1. You Might Think I'm Crazy, But Catalina is My Favorite Place in Southern California
Most visitors of Catalina experience Avalon by ferry. Spending the day sitting beachside with a cocktail in hand, and evenings bar hopping in flip flops after a fancy dinner. Because of this Catalina is known for being expensive and touristy. Although this is true for Avalon, it is not how I see the island of Santa Catalina. I have experienced Catalina as a tourist, a sailor, and now a hiker. Sure it's a place of Tommy Bahama wearing timeshare owners, but Catalina is also a place of vast high-desert hills with hidden emerald beaches. A place where you can ride a dinghy to see roaming buffalo or bald eagles without a person in sight. A random island off of L.A. with an overlooked small harbor where you could sit in the one and only dive bar (which is inside of the one an only nice restaurant) with a gas can by your side, and no one will give you a second glance. To me, Catalina is a place where you wake up to a Bloody Mary or cheap can of beer to take the edge off of your sailor's hang over, and even while sober on dry land your equilibrium sways with the ocean for days on end. Instead of showering just step off the boat into the ocean and float next to passing seals. It's a place where you can be grungy and never leave the shore except to walk the fields looking for deer and fox.
I had visited Catalina for the first time in 2015 after attempting to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, sailing the island with my (now) husband Tim, my dad, his boat partner, and his son, as well as taking a few weekend trips to meet up with them on sailing trips. Once I learned there was a hiking trail spanning the length of the island, ascending up and over mountains and zigzagging to beaches, it was constantly on my mind. I had to hike this trail. I had seen the entire exterior of Catalina by boat, now I wanted to venture through the interior.
This is where things got tricky. I was broke. Really broke. Tim and I were trying to put our lives back together in San Diego after traveling for two years and living in the Bay Area prior to that. We were living out of backpacks for years, with our things still in a small storage unit in Oakland. I was cleaning toilets for cash while Tim was doing side work for a small handyman service. It was 2016 and even though we didn't have much money, we had done so much cheap traveling we didn't think twice about being able to hike across Catalina. I searched online for campgrounds and ideas for daily mileage. I planned everything out with what I had learned, I got our free hiker's permits, then went to book our trip. I already knew the ferry was pricey, $76.50 round trip. I had no idea the campgrounds, even the little backwoods campgrounds meant for hikers only, were expensive and hard to book as well. After totaling up the price for the two of us to leisurely hike across the island one way (leisurely so we would have time to enjoy the beaches) we would need an estimated $432.50, without added fees. Unfortunately at this point in time we had to give up the dream. It was just too damn expensive.
Jump to February 2018 and we were almost ready. By mid-May we would be riding the ferry toward the trailhead. I still had my notes, but in just that amount of time so much had changed. The trail itself had changed. Instead of rounding the Southern tip of the Island, the trail now cuts across via Hermit Gulch Trail. And instead of ending at Starlight Beach the map stops at Parson's Landing. I emailed the Catalina Island Conservancy to ask why the trail had changed, and if we could still hike it the old way, but they emailed me back a copy and pasted definition of what the Trans Catalina Trail is.
After reading other hiker's experiences, we decided we would hike the new way for the beginning of the trail, but still follow the old trail out to Starlight Beach. Skipping the first part shortened the original trail by about 6.5 miles of supposed wasteland (I guess you walk a hot dirt road through Catalina's dump?). The trail's new map had it marked as 38.5 miles, but we would be adding on 9.24 miles to make it to Starlight Beach (round trip from Parson's Landing). Many other hikers hike the opposite way, since the real way to party after hiking the island would be to end in Avalon. Two Harbors holds a special place in my heart though, so Tim and I wanted to spend more of our time there once our hike was over.
I had the money, I had the gear and the knowledge, and I had three month's notice to book everything. I figured this was enough time. Unfortunately more road blocks were around every corner. I understand the island is run by the Conservancy, and I deeply appreciate everything they do, but the lack of accessibility to Catalina's famous trail felt disheartening. I was planning this straight from hiking the Pacific Crest Trail and even compared to booking lodging on the PCT, the TCT felt like a mystical unicorn only rich people could experience, and I couldn't make sense of it. I didn't care though, I was going to hike it, and I was going to write about it.
2. Planning a Trans Catalina Trail Hike
It's up to you how many miles you want to hike per day, but it is required to camp only in official campgrounds while hiking the TCT. This is a good official rule to follow, because all of the plentiful tent sites along the trail definitely belong to herds of buffalo. The first thing you want to do when planning this hike is to pick your mileage and campgrounds, choose your dates far in advance, then go through each campground's website reservation form to see if the dates you chose are available. You also need to check the Catalina Express to see if they have dates and times that work with your hike. Keep in mind that if you end in Two Harbors the ferry only goes as South as San Pedro coming home (update: this may have recently changed). This was a pain in the butt for us, especially coming back during rush hour on a Friday.
Hopefully that isn't too confusing, because it's about to be... Some campgrounds have multiple stay minimums if that day of the hike ends up on a weekend. Our first night was spent in Black Jack Campground. This is a "primitive campground" out it Catalina's backcountry. Which on weekends for some reason requires a two night stay. We did our hike as our one year marriage anniversary, so we planned to camp for six nights total for extra time to relax at the end of our hike, it just so happened that for this to work out we had to get to Black Jack on a Saturday night and hike out the next day. The only way to reserve our spot was to book for two people for that Saturday, and book for one person for the next day even though we weren't going to be there. Booking our first primitive campsite for one night was $82.25 ($23 per person, per night, plus booking fees). If we had actually stayed there for two nights it would have been $108 plus fees.
Parson's Landing also has an extra $20 fee for one bundle of firewood and 2.5 gallons of water delivered to your site. It is required for you to purchase at least one per campsite. We stayed two nights there (I recommend it!) and bought two (two bundles and 5 gallons of water for two people for two nights @ $40). This was actually very convenient, since you would need a pack mule or something to haul all that crap out there on your own. I booked a site at Parson's Landing with no prompt, no phone number, or any sort of information or option for adding on this required bundle of wood. A few months after booking I called a general Catalina info number to add it on.
If you need to make a call about a reservation, there is a general number for Catalina information, and another number for campground booking which is answered by a separate organization who knows nothing about Catalina. And they often do not mention this. I learned the hard way when they just made up the answer to a question I had. I considered booking a group site so friends could meet up with us at the end of our hike in Harbor Island. The campground reservation line quoted me at $70 flat for a group site with a tent-cabin for a group of people, I went to book it online and it was $288.81. Because of all of this vagueness I started to worry I would constantly be breaking rules or booking my reservations wrong. Thankfully the nightmare didn't continue onto the actual hike. And if you are planning a hike, I hope I have given you enough tips to avoid most of the headache.
3. My Itinerary, May 2018.
This includes extra days of camping. Prices change depending on the time of year. Some miles are approximate or rounded to the nearest mile. I'm not sure if fees are added into the ferry rate or not, I don't think there are extra fees but I could be wrong.
Saturday - 7:45 AM ferry from Dana Point to Avalon ($37.75/person), hike 11 miles to Black Jack ($23/person + fees, more for us because we had to pay for two nights).
Sunday - Hike 13 miles to Two Harbors ($27/person + fees).
Monday - Hike 7 miles to Parson's Landing ($23/person + fees + required $20 firewood/water).
Tuesday - Camp a second night in Parson's Landing ($23/person + fees + $20 firewood/water), hike to 9.24 miles Starlight Beach and back.
Wednesday - Walk a dirt road 7 miles to Two Harbors and party ($27/person + fees).
Thursday - Camp a second night in Two Harbors ($27/person + fees)
Friday - 2 PM ferry to San Pedro ($37.75/person).
4. Campgrounds of the Trans Catalina Trail: Do You Stay or Do You Go?
Hermit Gulch - Nicely shaded campground up a slight hill (on a paved road) 1.5 miles from the center of Avalon. Plenty of deer to see in the evenings, walking distance to town and back if you don't mind leaving your stuff unattended at the campground. Water fountains, pit toilets and fire pits (I believe, I haven't stayed here but I've walked through a few times), there is even a cute little outdoor Mexican restaurant and bar down the road. The trailhead is inside of this campground. This would be a good option if you need to get to Catalina the night before and then hike in the morning, or for extra camping days as a budget way to see Avalon before or after your hike (depending on which direction you choose to go).
Black Jack - Black Jack is the first primitive campground, and definitely a great option for your first night on the trail. It's shaded and remote. I didn't see many animals around it, but we did see buffalo and a fox on the way there. The pit toilets are nice and there are fox boxes to keep critters from stealing your food. Our time there was nice and quiet. In the morning you are only a two or so mile hike from getting breakfast at Airport in the Sky. Or if you are headed straight to Little Harbor you could stop for lunch. There is a full gift shop with bathrooms, beer, coffee, and good food.
Little Harbor - We did not stay here, but this really is a great campground. It's a little green oasis between towering dry hills. We anchored in Little Harbor while sailing around the island (pictured up at the top) and had a full day to explore the area. Foxes wander the campsites and buffalo roam the hills above. This is a great place to spend the day swimming and enjoy the sunset.
Two Harbors - I will describe Two Harbors in more detail in my next entry, because it really is a great little place. My favorite place on Catalina (although the residents think I'm crazy for thinking that). I have to say it though.... their campground is the worst. We spent the most time at this campground and each night there was other people's trash in our site, children running screaming through people's sites at all hours (seems to be a popular place for large camping groups with 10+ children), there is pretty much no shade, and the bathrooms are smelly porta-potties. It is worth it to stay there to explore Two Harbors and Cat Harbor, but maybe Two Harbors is just a better place for the grizzled sea-folk (or yachter). Decent swimming, a deli, full-on dive bar and restaurant as well as a day-time beach bar. Also a store to re-supply your food or whatever else you may need. The store also sells beer singles you can drink on their porch. Keep your eye out at night and you can see deer and foxes. In the campground you will probably wake to the chorus of sea lions.
Parson's Landing - Parson's Landing feels like the most primitive of the campgrounds because there is no water. That's why you have to pay extra so some can be taken out to you. This remote campground is right. on. the. beach. It is beautiful. This campground is not to be missed. Bald eagles circled over the small campground both mornings we were there.
I hope I didn't scare you away! Now that I got out all of the B.S. that comes with booking, let's get into the fun stuff, the actual trail. Please follow my next blog entry for a detailed account of my hike!