I’ve heard about this trail from one of the Bay Area backpacking Meetups. It sounded like an interesting place to visit, sometime in the future. One of those trips to be added to the ever-growing bucket list. However, relatively simple logistics for this trail made it very attractive. The Trans Catalina Trail is a relatively new trail. There is one organization that basically manages the whole of Santa Catalina Island – Catalina Conservancy, and it perhaps wanted to bring more visitors. It was created by the original ‘owner’ of the island – William Wrigley, the chewing gum magnate, as a deed to manage the island as a one giant park, excluding lucrative Avalon, of course. Campsite permits, which could only be obtained through Catalina Conservancy, are a bit expensive by American forest standards – $22 per person per day, as opposed to $20 per camp site (or free). However, a camp site usually includes a source of drinking water, which is not readily available on Catalina. Firewood need to be purchased separately.
I would have probably never visited this island in the foreseeable future if not for my oldest nephew. He wanted some backpacking trip for his spring break (good man, much better than going to Cancun or something and get drunk). I floated an idea of Death Valley or Grand Canyon. But they seemed scary to him. Catalina, on the other hand felt close and easy. It is true that logistically backpacking in Catalina is easy. However, the Trans Catalina Trail itself was far from easy. But he didn’t know that. Neither did I. He did manage to convince a couple of his ultimate buddies to come along. In the end we had a nice 6 people crew. I was a bit worried that I would be lagging behind all those spring chickens, but it didn’t actually happen.
Sunday, March 22
I was really worried about the trip, as usual. I even had a weird dream that there was a foot of fresh snow in Catalina. Sweet, but I just desired to leave half of my tent behind. A half of tent could be a bit wet. Anyway, I got up and headed to San Pedro port to catch ferry to Catalina, courtesy of my sister who gave us a lift. All the crew showed up on time. I just had to get the read boat tickets based on my online reservation. The first bomb was dropped by the ticket lady. She said that we can’t bring anything flammable on board. The coastguard may rummage through the backpacks to check and then levy a significant fine. And we could buy fuel on the island. This could possible be due to all the terrorist scare or Catalina people just want to restrict access to their island like the movie theaters not allowing people to bring food. I tried to call the shore in Avalon but it was closed. Being a bit suspicions of the threat and the possibility that the aforementioned store would have the right fuel cans, I just decided to risk it. It would be safer to pay fine that end up without the right fuel.
The boat ride was uneventful. Most of the people were vacationers, but there were a couple of backpacking parties. One on the shore I had to perform a wild goose chance to find out the place where my permits could be registered. People were just sending me all over the place. With late boat arrival and all this permit stuff we gotten seriously delayed.
Group Photo at the Beginning
Finally on the trail, or so I thought. Technically the trail starts somewhere on the end of the island, which is a bit away from the main town of Avalon. The builders and promoters of the Trans Catalina Trail failed to add signs in the town to direct people to the trailhead. Added to it the lack of good maps made for interesting first hour or so. I’ve tried to find a good shortcut route through the vacation homes. Eventually we managed to find the proper road that was skirting around the island and leading to our trailhead.
It was Sunday. People were having relaxing weekend exploring Catalina. This involved renting all sorts of vehicles and driving on the island’s roads. After we turned inland at the aforementioned trailhead the number of people in golf carts went down to zero. However, there were a number of these big buggies allegedly organizing back-country tours in Catalina that passed us. Aside from creating a lot of dust they also were a bit depressing because they indicate that this wasn’t wilderness at all. Sad. Well, what was I expecting? We could still see the town of Avalon and the cell phone reception was strong.
The trail was relentless! We started a bit late, right in the middle of the most heat. The ocean breeze didn’t really make things easier. There was obviously no shade. To top this off there were no switchbacks. This was not a trail per se – it was a road. Roads generally don’t need switchback because you (whomever is transiting it) are not doing to walking. By the time we reached the second ridge of the day everyone was out of fuel. There was a little gazebo that provided some shade and rest relief. But there was no water.
After this point the trail/road had become a bit more interesting. It became more choppy elevation-wise. We saw our first Catalina buffalo enjoying dirt bath right next to a busy road.
Vintage Bus & Buffalo
The interesting thing was that vintage 60s bus transporting tourists somewhere. The road/trail sometimes would disappear into a strange unused area. A bit further down there was this old playground with picnic area. It didn’t look like it was used much. Perhaps no one really wanted to get a bus ride here to have a BBQ picnic in the middle of the island with remote ocean views while a better location was available, and no bus ride. At least it had a water source. The kids had some fun on the swings and seesaw and continue the deathmarch.
The group has becoming more and more unhappy. There were some knee and ankle issues. The mental state was getting thin because the damn trail just wouldn’t end. It was getting dark and we still had a couple of miles of a not flat trail. But no one was really complaining. Finally, right before the Black Mountain campground it became a real trail. It was narrow and properly went around the last hill.
The campground was busy. Where d’hell these people came from? We haven’t seen any backpackers all day. Our proper camp site has been occupied by some student couple so we took theirs. Apparently they came earlier because they took the Stage Road shortcut. Wussies. Other than that the campground had all the amenities, wood boxes that could be used to store food, fire pit, table, even a shower (the shower was old style – a water pipe under a tree. Who cares that there is no cover – after all that heat any cold water would be fine). There was a brief, but tasty dinner, and everyone passed out at about 10PM. It was a long day.
Monday, March 23
Part of the night someone large an unhappy was walking around the campsite. This organism was stamping and snoring loudly. I suspected it was a local buffalo. We’ve seen a couple the day before. I was a bit afraid that it would just trump the tent. But it should see well enough to walk around in the dark. Otherwise the evolution would remove any desire from these species to be out at night.
After the campsite the terrain was a bit flat-ish. The lovely Black Jack mountain was presiding over the area. Perhaps if we have reached the campsite earlier we could have summited it.
At this side the trail was more like a trail rather than a road. It was snaking through some bushes and dry creek until reaching the Catalina Airport. A bit before the airport there were a couple of native American artifacts. Some soapstone formations used by them to make goods that could be traded.
The Airport was deserted. At least no flying planes were visible while we were there. One must be really lazy to hike a plane to get here (or maybe own a plane). There was, after a all a shuttle from Avalon. It may be intersting to hire a shuttle and then bike back. It would be all downhill. The airport had a shop and eatery located in a cute vintage building. You can almost feel to be on some remote island in 1960s. There was a large mural display explaining the history of Catalina.
View Towards Little Harbor
After the airport the now road continued on the plateau before diving down to Little Harbor. It was a lovely walk. It wasn’t yet hot or difficult. The guys were cracking jokes. If I was more talkative the mood would probably be better.
Little Harbor was nice secluded campground. It had all the amenities, especially fresh water (I wonder where they’ve gotten it from). The best part was that it was possible to hike some shuttle to drive you there avoiding two very strenuous hikes either from Avalon or Two Harbors. We spend quite a long lunch at Little Harbor. Even enough to swim in the ocean. There was a group of college students on a break from some spring break volunteer thing. Nice place to spend a spring break.
The climb after Little Harbor was … regular Catalina – steep. The guys separated by their abilities or stamina. In reality, I timed one scary looking climb and it only took about 20 minutes. The views of the Western ocean very spectacular. There was also wind blowing from the West, but it didn’t help much. A climb is a climb. As a consullation the Catalina people put a nice gazebo at the top of the hill.
The road down was nice if knee busting. It was just the end of a very long day and, at least myself, was ready for a finish. However, we still had to wonder around the town of Two Harbors in the desperate search of our campground. The map wasn’t detailed enough and signage, again, was no where to be found. But after a couple of failed attempts we located it.
I’ve pick a campsite close to ocean which wasn’t the best. It was on some road and for some reason was lacking bear box. Not against bears, of course, but local squirrels. The funny thing was in this rather large campground almost only 3 camping sites were occupied. And they were all located around us. The other people were all involved with scuba diving activity. There was one single dude with all the diving equipment and large straw hat. The other was a family from Minnesota (if I remember right). The matriarch of this family, it seems, was teaching the next generation scuba diving. Interesting. Both of these groups were set in the site for a couple of days already, it seems.
There was pretty much one restaurant in town. We gotten our fix of fresh food from it. They cooked good fresh fish. I’ve gotten my tuna there with some cider. The cold cider went down well. I was still severely dehydrated from the hike.
This day I did order wood. However, the location and general tiredness of people wasn’t conducive for folks to sit around the campfire for a long time. The moonlit view of the Isthmus Cove was spectacular, however.
Tuesday, March 24
I couldn’t sleep well again. Not sure why. I should have been sleeping like a log after all that climbing. Maybe I’m just too dehydrated. So I got up early to take shower before everyone, including the neighbors, were up. The shower, like in Black Jack, was just a shower head next to toilet structure. Whatever, if someone doesn’t like what they see they can look away.
The group slowly gotten ready by 10AM. Late. I should have kicked their butts better. Not that were were in the hurry, but it would be nice to beat of the heat as much as possible. The local squirrels got into food. For some reason this glorious campground didn’t have neither storage boxes, no places to hang stuff (or I just didn’t find our camping spot). So we organized our food on a BBQ pit. Didn’t help. Some creter found a way to a bag of pistachios.
I had to stop by the ranger station, which doubled as an activity center right next to the ferry docking, to pick up keys for water/wood lockers. This was actually important since there was no fresh water at Parson’s Landing.
The climb this day was not easier than the two before. The bloody road was just going straight up the hill. And the weather was warm. I was trying to go slow and steady. The other spring chickens were constantly running ahead. There was no much shade. There were just scattered trees here and there and we clinged to their small shade to have a bit of rest. But eventually we made it to the top. It felt good and views were spectacular. I thought the fight was over, but not quite.
After the climb the road down was steep, very steep. It was so steep that we were sometimes sliding. The progress was very slow and frankly dangerous. Whomever had their knee issues, which most of my crew who like to play Ultimate did, were having hard time. I just percued the same slow and steady approach of small steps. Hiking poles were helping quite a bit as well.
Parson’s landing campsite was essentially a secluded beach with some amenities. The amenities included good toilets and lockers. The lockers had water and wood that had to purchased extra. You get one key at the ranger station in Two Harbors. The other key belong to the rangers. If you open the locker you pay for its contents.
We picked one of the camping spots. It wasn’t exactly the assigned one, but it looked good. People seemed to have spent a lot of time on this beach because there were structures all over. All sorts of rock walls shielding tent spots or campfire pits. Someone even made sitting chairs. Our more adventurous group went further to Starlight Beach – the real ending of the Trans Catalina Trail. I decided to skip this march and just relax on the beach. I didn’t really want to swim due to serious waves and lack of fresh water to wash after.
The advanced guys came back a bit after dark, tired and thirsty. We sup up fire. The guys eat all their supplies since this was the last night. It was nice to sit by the fire and watch ocean and the distant lights of LA. I didn’t set the tent to just sleep under the stars. Tomorrow would be early rise.
Wednesday, March 25
Again I didn’t sleep well. Not sure why. Maybe the waves didn’t lull me to sleep as they should. Maybe I was just concerned about something. So basically I was just lying there waiting for the sun to rise. Once that happened we all got up, packed, ate, and moved on. This day the road would be flat. Just very annoying.
Right out of the camp the road led to some other fairly full boy scout or something camp in Emerald Bay. The problem was signage again. We wandered into this place with some old frames from probably canvas tents. Some dude on a golf cart seriously told us that were were on the wrong trail. Perhaps he was scared of liability of six strange man walking into his children camp. After that scolding the road went to the right direction.
It was flat, but it hugged all the nooks and crannies on the coast. This meant that sometimes we would have to go quite significantly inland to make it what seemed like just a bit of distance as a crow flies.
Catalina on this side was quite busy. We passed several different camps of various levels of comfort. They all had access to the water and it seemed supplied numerous ocean activities. Even from far above it was obvious that the water was quite clear. It would be interesting to come back here and do some scuba diving. Living in LA I always thought that the Pacific is completely polluted in this area, but it might be true to only the areas close to the main shore.
We made it to the Two Harbors on time. It appears that there were several backpacking groups. I’m not sure where they stayed because there were no other groups on the road coming back from Parson’s Landing.Finally this brutal trail was over. I wasn’t sure what was more difficult – heat or elevation.
Getting back from San Pedro port was quite a hassle. There were a whole bunch of taxi drivers, but they were asking for way more than I was willing to pay. And at that time I didn’t have Uber set up. So half the group took a taxi to go back to UCLA. Myself and two others walked to the bus station to go to the subway.
The city of San Pedro, it seems, was trying to develop this area around the port. There was this weird dancing fountain. Weird becuase there was no one to see its performance. There also some nice signs and notices. Well, at least they are trying.
After Trip Burger
At the downtown Long Beach we found some sort of hip burger joint to get the deserved after trip meal.After that we had a very long subway ride back to Hollywood. It was actually interesting so see the parts of LA we were passing through.