology. Starlight beach is also almost always empty as opposed to other campsites on the island which fill up quickly.
Parsons Beach and Arrow Point
Campsites, Water, Resupply Points

There are several campsites on the island and its is important to know that you can ONLY sleep in designated campsites. Catalina is small enough to be easily damaged by human activity so remember to stay in designated sites only. The campsites with their respective mileage differences are listed:
  • Hermit Gulch Campground (Avalon): 1.5 miles from Trans Catalina Trailhead
  • Blackjack Campground: 13.8 miles from Avalon
  • Little Harbor Campground: 7.2 miles from Blackjack Campground, 5 miles from Two Harbors
  • Two Harbors Campground: .5 miles from Traihead
  • Parsons Landing Campground: 6.5 miles from Two Harbors
  • Starlight Beach Campground: 4.6 miles from Parsons Landing
As far as campsite availability, you need advance reservations for most in the Summer. Two Harbors and Hermit Gulch (Avalon) are notorious for filling up weeks in advance (especially during holidays!). Blackjack and Little Harbor are usually not full but they can fill up on weekends. In the summer, the Boy Scouts reserves every site on Parsons Beach for large overnight scouting programs on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. Starlight Beach is almost always empty, but its worth it to double check before you go.
Airport in the Sky
Water and Resupply Points

This is a desert-like island and therefore water should be your top concern. Unfortunately, due to the nature of Catalina, water sources are few and far between. It also should be noted that the trail through the interior of the island is notoriously hot and humid. I would recommend carrying no less than 3 liters of water a day and carrying 4-5 liters in the "waterless" areas. Here's the run-down on water sources:
  • Avalon: This is your last chance to stock up on water and supplies for 14 miles. Seriously, I would recommend taking 4-5 liters for the section between Avalon and Blackjack Campground
  • Blackjack Campground: This is the first campsite on the trek and it has water.
  • Airport in the Sky: 2 miles past Blackjack campground, the Airport has water and a small variety of supplies. Get yourself a Buffalo Burger!
  • Little Harbor: 5 miles past the Airport, this is a standard campsite with water
  • Two Harbors: 5 miles past Little Harbor; the town has water and a general store
  • Parsons Beach: 6.5 miles past Two Harbors; there isn't running water at this site, but the Conservancy provides 2.5 gallons of water with each purchased campsite. DON'T expect there to be water unless you've purchased a campsite
So, stock up on that water on the Avalon to Blackjack leg of the trip and the Starlight portion of the trip! Dehydration is common with Catalina hiking!
Mt Blackjack Summit, Catalina Island
Fees, Permits, Red-Tape

Hiking permits on Catalina Island are free. You can obtain a permit from the Catalina Island Conservancy here. Of course, while the hiking permits are free, the campsites are not. Campsites can fill up and advanced reservations are needed. Here's the run-down:
  • Hermit Gulch (Avalon): $19 weekday/$21 weekend. Fills up quickly
  • Blackjack Campground: $14 weekday/$16 weekend. Usually open.
  • Little Harbor Campground: :$14 weekday/$16 weekend. Can fill up on weekends.
  • Two Harbors: $15 weekday/$17 weekend per person. Fills up quickly.
  • Parsons Landing Campground:$14 weekday/$16 weekend. Can fill up on weekends. Not open on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays in the summer.
  • Starlight Beach Campground: Free. Almost always open.
Also, keep in mind that you will have to pay for a ticket out to Catalina by boat. Here are the several locations that you can leave from and return to. Unfortunately, fares are about $70.00 for a round trip ticket. Bleach!

Try and make sure you get all your supplies before arriving on Catalina Island. Everything is literally 3-4 times more expensive.
Sunset on the West End of Catalina
Well, that just about covers it! I would also like to add that there are several side trails and mountains that can be climbed while doing this trail! Silver Peak, Mt Blackjack, and East Peak are all within a short distance of the Trans Catalina Trail. Enjoy the wonderful wilderness that has been preserved for you!

Read. Plan. Get Out There!


  1. Joe,

    Thanks for this great post about hiking on Catalina Island. I tried to get a hiking permit at the link you provided and learned that the Catalina Island Conservancy has a new Hiking Permit system.

    In case this can help anyone else, the updated link is:

    Gary Richmond

    1. Thank you for the update! I will have to change that.

  2. Joe, this was great help, thanks for writing it! I'm hiking the TransCatalina trail next week. :)

  3. Hey, quick question. You say get all supplies before going to the island. What about fuel for camp stove? We're flying down to LAX from Oakland, so can't bring it on plan. Do you recommend finding gas somewhere in Long Beach? And can we take it on the ferry? THANKS!!

    1. Unfortunately you can't bring any camp fuel on the boat across to Catalina Island. I believe they operate much like an airplane where you can't bring anything flammable or any firearms on board. Both Two Harbors and Avalon have general stores where you can purchase camp fuel though. Hope that helps!

  4. *Can't bring it on the PLANE. da plane, boss!

  5. Is camping permitted at Starlight Beach? I haven't seen it listed as a campground before, but it seems like a great spot.

    1. Yes, camping is permitted. I believe you have to call the Conservancy to camp there but it is very remote and highly unlikely that you would run into anyone else out there. Its definitely a great spot in a large wilderness!

    2. Thanks for posting all of the information regarding the TCT! I'm planning on heading out later this month and your blog has helped. Do you have anymore information regarding camping at Starlight Beach? Especially, what kind of camp sites do they offer? I mainly just need a flat spot to setup a shelter. . . Thanks again, Andy.

    3. Starlight is my favorite campground on the island- secluded and really rugged! However it is essentially a small cleared area with a fire ring. There are no services out there. There's certainly enough room for tents though.

    4. Thanks for such a fast reply! Starlight sounds like a perfect spot. I noticed a sign that says, "day use only" on some trip videos. That probably helps to keep it secluded. Nice! Your advice, especially from a local, is very much appreciated.

  6. Thanks for all of the info.I am use to backpacking the Cascades and Rocky Mtns in Washington and Montana. We need to pack extra clothing for the nights, sometimes a stocking hat for early morning time and this is during the month of August. Do you have a good list of clothing, tent, food, sleeping bag, etc to pack for this kind of hike? Sounds like we would need a lot of water (weight) How about a water pump? Thanks, Keith J.

    1. Recommend very minimal amount of extra clothing in general- summer shorts, techwick shirts and a wide brimmed hat, summer jacket for the evening and maybe a pair of pants. The temperatures are an extremely reliable 70s during the day and 60s at night.In my five summers of camping on the island, I never needed more than a standard jacket for night and a pair of pants. The marine layer comes in every morning with fog though its less prevalent in the late summer. However, I can remember only one time where it actually rained and that was for 10 minutes during my five summers. Therefore I never camped in a tent- always outside under the stars. Just a sleeping roll and a light summer bag. No special recommendations on food other than buying everything on the Mainland- island prices are marked up 2 or 3 times more expensive. There are absolutely no reliable water sources on the island but most campsites (Blackjack, Little Harbor, Hermit Gulch, Two Harbors) have potable water spigots. On the west end, it is different- starlight beach has no water at all. Last I checked, Parsons beach still provided three gallons for campers but double check with the Catalina Island Conservancy on that. No need for a water pump though- no reliable open water sources on the island other than the campsites. Other than that, if you end up roughing it at Starlight, (which I highly recommend- legitimate wilderness and isolation with a chance you might see bald eagles) might consider bringing some kind of simple food storage container just for the foxes. Other than that, I never ran in to trouble with critters.

      Overall, pack as light as possible in the way of clothing, tent and sleeping bag to save room for water and food. I tended to carry 3.5 liters at a time, especially when hiking through the interior of the island and the temperatures sometimes are higher. Great trip though! Good luck!

  7. Thank you for the info. I made a slight mistake and I did not mention the time when we will be hiking. We will be hiking during the first part of March, 2016. Any recommendations for this time of the year? Thanks

    1. I'm not as familiar with spring time hiking on Catalina. I think that the temperatures and weather will still be steady though it does tend to rain more in the winter and early spring. The times I've been out on the island in March are pleasantly cool- low 60s in day to low 50s/upper 40s at night. Again, never actually been rained on but I would bring rain gear just in case during the spring. Might be a little more foggy or cloudy during that time too. Good luck! Are you doing the whole trail?