Backpacking the Trans-Catalina Trail

Backpacking Trans-Catalina

Trail from Blackjack to Hermit Gulch

Some people, okay most people, don’t think hiking for multiple days carrying a 20-40lb backpack, is considered a vacation. But, it very much is. There is something that happens to you physically and mentally. Maybe it’s the fresh air, the constant exercise, the views, nature, or pushing yourself to a point of exhaustion you didn’t know existed. 😉 Whatever it is, backpacking is a life changing experience.

The Trans-Catalina is a 37 mile straight through hike from one end of the island to the other. (Add an extra 7 miles to get back to the harbor.) It is relatively new, so most of the trails are service roads. This means instead of nice switchbacks that go back and forth up the mountain, these roads take you straight up and straight down. (Literally) This is not a trail to do without some kind of prep (trust me on this because I was definitely not as prepared as I should have been.)

Off trail camping is not allowed. You will have to make reservations in advance. (They tend to fill up!) TIP: Some campgrounds require a 2-night minimum on weekends but you can by-pass this if you call Two Harbors directly and let them know you are hiking the TCT.

Even if you don’t plan on backpacking the entire island, each campground has it’s own personality. Perfect for a one day trek, or camping with the family at one location.

(Side Note: Most hikers start at Hermit Gulch and skip Little Harbor but, because of some  reservation issues we started from Two Harbors and made our way to Hermit Gulch.)


Day 1

Second Harbor of Two Harbors

Took off in Long Beach on the Catalina Express. Arrived in Two Harbors around 12pm. The trail head is through the middle of town toward the other small “harbor.” Once you get to the trail marker it is straight up! Cue thoughts about wondering what you just got yourself into…Once at the top of the ridge, we had spectacular views of both sides of the island. However, since we had a late start we decided to head straight to Parsons’ Landing instead of hiking the extra 14 miles to Starlight Beach and back. 7 miles seemed like plenty for the first day. This was Jeff’s favorite camp. We were right next to the water and it wasn’t over crowded. We talked about taking kayaks there or hiking up and camping for a weekend.

TIP: Parsons’ Landing Campground offers firewood and water at a locker for an extra fee. It is a must! Water is important but it was also so wonderful to have a fire that night.


Day 2

Parsons Landing

Talk about sore! Like I said…prepare a little better than I did. A ranger had suggested to take the road instead of going back up the way we came down, but at the time we were dead set on doing the actual TCT especially since we skipped Starlight Beach. It was a foolish choice. It took me 2 hours to go 2 miles back up to the ridge because this “trail” was completely vertical. (I say “me” because Jeff had to wait for me a lot.)

Most people stop and camp at Two Harbors but again, because of reservation issues we headed to Little Harbor. Which was another 5 miles. And it went up, and up, and up.  At the top, came the wind and the cold. It was Jeff’s turn to not be a happy camper. 😉  So! We took a service road down to the main dirt road. It may or not be cheating…but we stand by our decision! We were running out of light and walking on the road helped us move faster despite adding another mile. With uplifted spirits, we made it to our campsite just before the sunset. This time I wasn’t the only one who was completely sore.

TIP: Try and figure out how many miles you can handle before going on your journey. Take a backpack and go on a day hike to get a feel.


Day 3

Bison inhabit most of Catalina. They WILL charge if you get too close! Go around!

Little Harbor was my favorite spot (with Parsons’ Landing a close second.) This is a large campground and it was full. The trail to the airport was much more populated. We ran into a lot of fellow backpackers that had started the opposite way and saw a lot of bison. At one point a ranger stopped to talk to us. From what I gathered, I looked like a hot mess because he seemed very concerned about me. He offered us a cookie, Gatorade, and even a ride. But don’t worry I didn’t take it! 😉

Stopped at the airport to have bison burgers for lunch. (Everyone told us it was a must!) Nothing like burgers and beer to lift the spirits. Also, a good place to charge your gadgets. The rest of the trail was much easier, and we made it to Blackjack campground with plenty of time.  (A total of 7 miles) And all of a sudden we entered the forest! [Side Note: The campground is a bit confusing because they are not marked clearly.]  It’s no secret that Southern California does not get a lot of rain, and because of this we didn’t exactly prepare for wet weather. So of course it decided to rain that night. 🙁 TIP: Always be prepared for possible changes in the weather!!


Day 4

Trail from Blackjack to Hermit Gulch
Bench made out of trail signs

Guess what?! It was the very first day it did NOT hurt to put my backpack on! It took my body 4 days to get used to what I was putting it through. I felt strong and proud of myself.
The trail was wet and muddy but the scenery was breathtaking. A fellow backpacker had complained about how the trail continues to go up and down the whole way but the trails were switchbacks and, considering what kind of trails we had just gone through, it was welcomed. Side Note: You may get the song “I saw the sign” by Ace of Bands stuck in your head. 😉

9 miles total and we made it to Hermit Gulch. Had plenty of time to shower, (!) and go out to eat at the Sand Trap. On the way back to camp, we saw a ton of deer. Hands down one of the best parts of the trip. They were all over the campsite and came so close! *Check out the video below to see what I’m talking about*

TIP: Take hermit gulch trail down to the campground (or straight up to the ridge depending on where you start.)


Day 5

Our amazing, fantastic, journey is at its end. It is hard to describe how we felt, which is why I label it as “life changing” ;).

When we orginially planned the trip we decided to spend the day in town so I booked the evening ferry from Avalon to Dana point. This was a BIG mistake. While it was nice to have breakfast and ride around in a golf cart for awhile, carrying our backpacks around town was cumbersome. That and my bed was only an hour and half boat ride away! 😉

I hope you enjoyed reading about our trip backpacking the Trans-Catalina Trail and I hope that it gives you the courage to try something like this yourself! I offer vacation planning services that includes backpacking!

If you want to see more pictures, videos, and details about our trip take a look at the video below! And don’t forget to follow the many social media accounts.



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