Copyright © Sasha Dylan Bell 2023.
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Hiking just shy of 40 miles over 4 days, I traversed the Trans-Catalina Trail (TCT) off California’s southern coastline. Trekking this trail with my wife, a first-time thru-hiker, we shared a beautiful, sometimes challenging, even at times a little odd journey across desert hills, dodging 1,800-pound wild bison and indulging in stunning beach campsites littered across this tiny island.
The TCT is part adventure, part cozy camping experience, offering a perfect way to ween into the thru-hiking experience. Have you hiked the TCT? Reach out and let me know how you experienced the island.
We boarded the ferry to Catalina Island in San Pedro at 7:30 am. My wife, Christina and I were taking our first hiking trip together and although she wasn’t feeling the best, I was excited. We had four days ahead of hiking the Trans-Catalina Trail (or the TCT), traversing the 40-odd miles from one side of the island to the other. A challenging first thru-hike for Christina, but having done a training hike with her, I know she’s absolutely up for it. And me? I’m just chuffed I get to trek in the company of my lovely wife.
As we sailed the channel on a foggy, overcast day, I spotted a pod of dolphins approaching. There must have been a couple of dozen of them, all swimming in one long line port side of the boat, like an army battalion on horseback heading into combat. They leapt from the water, one-by-one, diving under the bow of the boat as we sailed over and past them. A good omen for the trip ahead perhaps? Hell, I’ll take it.
Arriving to Catalina Island about 90-minutes later, we saddled our backpacks on and walked into the main port town of Avalon. It was both Christina and my first time to the island and the quaint shops and cozy restaurants lining the waterfront created a holiday feel that the place is known for. The lack of cars, billboards or fast food chains also gave the town a relaxed character which I knew I liked right away.
After working up an appetite on the trip over, we decided to sneak in a hot breakfast to prepare for the big hike day ahead. Sitting in a tiny outdoor place called Pete’s Cafe, I ordered a breakfast burrito and Christina, a bacon and egg muffin. Two screaming children chased pigeons with the kind of energy and determination that will no doubt create a pair of future CEOs or something. For now though they were just annoying and I was ready for some peace and quiet on the trail.
Hiking to the trailhead around 9:30am, we made our way up our first ascent for the day, a 1,500 foot (457 meter) climb out of Avalon and into the mountains. Christina was totally looking the part too, wearing her hiking shorts, a purple long-sleeve sun shirt, turquoise cap and carrying her black Hyperlite backpack. She wasn’t feeling the best, but you’d never know, planting one trekking pole in front of the other, lugging more weight on her back than ever before, as she climbed and climbed and climbed.
We reached the top of our first major ascent for the day, about 2 hours into the hike. Sitting for a brief rest on some picnic chairs (very civilised), we took in the beautiful vistas of Avalon Harbor below. And although fog obscured most of our ocean views, I was just happy we were on the trail surrounded by dead silence…and together.
And so it went as we continued to trek, often through thick fog and the occasional drizzle of rain. The trail itself was well-signed and not too difficult terrain-wise over the next couple of hours. It was however a little strange in some ways. I’d heard that instead of a typical hiking trail, much of the TCT was trekked over dirt roads. I just didn’t realise how much of it was actually the case. Often throughout the day we found ourselves either on or near a road, waving at passing cyclists and rangers in 4WDs, or dodging tour buses, as their passengers looked at us, perhaps curious about what we were doing hiking when we could be driving. At one point a tour truck full of rowdy passengers started cheering and clapping at us as they passed by. I used my trekking poles to wave “hello”, as the driver honked his horn and the passengers exploded into applause. We felt like celebrities and had to laugh.
At around 1pm we stopped for lunch at an empty picnic area, completely devoid of life, save for the one squirrel who was desperate to score some lunch crumbs. It was so luxurious getting to stop and eat on a real picnic table instead of roughing it on a log or rock. And having access to real, bonafide toilets and rubbish bins was bloody glorious! It was odd though being in a picnic ground, surrounded by tables, but with absolutely no one around. And I mean no one! I guess we’ve just passed summer’s busy tourist season, but the emptiness looked out of place somehow. Maybe even a little creepy with its deserted children’s playground swings just creaking in the silent, gentle breeze. Come to think of it, we hadn’t passed anyone on the trail at all today, except for a brief encounter with a couple doing a day hike earlier this morning. Was the TCT always this empty? Was the overcast weather keeping people away? Was there a zombie invasion that no-one told us about?
By the time we were back on the trail the fog started to lift. It was feeling a little less Middle Earth and a little more like, well, the Hollywood Hills actually. With the island’s dry, desert hills peppered with rough green shrubs, I could very well have been hiking the trails at home. That is of course until you caught a glimpse of the island’s famous ocean views, or you pass a warning sign of wild bison in the area. Oh, and if those signs don’t call your attention to them, the constant presence of bison poop over and around the trail certainly will. Bison had apparently been brought to the island for a film that shot here back in the twenties and I guess never left. Now they roam the island wild and are known for being a danger to tourists who don’t respect their boundaries. The huge beasts can weigh up to 1,800 pounds (817 kg), can run 35mph (56km/h) and jump up to six feet (2 meters) high, making them a top contender for wild animals you just don’t wanna fuck with! Despite all the poop on the trail though we hadn’t seen one all day…until, of course, we did. There it was, sitting on a ledge just below us. Majestic, still, silent. Like Simba, taking in his kingdom before him. All that was missing was a monkey, a shaman staff and The Circle Of Life playing randomly from a portable stereo. It might all sound a little dramatic, but such a strong, proud animal with such an epic backdrop make it hard not to make the comparison, you know. The animal commanded respect. And walk on with respect we did, staying quiet and keeping our distance as we continue along the path.
Soon afterwards we approached our final miles and our final ascent for the day. The morning’s 1,500 foot (457 meter) climb had primed us physically, but what would follow would test us both. Steep and aggressive was each step upwards, made even more difficult by the loose sand, making much of the footing unstable at best. At this point I had taken over carrying Christina’s food, giving her the weight relief she needed to more easily battle the top, but it didn’t stop the climb being a challenge. Easily the toughest for the day, made worse by the new dwindling energy of both of us. But push on we did, arriving at Black Jack Campground by 4:30pm to a very empty camp. I mean Dawn Of The Dead empty. Will Smith, I Am Legend golfing in the streets of New York empty. I had been warning Christina all day that camp would likely be fully-booked, as is often the case. That day-trippers would likely be filling the camp with the kind of noise that we might just have to endure, but that wasn’t the case at all. And frankly it was a little creepy. I mean, no one?
We went about setting up camp and settling into for the night. As we cooked or freeze-dried meals (chicken pad Thai for me, chicken dumplings with veggies for Christina), Christina shared that this was her longest and her hardest hike day ever. Legendary! As we ate and researched the hiking terrain for tomorrow, we laughed at the unsettling feeling we both had at the ghost town campground. For two people looking so much forward to solitude on this trip, perhaps we are also longing for a little of the community atmosphere of camp. Well, tomorrow we camp at the popular beach site of Little Harbor, so perhaps we might get a little of that yet…
I woke this morning, tightly sardined next to Christina in our tent. Above me was the sound of a swarm bees overhead. Unzipping the rainfly slowly in case there were the attacking morning campers-kind, I was relieved to find they weren’t and was able to enjoy my morning sipping on lemon ginger tea in peace, while studying maps of the island and waiting for Christina to wake.
We were on the trail by 8am, enjoying a very leisurely start to the day. And although the hiking began into an immediate steep incline, we both felt energised by a good night of sleep and the thought of a short hike day ahead. Today would only take us 8.5 miles (13.7 km) to the small beachside campground of Little Harbor, so we were in no rush.
Our first stop for the day was only 2-miles (3.2 km) away to the adorably-named Airport In The Sky, a small landing strip catering to two-prop planes carrying visitors fortunate enough to mosey onto the island on wings. The airport was known for its grill and so, even though it was only 9:30am when we arrived, we each ordered hot meals, because, why not? Perhaps it was the trail hunger talking, but my burger and fries was the freshest I’d had in years and Christina’s breakfast burrito looked pretty amazing too. Then, after a restroom break and a quick top-up charge on Christina’s phone, we hit the trail again, ready to see where it would take us today.
Not 10-minutes in we spotted our first bison for the day, grazing on a hill perhaps 150 meters (490 feet) ahead. That would make our third for the trip so far, but none spotted in herds, which we were hoping to see at some point. There is a lot of open land on this island and certainly a lot of bison poop littering the trail, so we can still hope.
As we continued on, an approaching hill revealed a beautiful 180-degree view of the Pacific Ocean. Still a little foggy, but magnificent anyway. As we stood appreciating the show Mother Nature was putting on for us, Christina suddenly received a signal on her phone. We pulled up some flat grass and soaked in the view for fifteen minutes, giving her an opportunity to respond to some business messages while she had the rare chance.
About a mile further ahead we passed our first hikers for the day, a young couple in their late twenties, traveling the TCT in reverse. They had spent their last night a Little Harbor, our destination for the night, and so gave us the skinny on the best camp site to consider if there were any “no shows”. After doing the same for them in turn for Black Jack Campground, we continued on, crossing inland towards the opposite coast of the island. At about the half-way point, we stopped on a mountain surrounded by dry, olive-green hills and absolute silence for perhaps the first time on the trail so far. Not a bird chirping, a car engine revving or a human voice breaking the perfect quiet. It was breathtaking.
As we neared the top of ascent across the centre of the island, we were treated to a view of the ocean on the other side, along with our destination, Little Harbor in the distance below. Descending down the other side, we passed our second TCT hikers for the day, also traveling in the opposite direction. The couple were in their late twenties/early thirties. She was in medicine and him, a chef. The TCT been on their bucket list since they moved to LA two years ago from Louisiana, and the smiles beaming on their face expressed how they were enjoying the experience so far. After not seeing anyone hiking the trail yesterday at all, it was nice seeing others enjoying the same wild ride.
Approaching Little Harbor, the sound of crashing waves filled me with calm and an instant feeling of arriving home. We bee-lined it past our pre-booked campsite slightly inland, to those directly on the beach itself. Site #12 was the most private of the three, so we took off our packs and ate lunch (tortillas, spam, cheese & chips) on its picnic table overlooking the ocean. It was one hell of a way to shake off a day of hiking and to relax.
Soon after we finished eating, a group of three men in their fifties turned up to claim their site. Not to be discouraged, we move to the neighbouring site, still on the beach, still a great find. We figured that if nobody came by 5pm we would be safe to pitch tent and call it home for the night. It didn’t however quite work out that way. The group of guys turned out to be unbearably loud. One guy in particular talked in a “I’m at an outdoor music festival and scream to be heard” voice. And I mean at everything! No topic was small enough to curb his volume and it was making me crazy. “Perhaps I’m judging him too harshly”, I said to Christina after a tirade of swearing at their inconsiderate noise. “He’s probably just happy to be out of the house”. Rolling her eyes, she responded, “So is his wife.”
Deciding the beach views weren’t worth the aggravation, we moved to another site, nested in behind a line of trees and shrubs. Site #4 was inland, just opposite the one we had already booked, but far enough away from other campers nearby. It was cozy, with flat green grass, a fire pit, its own water tap and FOUR picnic tables. Best of all, we could still hear the ocean, but nothing else. It was perfect!
I was still feeling a little edgy from all the noise earlier, so went for a walk. It took me to the ocean where I soaked my feet and splashed my face with salt water, washing two days of hiking clean off. I stood in the water, looking out into the Pacific Ocean and appreciating the beautiful inlet, around me. Little Harbor is considered one of the most beautiful camping spots on the island and is kept so by limiting the amount of sites to only a couple dozen, spread out over a large area. The beach itself is small, but pretty, featuring a large rock, separating the nearby Shark Harbor campsites from the main beach. I decided to take an excursion up onto the rock, steep with high drops down to the rocky waters below. The hairy ascent was worth it though, with stunning 180-degree views and total quiet, save for the crashing waves below. The ocean air, the gentle breeze on my face, the taste of salty waters on my tongue, it was perfection. I was finally at peace.
Today had marked Christina’s first ever overnight hike. A monumental achievement and one I only recently achieved myself on the John Muir Trail a couple of months ago. She has pushed through some steep ascents, traversing half this island already, staying strong in body and keeping an impressive pace for someone who doesn’t hike a lot. She is well in a way to completing her first thru-hike and so I thought it an appropriate time to give her a trail name (or, a nickname for the trail…mine’s Oklahoma). She’s certainly earned it. On a training hike prior to this trail, in a moment of exhaustion, Christina had shared, “I just want to click my heels together three times and be home.” So in honour of Dorothy’s slippers, I dubbed her Ruby.
Night fell and we sat by the campfire talking about life, about adventures and about working towards not letting our own internal fires burn out. Ruby and Oklahoma against the world!
I was stirred in the middle of the night by sounds of chomping grass and the occasional footstep. Maybe we had a bison snooping around outside. It’s hard to tell what’s fresh though with all the poop around the campgrounds, so guess we’ll never know.
The alarm woke us both at 5:45am on this day, Christina and my fifth wedding anniversary. We wanted to get a head start, being our biggest hike day on the trail, so left camp by 6:30am. Today we would cross not just one, but two very steep ascents, both over 1,500 feet (457 meters) with a descent on the opposite side of each. Christina’s body was tired, but my spirit was high, so guess we made a good hiking team to brave the miles ahead.
The climb out of Little Harbor was stunning, overlooking sharp cliff faces and the endless Pacific Ocean. For 3 miles (4.8 km) we walked a ridge, the rolling hills of Catalina to our right, a steep drop off to the ocean below on our left. Everything about this stretch of trail was dramatic from the views to the aggressively steep incline. It was a challenging ascent, but exactly what I’d signed up for when traversing an island and although every step of the last mile hurt, you couldn’t blowtorch the smile off my face, even if I was drenched in sweat. It’s safe to say that this was by far my favourite stretch of trail on the island so far and as I made my way to the top of our first incline for the day, I was treated to 180-degree views of the ocean, hugging the green Catalina coastline.
At the mountain’s peak was a picnic table. Up to this point on the trail, picnic tables have mostly been in random places with no views, but this had to have the best on the island. We sat and just appreciated the world-class ocean vistas on both sides of us. From this vantage point we could see a tease of our first stop for the day, Two Harbors, a few miles ahead down below. We could also see the mountain range beyond the town, along with an intimidating path to its top that would be our afternoon climb. Christina looked concerned, nursing a body in pain and energy levels that were dwindling. In this state, that climb could break us.
As we continued on, I saw my first bison for the day standing right on the trail ahead. By the time we reached it though, it had moved on, but in its place I spotted a large herd of them in the distant surrounding hills. We later found out from a ranger who was passing by in a 4WD that they were heard on the move, heading towards Little Harbor, where he had spent last night. Seems like we just missed a hell of a party!
The ranger also offered a suggestion for us in case we wanted an easier trek to our Parsons Landing Campground this afternoon. The coastal route that we are to take tomorrow back to Two Harbors for our ferry back to the mainland is a relatively flat and easy alternative path. It would mean deviating from the regular TCT path, missing the last heavy hike into the island’s eastern mountains, but given how Christina was feeling, it seemed like a solid idea and one definitely worth considering.
We took our 3-mile descent into Two Harbors at a leisurely pace. On the way we passed a couple in their late fifties/early sixties from Ventura, California who had been coming to Catalina for years. They sail into the island on their boat, stay a spell, then move on to the next place. It sounds like a good life to me. They talked about how a couple of days ago all the national forests were closed across the country, due to wildfires. It’s sad to hear and got me thinking about how grateful I am that during my recent hike across the Sierra Nevada on the John Muir Trail, that I managed to avoid such closures. They also shared how beautiful the coastal route we were now considering hiking this afternoon was. Between them and the ranger, that’s two-for-two! It seems like we have a solid plan in the making.
We arrived in Two Harbors around 10:30am. It’s a tiny town with one restaurant/bar, a general store and well, two harbours docking boats entering from both the north and south of the island. I picked up a key for a locker in Parsons Landing that would contain some drinking water and firewood when we arrive later and then sat down with Christina to discuss a plan for the afternoon. The coastal route definitely seemed like the smartest option, given how Christina’s body was feeling. She however really wanted me to complete the full TCT route, feeling like it was something I needed to do. I really didn’t want to abandon her, especially on our wedding anniversary, but she insisted it was only a few hours and that her coastal route would indeed be an easy walk for her. A win-win, I guess.
So after polishing off a very average burger (the Airport In The Sky grill would be hard to beat), I made my way on what was described to me as the hardest stretch of the TCT trail. And, as it turned out, that was no exaggeration. Beginning just outside of Two Harbors was a sharp ascent of 1,700 feet over 2.5-miles, heading up and not relenting. No switchbacks to make the climb more gradual. No flat sections to offer the body a break from the suck. Nothing…just up. Brutal. Unforgiving. As I focused on each step inching skyward, I thought of Christina and how happy I was that she decided not to take this route. It was a tough climb for anyone, let alone one carrying 25 pounds on their back, on their first thru-hike, with a weakened body.
I endured, pushing through the pain, drenched in sweat and yet loving every minute. Tackling this challenge was, it turns out, something I guess I needed to do after all and Christina knew that even better than I did. Up, up and more up I climbed, happy to be testing myself on this trail. Grateful and humbled by my strength, by my will. This is why I love hiking, fusing my body and mind with nature. Opening an environment to push past my limits and maybe learn a little something about myself. And I gotta tell you, the feeling of finally reaching the top was fantastic! Me, the only soul on my very own mountain. Views of the Pacific Ocean all around and knowing I not only had nothing but downhill ahead, but that I get to spend the afternoon with my wife who was walking her very own adventure on the trail. I love that! I took in my surroundings, felt my heart beating and gave a voice to my experience, “Wahoooooo!!!”. Life’s pretty good on the trail.
Like on the way up, the descent into Parsons Landing was unbelievably steep in sections. Worse was the loose sand and pebbles, making it like trying to find balance on a slippery slide. Thank God for my trekking poles! As I made my way down, I passed two girls in their late twenties traveling in the same direction. They bore backpacks to the nines, trekking poles and one had medical tape around her legs. They looked a part. Season hikers for sure. I asked if they were doing the TCT. They replied that they were. Finally, hikers heading in the same direction as Christina and I! As we talked, one of them slipped on the loose ground and let out a short scream followed by laughter. At least I wasn’t the only one struggling with this descent.
I arrived at Parsons Landing around 2:15pm, only two and a half hours from Two Harbors. After taking a moment to be all impressed with myself, I took in the gorgeous beach cove before me. This campground can only be reached on foot, rewarding those making the trek with the island’s only camping directly on the beach itself. It was beautiful, protected by the surrounding rock cliffs and offering eight camp sites to those with an adventurous heart and who were lucky enough to nab a booking.
I soaked in the ocean air for a moment before grabbing our firewood and drinking water from the lockers at the entrance, and went about setting up camp so it would be ready for when Christina arrived. We were to be staying in camp site #3. Like all sites, it sat directly on the sand overlooking the ocean. It was more exposed than the others, so was a little windy, but it’s hard to complain when you staying in paradise. Besides, “It was windy on our wedding day”, Christina reminded me when she finally arrived from her coastal trek. Seems an appropriate way to spend our anniversary night together.
And as the sun began setting, I handed her an anniversary card and gift, before making dinner in front of a beach campfire, then settling in for the night, watching Friends on my phone. As far as days go on the trail, they do get worse. 🙂
Waking early, I took it easy for a couple of hours on the beach this morning, watching the ocean, while I waited for Christina to rise and shine. We hit the trail around 9am, hiking the same coastal route she had taken yesterday. Our final day on the trail would be a flat, easy one and I was just fine with that.
As we trekked the 8 miles (12.7 km) back to Two Harbors we talked about our experience of the trail, about life and about what we’d be like if we were ever to become parents, passing several children’s camps nestled in the bays below our winding path. It’s funny how life always seems to come up in conversation when hiking. Whether with friends on a day hike, or on an extended thru-hike talking with strangers, there’s something about getting the body moving that helps you dig deep and often find clarity. Today we decided to find some time on the coming weekend to make some changes to our Los Angeles lifestyle that would open up new opportunities in both our lives.
Despite the healthy life changes that are sure to follow such conversations, my body felt tired. My pack felt heavier and the sun shon bright, cooking us as we walked the exposed dirt coastal road. Thank God the previous three days we had the protection of overcast days. This would have been a very different trail experience with a hot sun to contend with. And although the hike was stunning, winding around the coast with breathtaking views of an emerald ocean, we were both ready for this journey to be over.
We made our way into Two Harbors around midday, a good two and a half hours before our ferry to the mainland was due to leave. We bee-lined it to the Harbor Reef Restaurant, where we stopped yesterday, this time siting at a table overlooking the harbour, and ordered some celebratory drinks. I had been excited about this moment for days. Not just for the hard-earned beer I would enjoy, but that I would finally get to remind Christina that she had just completed her first ever thru-hike! 4 days, 40 miles, over some truely rugged terrain made for a monumental achievement and one she did with the gusto of a pro. As we cheers-ed our drinks and took that first swig, I thought about how happy I was to be on the trail with the woman I love, adventuring together and knowing it wouldn’t be the last one.
Overall the Trans-Catalina Trail was an extraordinary experience, made so by the company I kept and the attitude I maintained. Always staying open to what the sometimes unusual trail offered went a long way to helping me enjoy most every moment.
If I was to ever consider doing the trail again, I would do the original TCT route, which included Star Bay and Silver Peak, just for those extra miles and challenge. I might also do it in reverse, feeling like starting with some beach camping could be nice. Also, finishing the journey in Avalon and perhaps even staying for a night in the beautiful little town would be a really brilliant way to finish out the trek.
My overall impressions of the trail: There was a tonne of picnic tables, toilets and rubbish bins throughout the island. Also, the trail is in almost constant proximately to roads and often passing cars, making you feel like you’re never that far from civilisation. If you’re after a trek through the wilds, this probably isn’t the trail for you. But if you love the ocean and a few creature comforts along the way, the trip is definitely worth your while. My one regret is not taking a little more time, since the goal of this trip was to spend time with my ‘fresh hiking legs’ wife, Christina. If I was to do it again with her, or with a group, I’d take an extra day or two, including Two Harbors and possibly even Avalon in my places to stay. That said, if you’re a gun hiker and like to move at a clip, 3 days is more than enough to do the whole trail.
My picks for best campsites at the grounds I stayed:
Black Jack: Our site #1 is by far the best, being removed from the main area and the most private of all the sites.
Little Harbor: If you don’t have noisy neighbours, site #12 on the beach is stunning and the most private of the three beach sites. Alternatively there is the even more private Shark Harbor nearby, offering three sites on it’s own beach, along with a separate toilet to boot!
Parsons Landing: By far the best site is #1, surrounded on both sides by cliff faces, which act as the perfect wind barrier and creates a private little domain all its own, while still having the same beach views as all the other sites. All of the Parsons Landing sites are quite good, except for when it’s windy. In that case, sites #3 and #4 are the most exposed.
If you have any questions or suggestions from your time on the island, please share them in the comments below. I love hearing from better ways to explore!
Leave me a comment about your own trail experiences, adventures, or just to say hi!