The Trans Catalina Trail: a Jewel of the Pacific

Looking for a short thru-hike that is scenic and rewarding?  Look no further.  The lovely island of Catalina is just 22 miles off the coast of Long Beach, CA, and  provides plenty of beauty and challenges with its mountains and coastlines, well equipped campsites, friendly fellow hikers.  You leave after a workout and experience that make you feel you truly earned the honor of saying you completed the Trans Catalina Trail’s 38.5 miles.

This island is unique.  It was formed by an oceanic plate that ever so slowly shoved up under the North American plate 5 million years ago.  A steep, rocky range of mountains resulted, on which, very, very slowly, soil developed, which supported the life of seeds, birds and small mammals that eventually found their way there.  The mild Mediterranean climate aided their growth, including many species of flora and fauna that have developed and are native only to Catalina, such as their large ground squirrel and small Catalina Island fox.  Eventually,  members of a mainland tribe, the Tongva, made their home there, and later the Spanish, the Mexicans and then the Americans.  Eventually, the Catalina Island Conservancy came to have possession of 88% of the island, and address conservation, education and recreation.  The five campgrounds are managed by their organization.

My planning started many months in advance, which turned out to be a very good thing.  Through the valuable FB group, Trans Catalina Trail,  I learned so much!  First and foremost was deciding when to go (winter months are the rainiest and the island’s dirt roads and trails become boot-sucking clay messes to avoid) and how to get there.

The Catalina Express and the Catalina Flyer passenger-only ferries are the usual way from Newport Beach and San Pedro Pier, but one can also come via helicopter ($$$ but quick and fun) or private boat.

Finally, how many days would I hike and which campsites would I use?  I chose to do this in 4 days with 3 nights of camping in late March, after a conference I would be attending nearby.  A friend offered to give me a lift via his own 45-foot boat from Long Beach

right to southerly Avalon, the largest of the two towns on Catalina.  How’s that for fortunate?

I would begin hiking from there, the most common starting point, and finish in Two Harbors, further northwest.  Via the website,, I researched the campsites and found that they are snapped up way in advance.  I was online booking my three chosen campgrounds the very minute reservations were made available for the new year.  I was lucky and got exactly what I wanted.  Advance planning and flexibility are very important, especially for reserving the campsites and checking on the ferry’s schedule, its departure times and days of the week it operates for both arrival and departure.

I then started planning which gear to bring.  I wanted to go as lightweight as possible, given the nearly 10,000 feet of total elevation change on the trail.  My usual 2 lb. ULA Circuit backpack was booted out for my 10 ounce self-sewn RayWay frameless backpack (, sewn in 2016 for half of the AT.

Also out was my Durston X-mid 1P trekking pole tent (2 pounds, with inner net tent) for my one pound RayWay tarp, used on the entire AT.  This was to be a fun retro hike for me.

My food would be carried in a lightweight odor-proof zipper-closured Opsack, since animal-proof food lockers were at each campsite.

I’d take my lighter down sleeping bag but still my wool base layers and down puffy for sleeping, since evenings can be quite cool and I sleep cold.  Much of the rest remained the same as most hikes.  Hiking poles were a must, given the steep slopes I’d encounter.

My food was ready.

I dehydrate all my own meals and snacks since I follow 100% a whole food plant-based way of eating.

Because of  plaque in one of my coronary arteries, my persistently high cholesterol (despite what I thought was a healthy diet in the past) and genetic factors, I follow a very successful program for reversing heart disease, Dr. Caldwell Esselstyns’s book, Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease..

I feel wonderful eating this way,  20 years younger than my age on my driver’s license.  My cholesterol has lowered, my prediabetes is no more, aches and pains are greatly lessened due to no more inflammation, my sense of taste has been heightened and I recover much more quickly from hiking each night, thanks to this way of eating.  This most definitely is not deprivation.  I’m committed to this way of eating for the rest of my life.   I have learned how to dehydrate my food via, and highly value his two cookbooks, Recipes for Adventure and Recipes for Adventure II., which I heartily recommend, no matter what your way of eating is.  And I also welcome you all to my FB page, Heart Healthy Hiking.

So at last the time arrived!  First, I got to spend the two nights before departure right on the boat, my own private lodging.

What a treat!  Yoga on the deck and an extensive walk on Long Beach capped my last day on the mainland.

My friend, Toby, and three of his friends  joined me on “my” boat, and off we headed.

After  two hours on the water, during which we saw two pods of leaping dolphin and a darling seal bounding along, we came to Avalon, the main tourist destination for Catalina’s 1 million visitors each year.  Off the boat I went and on to a quiet harbor for fishing they headed.

With a picturesque waterfront with the shops, cafes and hotels that you’d expect, it was a nice welcome.

No traffic!  No stoplights!  Only 400 full-sized cars are allowed on this island that houses 4000 full-time residents, and the waiting list for a car permit is 40, yes 40, years long.  When two cars leave the island permanently, one car can come in.  The Conservancy takes good care of this island.   I headed up through the town, past streets lined with darling little bungalows with golf carts or a tiny car parked out front, one per household allowed.

Passing a lush green golf course, I stopped after just 1.5 miles from town at the trail’s first campsite, Hermit’s Gulch, where I enjoyed my lunch of veggies, brown rice, lentils and powdered hummus, which I had been cold soaking/rehydrating since the boat left Long Beach.   No water filter is necessary on this hike, since all five of the campgrounds have water spigots, except the northernmost one, for which you can order the delivery of 2 gallons of water to your site.  Nice!

And there it was at last, after months of anticipation:  the trailhead!  And onto the path I stepped,  immersed in its greenness, thanks to the heavy rainfall the past month or so.

The trail started out kindly, but then, let the uphills begin!  It was certainly rewarding to look back down at Avalon and its harbor and across the rolling green hills with dirt roads awaiting visitors in rented humvees and open-air tour buses.

With more than 165 miles of trails and roads like these, and so few full sized vehicles, the possibilities for walking and hiking are endless.  In fact, as time went on, I found that backpacking here was kind of a make-your-own-adventure, with hikers choosing slight variations of their own for their thru-hikes.  I found that liberating.

Green, green everywhere, and yet also plentiful low prickly pear cacti, as well as others.  I’m no botanist but I do admire flora and take as many photos as I can.

At a resting spot during the first long ascent, I came across three women who were hiking together.  After talking with them a bit, one of the, Martha, suddenly asked me if I’d ever been interviewed on a podcase.  Yes!  I’ve had that pleasure the past year on eight different occasions.  We finally figured out that it was youTube’s Backpacker Radio last November.  How fun that we got to meet each other!

I was so happy when she shared that she had made several positive changes in her way of eating after hearing my interview.  Hi, Martha!  Hike on!

After about 5 miles, I was able to refresh my water from a spigot at the park by Haypress Reservoir.

I used the FarOut app on this trail, as I have on others, and I later got a good map of the island, showing all trails, roads, and resources.  It’s very good to have a backup to our phones as well as an overall picture of where you are.

The miles and the hills started to get old after several hours.  But I got a great distraction when I came around a bend and spotted a huge herd of bison, nearly 40 of them.  Yes, bison!

They were imported here in the 1920’s for one of the more than 500 movies that have been shot on Catalina.  When filming completed, I guess the bison said, “We’re fine here.  No worries!”  They were left, and thrive here, so much that the conservancy has birth control in place on a rotating basis.  Signs warn hikers several times to avoid these possibly dangerous animals along the way, as well as the lightening-quick, food-stealing foxes at campsites.  I was lucky the bison were so far away because other hikers told me that they had to wait 45 minutes for the herd to get off and away from the trail.  I guess I was wrong in earlier saying there are no traffic jams here

At last, after 11 miles, I came to the hike-in Blackjack campground, the only one up on the mountainside.  It’s always a joy to hear the laughter of other hikers as you approach.  With water, picnic tables, large campsites, food lockers and clean bathrooms with pit toilets, what was not to like?

Since my campsite didn’t have suitable sturdy trees from which I could support my tarp, two neighboring couples offered me space on their site, where I was able to secure my tarp to posts that protect and support young trees.

Excellent, since rain and  wind were forecast early the next morning.  First, I had to remember how to set up my tarp, not having used it for quite a while.   I made sure that one of the broad sides faced the direction of the wind and the tent stakes were especially secure.  No problem.  Got it.

Meanwhile, in chatting with the couples, one of the young women suddenly remembered hearing me on the same Backpacker Radio podcast as Martha had.  I often wonder if my messages of “move more outdoors” and “push more plants into your diet” reach folks.  It looks like it does, since these fun chance encounters have also happened to me on the Colorado and Florida Trails.  I’m very grateful.

Day Two did indeed start with rain, nothing horrendous, but still, who likes breaking camp in the rain?  Since I only had about 7-8 miles that day to my next site, I chose to sleep in and wait for the rain to stop around the projected 10:00 am.  My tarp went into a plastic bag saved for this purpose, to be dried out at lunchtime on a windy mountaintop.  Unfortunately, the wind did come as projected, but nothing horrendous.

After two miles, I came to Catalina’s small Airport in the Sky, where I securely hung out my tarp for drying, enjoyed the warm fireplace with other hikers,

and ate my rehydrated lunch with a large group of 4 couples I had met at Blackjack.  They were thru-hiking together in honor of one fellow’s 30th birthday and were playing their own form of Survivor, with a challenge each day and a large feathered ornamental necklace for the person who won immunity that day.  Fun!  But unfortunately, the ferry would be halting service the next day because of the choppy waves, so two couples regrettably headed back to Avalon for this day’s last ferry, in order to catch flights home.  I enjoying visiting with the remaining four at my next two campgrounds.  If you’re considering this trail, do know that weather can hit hard here, so flexibility is important.

My afternoon had me walking along the top of tree-free ridges, which I always enjoy

and alongside little creeks down in green arroyos, under what I assume were island scrub oaks.

After descending back down to sea level, I came to Little Harbor, my second of three campsites.


This was a larger campsite than Blackjack, again with the same amenities, with most sites on a lush green lawn with plentiful palm trees, nestled up to the beach facing the Pacific side.  However, my newer site was up on an exposed bluff with no trees and absolutely no way to support my tarp other than with my hiking poles, which is precarious even on a windless day.  So I headed downhill to the grassy area, where the four remaining Survivors’ two tents were tucked behind lush protective greenery. I was invited to find a spot nearby.  What resulted was a unique site.  Nestled under a tall palm tree and surrounded by short wide palm trees, my tarp nestled into what looked like a little Hobbit nook, much better protected from the constant wind, especially the 35 mph gusts.  And the broad side of the tarp was able to face the wind.  Lucky me!

After a walk on the beautiful beach

I enjoyed my rehydrated dinner of veggie and lentil curry with black rice, and then tucked myself into my tarp.

I was abruptly awakened in the middle of the night by shouts and the light of headlamps from another campsite, as apparently a tent was blown down.  I was grateful for being tied securely to my palm trees.  And no rain.

I awoke on Day Three to the sight of lots of palm fronds strewn about, thanks to the wind.  Today it would continue, but I was grateful for the sun.  The trail provided a whole lot of uphill to get up from the  beach but the views back to Little Harbor were beautiful.

And those of the western coastline were certainly worth the effort, although I took care when close to several steep drop offs, especially with the continued strong gusts of wind.

Later I was able to see water in both directions, towards both the full expanse of the Pacific and towards the mainland.  This proved to be my favorite day on the trail.


After a long descent, I came to the second, smaller town, Two Harbors.  It’s named this because it’s situated on the mainland side of an isthmus just 1/2 mile long, with safe harbors for boats on both the Pacific side

and the mainland side.

The trail’s third campground is perched nearby on a lush green hillside facing the mainland, but I wouldn’t be staying there.  I had only covered about five miles of my projected 12-13 miles for the day to the next beachside campsite, Parson’s Landing.  I was able to purchase fresh produce at the handy Two Harbors General Store, where I also used their microwave for cooking some potatoes, which I always crave.

Right next door I bought a cup of tea so that I could sit there on their protective patio and enjoy my rehydrated lunch, supplemented by a large nuked potato and other fresh veggies and fruit.  Fresh is best!

The rest of the trail was a big loop, so there were two ways to get to Parson’s Landing, each about 7- 8 miles long.  One went on a relatively level dirt coastal road.  The other went steeply up nearly 2000 feet to the highest mountaintop on Catalina, followed by an even steeper pebbly descent.

I voted for the coastal road going out, to avoid the wind as well as the steeper pebbly descent.  It turned out to be a very nice walk, with views below of the rugged coastline

small isolated beaches, little cottages and piers as part of privately own camps

and a very large boy scout camp, just waiting for its boys.

As I headed down to Parson’s Landing, with its own isolated beach, the wind continued to roar.


Again, I searched for a way to nestle into greenery and managed to find a spot tucked behind a great windbreak of low bushes

on the site of another hiker, Nick, who was lying in his tent to keep it from blowing away.  Previous hikers had built up stone windbreaks for tents on the beach.

That evening, I really enjoyed chatting with another neighbor, Kevin, and the four remaining Survivors, who I think of as Birthday Boy and his Nurse, Marine and his Hippy Girl.

I swear backpackers are so fun to be around, even in this case when some of my spoonfuls of dinner were blown right onto Nurse, who was sitting downwind from me.

Day Four, I awoke to calm.  No wind.  No flapping tarp.  Hurray!  Now I had a big decision to make.  Would I risk on my last day injuring my right knee, which can be touchy, ascending the steepest uphill of the trail and slip sliding down the final steep downhill?  Or would I return to Two Harbors via the coastal road again?  Both were about the same distance.

Well, pride made me want to do the tough option, but good sense put me on the coastal road.  I wanted to end on a high note, figuratively, but not literally.  And I did.

The weather was perfect, the walking was leisurely, the views were once again great.


By not taking twice the amount of time to conquer that mountain, I had time to chill in Two Harbors again as I awaited the ferry.


I dried out the condensation on my tarp in the little town park, enjoyed more fresh food, with the help of the microwave at the General Store.

I wrote in my journal and had time to reflect.  It was good.  Of course, once home, I had to self-flagellate a bit about “wimping out,” but I’m over that now.  It was a great hike and I’m so happy that everything worked out for the best.

I caught the late afternoon Catalina Express for the mainland, with a quick stop in Avalon on the way, and had a great time talking hiking, gear and anything else with one of the previous night’s neighbors, Kevin.

It was so enjoyable being with a backpacking community the past four days.  I’ve enjoyed this so much on my previous long trails too, as much as the trails themselves.  And this trail?  Well, the Catalina Trail is the first multi-day trail that I’ve ever said I’d really like to hike again.  Truly.  But what about all the other trails lined up before it?  Time will tell.

Thanks for reading my long narrative.  This trail deserved it.









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Comments 6

  • Liz Irons Young : Apr 1st

    Ruth, thoroughly enjoyed reading this about Catalina Islands, honestly, never heard of it before. Sounds like something that should have been on my bucket list!
    You are my idol! Loved every picture too!

    • Ruth Morley : Apr 1st

      Liz, a person couldn’t be more supportive than you! Both here, on my FB group and in real life. Thank you, friend! And yes, this should be on your list, although you’ll be hard pressed to find the hill training you’d need at home in Florida. 🙂

  • Carol Olausen : Apr 3rd

    Another wonderful journey! Loved your pictures. And while I could only imagine the wind, I was thinking of you battling through it! Happy trails!

    • Ruth Morley : Apr 3rd

      Thank you, Carol! It was almost like an amusement park ride, suddenly being buffeted by a gust. And I can imagine you too powering through winds when you were cycling along coastlines in Nova Scotia.

  • val prevish : Apr 13th

    Thanks for the story about your Catalina adventure, Ruth! I used to live in Southern California and visited Catalina Island often. Your pics brought back lots of great memories!

    • Ruth Morley : Apr 18th

      Val, I really appreciate that you took the time to read this. I’m glad that it brought back good memories for you. What a unique island! You should do that sometime.


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