Santa Catalina Island, probably the most famous island in the Channel Islands archipelago, is its own little world a short (90-minute) ferry ride away from four major ports in the LA area. Upon arrival in Avalon, one of the two quaint towns on the island, I was reminded of a Mediterranean resort town with understandable appeal to the many visitors who come to Catalina Island for the shops, restaurants, beaches, and watersports.
Generally, visitors are looking for an attainable escape of the hustle and bustle of the busy nearby cities. As outdoor enthusiasts, after hearing of the Trans-Catalina Trail, we decided the best way for us to experience Catalina was by foot. “How cool would it be to backpack Catalina Island?” we thought. So we pored over a well-detailed Trans-Catalina Trail Trip Report by our friends at SoCal Hiker and hit the road.
Three things I wish I’d known before hiking the Trans-Catalina Trail:
1. Not Your Typical Hiking Trail
Don’t let the maximum elevation of the Trans-Catalina Trail of less than 2000 feet lull you into a sense of complacency. I’d read that the trail was steep and that there would be significant elevation gain and loss, but even after studying the elevation profile and seeing something resembling an EKG with constant ups and downs, I really didn’t expect the trail to be so steep.
Since the trail is a recent addition to the island, many parts of the trail follow fire roads, and seasoned backpackers will notice the almost complete absence of switchbacks, making parts of the trail unnecessarily steep. While altitude is certainly not an issue, the steep grades really make this hike difficult. To have an enjoyable experience on the Trans-Catalina Trail, excellent hiking boots are a requirement, and Trekking Poles are strongly recommended.
2. Unpredictable Weather
For those who haven’t been to Catalina before, it can be difficult to imagine that a small island with the ocean on all sides is almost completely desert terrain. Because of this climate, though, trees are sparse. If possible, you should plan to avoid hiking in the summer months, as there is almost no shade outside of the campsites. In either case, make sure to bring high quality sunscreen, hats and sunglasses.
If you’re like us and end up hiking on one of the 35 days a year that Catalina sees significant rain, keep in mind that the trail will quickly turn to mud, and significant cover is few and far between. Beyond the towns, you may have a tough time finding cell service, so it’s best to double-check the weather before leaving and pack accordingly, as a rainy day on the Trans-Catalina Trail can make for a really long one.
3. Spectacular Wildlife
Much like the desert island terrain, the wildlife on the Trans-Catalina Trail was incredibly unique. We came across bison, foxes, and bald eagles all in one day!
There is a surprising population of 150 bison on Catalina island. We had several encounters with these big, beautiful animals over the course of a few days. Their presence was easily one of the biggest highlights because, no matter how often you hike, it’s not common to encounter wildlife weighing over 2000 lbs. If you get to greet them, make sure you maintain a safe distance from these seemingly gentle giants. Although we never felt particularly threatened, bison attacks are not unprecedented.
The Catalina Island Fox lives nowhere else in the world, and we were luck enough to have a few interesting experiences with them. The foxes that crossed our paths near camps were quite bold, and you could tell they had scored many easy meals from comfortable campers. Having trekked bear country, where I’ve had to hang food from poles (The Wonderland Trail) or carry heavy bear canisters (JMT), I let down my guard with the much smaller creatures.
We assumed leaving our food stash a few feet from our tent wrapped in storage bags would have been fine… right? Wrong! Shortly after settling in our tent to sleep for the night, we were startled by the sound of a fearless fox burrowing through one of our food bags. Though the only casualty was a package of instant oatmeal, it’s worth a word of caution to be careful around these opportunistic creatures. That said, the fox we saw farther off the beaten path were much more timid, and were really incredible to watch and photograph from a distance.
There were a number of unique birds we saw during our time on the Trans-Catalina Trail that were truly stunning. We managed to get up close and personal with a pair of woodpeckers and a hummingbird near Black Jack Camp. We were then circled by a red-tailed hawk at a high point on the trail the next day. The bird-spotting highlight, however, came when we caught two bald eagles flying just overhead. The eagles on the island are so famous they even have their own live-stream.
Though the seemingly limitless number of hikes in Southern California, this hike was unlike any other we had done. Most notably, the TCT maintains amazing isolation for a place that’s still quite close to one of the largest metropolitan centers in the world, and the wildlife is proof. Each interaction was undoubtedly unique to the trail, and it left us with wonderful memories of animals we would never normally have seen so close.
For those looking to hike Catalina in the future, I’d argue the portion of the Trans-Catalina Trail between Two Harbors and Little Harbor is the best of it. This section of the trail provided the most rewarding vistas alongside all the wonderful fauna experiences without the sometimes monotonous sections of fire road that we found on many other parts of the trail. While completing an entire trail has an unparalleled sense of accomplishment, spending more time in this section will truly provide the most spectacular reward for your efforts to get to Catalina Island.