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Backpacking the Trans-Catalina Trail

At nearly 40-miles long, the Trans-Catalina Trail is one of California’s great multi-day backpacking trails. The trail begins in the scenic coastal town of Avalon, California and winds its way through the valley and across the ridgelines of Catalina’s protected wildlands. Hikers can visit secluded coves, glimpse the island’s famous bison, and trek through parts of the island that most visitors will never see.

Catalina’s trails are extremely rugged and offer challenging terrain to even the most physically fit hikers. But, the hard work pays off big time with amazing views. You’re also never more than a few miles from civilization, which means that you can eat delicious (although pricey) food every single day. For a food motivated hiker like myself, it makes hiking the island a gastronomical paradise.

I’ve hiked the entire trail twice now. My first trip was in 2017, and it was my first solo multi-day backpacking trip. I wanted to challenge myself to do a solo trip, but I was afraid that my fears would get in the way of actually enjoying the trip. I picked the Trans-Catalina Trail because I wouldn’t have to worry about my two biggest fears- large animals that might kill me, and being lost and alone in the middle of nowhere!

During my 2017 hike I fell in love with the island. In 2019 I organized a hike for five other women, including three newbie backpackers. I’m glad to say that every one of them fell in love with the trail too. Which isn’t surprising because the Trans-Catalina Trail is pretty special. This is a backpacking trip for hikers who want a true vacation.

A trail marker in front of a field of cactus along the Trans-Catalina Trail

This guide will help you plan your own Trans-Catalina Trail backpacking trip. This post will cover:
Catalina Island hiking map, elevation, and hiking itinerary
Who should backpack the Trans-Catalina Trail
Best place to start the trail: Two Harbors or Avalon
Best Season to Hike the Trans-Catalina Trail
Catalina Campsite Reservations
Trans-Catalina Trail Hiking Permits
Getting to Catalina
Wildlife and Safety Tips
Our Trans-Catalina Trail Trip Report
My Trans-Catalina Trail Packing List

But first, a few important things to know:

We’ll go over all of these in greater detail but here are some important details that you don’t want to miss.
This is a challenging hike with lots of steep ascents and descents.
The trails are not shaded. Try to avoid hiking in the summer.
Dispersed camping is not allowed. All campsites must be reserved in advance.
If you’re on a budget this is a trip that you might want to save up for. Campsite fees are charged per person and unless you have a boat, a round-trip ferry ride is required to reach the island. Some campsites also charge additional fees for firewood and water.
The trail is dog-friendly, but the distances between camps might not make this a suitable hike for all pooches.

Trans-Catalina Hiking Map and Elevation

Map of the 38-mile Trans-Catalina Trail
An elevation profile showing the ascents and descents along the 38-mile Trans-Catalina Trail.

The Trans-Catalina Trail is extremely well marked and easy to find. The Catalina Conservancy has maps available to download, but I always take comfort in having a large map to reference while on the trail.

You can purchase trail maps on the island at the conservancy’s trailhead visitor center in Avalon, the conservancy’s nature center near the Hermit Gulch campground, Airport in the Sky, or at the visitor center at Two Harbors.

Who Should Backpack the Trans-Catalina Trail?

Everyone should backpack the Trans-Catalina Trail!

This trail should be on everyone’s bucket list. The rugged terrain will challenge seasoned backpackers and the views are impressive. While this trail does have challenging terrain, it is a great backpacking trip for beginners and first-time solo adventurers. If you’re worried about finding a dispersed campsite, having your water filter break, or using the bathroom in the woods for the first time you’re going to love this trail.

A group of women backpacking the Trans-Catalina Trail

 

The campgrounds (with assigned campsites) provide a wilderness experience while retaining modern conveniences. There are water stops along the trail and most campsites have water spigots, so you don’t need to worry about filtering water or hauling water for long distances. (See the note about ordering water at Parsons Landing in the Campsite Reservations section.) Every campground has restrooms with primitive pit toilets and there are even some bathrooms with flush toilets along the trail.

I think that this trail may be a bit too difficult for young children. There trail has some steep drop-offs and there isn’t a way to shorten the distance from Avalon to Black Jack. Unless your child has grown up backpacking and is comfortable hiking 10 miles I’d leave the kids at home.

Best Time to Hike

Catalina island weather with plots for high temperature, low temperature, and average rainfall.

Catalina Island has a mild Mediterranean climate which makes it possible to hike the trail year-round. It is just as popular to hike the trail in the winter as it is in the summer.

I completed both of my hikes in the month of December. One December the daytime temperatures were in the mid-70s and I had perfect weather the entire time. When I returned two years later we had rain storms and clouds for half of the trip and the daytime temperatures never exceeded the mid-60s. One thing to keep in mind is that the island’s landscape of coastal scrub and cactus don’t offer a lot of shade on a hot day or cover on a rainy day!

 

What if it rains?

Drying out our tents after a night of rain on Catalina Island's Trans-Catalina Trail

While Catalina doesn’t get much rain, it can be a concern if you do this hike in the winter. The dry island can be prone to landslides during especially wet storms. Even after a light shower hikers can find themselves sliding down the hillsides in the slippery red clay.

Weather on the island is extremely hard to predict. If a large storm hits the island the Catalina Conservancy may close sections of the trail but allow hikers to walk along the dirt roads. If this happens the roads will likely be too muddy for vehicles to travel the dirt roads and hikers will need to self-rescue in case of an emergency.

If rain is in the forecast call the helpful folks at the Two Harbors visitors center for advice (310-510-4242). When we hiked in December 2019, we were hiking at the tail end of a storm. The Two Harbors ranger I spoke to was so incredibly helpful. She gave me a report on current trail conditions and offered me a few alternatives including re-scheduling my trip and changing our reservation so we could escape rain and stay in one of the Two Harbors camping cabins if needed. In the end things were a bit muddy the first two days but we survived!

Our 4-day itinerary:

We chose to take four days to hike the trail. We took the 9am ferry from San Pedro to Avalon and started our hike to Black Jack camp around 11:30am. This was a little later than I would have liked, and if I did it again I would have taken an earlier ferry. Even with the short winter days we still arrived in camp with plenty of time to relax on the beach and enjoy our surroundings.

Day 1: Hike 11 miles from Avalon to Black Jack Camp

Day 2: Hike 7.6 miles from Black Jack to Little Harbor/Shark Harbor camp

Day 3: Hike 11.6 miles to Parsons Landing camp

Day 4: Hike 7.2 miles from Parsons Landing to Two Harbors.

Alternate Itineraries

3-Day Itinerary

Day 1: Hike 11 miles from Avalon to Black Jack Camp

Day 2: Hike 12.8 miles from Black Jack to Two Harbors camp

Day 3: Hike 13.6 miles taking the loop to Parsons Landing and back to Two Harbors. You can leave your pack at your campsite and just take a daypack.

4-Day Alternate Itinerary

Day 1: Hike 11 miles from Avalon to Black Jack Camp

Day 2: Hike 7.6 miles from Black Jack to Little Harbor/Shark Harbor camp

Day 3: Hike 5.2 miles to Two Harbors,

Day 4: Hike 13.6 miles taking the loop to Parsons Landing and back to Two Harbors. You can leave your pack at your campsite and just take a daypack.

5-Day Itinerary

Day 1: Hike 11 miles from Avalon to Black Jack Camp

Day 2: Hike 7.6 miles from Black Jack to Little Harbor/Shark Harbor camp

Day 3: Hike 5.2 miles to Two Harbors,

Day 4: Hike 6.4 miles to Parsons Landing

Day 5: Hike 7.2 miles from Parsons Landing to Two Harbors.

I’m sure that people have done the trek in two days, but that’s not nearly enough time to soak up all the amazing views. Plus, I tend to error on the conservative side and pad the schedule with plenty of time to catch the ferry back to the mainland. If you wanted to complete the trail in two days I’d recommend starting at the Two Harbors trailhead. The aggressive hiker could complete the 13.6-mile loop to Parsons Landing and camp in Two Harbors on the first day, then hike the 23.8-miles from Two Harbors to Avalon to catch the last ferry leaving the island.

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The Trailhead

The trail begins in the town of Avalon.

The Route

Other Details

Dogs are allowed on the trails on leash. Dogs are also permitted in all campgrounds EXCEPT for Two Harbors Campground. This is a strenuous and difficult trek, please think twice before bringing your dog on this entire loop.

Pit toilets are available at all campgrounds and on some points along the trail near Two Harbors and Avalon. See the CalTopo map for locations of water and restrooms.

The campsites and ferry tickets sell out early. Reserve in advance to make sure you have a spot.

Like all outdoor pursuits, hiking can be dangerous. It is up to you to assess your fitness level and education yourself about any potential dangers. While I try to regularly update these hiking guides, you should always research trail conditions before heading out.

Being prepared means arriving at the trailhead with water and some basic provisions. Each and every time I hit the trail I bring a backpack with more water than I think I need, a small first aid kit, and a snack. I also share my itinerary and plans with friends or family and I carry an InReach so I can summon help if needed. If you want to know what I carry in my pack during day hikes check out my blog post about essential gear for day hikers.

Stay safe, enjoy the trail, and soak up the magic of nature!

Get your Trans-Catalina Trail Sticker!

Our hiking stickers are available on Etsy or under the Shop tab on our website.

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