Just an hour ferry ride from densely populated coastal Southern California, who knew the TCT at the end of February would provide some of the greatest solitude we’ve ever had on a trail.
Weather was a real theme for us on this trip. California was in the midst of a historic winter of wet weather. Ironically, we flew out of sunny Vancouver landed in an atmospheric river hitting the Los Angeles area. Exactly the weather we had planned on escaping.
The architecture around Southern California is awesome, and Long Beach is no exception.
After 48 hrs in Long Beach, we put on our big backpacks and walked to the Catalina Express ferry terminal, just on the edge of downtown
It’s about an hours journey on a fast, smooth catamaran out to Avalon, the main port and tourist hot spot on Santa Catalina Island. As you start to come into the harbour, you feel like you’ve rocketed across the Atlantic to a port in Spain.
Avalon’s initial charm when you land starts to fade a bit when you start exploring up and down the strip. It’s many tourist-aimed shops and restaurants. Beyond that waterfront block though, the residential streets are very cute and modest.
Our only errand before walking out of Avalon was to get fuel for our pocket stove, which we easily found at the Conservancy main office by the ferry terminal. They also had a water fill up station, so we were quickly good to go.
Heading out on the Trans-Catalina Trail
We walked up Avalon Canyon Road, past the golf course, until we came upon Hermit Gulch campground. The TCT trailhead was just at the backend of the campground.
The trail forced us to quickly get our hiking legs loose, and work up a sweat, as the steepest elevation gain of the whole trail is right off the top. We were just hiking up continuous switchbacks for an hour or so. Might as well get the hard stuff out of the way early so we can enjoy some views!
The trail levelled off and we enjoyed some great views to to the north, switching back and forth between walking on the defined trail and dirt service roads.
The second half of day one started to really feel like a slog. Our energy level was starting to drop after a long day of travel and hiking. The trail started to feel a bit monotonous as it undulated up and down through some (relatively) uninteresting terrain. Sage brush and flowers became the most interesting things to see.
Most of all, the sun was setting and we were loosing light fast. We just wanted to get to Blackjack campground so we could set up our tent, eat, and get cozy. We finally arrived in the waning daylight, and quickly setup our tent and got to making dinner. We had reserved a site online when we booked our hiking permits, but with only one other couple there, we picked a more ideal site underneath a tree for some additional shelter from any overnight rain we might get. By the time we had finished dinner, we could clearly see our breath, giving us a good indication the temperature up the mountain had dropped to low single digits.
It took us awhile to get warm that night, but eventually we fell asleep. After a brief period of drizzle, the sky started to clear up, and we woke up to a beautiful morning.
We grabbed lunch at the Airport in the Sky, a fun restaurant/gift shop that has become a popular stop on the trail. Up to 200 hikers and recreational pilots day grab food here in the height of summer, with a Hollywood celebrity or two mixed in, but today it was empty save for another hiking couple and the restaurant staff.
This second day started to head west across the center of the island to Little Harbour. We finally saw some bison after seeing their tracks, and their dung, since the start of the trail. The story is that they were brought over in the early 20th century by a film crew. After filming was completed, it was too hard to round them up and send them back, so they were left on the island under the steward of some ranchers.
As we started to descend from the ridge, heading down towards Little Harbour, the wind picked up and the rain started to fall.
We arrived at camp in a steady downpour, but quickly spotted a grove of mature, large palms.
They were the perfect shelter. We made some tea to warm up and hung out there until it started too clear. I used my trekking poles to create a drying rack for our wet clothes.
With the skies cleared out, we started to explore the area, and wow, what a stunning place! We never saw another person that evening. We were totally alone. So, we decided, with the potential for more weather coming, to set up our tent under the grove of palms.
With the campground empty, we could pick our dinner spot, so we set up right next to the beach to cook and enjoy our dinner.
We woke up to beautiful morning. Still cool, but the sun was out and casting beautiful light over Little Harbour.
We could’ve lingered at Little Harbour for hours, if not days, it was so beautiful and peaceful, but we had a big day ahead. Our morning would be spent hiking to Two Harbours, and then finally up and over to Parson’s Landing, so it was time to get going.
With the trail hugging the western coastline, and gaining some big elevation, the morning was full of big views up and down the island. The weather was perfect and we felt strong.
Altering course at Two Harbours
We made it to Two Harbours for lunchtime. It’s a beautiful little company town, with lots of people there working for the Catalina Island Conservancy. It’s also the second ferry port, and our plan was to return here the next day from Parson’s Landing and take the ferry back to the mainland, as there’s no easy way of getting back to Avalon without your own truck.
We got a cell signal and checked the weather for the next 24hrs. There was a wind warning with a storm rolling in that evening, which would last through the next day, when we were scheduled to head back to the mainland. We went and talked to the rep at the ferry desk. They were advising people to not hike out to Parson’s Landing; it would get a direct hit from the wind and rain heading for the island.
We had seen ferries cancelled earlier in the week due to high winds, so we made a stop at the ferry office to get their sense of the likelihood the boats would sail tomorrow. The rep at the ferry desk seemed to think it was ‘likely’ there would be cancellations tomorrow. Being from BC, with our own extensive ferry system, we knew that ‘likely’ was ferry speak for ‘almost certainly’.
We had to make some quick decisions. Deciding to not make the trek out to Parson’s Landing was an easy one. It was going to be a grind getting there and back safely, and we’d be huddled in our tent trying to hope our little backcountry tent didn’t collapse in the strong winds. We were really bummed, but safety first.
Our friendly and helpful desk lady offered to book us a small room in town to stay for the same price as our camping fee. The bigger issue was how and when we were going to get back to the mainland.
At that time of year, the ferries from Two Harbours don’t run every day of the week, so a day lost to cancelled ferries meant we’d need to stay at least two nights, maybe three if the weather didn’t settle down.
We had car rental and AirBnB reservations, and the itinerary for the rest of our trip up in the air if we couldn’t get back by tomorrow. So, we asked if there was any way to get back to Avalon in time to catch a ferry back later that afternoon. Based on who we asked, cabs would cost $150, then $180, then $200+ for the trip. That was not a real option.
Our increasingly helpful ferry desk lady mentioned that a Conservancy staff member was in the same pickle, needing to fly out of LA for a wedding, and that a friend of hers was going to be giving her a ride in a Conservancy truck back to Avalon in an hour or so. She asked if we could join, and thankfully, with a little grumbling I’m sure, they agreed to let us hitch a ride back to Avalon with them.
An hour later we were in the back of a truck, heading back on the potholed, rough dirt roads back to Avalon. We successfully caught the late afternoon ferry back to Long Beach, booking a last minute hotel for that night while we were in transit. Everyone was super nice and helpful and helped us out of a very tricky situation. Since we had flown into LA, we had been at the mercy of the weird, atmospheric river laden California winter weather of 2022-2023. While it was disappointing that we couldn’t complete the Trans Catalina Trail, it was just another adventure where we learned to just roll with it, and often that’s what creates the lasting memories.