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Backpacking the Trans-Catalina Trail
INSIGHTS AND INFORMATION FOR A FUN AND SUCCESSFUL ADVENTURE
A number of primary and secondary roads and single-track trails come together to form the 38.5-mile Trans-Catalina Trail, and there are five unique campgrounds along the way as the trail meanders through scenic, hilly terrain between Avalon on the east end of Catalina and Two Harbors on the west.
From the 1,200-foot climb out of Avalon Canyon on Hermit Gulch Trail to the 1,500-foot, 2-mile trek up Silver Peak, the Trans-Catalina Trail challenges you with nearly 10,000 feet of total elevation gain, so whether you’re planning a 3, 4 or even 5-day Trans-Catalina Trail adventure, you should be in decent shape to truly enjoy the experience.
Consider planning your hike for the fall, winter or early spring, when cooler temps and sea breezes help make up for the lack of shade along the trail. Sturdy hiking boots and trekking poles are recommended to help navigate the difficult climbs and challenging descents you’ll encounter.
No matter when you go or how long you take to complete the Trans-Catalina Trail, the soul-stirring serenity and awe-inspiring scenery you’ll experience will leave you with a lifetime of memories. Click the drop-down menus below to learn more about hiking the Trans-Catalina Trail.
REI is offering several Guided Trans Catalina Trail Expeditions in 2022. Find out more about the REI Trans Catalina Trail Expedition.
Getting to Catalina Island
Whether you plan to hike the Trans-Catalina Trail from Avalon to Two Harbors or vice versa, you’ll first need to get to the island. Depending on the season, the following transportation services offer various departures and returns to and from the mainland to Avalon and Two Harbors. It’s best to secure Trans-Catalina Trail camping reservations before you book your boat. But even then, it takes a bit of creative planning to coordinate your departure and return with your hiking itinerary.
Transportation to Avalon
Catalina Express – Ferries from Dana Point, Long Beach and San Pedro (Face coverings are required while aboard the boat)
Catalina Flyer – Ferry from Newport Beach (Face coverings are required while aboard the boat)
Transportation to Two Harbors
Catalina Express – Ferry from San Pedro (Face coverings required aboard the boat)
Transportation Between Avalon and Two Harbors
Cyclone Power Boat – Peak season departures from the Green Pier in Avalon and Isthmus Pier in Two Harbors
Note: Adverse weather and sea conditions can lead to boat and helicopter cancellations without notice. Be sure to check the long-term forecast before planning your hike and booking your transportation.
Things to Know About the Trans-Catalina Trail
HIKING PERMITS: Your campground reservations serve as your camping/hiking permit; no additional hard copies of permits are needed.
LENGTH: 38.5 miles
HIGHEST ELEVATION: 1,775 feet
TOTAL ELEVATION CHANGE: 9,600 feet
TRAIL COMPOSITION: Primary and secondary roads and single track trails made up of mostly compacted dirt with some loose gravel.
TRAIL CONDITIONS: Rolling terrain with long uphill and downhill sections and little or no shade. Sturdy hiking shoes, trekking poles and adequate sun protection (hat, sunglasses, sunscreen) are recommended. As is enough water to make it between campsites, where you can replenish your water supply. Rain can result in trail closures. Contact Catalina Conservancy at 310.510.2595 for updates on conditions.
WILDLIFE: American Bison roam freely along many sections of the trail and can be unpredictable. You may encounter Catalina Island fox in the cooler hours of dawn and dusk. Rattlesnakes are also part of the island’s ecosystem, as are Bald Eagles. Never approach, taunt or disrespect wildlife in any way.
CAMPING: Camping is only permitted in five designated campgrounds along the Trans-Catalina Trail: Hermit Gulch, Black Jack, Little Harbor, Two Harbors, and Parson’s Landing. All campgrounds have potable water, except for Parson’s Landing. Lockers at Parson’s Landing stocked with 2.5 gallons of water, 1 bundle of wood, and a fire starter can be preordered from Two Harbors Visitor Services at 310.510.4205. Each locker costs $25. You must stop by the Two Harbors Visitor Services Center before hiking out to Parson's Landing to receive your locker number and combination. Lockers are not included with camping reservations.
You can also purchase firewood, charcoal, and fire starters from Visitor Services, either in person or over the phone, and have it delivered to your campsite at Little Harbor and Two Harbors. No fires are permitted at Black Jack and Hermit Gulch campgrounds.
RANGERS: Rangers are onsite at all campgrounds, except for Parson’s Landing and Black Jack.
Camping Along the Trans-Catalina Trail
From a remote mountaintop to a secluded beach to a scenic harbor on the island’s “backside,” there are five unique camping experiences along the Trans-Catalina Trail. Reservations are required and can be made online. Your camping reservations serve as your hiking permit. No additional fees are required. There is a 2-night minimum on Friday and Saturday nights during the summer season at Hermit Gulch, Little Harbor, and Two Harbors campgrounds. Trans-Catalina Trail hikers can have that minimum requirement waived by calling Two Harbors Visitor Services at 310.510.4205.
HERMIT GULCH – 1.5 miles from the Conservancy Trailhead in Avalon
The only campground in Avalon is tucked into scenic Avalon Canyon about two miles from downtown shops and restaurants. Instead of hitting the trail right off the boat, many hikers spend the night here to get an early-morning start on their Trans-Catalina Trail adventure. Amenities: 40 tent sites and 7 tent cabins, potable water, coin-op hot showers, restrooms, picnic tables, BBQs. No open fires. Wax logs and charcoal fires permitted in BBQs. Ranger on site.
BLACK JACK – 10.5 miles from Trailhead
The highest (1,600’) campground on the island offers sweeping views of rolling hills and rugged canyons. Amenities: 10 sites, potable water, cold outdoor showers, chemical toilets. No open fires permitted. No ranger on site. Restaurant available two miles up the trail at Airport-in-the-Sky.
LITTLE HARBOR – 19 miles from Trailhead
Overlooking the ocean on the “backside” of Catalina, Little Harbor was rated the “Best Campground in the West” by Sunset magazine. Amenities: 26 sites, beach access, potable water, cold showers, chemical toilets, some shade structures. Ranger on site. Fires permitted in designated fire rings. Firewood available from Visitor Services.
TWO HARBORS – 24 miles from Trailhead
Located a short walk from Two Harbors village on a scenic ocean-view bluff. Amenities: 47 tent sites, beach access, potable water, cold water outdoor showers, restrooms, picnic tables, fire pits, BBQs, and sunshades. Tent cabins (12) with 2-burner propane stoves, lanterns, fire pits, and picnic tables are also available at Two Harbors campground. Catalina Cabins (21 - available seasonally) are located in the village of Two Harbors and offer electricity, heaters, refrigerators, twin bunk beds or a 1 full-size bed, and communal kitchen. Coin-op hot showers and restrooms are also located in town and are available to all visitors.
PARSON’S LANDING – 30.8 miles from Trailhead
Secluded beachfront campground accessible only on foot or by kayak. Amenities: 8 sites, beach access, chemical toilets. No water available. No ranger on site. Fires permitted in designated fire rings. Lockers with water, firewood and starter are available for purchase through Visitor Services. Must pick up locker key in Two Harbors.
Planning Your Itinerary
There are many ways to experience the Trans-Catalina Trail. Most people take 3-5 days, starting at the Conservancy Trailhead in Avalon and finishing in the west end village of Two Harbors. The direction you go and the number of days you take largely depend on how many miles you want to log each day and how much you want to explore the surrounding trails at each campsite.
Following is a typical 5-day, 4-night Trans-Catalina Trail adventure that begins in Avalon and ends in Two Harbors.
DAY 1: 10.5 miles
Conservancy Trailhead to Black Jack Campground
Depending on the time of year, if you spend the night at Hermit Gulch Campground in Avalon and get an early morning start, you should arrive at Black Jack with plenty of daylight left. If you’re feeling up to it, consider taking the 3-mile round trip trek to the top of Mt. Orizaba (2,102’), Catalina’s highest peak, for some great views. Don’t forget to replenish your water supply before you leave Black Jack for Little Harbor.
DAY 2: 8.5 miles
Black Jack to Little Harbor Campground
It’s a relatively easy downhill hike from Black Jack to Little Harbor on the backside of Catalina Island. Consider starting out in the late morning and stopping a couple miles down the trail for lunch at Airport-in-the-Sky. The Conservancy has a Nature Exhibit there that you can explore. And DC-3 Grill serves up killer cookies and Buffalo burgers that’ll hold you over until dinner time in Little Harbor.
DAY 3: 7 miles
Little Harbor to Two Harbors Campground
The sweeping ocean views on the downhill trek into Two Harbors will make you forget the challenging climb out of Little Harbor you just completed. There are hot coin-op showers in the village to rinse off the trail dust. West End Galley is a great spot for a quick bite. Or grab a hearty sit-down meal at Harbor Reef Restaurant. You might try a cool Buffalo Milk here, but they carry a big kick and you have a difficult 1,500-foot climb up Silver Peak Trail to start Day 4. Stop by Visitor Services for the key to your Parson’s Landing locker, which contains firewood, a starter, and 2 gals of fresh water.
DAY 4: 7 miles
Two Harbors to Parson’s Landing
You just finished what is probably the most difficult section of the entire trail, so drop your pack and take a refreshing plunge in the Pacific Ocean. If you have enough energy and daylight left after that, it’s about a 9-mile round trip over rolling terrain out to Starlight Beach, the unofficial end of Catalina Island. You could also do this hike in the morning before you set out for Two Harbors. In the meantime, enjoy the incredible star-filled sky at your secluded beachfront campsite.
Day 5: 7.5 miles
Parson’s Landing back to Two Harbors
The best thing about hiking the Trans-Catalina Trail from Avalon to Two Harbors is that you finish with a 7-mile stroll on meandering West End Road that takes you around several scenic coves along some of the most incredible coastline Catalina has to offer. Before long, you’ll be back in Two Harbors, where you can grab a hot shower, kick back with a Buffalo Milk, and share trail stories while you wait for the ferry back to the mainland.
Catalina Trail Map
This topo map of Catalina Island, courtesy of the Catalina Island Conservancy, shows all trails, campgrounds, points of interest, and elevation changes to help you plan your Trans-Catalina Trail adventure. You can purchase this map before you hit the trail at the Conservancy Trailhead in Avalon or Visitor Services in Two Harbors.
What to Bring
Deciding what to stuff in your pack is one of the hardest things to do, even for experienced backpackers. Fortunately, the Trans-Catalina Trail offers water and even food options along the trail, which means less for you to carry. And there are stores in Avalon and Two Harbors to pick up those little things that you might forget. The following are items to bring that will help make your adventure more enjoyable.
HIKING BOOTS: Many people hike the Trans-Catalina Trail in trail-runners. But if you do the entire 38.5 miles, and add some auxiliary hikes along the way, you could end up coving 50 miles or more. By the last day, your feet will be much happier that you gave them proper support.
BACKPACKING PACK: Unless you plan to have your gear hauled from campsite to campsite (which can be arranged through Catalina Backcountry), you’ll want a medium to large backpack with a solid lightweight frame to carry everything you need for a 3 to 5-day trek.
SLEEPING BAG: Weight is the biggest consideration when it comes to sleeping bags. Catalina Island’s climate is pretty temperate, even in the winter, so your bag doesn’t need to be cold weather rated.
SLEEPING PAD: You’ll probably sleep better and wake more refreshed if you have one, so the added weight is well worth it.
TREKKING POLES: There are many steep uphills and downhills on the Trans-Catalina Trail. Trekking poles will not only make those sections easier to navigate, they also will take the load off your knees.
COOKING GEAR: To cook your food, you’ll need a small backpacking stove and a canister of propane. NOTE: Ferry boats to Catalina do not allow you to transport propane. You can pick up a canister in Avalon at Chet’s Hardware. If you’re starting from Two Harbors, propane is available at Two Harbors General Store.
FOOD: There are a couple of dining options along the trail (DC-3 Grill at Airport-in-the-Sky, and West End Galley and Harbor Reef Restaurant in Two Harbors) so you can save a lot on food weight. (Check restaurant hours.) REI offers backpacking meals that only need hot water. Protein bars, fruits, nuts and other on-the-trail snacks can be purchased on the island at Vons or the General Store.
WATER: The Trans-Catalina Trail can be hot and strenuous, so you’ll want to stay hydrated. Fortunately, there is running water available at all campgrounds except Parson’s Landing so you only need to carry what you need on the trail between campsites. Lockers at Parson’s Landing that contain 2 gallons of fresh water, as well as firewood and starter, can be purchased when you make you camping reservations.
CLOTHING: This is a matter of preference. But you may want a pair of lightweight long pants to protect your legs from cacti and other plants along the narrow parts of the trail. A bathing suit will come in handy at the three beachfront campgrounds. And a hat that provides protection from the sun is a must. Other than that, your best bet is to pack as little as possible and travel light.
OTHER SUPPLIES: Plenty of sunscreen; a headlamp for those nighttime bathroom trips; toilet paper (the bathrooms should be stocked, but it’s better to be safe than sorry); first aid kit with blister pads and ibuprofen to ease those aches and pains; small bag for your on-the-trail trash; a portable battery to recharge your phone. There are no electrical outlets along the trail, and your GPS hiking app and camera are sure to drain your phone battery after a couple days.
Of course this is only a partial list. There are many online resources and blogs dedicated to backpacking the Trans-Catalina Trail, including the Catalina Island Conservancy website. The more research you do, the better prepared you'll be for this amazing, bucket-list adventure.
Trans-Catalina Trail FAQs
Q Do I need reservations to camp on Catalina Island?
A Yes. And campgrounds fill up fast, especially in the spring and summer, so plan your visit well in advance. There are five designated campgrounds on Catalina Island. You can make reservations online or by calling Two Harbors Visitor Services at 310.510.4205.
Q Do I need a permit to hike the Trans-Catalina Trail?
A Your camping reservation serves as your hiking permit. Trail maps are available at the Catalina Island Conservancy Trailhead and Hermit Gulch campground in Avalon and at Two Harbors Visitor Services. You can also find maps on the Conservancy’s website.
Q Do I have to camp to hike the Trans-Catalina Trail?
A It would be difficult to hike all 38.5 miles of the Trans-Catalina Trail in one day. But you can get a permit at the Conservancy Trailhead in Avalon and explore portions of the trail starting at Hermit Gulch. Permits are also available at Visitor Services in Two Harbors, where you can explore the west end portions of the trail in several different directions. NOTE: Hikers are not allowed on the trail at night.
Q How many days do I need to hike the Trans-Catalina Trail?
A Most people take 3 to 5 days to hike the trail. How long you take depends on your hiking ability, how many miles you want to cover each day, and how much time you want to spend exploring your surroundings.
Q Does it matter where I start or which direction I go?
A Trans-Catalina Trail mile markers start at the Catalina Conservancy Trailhead in Avalon and end in Two Harbors. But you can certainly hike the trail from Two Harbors to Avalon. For the most part, your hiking itinerary will depend on boat schedules, campsite availability, and how you want to approach different sections of the trail.
Q How much water should I carry to complete the trail?
A Fortunately drinking water is available at all campgrounds except Parson’s Landing, so you only need carry what you’ll use on the trail between campsites. Lockers at Parson’s Landing that contain 2.5 gallons of fresh water, as well as firewood and starter, can be purchased when you make your camping reservations.
Q What’s the best time of year to hike the Trans-Catalina Trail?
A Consider planning your hike for the fall, winter or early spring, when cooler temps and sea breezes help make up for the lack of shade along the trail. Keep in mind that winter is when Catalina gets most of its rain, which can result in unexpected road and trail closures. For updates on trail conditions, contact Catalina Conservancy at 310.510.2595.
Q Are dogs allowed on the Trans-Catalina Trail?
A Yes. Except at Two Harbors and Hermit Gulch campgrounds. And they must be kept on a leash at all times. Also, lack of shade and rough trail conditions can be hard on dogs. And the island’s bison are easily spooked by their presence.
Q Do I need to bring my food, or can I purchase it on the island?
A There are a few dining options along the trail (DC-3 Grill at Airport-in-the-Sky near Black Jack campground, and West End Galley and Harbor Reef Restaurant in Two Harbors) so you can save a lot on food weight. Protein bars, fruits, nuts and other on-the-trail snacks can be purchased on the island at Vons Supermarket in Avalon or Two Harbors General Store.
Q Do I need to bring trekking poles?
A They aren’t necessary, but if you have them, bring them. They will make uphill climbs and downhill descents much easier to navigate.
Q Can I hike the Trans-Catalina Trail with a day pack and have someone haul my gear?
A Unfortunately we don’t offer gear-haul services along the Trans-Catalina Trail. But we can recommend a local company called Catalina Backcountry. Check out their website.