Thru-Hiking the Trans Catalina Trail

The Trans Catalina Trail.
With a total elevation change of over 32,000 feet and a complete lack of switchbacks the Trans Catalina Trail delivers some challenging terrain. The official trail travels 37.2 miles from one end of the island to other and is made up of a collection of old fire roads and use trails. With excursions to Silver Peak, Ben Weston Beach and Lands End my route covered 62 miles in 4 days.

I decided to start the hike at Twin Harbors. My plan was to take the ferry from San Pedro to Twin Harbors, hike to the official end of the TCT at Starlight Beach then follow the trail all the way to Avalon Harbor and catch a ferry back to Dana Point. 

A map of my route on the Trans Catalina Trail: 

Click for a Full Size Map

Day 1: 13 miles.

Starting out at Berth 95 in San Pedro.
After catching the early morning ferry from Catalina Express at Berth 95 in San Pedro I arrived at Two Harbors ready to get started. I picked up my permit and followed the dirt road to the first big climb along the TCT. Over 1,000 feet in under 2 miles lead to the top of the ridge, fortunately once on top the trail mostly follows the ridge-line to the Lands End.

Early morning arrival at Two Harbors.

Beginning in the middle of the TCT at Twin Harbors.

The start of the hike up to the first ridge. 

Following an old fire road, straight up.

Finally at the top of the ridge.

Over 1,000 feet higher in just two miles.

The trail follows old fire roads along the top of the ridge.

I made a side trip and climbed Silver Peak along the way. I was welcomed by some clear panoramic views on the windy summit. . . and a bone guarding the summit register.

The top of Silver Peak.

Summit Register

Summit Register.

Signing the register.
I bypassed the official TCT which makes a steep 2 mile climb down to Parsons Beach and followed the ridge trail all the way to Lands End. The end of this portion of the trip was mainly cross country along the steep rocky ridge that leads to the far northwest end of the island.

Lands End.

Lands End pano.

Looking back at the TCT from Lands End. 
While it was still warm I made dinner and watched the sunset from my perch at Lands End. Soon the sun went down, the wind picked up and the temperatures dropped quickly. I put on my headlamp and slowly warmed up while climbing up and down the steep fire road which made up the final four miles to Parsons Landing.

After dark I noticed two fire flies near a waterfall on the side of the trail. I hadn't heard about fire flies on Catalina and it seemed strange that they would follow so closely . . . right next to each other like they were connected somehow. As I got closer it became clear that these were not fire flies. They were the eyes of a Catalina Bison that was looking right at me!

I adjusted my headlamp to the brightest setting and could clearly see that the Bison looked just as alarmed as I was. But he was bigger than me, much bigger. I had heard about Bison attacks on the island (see: Bison Gores Tourist) but I wasn't sure how to deal with them. I reverted to my technique for dealing with black bears in the Sierra and just slowly kept walking by. After I was a safe distance I looked back and could see that he was in the same place, probably happy that I had moved on.

As I approached the beach at Parsons Landing I could hear a group of campers on the beach and was somewhat happy that I would be sharing the area with some other humans.

I set out my quilt and bivy on the sand and watched planes descend into the glow of the city lights in LA. There was something soothing about the smell of the beach and the sound of the waves crashing nearby. A good day!

Arriving at Parsons Landing at 9:00 pm.

Night time view of Palos Verdes and LA from Parsons Landing.

Day 2: 14 miles.

I woke to the sound of small waves crashing on the sand, the beginning of an amazing beautiful morning on Parsons Landing beach. 

Morning on the beach at Parsons Landing.

For $16 the rangers deliver water and firewood to the camp sites at Parsons Beach.

Parsons Landing.

Parsons Landing.

Parsons Landing.

After breakfast on picturesque Parsons Landing I followed a mostly flat road back to Two Harbors. Along the way I passed a few large established camps; Emerald Bay and Howlands Landing.

Emerald Bay.

Howlands Landing.

Back at Two Harbors.

Two Harbors.

Two Harbors.

I picked up my resupply of food for the rest of the trip and headed back onto the Trans Catalina Trail. From Two Harbors the trail climbs again, this time about 1,200 feet to the top of the ridge which eventually leads to Little Harbor on the other side of the island.

Leaving Two Harbors and getting back on the TCT toward Avalon.

Following the TCT straight up an old fire road.

Once I finished the steep climb the rest of the hike was a pleasant stroll along the ridge. There were beautiful panoramic views in all directions.

Some beautiful views along a high ridge on the TCT.

A great place to take a break.

Looking back towards Lands End.

The view of Palos Verdes from the TCT.

The final ridge leading down to Little Harbor.

By the late afternoon I was running down the final section of trail just in time for a swim at sunset. There were only a few other campers in the harbor and everyone seemed to be setup at their designated camp sites. I enjoyed a good nights sleep on the empty beach.

Little Harbor campground.

Little Harbor just before sunset.

Sunset on Little Harbor.

Day 3: 19 miles.

The next morning I woke to an amazing view of Little Harbor from my private beachfront camp. This would be a big day which included a long side trip to Ben Weston Beach, the Catalina Vineyards, the Airport in the Sky and finally a camp high up in Blackjack Camp.

Morning from a sandy beach camp at Little Harbor.

View from the designated campsite in Little Harbor.

Breakfast of champions.

Drying out gear at the Little Harbors campsite.

What? Pre-cell phone amenities at Little Harbor.

Shark Harbor and Little Harbor.

Shark Harbor and Little Harbor.

View on a side trip to Ben Weston Beach.

Cottonwood Beach.

The remains of a WWII era army lookout above Ben Weston Beach.

The steep ridge-line trail down to Ben Weston Beach.

A locals paradise. 

Ben Weston Beach.

Ben Weston Beach.

Cabana at Ben Weston Beach.

Leave no Trace Catalina style.

Ben Weston Beach.

Ben Weston Beach.

Catalina Vineyards.

Rancho Escondido.

Rejoining the TCT.

Buffalo or Bison?

Airport in the Sky circa 1946.

Airport in the Sky.

The TCT follows the Soapstone Trail.

Soapstone Trail.

The Soapstones. . . 

A fox protecting his territory near Blackjack Camp.

Dinner at Blackjack Camp.

Day 4: 16 miles.

This was my final day on the island and I wanted to enjoy every moment. With an early morning start the interior of the island was still cool. I followed a few Bison into a canyon and followed the trail back up to another ridge top. 

Early morning hike through the interior of Catalina Island.

Some welcome shade.

Morning meadow.

Spider web trap.

Re-used old signs.

Before long I reached the top of the Hermit Gulch Trail and I could finally see Avalon Harbor, my final destination for the day. But I still had a few more miles to the end of the trail. . . 

The top of the Hermit Gulch Trail.

Top of the Hermit Gulch Trail.

First view of Avalon Harbor.

Only six more miles. 

Three more miles.

Almost there. 

Renton Mine Road at the beginning of the TCT.

The official beginning of the TCT near Renton Mine Road.

After spending three days alone in the backcountry the tourist culture in Avalon was an unexpected change. The loud tourists carrying ice cream cones and shopping for island t-shirts seemed overly pampered and blind to the beauty that was just a few miles away. The smell of cologne and women's perfume reminded me that I hadn't taken a real shower in four days.

Back to civilization in Avalon.

Avalon art.

Local flavor.

The Casino in Avalon.

I had a few hours before the ferry arrived so I took advantage of the changing rooms at a local resort and cleaned up as much as possible. 

The process of re-entry into civilization after being alone for a few days in the wilderness is always a little strange. I usually return home with a good perspective and renewed appreciation for the things that are really important. 

We all watched the sunset on the ferry ride home. It seemed like the perfect way to end the journey. 

A beautiful way to end the trip.

A map of my route on the Trans Catalina Trail:

Click for a Full Size Map

A cool video of the Trans Catalina Trail:

Some thoughts about gear, food, water and resupplying on the Trans Catalina Trail.

Is it possible to stroll along the entire TCT while carrying a small lightweight day-pack and still be safe, comfortable and well fed? The answer is YES! By using lightweight gear and resupplying with food and water along the way my pack never weighed more than 15 pounds. 

Water was by far the heaviest item I carried and the most difficult to strategically resupply. Even in February it got hot (mid 80's) on the exposed trails and running out of water could have been dangerous. The most difficult stretch without water was the 13 miles from Two Harbors to Parsons Landing. Due to the strenuous uphill climbs in this section it took most of the first day to finish, which meant carrying an entire days worth of water from the start. This may not seem like much, but in the beginning water made up over half of my total pack weight!

For the gear-heads out there here is a link to my gear list from this trip. 

Some useful links when planning a trip on the Trans Catalina Trail: 


  1. Great write-up and pix -- I may have to do this, myself, some day. Thanks for the information!

    1. Thanks for your feedback! Much appreciated.

  2. Beautiful and very enticing. Question. my husband & I did the last 200 miles of the Santiago de Compostela. The elevation in parts were steep but not as steep as Catalina. Think we'd have a problem? Truth be told it looks kind of scary.

    1. Hi Anonymous, I'm not familiar with the elevation profile on the Santiago de Compostela but from what I can tell online it looks like the biggest climb is about 600 meters (1,800 feet+-). The rest of it looks like smaller climbs between 100 - 300 meters (300 - 900 feet+-). The overall elevation of the TCT is similar, but it's the total elevation change that makes it a challenge.

      If you've already done a 200 mile hike you would probably be fine on the TCT. By allowing extra time for the long slow climbs most people are fine.

      Have fun!

  3. these photos are amazing. i am planning a catalina backpacking trip for later this year, so i found your site as part of my research. just wanted to say thanks sooooooooo much for taking and sharing these amazing photos!

    1. Thanks for your feedback bearprey! Have fun on Catalina.

  4. Getting ready to do a backpacking trip on Catalina and saw you are the only one with information on the ben Weston beach. Can you give me some information on it such as where it is near and if camping is still okay there? Great right up and thanks for the info in advance!

    1. Hi Harrison. Thanks for checking out my blog. Ben Weston is the hidden 'locals only' type place, which is good! It should still be open, although I haven't been there since doing this trip. Send me an email via this blog and I will email you a detailed map of the route to Ben Weston. It is worth the extra effort, but there is no water so be sure to hike it in from Little Harbor.

  5. Total elevation change of 32,000 feet.?.? That's taller than Mt Everest. I'm thinking you meant 3,200 feet.

    1. Thanks for reading Ryan. The 32,000 feet of elevation change is referring to the cumulative elevation change. The average total daily elevation change is typically over 6,000 feet on the TCT if hiking it in four days.

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