I have lived in L.A. now for 18 years, and this year was finally my first trip to Catalina Island. YAY!! Finally! Catalina is a magical little island only an hour boat ride from either Long Beach or San Pedro. My BFF and I planned to backpack the Trans-Catalina Trail, or TCT. The length of the trail is about 37 miles, but because you have to hike back from the end back to where you’d catch a boat back to the mainland, it’s really more like 51 miles.
The most common way to do the TCT is to start in the city of Avalon and work your way to the other end of the island at Starlight Beach. Because of the heavy rains California was hit with this year, the last leg of the trail from Parsons Landing to Starlight Beach was virtually inaccessible. Technically we could have tried it, but should something happen and require assistance from the park service, they would not have been able to access it. Needless to say we decided against doing the entire trail. Instead, we decided on a three-day-backpacking trip. Here was our plan:
Avalon to Black Jack campground: 17 miles
Black Jack to Little Harbor campground: 7 miles
Little Harbor to Two Harbors: 5 miles.
Although our hiking trip was three days, our actual time on the island was 5 days. We traveled from the Long Beach Harbor to Avalon on a Wednesday afternoon and stayed the night at Hotel Atwater. This gave us time to swing by the Catalina Conservancy office to pick up a map, walk around the city and grab dinner and a beer. Avalon is beautiful!! There are very few vehicles allowed on the island. Transportation is all pretty much on foot of by golf cart, which added to its charm.
When we were planning the logistics of the trip, everything we read told us to check in for our campsites at Hotel Atwater, which is why we picked that hotel for our accomodations. We booked our campsites at Reserve America and were able to print out our reservations from home and have them on our person. When we checked in at the hotel, they basically told us that things have changed a bit and that checking in with them per se there wasn’t necessary like it once had been.
When we checked into the Conservancy to get our map, we decided to work our way up to the TCT via Wrigley Botanical Gardens which shaved a couple of miles off of our first day. I think it was supposed to be around 15 miles from the hotel to Black Jack instead of the originally planned for 17. I feel I should say that going through the botanical gardens required a fee for entrance. Kristen and I were the only ones in the park that early in the morning and thus we were able to talk our way into not paying, ensuring them that we were not there for the park, but only for the access to the Trans-Catalina Trail. I think if it was later in the day and there were more patrons that we would not have been so lucky.
Foxes are the islands apex predator. They were pretty stinking cute… Except when they cried at night. Their cries didn’t have the terrifying element that the howler monkeys in Costa Rica did, but the fox yowls were loud and lasted quite a while.
This is the spot where we experienced our first setback. We were on a very clearly marked trail. The path narrowed a bit and then we saw a TCT sign with an arrow clearly pointing toward the trail we were on that ran parallel to the fence you see in the right of the frame. We followed it until there was basically no more trail… Only a steep mountain face that a skilled hiker could traverse without a backpack. Doing it with a backpack would have been near impossible. Where could we have gone wrong? We could see the trail on the other side of the fence and down a ways. We decided to backtrack a bit and eventually opted to hop the fence and work our way toward the trail we saw in the distance. Once we did, you could see where the TCT was and it went right THROUGH the fence. This fence had no gate mind you. We were like WTF? This is something that could have been communicated to us at the Conservancy Office when we got our maps. You know, something along the lines of “Hey ladies! Once you come up on Haypress reservoir, you can either opt to stay on the service road that accommodates vehicles, or if you choose to stay on the actual TCT like you intend to do, you’re going to have to jump a fence!” Either option would have been preferable to adding a mile to our longest day, but oh well. What’s one little extra mile? We’re tough chicks.
We felt that the best way to alleviate our frustration was with a faux grump-face selfie.
IT’S JUST SO PRETTY!!!
This image pretty much marks the point when I stopped taking photos on Day-1. This is when the real adventure riddled with tears, disbelief, fear and triumph took place.
We had put the bulk of the day’s journey behind us… Or so we thought. We had just over 3 miles left to go to Black Jack Campground. We were tired, but in good spirits. Our bodies were sore, but there was that sort of numb euphoria that I like about backpacking. We began up a mountain that DID NOT LET UP. Holy shit. I am guestimating here when I say it was probably a good 1.5 miles with no reprieve and at a significant grade.
I’m not a big Justin Bieber fan, but his song, Let Me Love You, was on REPEAT in my head. Specifically that part where he goes “don’t you give up na na na, I won’t give up, na a na, let me love you, let me love you”. I’ve heard that song a lot on the radio and at various events but is that song in any playlist of mine? Nope. How that song and specifically that part just forced its way into my consciousness at that particular moment in time is a mystery. Would I classify myself as a Justin Bieber fan? The answer to that question would have been a pretty hard NO before this backpacking trip. I can’t say that anymore. I am a fan of yours Justin Bieber… You got me through that hill and that was no easy feat. Thank you sir. I am forever grateful.
Once we made it over the crest of what is the highest slope on Catalina Island, we were in the home stretch. Only a mile and half or so left. We got to a point in the trail where it opened up at the crest of a hill. We noticed several orange flags marking the only unquestionably clear part of the trail. It veered to the left. Straight ahead were only grass, rocks and weeds. Clearly that sharp left turn was where we were supposed to be. We were appreciating the beautiful terrain that rolled up and down as it led us down toward the waterline line in the distance where we assumed we would be setting up our tent soon.
The sun was getting lower and lower in the sky. It was breathtaking in its ever-quickening softer light beauty. We were almost jovial as our level of exhaustion was coinciding perfectly with our arrival time. We kept going.
Surely we were supposed to have come across the little pond that was only a mile away from the campground. We had gone about 2 miles before we could not ignore that sick feeling in our gut. We stopped to pull out the map and saw that our guts were indeed right. We fucked up. Big time. But how? It didn’t make any sense!
The sun was really starting to set now and we had to go back the 2 miles we came in error, and still had another mile and a half to the campsite.
Our eyes moistened from the tears that wanted to eek their way out. We were at the point of complete exhaustion. Our 15-mile day, which had already become a 16-mile day, was now shaping up to be a 20-mile day… If we were lucky!! We weren’t earning any gold stars for our accuracy so far. On top of it, Kristen’s feet had begun to hurt so badly from her shitty shoes that we were already discussing just how many toenails she was going to lose.
And the sun was sinking lower and lower. It was dusk now.
I have experienced a number of very physically challenging adventures, but this was my first ever experience with real adrenaline. Something clicked in my head and body that made me keep a pace that would have been fast with no backpack.
All I could hear was the quick pace of my steps as I got to as close to a run as possible. I felt strong. I was focused. We were going to make it. We had to.
We made our way back to the fork in the trail where the eye catching orange flags mimicked the “COME THIS WAY” kind of sign used by aggressive salesmen. This had to be where we went wrong.
Sure enough, we walked though the grass and weeds to edge of the hill where we could see down. There, far out of the sightline from where the trail split was a sign marking the TCT trail.
While I did not love the situation at the time it was happening, I will say I am glad it happened. I am going to start hiking the Pacific Crest Trail next year and that trail is nowhere near as clearly marked as the TCT. We will be relying on compasses and maps a lot more heavily. This was a good lesson to double-check our path even, and especially in those times of certainty.
Our 15-mile day had turned into a 20-mile day. We made it to camp just after the sun had set. We put our tent up in near darkness, made dinner, and promptly went to bed. As we lied in our sleeping bags before sleep overtook us, we spoke about being more responsible hikers the following day. We would not make the same mistakes on Day-2.
I told you we were so tired that no photos documented the epic experience we had endured. I didn’t even pull out my camera to shoot our tent the next morning! I did get a few shots of our food prep and gear packing.
Look at that amazing woman making breakfast! God love her.
Out of all of our backpacking excursions, this one marked a turning point in our food planning. We still over packed a bit, but nothing crazy like our first trip in the Grand Canyon.
(Insert angel music effects here) Look how beautiful our campsite was! Too bad our time at breakfast was our only time where we could see it since we got there in almost complete darkness the night before.
I had to take a picture of this bungee-hook thing because they are the bomb. They are so useful!! Never leave home without them.
After recommitting ourselves to doing what was necessary to stay on the Trans Catalina Trail, regardless or what the trail markers communicated, we began Day-2 with studying the map, packing up our gear and hiked out of Black Jack campground. Once we got to the main road/trail, we promptly took a right when alas, and this will probably come as no surprise, we should have taken a left. This little error was not super costly and only added 2-miles to what was supposed to be a 7-mile day to the Little Harbors Campground.
Way to go us! My BFF and I don’t call ourselves “Team Hard Way” for nothing. That title is earned dammit. Over the course of our lives, we have worked very hard to subconsciously make the more difficult choices, especially when the situation does not warrant such character building. That’s how we roll people.
We like to think that had we gone the correct way that we would not have been in a position to be right under the airplane flight path. That’s what we told ourselves, but truth is, maybe we would, maybe we wouldn’t have.
It was on this paved road to the airport that we met a couple whose flight had just landed. They chose to walk the “10” miles back to their home in Avalon rather than have someone pick them up. We talked with them about the island for a few minutes and we of course could not help but express our grievances with the way the island marks the trail. They casually informed us that all signs should be thought of as more of a suggestion, or an approximation as opposed to actual fact. Do you see a sign that says 10 miles? That could actually mean 9, 11, or even 13. Who knows exactly, but it’s for sure in that general area. Maddening piece of information noted.
We officially made it back to the Trans Catalina Trail! Woot woot!!
Catalina Island is home to a herd of Bison that have roamed the island since 1924. A film titled “The Vanishing American” was filmed on the island and one of the scenes required bison. 14 bison were transported from the Great Plains to Catalina Island with the intention of being returned upon completion of the film. That obviously never happened. Since their arrival on the island, the herds’ population has fluctuated from it’s original 14, to its peak at 527. The number now currently on the island is around 150.
They are really impressive up close. I believe we were encouraged/instructed to not approach the bison for obvious reasons. When we caught our first look at them, they were pretty far away. As we got closer they promptly ran in the opposite direction. Great!
As we approached this group of bison, they didn’t really seem to move away from us as soon as the last group did. We didn’t expect that this herd would be different from the last batch of giant shaggy beasts so we stuck to the game plan. Keep calm, move slowly and don’t look them in the eye. I don’t know if that’s really a thing, but it felt right. Like, really right.
By the time we realized that they were not going to run away it was too late. We had committed to our game plan. It seemed like they would read our changing course as an act of fear, or danger in some way. Again, I don’t know what was going on in their buffalo brains, but rather than shuffling off (only my fellow tap dancers will appreciate this marvelous pun), we stayed calm and carried on.
We got through okay, but there was one giant muppet of a buffalo who appeared to be the leader. He didn’t trust us. We could see it in is eyes… Peripherally of course since we were adamant about not making eye contact. He started to slowly follow us and when he moved, the rest of the group moved with him. We kept going, cool, head down keeping the same steady pace. They followed us for probably 30 yards or so, seemingly establishing a perimeter daring us to step back in. We did not accept the dare and he finally relented.
Once we were a good ways away from the pack, we stopped to eat some lunch. We watched another set of backpackers approach the herd in the distance. How would they choose to navigate the beasts? They walked WAY FAR AROUND. Hahaha! What pussies! (Totally kidding, this was the correct maneuver.) Not long after said couple passed us on our break, a ranger drove up and spoke to us from his truck. He asked if the herd was on the trail when we came through and how we went around them. His facial expressions did not hide his surprise and horror when we explained to him our oxen-traversing method. He explained that they can get a bit grumpy at times to which we informed him that 15 minutes ago was in fact one of those times.
We made it to our destination at Little Harbors campground with plenty of time to put up our tent in broad daylight and enjoy the sunset on the beach. It was stunning.
I love this woman. She and I have been best friends since 7th grade when my parents moved our family to my Dad’s hometown in Carbon County Utah. It’s small town with its roots in coal mining… A town where everyone knows your name. She and I have been through more life experiences and adventures than we can shake a stick at. This moment enjoying the sunset after the bison-gods gave us the “thumbs up” was a great one to add to our ever-growing list.
We prepared and ate our dinner by the light of our headlamps. I love this picture because her hands are all blurred and positioned like she’s a magician magically making macaroni and cheese appear.
This is my very high-tech method of airing out my t-shirt. You gotta make sacrifices when you backpack. One of those sacrifices is overall body freshness.
By Day 3, Kristen had decided that she was going to call for one of the islands Sherpa companies to take her to the final campground. Her hiking shoes had wreaked havoc on her feet and her ability to use them. The third and final hiking day was supposed to be the shortest day distance wise at 5 miles from the Little Harbors campground to the one at Two Harbors. *
*5-miles is a mere approximation due in part to both the inaccuracy of the trail signs, and our personal unwillingness to follow a physical map.
We decided that if the cost of shuttling us to Two Harbors was more than $25 per person that I would hike it and meet her there. My comparatively inexpensive Solomon Trail Running shoes had taken such good care of my feet! They were so comfortable that I never even felt the need to take them off upon reaching camp both days. I cannot say enough good things about them. Solomon, I love you. Thank you for a product line that allowed me to keep all of my toenails.
But I digress. While we were breaking down camp, the same ranger who we had frightened with our Buffalo-Whisperer ability made an appearance to check the campground. We asked him about the frequency and cost of the Sherpa shuttles. He gave us the information we were after and added that he was heading over to Two Harbors in ten minutes. If we were ready to go in that time frame, he would be happy to take us.
We were ready!
RANGER DAN THE MAN! He rocked. He totally gave us a tour of the island. We learned so much!! The conservancy did good when they hired him.
It’s a good thing for Ranger Dan The Man that I had implemented the use of my high-tech shirt freshening technique.
This is the official greeter of the city of Two Harbors. Between the bitchin’ Ranger Dan The Man and now this cutie, Day-3 was already shaping up to be a great one.
Ranger Dan The Man educated us on a vast array of all things Catalina Island. One of which was Buffalo’s Milk, a cocktail that was concocted by Harbor Reef Restaurant bartender, Michael Hoffler, back in the mid-seventies. It’s an island version of a white russian. Ranger Dan The Man is so smart.
The very small city of Two Harbors has a general store, a restaurant, a hotel, a campground, a visitor center and that’s about it. We decided to have a couple of drinks at the only bar in town before making our way to our final campsite.
Check out this little wooden buffalo tchotchke on top of the register at the Two Harbors general store!
We really enjoyed our stay at this last campground. It’s about a half-mile hike from the harbor itself where the visitor center is located. The road there was kind of wonky from this year’s heavy rains. If you’re car-camping (not backpacking), you can pay the camp to transport your gear from the dock to your site by truck. I think it would be super fun to start an annual camping weekend with friends here.
We headed down to the dock with enough time to spend a couple of hours in town… And by town, I mean the Harbor Reef Restaurant.
I have no idea what these sketches are of, but I found them delightful. They were all over the restaurant.
Only a few beers on tap and one of them was a Utah beer! Uintah Brewing! Go figure!
You can see from a distance just how steep some of the mountains are. When I look at this picture, my eye goes right to the highest one. (Queue Justin Bieber verse.)
Our boat ride back to L.A. was from Two Harbors. When it made a stop in Avalon this cutie boarded and sat in the seat right across from me. She had a fun time with the wind blowing her hair. I had a fun time witnessing the joy it brought her 🙂
Although we are collectively going back with fewer toenails than we came with, hiking the Trans Catalina Trail was an amazing experience. It was harder than expected, but also more beautiful. I feel like I really got a sense of the island, both the urban element and the backcountry. The people were welcoming and kind, the views heart-stirring, I experienced my first shot of real adrenaline and the bison were accommodating in their willingness to let us live. I look forward to going back and hiking it without any extra miles added on, going against the “Team Hard Way” credo. We can do it! We have to go back to symbolically burn and ceremoniously drown Kristen’s shitty shoes anyway.
Here’s a list of resources we found useful when planning our this trip:
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