Hike the Trans Catalina Trail

Highlights

  • Hiking on uncrowded trails with ocean views, as if you had the island to yourself
  • Great campsites. If you get the right spot at Little Harbor, you may just be able to see the sunset over the ocean from your tent. 
  • Watering holes where you can also get a nice cold beer

Skill Level

Beginning/Intermediate (Catalina Conservancy has the hike mostly listed as Class II/III)

Distance

37.2 miles (Official trail. Full hike closer to 50 mi)

Time requirement

3+ days (see itinerary ideas below)

Best time of year

Anytime, though spring/fall may be best for weather and being the crowds. 

Cost (approx.)

$140 (3 days)- $185 (5 days)

Preparation 

  • Hiking Permits: Free. Permits are required to hike in the backcountry on the island. Reserve online at the Catalina Conservancy and pick it up at the marked kiosk when you get to the island. 
  • Ferry: $75/person on the Catalina Express. Depart from San Pedro terminal to either Two Harbors or Avalon, depending on your route (see itinerary options, below). Ferries run less often to Two Harbors, so the boat schedule may help you decide which direction you will hike the trail. Make sure to check ferry schedule and availability before planning your trip. 
  • Camping: $22/night per person. Campgrounds along the trail (from west to east): Parsons Landing, Two Harbors, Little Harbor, Blackjack, Hermit Gulch. Reserve through the Catalina Conservancy. If all sites appear booked online, call 877.778.8322 to confirm. 
  • Water: Make sure to come prepared with lots of water carrying capacity. There is very little water on the island and you are only able to fill up at a few spots along the trail (Isthmus, Airport, Blackjack Campground, Little Harbor, and Haypress). The Catalina Conservancy website has a list of available water stops (under “important tips”)--check it for changes. 
  • Fuel: You cannot bring fuel on the ferry. We started at Two Harbors and did not have luck finding the type of fuel we needed for our backpacking stove. Rumor has it that the hardware store in Avalon had more options, so if you start there you may have better luck. If you want to leave the stove at home, you can purchase firewood for your campsite or just pack food that doesn’t need a flame. 
  • Maps: Maps can be found on the Catalina Island Conservancy website. These links will take you to their maps: 

Itinerary 

You can do the Trans Catalina many different ways. Due to the ferry schedule, it would be difficult to complete in a three day weekend but is possible, if you hustle. The hike is broken up in the following sections:

  • Avalon to Blackjack: 17.22 mi
  • Blackjack to Little Harbor: 7.15 mi
  • Little Harbor to Two Harbors: 5.14 mi
  • Two Harbors to Parsons Landing: 6.57 mi
  • Parsons Landing to Starlight Beach: 4.62 mi

Here are a couple itinerary ideas (which you can do from either direction). 

  • 3 Days, full trail: 
    • Day 1: Avalon--Blackjack (17.22 mi)
    • Day 2: Blackjack--Little Harbor--Two Harbors--Parsons Landing (18.86 mi)
    • Day 3: Parsons Landing--Starlight Beach--Two Harbors (15.81 mi)
  • 3 Days, partial trail:
    • Day 1: Two Harbors--Little Harbor (5.14 mi)
    • Day 2: Little Harbor--Blackjack (7.15 mi)
    • Day 3: Blackjack--Avalon (17.22 mi)
  • 4 Days, full trail
    • Day 1: Avalon--Blackjack (17.22 mi)
    • Day 2: Blackjack--Little Harbor (7.15 mi)
    • Day 3: Little Harbor--Two Harbors--Parsons Landing (11.71 mi)
    • Day 4: Parsons Landing--Starlight Beach--Two Harbors (15.81 mi)

Recommended Equipment

  • Backpacking gear
  • Trekking poles are extremely helpful on the steep, slippery slopes. 
  • Sun Protection

Local Beta

  • If you end in Avalon, treat your feet to a cool dip at Lover’s Cove and get up close and personal to some Garibaldi, the State Marine Fish of California. 
  • Save the summit snacks for the end and belly up to the bar for a Buffalo Milk, Catalina's signature cocktail. 

Overview

A weekend spent on Catalina Island is far from your typical backpacking adventure. After a lovely ferry ride from the mainland you get to hike along one of the most pristine, uninhabited coastlines in California where you will likely come across more bison than people. As if that wasn’t enough, you may just get an ocean view from your tent. 

The Trans Catalina is a thru hike that you can start at either end of the island. The trail goes from Avalon (at the Renton Mine trailhead) on the east side to Starlight Beach on the west. Since there is no land transportation or ferries to Starlight beach, you will end up hiking the Two Harbors to Starlight Beach leg as a loop or an out and back, adding about 11-15 miles to the official 37.2 miles. (Unless, of course, you are lucky enough to have a private boat meet you at Starlight Beach.) The thru hike is often done in a 3-4 day hike (see possible itineraries above). If you are short on time and want to have a more mellow weekend on the island, you can skip the western most portion and just hike from Two Harbors to Avalon. This strategy will also allow you to camp at Little Harbor, which many people hike right on through. Little Harbor is a gorgeous spot to settle in for the night. 

If you start at the west side of the island (Two Harbors and Starlight Beach) be aware that the trail does not seem to be as well marked when hiking from this direction. We managed; there were only a couple places that we had to guess out way and made it just fine. While the whole trail is beautiful, my favorite section was from Two Harbors to Little Harbor where the trail follows the ridge line, with ocean views pretty much the entire way. I hiked the trail with my friend Kelly, who grew up on Catalina Island, so she knew that Little Harbor was a spot we wanted to camp. Not only was it absolutely stunning and a great place to play in the ocean, we were greeted by her parents with ice cold Coronas. They also left us with a big slab of salmon and some garlic bread; we were clearly roughing it. The next morning we were able to play at the beach and jump in the water before heading up a rather steep leg to the Airport in the Sky. After the steep hike from Little Harbor to the airport, and the resurfacing of some blisters from my last backpacking trip, a break at the airport with great views and a cold one at the airport was the perfect thing to just what we needed. At the risk of sounding like a backpacking lush, I have to say that a fun and unique aspect to this trail is the ability to have a nice cold beer at the end of your long days! Keep in mind that these stops also allow you to lighten your load by swapping the weight of a couple meals for that of a credit card because you can stop for a burger (or other non-freeze dried food of your choosing) at Two Harbors and the airport.

While spring and fall are likely the best times to hike the trail, you can do it all year round. We hiked it on a gorgeous weekend in April and felt as if we had the island nearly to ourselves. Regardless of when you go, be sure to bring long sleeves, a hat, and sunscreen, as there is very little coverage along the hike. Even though the trail is exposed, it seems like there is an oasis in every spot you really need it. While the Trans Catalina can be taken seriously, as a challenging three day hike, you can clearly treat it as a fun weekend getaway. You win no matter how you like to spend your days on the trail!