A Trans-Catalina Trail Backpacking Trip
Most of Catalina is remote land with trails and unpaved roads for getting around. And since few of the island’s visitors get far from the main port city of Avalon, it’s a day-hiker’s and backpacker’s paradise.
The Trans-Catalina Trail is a way to see more of the island in one trip by connecting trails, backroads, and campgrounds. It’s nearly 40 hilly miles and considered a multi-day trip even for the fittest backpackers, but who wants to rush a bucket list hike like this? Depending on the side trips you take this trip will probably net around 10,000 feet of elevation gain. For most this is a minimum five day trip, and we outline the most common six day trip below with an extra day option.
The Catalina Island Conservancy has already mapped the TCT out so all you need to do is get a permit, get to the island, and get hiking.
Using the map linked above it’s easy to see the route, but you’ll need to plan ahead for the places you’ll camp and the things you’ll see along the way.
Day 1: The Trans Catalina Trail starts in Avalon and you’ll need to hop on the Catalina Express to get to this touristy city. Catching the ferry in San Pedro is best as that’s where you’ll go back to from Two Harbors.
After you land in Avalon and gather all your gear, purchase any final items you’ll need for the trip and then head up Avalon Canyon to Hermit Gulch Campground (potable water), your first night’s stay. Near the campground you’ll find the Catalina Nature Center and you might want to walk up to the botanical gardens and Wrigley Memorial. Note that if you get to Avalon early and are strong you could get to the next day’s camp if you want to shorten the trip.
Day 2: From Hermit Gulch CG it climbs the Hermit Gulch Trail to the first amazing viewpoint at Hermit Gulch Lookout. After that it follows Divide Road for a couple miles then trails for another five miles to Black Jack Camp (potable water). If you have time, hike over to the summit of Black Jack Mountain (2000 feet).
Day 3: The next section follows roads and trails to Airport in the Sky (Catalina’s main airport) where you can find a restaurant and drinks. From there the TCT gradually descends to Little Harbor Campground and beach (potable water). This day is 8.5 miles but it’s mostly downhill.
Day 4: From Little Harbor you’ll ascend to over 1200 feet then descend into the town of Two Harbors for about 7 miles total. There they have restaurants, lodging, much needed showers, and wonderful camping at Two Harbors Campground. The general store in town has all you’ll need for the remainder of your backpacking trip, a long loop on the west end of the island.
Day 5: After a short flat walk out to Cat Harbor from Two Harbors, you’ll begin a long climb up a ridge on the Silver Peak Trail. If you are bold, you’ll do the 2 mile (round trip) side trip to Silver Peak at 1804 feet for the highest viewpoint on the western part of Catalina. After turning north off the Silver Peak Ridge you’ll be descending towards Parsons Landing and the only campground on the West End. They have lockers there with water but you’ll need to get the key in town. If you don’t do the side trip to Silver Peak this day is just 7 miles.
Optional day: Since you’ve gone this far and your calloused feet aren’t hurting as bad, you should consider going to remote Starlight Beach, the farthest west that you can go on the island. If you do this 9 mile (route trip) trek to Starlight you will need another night at Parsons Landing or you can hike all the way back to Two Harbors if you got an early start on the day.
Day 6: On this day you’ll take a different route back to Two Harbors than the Silver Peak Trail you suffered on before. This one meanders along the northern shore on the West End Road, passing many private coves along the way. It’s 7.5 miles to Two Harbors where you will deserve a brew or drink of your choice. Catalina Express heads back to Consider spending another day in this humble hamlet and rent kayaks for exploring Isthmus Cove and beyond. You can always go back to the mainland tomorrow (or the next day).
Start here for permits (day-hikers) and campground reservations (backpackers).
You’ll want to read rules and risks of a trip like this including the hot dry terrain with little shade, limited cell phone service, and the animals you might encounter (like bison!). Hiking is not allowed in the dark period. There are many more things that you’ll need to read up on before the trip.
Packing-wise, you’ll need a backpack with items to protect you from the sun (sun hat, sunblock, SPF lip balm, sunglasses, etc.) and items to stay fueled up and hydrated (refillable bottles and electrolytes). Bring lightweight camping gear and get a forecast before your trip so you can adjust clothing and shelter accordingly.