Trans Catalina Traverse, CA, USA
17 April 2017
HIKING DISTANCE: 48 Miles
VERTICAL: +/- 7,000'
TIME: 23 Hours 57 Minutes
This is a helluva sweet trek, and thankfully underrated. There were very few other trekkers on this route. Given the absolute lack of shade, it's not a trek I'd recommend trying to do in the summer season, but as a late spring trip, it was awesome.
Let's start with the logistics. I only had a two-day window, and I wanted to traverse the entire island. That's not too challenging in itself, but the ferry schedule complicated things a little bit. Actually, it dictated my trip. I didn't have too much time to work out transportation, so I was locked into the San Pedro port, because it's the only one that goes to both Avalon and Two Harbors. I took the earliest ferry I could out of San Pedro en route to Two Harbors, which didn't leave until 1230p yesterday. (Obviously I would've preferred an earlier start, but it worked out pretty well in the end.) From there, I hiked the nicely graded West End Road along the coast and out to Land's End, then turned around and retraced my route back to camp. I took a power nap in Two Harbors before waking up, packing, and hitting the Trans Catalina Trail toward Avalon. Earlier this evening, I caught my ferry out of Avalon and back to San Pedro. Sounds pretty simple.
Now at first I was pretty upset about not being able to get to Two Harbors until about 2p. But then I started looking more closely at the route. I figured I could be out of Two Harbors by around 3p, hike the West End Road out to Parson's Landing in time for some nice evening light, and then on to Land's End in time for sunset. I could night hike back with a clear sky and a little moonlight, catch a few hours sleep in my hammock, then head out pre-dawn to arrive at Little Harbor in time for some sweet morning light. From there, I'd follow the TCT and ultimately take the Hermit Gulch Trail bypass to shave a few miles off the route to town. And all that would give me plenty of time to finish the traverse and catch the late ferry out. A tall order, yes. And all the makings of a sweet trip.
And that's about how it all went. I arrived in Two Harbors a little before 2p, secured my camping permit, and headed over to the waterfront campground, which was situated a short quarter mile from the quaint resort town. I had reserved Site 6, thinking it would be cool to be near the water. Instead, I was setup right in front of the portapotties. Oops. At least I had a couple trees in my site that were prime for my hammock. It took me about 45 minutes to get dialed in camp, then I took the scenic route back to town so I could explore the campground a bit. The views from the upper sites were incredible and nearly unobstructed. I'd recommend reserving one of those, maybe sites 15 or 16.
Catalina Island is in the throes of a severe drought, and has been for quite some time now. I was concerned about how the drought might affect my experience out there. The truth is that the drought has serious impacts on the locals, but there were very few instances where I was personally affected as a tourist. There was potable water available in most camps and at many establishments. There were some exceptions, including camping at Parson's Landing where you would be required to pay for camping and pay an additional fee for a locker that includes wood as well as two and a half gallons of drinking water. Also some of the restaurants on the island don't provide free drinking water to customers, though bottled water is available for purchase at a reasonable price. If you do visit Catalina Island, please be respectful of that place and her people. Conserve their limited water resources.
If you've read about my other trips, you've probably figured out that I like to do things my own way. (No one ever accused me of being a purist.) I decided to break from the official Trans Catalina Trail in a few intentional ways. In fact, I hardly set foot on the TCT yesterday. Rather than endure a tedious and painful slog, as I've heard the TCT described on the western part of the island, I opted for the West End Road, a pleasantly graded, relatively flat route that traces the Pacific as it meanders in and out of coves and along cliffs. Absolutely gorgeous. I traced the West End Road out to Parson's Landing, which was the first highlight of the trip. If my schedule had allowed, I would've cowboy camped right there on that beautiful beach. The sun was hanging low in the sky, so instead I snapped some photos and moved along. I picked up the Trans Catalina Trail for much of the last push out to Land's End. I chose to skip Starlight Beach (the official western terminus of the TCT) in favor of Land's End. Though the sunset itself left much to be desired, the last mile or so to Land's End was crosscountry along a cool spine, and the views of the coast were sweet.
The night hike back to Two Harbors was lovely. Clear skies, bright half moon, light ocean breeze, not another human in sight, and a handful of Catalina Foxes to keep me company. (Did you know that the Catalina Fox has come back from the verge of extinction? Cute little fellas.) I also loved seeing the bright, twinkling city lights of SoCal just across the water. It's funny to think about those millions of people living their lives in the big city as I'm walking along in blissful solitude. I totally shredded the return trip to Two Harbors. It was after 11p before I got back, and my legs and back were feeling it. Still early season. I stopped to sit on the beach at Two Harbors before I continued on to the campground. Knowing I might never be back, I wanted to sit and appreciate this place. I loved sitting there, watching the sailboats shimmer in the moonlight as they rocked gently in sync with the mellow waves. Finally around midnight, I nestled into my hammock. Settling in was sweet bliss, but setting my alarm for four hours later was not.
I awoke the same way I'd drifted to sleep: in a cloud of thick humidity. Dew had settled over my gear, and the light ocean breeze enveloped me as I packed up. I was hiking by 450a. The moon shone brightly as I walked. Still it took me an hour to find the trail heading east outta Two Harbors. I was feeling pretty annoyed. (Guess I wasn't too sharp following my four hour nap.) Once I did finally find it, I was totally cruisin'. The trail, an old road of some kind, climbed sharply out of town and up into the mountains. I gained probably 1,200 feet over just a couple miles. After about 45 minutes, I startled a bison who was lounging right in the middle of the road. Of course, he startled me right back when he stood up and squared off with me directly. I'm just a little fella, so I gave him a wide berth by trapsing through the tall, dewey grass adjacent to the road. I saw about a dozen more before I completed my hike, but the rest were all grazing on distant slopes.
When I finally gained the ridge crest, the road followed it directly, which was contrary to all I'd learned about trail design during my seasons as a trail crew leader. Of course, I reminded myself, it's not a trail. It's a road. The fog was thick this morning as I worked my way along the ridge. views of the ocean a thousand feet below were obscured, and I felt annoyed at my poor luck. But then, the fog started to clear as I neared Little Harbor. And those last few miles down to the water were my favorite of the whole trip, no doubt in part due to the early morning light that finally broke through. Perfect. I actually let out an audible sigh of relief as I captured photo after photo of my descent. I was filled with gratitude. Parson's Landing and Little Harbor were my favorite parts of the entire traverse.
The climb out of Little Harbor and up to the Airport in the Sky was formidable. It was another old road that climbed steeply up and up. The sun really started to come out as I neared the airport. The hike was pretty, and I continued to stop frequently to capture photos even as the midday heat grew more intense. I was making great time and started to take the trail for granted, which is how I ended up getting turned around at the airport. My mistakes could've been easily prevented if I had spent a minute or two referencing my map, but I couldn't be bothered to do that. At least not until I was convinced that I'd lost my way, and by then I'd added a mile or two to my day. Ah well, coulda been a lot worse. I finally got back on track and followed the TCT diligently through a series of steep ups and downs as I made my way along trail segments intertwined with old roads. Though the TCT utilizes many of these old road beds, it thankfully avoids the main thoroughfares, so there was very little vehicle traffic to contend with, and hardly any trekkers either. The miles from the airport to Avalon were hot and felt especially long. I took a short sitdown break under a tree at Blackjack Campground. The break was nice, but the campground left a lot to be desired. Frankly, I wouldn't care to spend the night there if I could avoid it. It was plain and didn't feel compelling to me in any way. And on top of that, I didn't see any potable water system, which I assume means that you have to pay an additional camping fee for a locker key that includes a couple gallons of bottled water. I wasn't upset when it was time to start walking again. To the contrary, I shredded the network of trails and roads all the way to the TCT split with the Hermit Gultch Trail.
This was a trail where I'd set the challenge goal of finishing the entire length in under 24 hours, including sleep. I was cutting it close as I left Blackjack, and I had no issues with staring at the ground while I powered through the next six and a half miles to the turnoff for the Hermit Gulch Trail, then pressing even harder down the steady descent to the Hermit Gulch Campground and on to the beach in Avalon. I was definitely moderately dehydrated and starting to bonk by the end of it, but it was a total blast. Second degree fun and all that. My guaranteed goal was 26 hours, because that's when they'd start loading the last ferry for the return trip to San Pedro. I had to make that goal; no wiggle room getting back for work on Wednesday. My bailout plan was to take the bus from the airport to the harbor. Fortunately it didn't come to that. As difficult as the last four hours were, they were also really pretty.
Since I finished before 3p, I had a couple hours to kill in Avalon before boarding the ferry. I stopped in at Scoops, a local ice cream parlor, and got a pistachio shake. Excellent decision. Next I took a dip in the Pacific to celebrate my photo finish. Then I went to a local seafood restaurant and ate fish 'n chips on the waterfront while I sipped on a glass of California white wine. I was marveling. There I sat in Avalon, enjoying fish and wine, feeling satisfied with the whole thing. Great planning, great flexibility, and great execution. Couldn't have done it better if I'd scouted the trip a hundred times. So much good luck on this little venture.