Trip Review – Catalina Island

Trip Review – Catalina Island

via the Trans Catalina Trail
March 12-17, 2011

Over the past couple years we have had the opportunity to visit Catalina Island (small island west of Los Angeles) a couple times – once we went for a day scuba trip to Casino Point (excellent diving!) and the other time it was one of our stops during a 4-day cruise. Both times were great experiences and left us wanting more. We knew there was a lot more to the island than what we could see during our day trips and wanted to plan something longer. After doing some research, Kris set us up with a hiking/camping schedule that would allow us to explore most of the island in a week – backpacking along the Trans Catalina Trail (TCT). Our friend, Brie, joined in our journey.

We set out for a 5-night trip, each night stopping at a different campsite. There are numerous trails and roads throughout the island – for our adventure, the TCT worked best in most cases but we did not follow it from start to finish. We met a group of 5 men along the way who set out with the goal of completing the TCT. Before this trip, we didn’t think of that as a goal but would definitely consider it for next time.

Our Route:
(on the Garmin maps, click ‘view details’ to see elevation and a more detailed map, click the pictures to see a larger view)

Saturday – We took the 9:50am ferry from Dana Point to Avalon (Catalina Express). The ferry took about an hour and 20 minutes and round trip tickets cost $68.50.  There are also ferries out of Long Beach and San Pedro.  We are fortunate enough to have family in the area and an uncle who offered to shuttle us around so Dana Point works well for us. If you are driving yourself, parking is $12 per day in Dana Point.

The ride to Avalon was nice – chilly outside but plenty of seats inside and TVs to help pass the time.  A bonus for going in March was being able to see a couple humpback whales on their way up to Alaska.

When we got to Avalon we checked in to get our camping permits at the Pavilion Hotel and headed up to Hermit Gulch Campground. This campground is roughly a mile and a half from town although you’ll see we added a little extra distance with our loop in town looking for the place to check-in.  On our walk up to the campground we were able to watch the finish of the Catalina Marathon – cheering people through their last mile.  It was neat to be there for that event – definitely not an easy marathon!

This campground has restroom facilities with flush toilets and sinks. This campground does not allow for camp fires but our campsite did have a small grill. We were in site #8 – close to the ranger & restrooms.

We set up our tents and set out on a hike around the area. We took the Hermit Gulch Trail which lead us to a service road. This road was part of the marathon route so we were able to see a few of the participants as they trudged along miles 23 & 24. We then ended in the Wrigley Memorial & Botanical Gardens. There is normally a $5 fee to get into this area, but if you hike around through the back you can get in for free.

After the hike we headed back into town for dinner at the Lobster Trap – we figured it would be nice to have a real meal before heading out on our adventure. Dinner was great – they had a nice selection of dinners and we left there pleasantly full. After dinner we got a little ice cream and couldn’t resist getting some fudge to take with us. That was a nice dessert along the route! We then retired for the evening.

Daily Mileage: with backpacks – 2 miles, without – about 8 miles (our 4.5 mile hike plus our walk into and around Avalon)

Sunday – Hermit Gulch to Black Jack – our longest hiking day.  We knew the first couple miles would be tough – climbing out of Avalon … we didn’t know there would also be a couple brutal uphill climbs near the end of the hike. The scenery, however, was worth it!

We saw a number of squirrels on every hike
Along the trail we encountered a heard of buffalo.
You can see the small mile-marker post … yes, they were
right in the middle of the trail. We watched them for a little
bit and then slowly continued on our way – they moved.

Black Jack Campground is pretty secluded, amenities include portapotties and outside, cold-water rinse showers.  We were set up for campsite #1 but when we got there we switched to #5 because we liked that location better. Since  it was low season, the campground was pretty empty and switching was no problem. The downside to this new site was wind & the site was shaded by the mountain pretty quickly so it got cold.  But, we did have a rope swing next to our campsite. We were also close to the portapotties, shower and we had a water spout at our campsite.
This campground does allow for campfires and you can normally get firewood from the ranger. However, since this was low season, there was no ranger so we made due with scraps that were around our site (had we actually gone to campsite #1, we would have had wood in the pit waiting for us since that’s where the ranger expecting us – oops!). We were able to build a small fire – enough to roast some marshmallows over.

We were pretty worn out from the hike so we did not wander around the area. With the cold wind and lack of a warm campfire, we also did not stay outside too long. We tried playing a couple card games in our tent and then called it an early night.

Daily Mileage: with backpacks – 9.5 miles, without – none
Total Mileage: with backpacks – 11.5 miles, without – about 8 miles

Monday – Black Jack to Little Harbor. The first couple miles were uphill to the airport (Airport in the Sky). We weren’t planning on stopping for food, but after the climb we were all pretty hungry and I needed a bathroom break (I’ll gladly take those anytime we have the opportunity to use a real bathroom). We stopped at the benches outside and I went in to use the restroom. On the way back, I checked out the restaurant. After we saw the menu, we couldn’t pass up a good meal. Kris got a buffalo burger, Brie and I ended up with chicken sandwiches. Everything was delicious and very reasonably priced. Of course we ended with a little dessert (I had a popsicle, Brie & Kris had Snickers ice cream bars) and we took some cookies for after dinner.

After leaving the airport, the hike is pretty much downhill. That was a nice change from the climbing we had been doing.  As we walked down to the campsite, we had a great view of Little Harbor (the cove on the right – where the campground is) & Shark Harbor (the cove to the left).

Little Harbor campground is a beautiful beachside campground. We were in site #10 which was awesome (you can see our orange tent next to the palm tree on the left).  We were close to the beach and secluded from the others. We were right next to a creek which is apparently home to bullfrogs – as soon as the sun went down they started croaking.

One drawback to our site was the distance to the portapotties. Next to those was a sink with fresh water where Brie & Kris washed some of their clothes. We did, however, have a water spout closer to our campsite which was nice for cooking and filling our water bottles. This campground also offered cold-water rinse showers but we never went to check them out so I don’t know where they were in relation to our site – the were supposedly only a couple sites away.

After we set up our tents we wandered around on the beach a little – it was nice to take our shoes off and walk around in the sand!

While we were gone, squirrels ate some of Brie’s food (all of her Larabars) & put a few holes in our tent trying to get to ours. Lesson learned – don’t leave food unattended!

We did, however, have some firewood in our pit and couldn’t wait to get a real fire going. Unfortunately, the wood was pretty damp so the fire did not start toowell. To help the cause, I walked back to the beach and found some dried up kelp – this ended up working well as a fire-starter, especially the holdfast bundles. The pneumatocysts (air bubbles on the kelp) are fun in the fire – they expand with the heat and pop – if you put a cluster in, it sounds like firecrackers. Since we had our cookies from the airport (which were delicious) we decided to save the rest of our marshmallows for another night. Instead, we just enjoyed the fire.

Daily Mileage: with backpacks – 7.5 miles, without – about 1 mile walking the beach
Total Mileage: with backpacks – 19 miles, without – about 9 miles

Tuesday – Little Harbor to Two Harbors. We thought this was going to be our easiest day – it looked to be a short hike.  While it was our shortest hike, it was also one of the hardest – the first 3 miles were pretty much uphill and fairly steep in some parts.  This was some of our toughest climbing but was well worth it – the view was amazing from the ridgeline! There were times when we were able to see both sides of the island and the coast continued to provide beautiful scenery. This leg of the hike keeps you on the ridgeline for a majority of the time so there are plenty of photo opportunities (which are good excuses to stop and rest!)

The Garmin report for this leg is a little off – the battery died near the end of the hike so not all of the mileage is accounted for. I was able to turn it back on for a minute or so each time we’d turn or head a new direction so the map is pretty accurate, but the total distance was closer to 5.5 miles and it took us about 2 hours and 45 minutes.

Finding the campground was a little tricky for us – the trail lead us into town and we weren’t exactly sure where to go from there.  We found a trail that was heading in the direction we thought we should go and finally saw a sign that confirmed we were headed towards the campground.  We found our site (#7) and Kris remembered something about needing to check-in back in town.  So, as Brie & Kris set up camp, I went on an adventure to find the ranger (who wasn’t home) and then back into town. The road to the ranger station is all uphill and leads to the main road. This route took me over a mile to get back into town. On the hiking path, it’s closer to 1/2 a mile.

In town I found the visitor’s center … only to find out they were on lunch break. While I was looking for the visitor’s center I found a restroom facility with warm showers & restaurant (Harbor Reef Restaurant). Since I couldn’t check us in, I headed back to camp – the shorter way this time.

When I got back to the campsite, the tents were set up – we were ready to get cleaned up and eat. We took stuff for showers & placed all our food in a plastic bag and took it with us as well – we didn’t want to risk losing any more to squirrels! We headed back into town, straight to the visitor’s center to check in. When we checked in we placed an order for firewood (the ranger delivered it to our campsite), arranged for our bus tickets on Thursday and got change to use the showers.

The showers cost $.50 for 1 1/2 minutes … well worth the money! They were clean, hot and it felt great to clean off!  Once we were all cleaned up, we once again ran into our ROFHC (Retired Old Farts Hiking Club) friends – the 5 men completing the TCT. They were at every campground we had stayed at and we usually saw them a couple of times during our hikes.
We hung out with them in town for a couple hours until the restaurant opened (yes, we were that lazy that we didn’t want to walk back and forth to our campsite). We got to know the guys better and took a tour of the Banning House with them. One of the men had stayed there a couple times and arranged for us to be able to check it out.

It was finally time for dinner and we sure ate a lot!  We went through 3 baskets of bread, a calamari appetizer, each of us had a delicious 1/3 lb buffalo burger with fries plus dessert (buffalo milk for Brie & me, cheesecake for Kris). It was a fantastic dinner!

We finally waddled our way out of the restaurant and headed back to the campsite. Kris & Brie built a fire with our real firewood and we had a nice evening.

Unfortunately, we had a rowdy crowd next door – while it was mildly entertaining listening to them get drunk, it was also annoying because they were so loud.  The upside was that they created such a mess at their campsite the birds left us alone – they were too busy with the other group.

We enjoyed the location of our campsite – it was close to the beach, portapotties, rinse shower and sinks. It was also protected from the wind because it was hidden in a little valley.  Sites 1-3 would be great if you have a bigger group – they have a great view but are very close to one another so I would only get them if I was using all 3 sites. They may also get a lot of wind – so they may be better when the weather is a little warmer.  The men were in sites 37 & 38  – they also had a nice view but the sites were not very flat – they had a hard time finding a good place for their tents.

Daily Mileage: with backpacks – 5.5 miles, without – about 2.5 miles walking back and forth into town
Total Mileage: with backpacks – 24.5 miles, without – about 11.5 miles

Two Harbors

Wednesday – Two Harbors to Parson’s Landing.  Luckily, the men informed us that we also needed to check in for Parson’s Landing while we were in Two Harbors.  So, before dinner on Tuesday, Kris went back to the visitor’s center and checked in for our night at Parson’s Landing. He received a locker key which was our ticket to water and firewood at the campground (there is no ranger at Parson’s). We are very grateful to the men for letting us know about this!

Before leaving town we stopped at the restroom/shower facility. Here they have day lockers for rent – $.75 for 24 hours. Kris & I decided to unload a little of our weight and leave our dirty clothes and anything else we didn’t need in the lockers overnight. It wasn’t a huge difference, but it was nice carrying a lighter pack!

For this leg of the hike, we opted to take the road instead of the TCT. While we had enjoyed all our previous hikes, we were ready for a break from the hills (and this leg looked like quite a climb!).  The road was a nice, easy walk and took us past multiple adventure camps (boyscouts, Catalina Environmental Leadership Program, etc.)


Parson’s Landing is an awesome campground & we had an amazing site – #1 – a secluded cove.  We set up our tents and then Kris and I wandered around taking pictures and exploring the area while Brie sat and read.

When we got back the 3 of us walked along the beach and found tide pools on the other end.  We hung around searching for critters for a little bit and Kris found a Geocache stuffed in the side of the mountain.  We all signed that and then slowly made our way back to our camp – taking pictures and enjoying the beach.

When we returned to camp we saw a couple squirrels quickly disappear and realized we lost more food to them. Luckily, they mostly went after our trash bag and only got to one of our Mountain House meals (but, we had an extra so we still had dinner that night!) … those pesky squirrels!!!

That evening Kris started our fire while Brie and I chatted with the men – learning some tricks for having lighter packs and hearing about their experiences. Our fire was the best of the week – it lasted quite a while – and we roasted the rest of our marshmallows (I declared that I would not carry any marhsmallows, fudge or hot chocolate back with us).
Kris came up with a delicious treat by placing some fudge in the middle of a marshmallow before toasting the marshmallow – that was tasty! Once the fudge and marshmallows (and all but 2 packets of hot chocolate) were gone, we enjoyed our fire and the sound of crashing waves while star gazing. It was an awesome way to end our trip!

Daily Mileage: with backpacks – 8.5 miles, without – about 2.5 miles exploring the area
Total Mileage: with backpacks – 33 miles, without – about 14 miles

Thursday – Back to Two Harbors. We took the same route back since we knew how long that would take us. We needed to be back in town by noon to catch the Safari Bus so we actually had to make sure we woke up and left camp on time. We left our campsite around 8am so we could get into town by 11 – that way we would have some time to spare.

Along the way we finally got a good view of the elusive Catalina Fox. Kris spotted it sleeping on the side of the road. Surprisingly, he was able to get a couple pictures of it before it woke up and moved along.

We also saw a pod of dolphins out in the water – they were headed the same direction as us so we were able to watch them for a while.
When we got to town we headed back to the lockers to fill our packs back up. They didn’t seem to mind that our stuff was in there for 26 hours instead of the allotted 24.  We also picked up a little snack from the smaller restaurant and waited for the bus. We were hoping to purchase a few things from the general store but it didn’t open until noon (the bus arrived before the store opened).

We then boarded the Safari Bus (a 10 passenger van) and headed up to the airport. Our bus driver, Theresa – a native of the island, was very chatty and told us interesting facts about the island. At the airport, we unloaded, waited about an hour and got in another van to take us to Avalon. It was neat driving across the island and seeing some of the places we had hiked.  We also saw a lot of the island that we did not see while hiking – including the new zip line they have just outside of Avalon.

Once we got back to Avalon we walked our packs another half mile to gear storage, left them there for a couple hours so we could go eat. It cost $3 per pack to leave them at gear storage and provided us with a chance to walk around without them – well worth it! After dropping off our packs, we picked up our ferry tickets and then walked around town to check out some restaurants.
We ended up eating at El Galleon – they had a nice St. Patty’s day menu so brie was able to get some corned beef and cabbage. After eating we were ready to head home. So, we claimed our packs and got in line for the ferry.

The ferry was scheduled to leave at 4:30pm and we began to worry around 4:15 when it still wasn’t at the dock. But, it finally arrived and we were boarded and heading out right on time.

Daily Mileage: with backpacks – 8 miles, without – about a mile
Total Mileage: with backpacks – 41 miles, without – 14-15 miles
Costs: $68.50 rt ferry ticket (per person), $12 per person, per night camping fee, $32 for the Safari Bus from Two Harbors to Avalon (per person), $9 for firewood (only had to pay in Two Harbors), Food – we spent close to $100 per person on our food on the island (4 restaurant meals, snacks, desserts) – we could have gone cheaper by eating just the food we packed.

This was a fantastic trip and we’d highly recommend it to anyone who likes to hike, camp, be outdoors and is wanting to have an active vacation.  We’d also recommend going this time of year – the weather was gorgeous, the campsites were pretty empty and the island was green with scattered wild flowers – we couldn’t have asked for much more! We have also heard early October is a good time for nice weather, empty sites and warmer water.

There are other ways to get around the island if you aren’t interested in backpacking. The safari bus will take you to various campsites, you can also ride bikes around the island and there are a lot of great hotels and rental properties. It is definitely a great island to visit – there’s something for everyone and you can make it as active as you want. It was a nice way to be able to take a vacation, but not feel like we were slacking on our training.


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