PCT Shakedown #1: The Trans-Catalina Trail
I’m on a ferry in the Pacific Ocean. My friend Alisha is sitting across from me, and our backpacks occupy the deck between us. My pack is pretty dialed in, but Alisha’s is even smaller, a little Gossamer Gear pack with an even littler Gossamer Gear tent inside it.
Catalina Island looks mountainous, and it’s remarkably undeveloped for such a scenic place so close to a major tourist destination like LA. The ferry drops off most passengers in Two Harbors, but we stay on board. By the time we arrive in Avalon, it’s five p.m., and the Conservancy outfitter is closed, so we head to the grocery store to buy a can of fuel. I read online that canister fuel is prohibited on the ferry, but when I called the conservancy this morning, the lady told me we could buy it at Vonn’s.
Well, Vonn’s does not carry canister fuel. This is a roadblock. We have 19 miles to hike tomorrow to reach the campsite I booked. (If you plan this thru-hike, reserve your sites further in advance than I did!) Our plan will be a challenge if we have to backtrack and wait until eight a.m. for the outfitter to open before we can even hit the trail. I haven’t hiked a 19-mile day since Titcomb Basin in the Winds two summers ago, and I’m not totally sure I can do one now. Alisha has never done such a big day. We were counting on an early start.
With my job at REI, I regularly backpack for eight hours a day—it’s just that we only cover about eight miles. I think I can do it, but I just don’t know if eight miles carrying 40 pounds will translate to 19 miles carrying 20 pounds in a similar timeframe.
I’m still eager to try it. Alisha is game, so we resolve to put our trust in the island that canister fuel will cross our path.
We are hiking by 6:30 a.m. The TCT begins on a quiet street in Avalon lined with palm trees, but eventually, the pavement ends. At the Hermit Gulch campground, we pass through a gate, and then we’re on a hiking trail. The route climbs a green hill in steady switchbacks. We pause to de-layer and take photos as the views get better by the minute. When we crest the hill, we can see the ocean. The water fades imperceptibly into gray sky. The island is in a patch of sunshine for now, but thick cloud banks are somehow approaching from both sides. As we forge onward, mist spills over the ridge from the beach into the valley we just climbed out of. The forecast calls for rain today, but not until the evening. Looking around us, I suspect it may be sooner.
A bright yellow sign warns us to beware the bison. Every time we round a blind curve, we call out a greeting to any creatures that may be lurking. We hike fast all morning. On the way, we see our first bison and our first human of the day. We ask the hiker if she’s finishing the trail in Avalon today, and she is, but she doesn’t have any leftover fuel. She pauses. “There was a can left in my food bin at Blackjack, though,” she says. “It might be empty, but you can check.” She tells us the site number, and we thank her before parting ways.
Alisha and I haven’t seen each other since August, so there’s lots to talk about. She’s an outdoor writer and half of the husband/wife duo behind the website and Youtube channel Terradrift, where they post travel videos, gear reviews, and vegan backpacking tips. We’ve never done a trip like this together before, but our paces match, and we make it to Blackjack Campground for lunch.
Sure enough, one of the food bins contains a mostly empty can of fuel—hopefully enough for two quick boils. After our lunch break, we pack up and forge onward. We see more bison, this time being shepherded away from the trail by a conservancy ranger. He stops to chat with us about these enormous nonnative residents of the island. Nearly a century ago, 14 of them were brought here for a movie set. When the movie went over budget, the filmmakers left the bison behind. The population grew rapidly, but even though they’re technically an invasive species, their charm has earned them amnesty, and they are now protected and managed by the conservancy.
I love this story. The main characters may be bison, but it’s such a human story—bringing huge animals hundreds of miles just to be a backdrop, abandoning them on an island, then falling in love with them all over again and learning through trial and error how to care for them going forward.
The miles accumulate under our feet, and we’re feeling them now. My saving grace is coffee and an ice cream sandwich at the airport. A few cyclists are there, eating snacks on the patio, but still no other hikers. The girl from this morning is the only other TCT hiker we’ve seen so far.
The sun is getting low, and the wind picks up. The rain has held off all day, but the clouds are building up again now. We hustle through the last few miles and reach Little Harbor campground at 4:45 p.m. We pitch our tents and spend our last hour of daylight picking our way across the rugged cliffs above the ocean and taking photos. Our scavenged fuel boils two small pots of water for our freeze-dried meals, and then we get ready for bed. Alisha sees an island fox come sniffing around our picnic table while I’m in the bathroom, but it’s gone by the time I’m back.
The rain arrives around two a.m. The sound of it on my tent is soothing, and I fall straight back asleep. When I wake up again around 7, it’s light out, but the rain is still falling steadily. I retreat deeper into my sleeping bag and scroll through yesterday’s photos on my phone. The weather shows no signs of changing. Just as I resign myself to packing up in the rain, it slows, then stops.
When we emerge, the mud is thick and sticky, but the sun is shining. Our fuel canister sputters out most of the way through a morning boil, so we fuel ourselves with somewhat-warm oatmeal and coffee and hike the five miles to Two Harbors. The trail is steep, and the views are dramatic against the moody sky. When we descend to the turquoise waters of Two Harbors, we buy snacks and a new fuel can at the little shop in town. We relax on the patio while pigeons try very hard to convince us to feed them.
Originally, we were planning to hike to Parson’s Landing via the inland route and come back along the coast tomorrow. This is how the trail is numbered, but the deep mud has slowed us down, and we’re feeling worn out after our 19-mile day yesterday. Instead, we decide to hike the loop in reverse, hiking counterclockwise to Parson’s Landing and returning over the inland trail in the morning.
The road along the coast wraps around each outcrop and cove. It’s mostly flat, with ocean views the whole way. We hike the seven miles from town to camp in less than three hours.
Parson’s Landing is postcard-scenic, but this is the strongest wind I’ve ever camped in. Alisha and I pitch our tents, piling rocks on top of our stakes. We huddle together and use my foam sleeping pad as a windbreak while we cook dinner.
Overnight, my tent collapses once, then twice. Each time, I extract myself from my bag and rehammer the stakes into the loose sand and add more rocks to hold them in the ground. When I look in Alisha’s direction, I see the glow of her headlamp. She is awake, reinforcing her own stakes. We both love our trekking pole tents, but they were not designed for this combo of soft ground and high winds. (Check out the wind in a video on my Instagram!) Somehow, we still manage to get some sleep.
In the morning, the wind is still blowing at 30mph, so we pack up and huddle beside the bathrooms to boil water. After breakfast, we start the climb up to the highest ridge on this side of the isthmus. The trail is a dirt road, but it’s so steep that I can’t imagine attempting to drive a vehicle up or down. The wind is still howling. I picture losing my balance in a gust and tumbling straight back down to the beach. After gaining over 1200 feet in a mile, the trail levels out as it follows the ridgeline, winding through some of my favorite views on the whole island. Then, it plummets back down again as we approach Two Harbors once more.
“We did it!” Alisha and I high-five and pose for photos with a trail sign, even though there’s no official terminus marker. Then we head back into town. At the general store, I buy myself an entire pizza but only manage three slices, so I give the rest to some other hikers who’ve just arrived on the island. They offer me a beer in exchange. The vegan options are less substantial, but Alisha still finds a few treats and we sit in the sunshine and bask in the feeling of being barefoot. We have a site at the campground just outside town tonight, which is just as well because the ferry departures are canceled today due to high winds. We float ideas of renting kayaks or paddleboards, but we end up just lying around on the wooden patio instead.
Eventually, we wander out to our campsite and pitch our tents. It’s still breezy, but nothing compared to last night. We have tickets for the ferry tomorrow at 11:45 a.m. We cook dinner and toast to our successful trip. For all her outdoor experience, this was Alisha’s first official thru-hike, and our 19-mile day has bolstered my confidence ahead of the PCT.
I’ll be standing at the Southern terminus in less than two months. I’m feeling good about it.
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