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How To – Backpack the Trans-Catalina Trail

The Trans-Catalina Trail (TCT) offers a truly unparalleled backpacking experience that cannot be found anywhere else in the United States. With its enchanting island charm, rugged mountainous terrain, and breathtaking coastal views, the TCT promises an unforgettable adventure for hikers of all skill levels.

In this post, we will provide you with all the necessary information to plan a successful Trans-Catalina backpacking trip.

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Quick Stats

Total Mileage: +/- 38.5 – 40.9
Trail Shape: point-to-point
Trip Length: 3-5 days
Trailhead: Avalon and Parson’s Landing  
Closest town to trailhead: Avalon / Two Harbors “The Isthmus”
Ending point: (Avalon / Parson’s Landing), it depends if you are going East to West OR West to East
Closest town to trail end:  Avalon in the south of the island,  Parsons Landing in the north. 
Dogs Allowed: Yes, but not at Two Harbors or Hermit Gulch campgrounds 
Permit Required: Yes (free), and campground reservations are required, 100% reservable on-line/by phone in advance (not free)
Website: https://catalinaconservancy.org/resources/permits/
Phone # (310) 510-4205

Link to Alltrails stats and maps:
Note: The mileage may vary depending on different sources and references.

Avalon to BlackJack
BlackJack to Little Harbor
Little Harbor to Two Harbors
Two Harbors to Parson’s Landing

Getting There

Catalina Island is located 46.9 miles off the coast of Los Angeles and can be accessed by taking a ferry from Long Beach, San Pedro, Dana Point, or Newport Beach to either Avalon or Two Harbors. 

Please note that the Catalina Express website is updated quarterly so we recommend checking the website from the most current schedules before planning your trip. 

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Trip Length

The length of your trip on the TCT will depend on various factors, including your hiking speed, ability, ferry schedule, and campground availability. 

There is no ‘correct’ way to hike the TCT. You can customize your route by piecing together different sections of the trail — taking into account the distances between them — to determine the daily miles that suites you best. 

This allows you to hike your own adventure and tailor the trip to your preferences. 

Sample Suggested Itinerary

4 Days/3 Nights

Day 1: Avalon to Blackjack 10.7miles
Day 2: Blackjack to Little Harbor 9.5miles
Day 3: Little Harbor to Two Harbors 5.5miles
Day 4: Two Harbors to Parson’s Landing 15.2miles 

Safety

To make the most of your Trans-Catalina Trail experience, it’s important to consider a few key factors before hitting the trail. Below are some important things to keep in mind.

Weather

The weather on Catalina Island can be unpredictable, with strong winds, fog, and sudden rain showers. Check the forecast before you go and be prepared for a range of conditions. Dress in layers and bring rain gear, even if the forecast is clear.

Sun protection is a must. No matter the season, it’s crucial to protect yourself from the sun when hiking on Catalina Island. Even on cooler days with temperatures as low as 60 degrees, the lack of shade can lead to intense heat exposure. To avoid sunburn and other related health risks, it is recommended that hikers wear a hat, apply sunscreen regularly, and consider bringing a lightweight hiking umbrella for added protection.

Wildlife

When hiking on the island, it is important to maintain a safe distance from the wildlife, especially from bison. The Catalina Island Conservancy recommends keeping a minimum distance of 125 feet from bison at all times. While bison generally ignore humans, if they make eye contact or stop what they are doing and pay attention to you, it is a sign of potential annoyance, and you should slowly back away. Bison are tough, confident animals that may react aggressively if they sense danger.

Rattlesnakes are known to inhabit the island throughout the year, with higher sightings between April and October. While encounters with snakes along the TCT are uncommon, it is important to be aware that snakes often seek shelter in the shade of tall grass. It is crucial to understand that young rattlesnakes possess venom and if bitten, immediate medical attention should be sought.

Flora

Poison oak is prevalent along the TCT, making it essential to stay on the designated trail and wear protective clothing such as long pants and long-sleeved shirts. In the event of contact with poison oak, it is recommended to promptly wash the affected area with Tecnu or soap and water. Taking these precautions can help minimize the risk of an allergic reaction or skin irritation.

Food Storage / Water

While bears are not present on Catalina Island, critter/fox boxes are provided at most campgrounds to secure your food and personal items. However, it’s important to note that crows can be mischievous at Parson’s Landing and may attempt to access your food by opening bags. Therefore, it is crucial to take necessary precautions to protect your food from crows as well. Safeguarding your provisions from these clever birds will help ensure a trouble-free camping experience.

Water refills can be obtained at the softball field, but the water there may have a metallic taste. It is recommended to bring a water filter to ensure the water’s quality. Potable water is also available at Blackjack campground, Little Harbor campground, and Two Harbors campground. However, it’s worth noting that Parson’s Landing does not have any potable water available. Though water and firewood can be delivered in advance. Additionally, you are required to pick up your locker key (more on this below) from Visitor Services in Two Harbors before heading to Parsons Landing.

Communication

There is no cell service in the interior of the island, so it is advisable to hike with a companion if possible, for added safety.

By keeping these factors in mind and preparing accordingly, you can ensure a safe and enjoyable journey on the Trans-Catalina Trail.

Permits

Are permits required? Yes, and you must make campground reservations for your full stay.

Make your campground reservations here.

To ensure your safety when hiking on Catalina Island, it is necessary to obtain a free hiking permit, which can be obtained here.

Conditions

Conditions on the Trans-Catalina Trail are an important factor to consider when planning your hike. The weather can be unpredictable, and temperatures can vary greatly depending on the time of year and location on the island. The trail is exposed and can be very hot, especially during the summer months. It’s important to bring plenty of water and sun protection, and to be aware of the signs of heat exhaustion and heatstroke.

Additionally, the island can be prone to high winds and sudden changes in weather, particularly on the ridgelines and near the coast. Hikers should be prepared with appropriate clothing and gear for all types of weather conditions.

The availability of water is also a crucial consideration on the Trans-Catalina Trail. There are limited water sources along the trail, and hikers should plan to carry enough water or bring a water filter to treat water from natural sources.

By being aware of and prepared for the various conditions on the trail, hikers can ensure a safer and more enjoyable experience on the Trans-Catalina Trail.

When to Go

The Trans-Catalina Trail is accessible for hiking year-round, but it’s important to be prepared for the weather conditions. Due to its proximity to the Pacific Ocean, gusty winds are common, especially at Parson’s Landing camp and on ridgelines. Additionally, fog can roll in unexpectedly, causing your tent to become soaked without any rainfall. The weather can be unpredictable, but snow is unlikely.

For optimal hiking conditions, it is recommended to hike the TCT in late winter or spring for several reasons. Firstly, the trail is largely exposed, so hiking in the cooler months can be more comfortable. Secondly, during the summer months (July-August), daytime highs can reach the 80’s to 90’s, making for potentially challenging hiking conditions.

Other Special Considerations

On the first day of your journey between Avalon and Blackjack Campground, it’s important to note that there is only one water spigot that should not be missed. After that, you’ll need to be diligent about filling up at every water source you come across, as water is scarce on the trail. Even though there was potable water I did not enjoy the taste, a water filter is helpful. 

However, it’s crucial to be aware that there is no water spigot at Parson’s Landing. Instead, hikers must purchase a locker that contains two gallons of water. Carry enough water to last until you reach the locker. Additionally, make sure to check the availability of the lockers in advance as they may be sold out during peak season.

Overall, water is a precious resource on the trail, and it’s essential to plan ahead and stay hydrated to ensure a safe and enjoyable journey. By being proactive about water management, you can help minimize your impact on the environment and maximize your chances of success on the trail.

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Packing List

4-day How To — Backpack the Trans-Catalina Trail

Suggested Attire/ClothingGear Link
 Hiking Boots – sturdy, broken-in with ankle supportVasque Breeze Lightweight Waterproof
 Camp Shoes – to use the bathroom, go swimming Teva Original Universal Multi-Color
 2 Wool Socks Darn Tough Coolmax Midnight Sock 
 2 pairs of pants Guide Pro 2.0 Alpine Pants
 1 set of sleeping clothes (top / shorts)
 1 jacket preferably rain appropriate 
 1 long sleeve 
 1 short sleeveArcteryx Taema Crop
 1 sports bra
 3 underwear
 1 warm gloveQuest Fleece Gloves
 1 warm hat
 1 sun hat 
Suggested Shelter/Sleep/BasicsGear Link 
 TentDagger OSMO 2P
 Tent footprintDagger Footprint
 Sleeping padTensor Insulated Regular Wide 
 Sleeping bagKayu Womens 15 Sleeping Bag 
 Backpacking pillowFillo
 Backpacking backpack Ultralight Eja 58
 Headlamp425 Lumens USB-C Rechargable Headlamp
 Trekking PolesLeki Poles
 Small Micro-fiber towel
 Airpump
Suggested ToiletriesLinks
 Toothbrush & Toothpaste
 Wipes
 Sunscreen
 Mosquito/Tick repellant OR Picaridin Insect Repellent
 Sawyer Permethrin Spray (do not pack – use 2-3 days prior on clothing, boots, rain fly to air dry)Permethrin Fabric Treatment
 Vaseline 
 First-Aid Kit +pain / allergy meds
 Inhaler/ Epi-pen 
Suggested Kitchen Essentials/WaterLinks
 Spork 
 Cooking StoveBackpacking Stove with Titanium Cup
 Fuel 
 Matches & Lighter
 Water flterMini Water Filtration System
 Collapsable Water Bottle1 L Water Bottle
 Tea/Coffee
Suggested Food 
 3 BreakfastVeggie Chorizo Breakfast Scramble
 9 Snacks
 3 DinnerPasta Primavera 
Other Suggestions
 Cell phone / Garmin watch / Garmin InReach GPS
 ChargerBattery Pack 
 Multi-tool Swiss Army Knife
 Backpack Rain Cover Ultralight Backpack Rain Cover

This list can be downloaded for use while packing.

Final Thoughts

The Trans-Catalina Trail offers a picturesque experience that is completely doable regardless of your fitness level or hiking experience.

A Few Other Things to Consider

Fuel

One of the main controversies surrounding the ferry is its policy of not allowing passengers to bring fuel onboard. While this can be frustrating for hikers who rely on fuel for cooking and heating purposes, it’s important to note that safety regulations are in place for a reason.

That being said, it’s worth mentioning that some hikers have reported that they were not asked about carrying fuel onto the ferry, despite the policy. However, it’s important to remember that breaking the rules can have serious consequences, so it’s best to err on the side of caution and comply with the regulations whenever possible.

Ultimately, the decision to carry fuel onto the ferry is a personal one, and hikers should assess the risks and benefits before making a choice. While it may be tempting to take the chance and bring fuel aboard, it’s important to remember that safety should always be a top priority when engaging in outdoor activities.

Safety in the Backcountry

Having wilderness training prior to embarking on a backpacking trip is highly beneficial as it prepares you for potential accidents and unforeseen situations that may arise along the way. Wilderness training equips you with the necessary skills and knowledge to handle emergencies, navigate challenging terrains, and make informed decisions in remote and unfamiliar environments.

As you hike the Trans-Catalina Trail, you’ll not only be immersed in the natural beauty of the island but also have the chance to connect with fellow adventurers and locals. The trail community is filled with warmth and camaraderie, with fellow hikers sharing stories, tips, and a mutual appreciation for the island’s splendor.

Every step along the Trans-Catalina Trail brings you closer to discovering the untamed beauty and raw wilderness of Catalina Island. So lace up your hiking boots, pack your essentials, and embark on this extraordinary journey that promises awe-inspiring vistas, unforgettable encounters, and an experience that will leave you breathless.

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Song Seto

Song’s vision is to cultivate a culture of empathy and
belonging that leads to more inclusive outdoor
experiences. As a TCP Ambassador, she wants to focus on
giving back and making impacts far beyond herself, to
inspire those who are new to outdoor adventures to do
something extraordinary. Song is eager to create a sense
of belonging through new diversity policies and awareness,
through sharing impact and other year-in-review statistics.

Song is hoping for support in sharing her voice and
accomplishments, particularly through social media.