Backpacking the Trans-Catalina Trail in 5 Days | Full Guide

Reviewed by Elina Ansary
Last updated:

*This article contains affiliate links, which help run this site at no extra cost to you.

Your full guide to backpacking the Trans-Catalina Trail, including everything to know before you set out on the trail.

Coastal views, challenging climbs, unique wildlife, desert flora, and scenic landscapes – the Trans-Catalina Trail combines some of my favorite types of hikes into one trail.

I first visited Santa Catalina Island on a day trip back in 2019 and was immediately drawn to the natural beauty of the island.

This was also around the time that I first started looking more into the Trans-Catalina Trail.

I didn’t have the gear or enough forethought to hike it then, but it became a bucket list hike that I knew I wanted to attempt someday.

My backpacking experience was pretty much zilch, I’d only done one multi-day backpacking trip in New Zealand in 2015, but I liked how approachable the TCT seemed for beginner backpackers.

So when my boyfriend’s cousin asked us if we wanted to hike the Trans-Catalina Trail with them this year, I jumped at the chance.

Based on that trip, I wrote this guide to give you the full rundown of how to plan your own backpacking adventure on the Trans-Catalina Trail.

By the end of it, you’ll know exactly how to experience one of California’s most stunning islands to the fullest.

Note: this post contains affiliate links, which help run this site at no extra cost to you so I can keep providing free travel advice and tips.

hiking the trans-catalina trail in southern california

Table of Contents

Practical Info

Miles: 38.5 

Highest Elevation: 1,775 feet 

Total Elevation Change: 9,600 feet  

Trailhead: Start from the Catalina Island Conservancy Visitor Center in downtown Avalon or the Hermit Gulch Campground in Avalon. 

Recommended Number of Days: 5 (although you can do it in 3 or 4 days if you’re more ambitious or don’t have a full 5 days to spare)

Dog-friendly: Although dogs are allowed on a leash on the Trans-Catalina Trail (except Hermit Gulch and Two Harbors Campground), it’s not a very dog-friendly trail. There’s not much shade, there’s a lot of elevation change and long hiking distances, and bison and dogs don’t always mix well.

Note: It’s also never a bad idea to download a hiking app to your phone to track your hike.

Practical info

Get your FREE Los Angeles Mini Guide + a printable checklist with 100+ things to do in the city!

What to Expect

Trail & Terrain

You can expect to hike through a hilly, dry, and dusty island backcountry. There’s not always a lot of shade on the trail but the views more than make up for it.

Because of the lack of shade, you’ll want to start on the early side each day so you can make it to your next campground before the hottest part of the day.

Most of the trail is single track and made up of compact dirt or loose gravel. The trail is easy to follow with plenty of signage along the way.

Trail and terrain for the TCT


The weather on Catalina Island is fairly temperate throughout the year with temperatures ranging from 50-75 F. 

Winter is the rainy season on Catalina Island and when you’ll find the choppiest waters on the ferry ride over. 

I’ll talk more about the best time to hike the Trans-Catalina Trail below but, in general, spring or fall are ideal for the best weather, affordability, and fewer people.

Wildlife & Flora

Catalina Island has some interesting wildlife around the island, these are the most common creatures you’ll come across when backpacking the Trans-Catalina Trail. 

catalina island wildlife, bison sign
  • Catalina Island Fox – The Catalina Island Fox is a cute and fluffy animal that’s native to the island. These foxes are most often seen around dawn or dusk and they’re why you have “Fox boxes” and secure trash cans in every campground. They’re cute but also mischievous and will get into your food as soon as you’re not looking if you don’t secure it in a fox box.  
  • Catalina Bison – Brought to the island in 1924 for a movie shoot (although they never made it into the movie), you’ll find bison all over the Catalina backcountry today. We came across quite a few in the distance and two on the actual trail during our hike. You’ll want to make sure to give Catalina bison a wide berth since they can be unpredictable. There are signs all over that talk about the dangers of wild bison and how far they can jump. A fun fact about the bison that my friend Wendy shared with me on the hike – they keep the bison population down to around 150 by shooting darts filled with birth control into the females. 
  • Ticks – Ticks can be found around Catalina Island, which is why it’s good to wear pants while you hike the island. I found one on my backpack during a hiking break and quickly flicked it off. It’s a good idea to regularly check for ticks on your skin as you hike since they can transmit things like Lyme disease. 
  • Lizards – You’ll likely come across a variety of lizards throughout the trail, especially as you get into the hotter parts of the day. We kept an ongoing lizard count throughout our hike and got to 77 lizards after 5 days on the trail. 
  • Mule Deer – We saw a lot more bison than deer on the Catalina trail, but we did come across one mule deer near Black Jack Campground. The deer were introduced to the island in the 1920s and 30s to boost tourism and attract hunters, but they’ve since become one of the most destructive invasive species on the island. 
  • Rattlesnakes – Although we didn’t come across any rattlesnakes during our hike, they’re also found on the island. They’re most often seen from April through October and tend to hide in long grass during the hottest parts of the day. Be mindful of this if you need to go off trail to avoid a bison. 
  • Bald Eagle – You’ll also want to look up from time to time as you hike the Trans-Catalina Trail because America’s most famous bird can be found on the island as well – the bald eagle! Bald eagles were one of the original inhabitants on Catalina Island until they died out in the 1950s due to pollution from the pesticide DDT. Since the 1980s, the Institute for Wildlife Studies (IWS) has worked on bringing them back and today there are multiple pairs of eagles that call Catalina home.



The campsites along the Trans-Catalina Trail are fairly well-kept and clean. 

All of them have pit toilets or porta potties and every campsite except Parsons Landing has drinking water. At Parsons, you’ll have to purchase water to be dropped off for you ahead of time. 

All campsites, except Hermit Gulch and Black Jack Campgrounds, have beach access and most campsites have fox boxes to store your food and water and a fire pit and picnic table. 

The Catalina campsites are definitely one of the more costly parts of hiking the TCT since they charge you per person. 

In the summer, they also might make you book a minimum of two nights even if you’re only staying there for one night on the TCT. 

If you want to save some money and support the Catalina Island Conservancy, you can buy a membership with the conservancy which gives you a 50% discount on all campsites. 

Make sure you book ahead of time since all Catalina Island campsites require reservations.

Trans-Catalina Trail Map

You can find the official Trans-Catalina map here.

Trans-Catalina Trail Elevation Profile

You can find the official TCT elevation profile here.

What to Book & Plan Ahead of Time

Best Time to Backpack the Trans-Catalina Trail

Best Time to Backpack the Trans Catalina Trail

Spring is one of the most popular times to hike Catalina Island. Temperatures aren’t too hot yet, there are wildflowers, and most of the rainy days are left behind in winter. 

The second best time to backpack the Trans-Catalina Trail is in the fall for the same reasons as spring (minus the wildflowers), but with the added benefit of there being fewer people on the trail. 

Lastly, the spring and fall are nice because you can book one night at campsites instead of the two-night minimum required at some campsites in the summer. 

Winter can be great if you want the TCT more to yourself but this is also the rainy season on Catalina Island and waters can get choppy on the ferry. 

In the winter, there are also fewer ferries traveling to and from Catalina Island so it might require some extra planning. 

The summer is the hottest and most expensive time to hike the Trans-Catalina Trail. If that’s the only time you can go, make sure to hike as early in the day as possible and budget accordingly.

How to Get to Catalina Island

How to Get to Catalina Island

Unless you know someone with a boat, the easiest way to get to Catalina Island is by ferry. 

There are two ferry companies that shuttle visitors back and forth from the mainland – the Catalina Express and the Catalina Flyer

Most people travel to Catalina Island on the Catalina Express since it leaves from more ports and offers more ferry times. 

If you’re starting the Trans-Catalina hike from Avalon, you’ll want to take the ferry from Dana Point, Long Beach, or San Pedro. 

Which port you choose partially depends on where you’re coming from, but most people leave from Long Beach or San Pedro since they have the most times per day. 

We left from San Pedro because the times worked out best for us but it’s really dependent on what time of year you’re traveling and when you want to start your hike. 

Some people stay the night before at Hermit Gulch Campground before starting the TCT so they aren’t as crunched for time in terms of when they’re arriving on the island. 

However, the majority of people start hiking the same day they come in on the ferry. 

If that’s you, you’ll want to get on one of the earlier ferries since the first day on the TCT is also one of the longest. 

The ferry to Catalina Island takes anywhere from an hour to an hour and a half depending on which port you leave from. 

A note about parking: Long-term parking isn’t cheap at the Catalina Island ferry ports. It cost us around $100 to park for five days so make sure to budget that into your trip and carpool if you can.

Catalina Island Permits

You’ll need a permit from the Catalina Island Conservancy to hike the Trans-Catalina Trail (and any backcountry trails on the island). 

Luckily, your camping reservations double as a Catalina Island hiking permit so all you have to do is bring your camping reservations with you. 

You can find out more about Catalina Island permits here

Trans-Catalina Trail Campgrounds

Hermit Gulch Campground (optional)

Number of sites: 40 tent sites and 9 tent cabins 

Fees: $27-$30 per person per night for tent sites; $75 per night + $27-$30 per person per night for cabin sites

Facilities: Picnic tables and BBQ at each site, restrooms with flush toilets and electricity, camp sink, and potable water

Features: Conveniently located near town, one of the largest campsites on Catalina Island, and near Wrigley Garden and a bunch of side hiking trails beside the TCT 

Hermit Gulch is only about 1.5 miles from the Avalon ferry landing, so a good chunk of people who camp here are just exploring the Avalon area and not necessarily doing the TCT. 

However, if you have more time to explore the Avalon area or you just want to rest up near town before starting the trail, this is the campground you’d book for a night. 

You can book a campsite at Hermit Gulch Campground here

Black Jack Campground


Number of sites: 10 tent sites

Fees: $20-$25 per person per night 

Facilities: Picnic table, potable water, fox box, chemical toilets, communal outdoor shower

Features: Rolling hills, located at a higher altitude, no open fires

Located 10.5 miles from the trailhead, Black Jack Campground is the first campground you’ll stay at if you’re hiking the Trans-Catalina Trail from Avalon. 

Since the first day of the TCT is the longest, you’ll camp at Black Jack Campground regardless of how many days you have on the Trans-Catalina Trail. 

Black Jack is the highest elevation campground at 1,600 feet and it was definitely the coldest at night. 

It’s also the only Trans-Catalina Trail campground that doesn’t have nearby beach access, besides Hermit Gulch (although the beach is only 1.5 miles away). 

With that said, it’s still a nice campground, nestled right next to Catalina Island’s highest peak (Mt. Orizaba) and surrounded by pine and eucalyptus trees.

Also, don’t be surprised if you see bison walking through or near the campground, we saw one on the trail just after leaving Black Jack. 

Note: there are no open fires allowed at Black Jack Campground. 

You can book a campsite at Black Jack Campground here.

Little Harbor Campground

Little Harbor Campground

Number of sites: 26 tent sites (23 sites at Little Harbor + 3 sites at Shark Harbor)

Fees: $20-$25 per person per night 

Facilities: Picnic table, fire ring, fox box, communal outdoor showers, potable water, porta-potties, and camp sink

Features: Two scenic harbors, relaxing atmosphere, sandy beach, and kayak rentals 

If you’re doing the Trans-Catalina Trail in three days, you won’t camp at Little Harbor Campground. 

If you’re doing 4-5 days though, you’ll get to enjoy one of the prettiest campsites on Catalina Island. In fact, it has been labeled as “one of the best campgrounds in the West” by Sunset Magazine. 

Little Harbor has a way of feeling like a secluded hideaway with two sister coves (Little Harbor and Shark Harbor) and a sandy beach. 

The two aspects that aren’t so great about this campground is that there’s no chemical toilet (just porta-potties) and the number of pincher bugs everywhere – from toilet seats to our tent covering. 

But those things aside, this is easily one of the most scenic and relaxing campsites on Catalina Island. 

If you plan ahead or have an extra night here, you can also book a kayak rental from Wet Spot Rentals

They conveniently drop off a kayak for you so you can explore the nearby coves and pick it up again once you leave. 

You can book a campsite at Little Harbor Campground here.

Two Harbors Campground

Two Harbors Campground

Number of sites: 47 tent sites, 13 tent cabins, and 2 group sites

Fees: $27-$30 per person per night for tent sites; $65-$85 + $27-$30 per person per night for tent cabins 

Facilities: Porta-potties, camp sink, fire ring, picnic table, and potable water (there are flush toilets, coin-operated showers, and laundry 0.25 miles away in town as well)

Features: Beach access, coastal views, near the conveniences of town, and a party atmosphere

Similar to Hermit Gulch, Two Harbors Campground is the only other non-backcountry campground on the Trans-Catalina Trail. 

Being just a short walk from the main town area of Two Harbors, this large campsite has more of a party feel to it and it can get a bit loud. 

Even though the campground itself was scenic and featured its own beach, this was probably my least favorite place to camp on the TCT. 

This may have been due to our location next to slamming porta-potty doors all night, but it also just had such a different feel from the other backcountry campgrounds along the trail. 

It seemed like the campground was filled with mostly non-hikers who were just camping for a night or two and weren’t always the most considerate. 

If you can snag one, I’d actually recommend grabbing a campsite further back from the water and the bathrooms. 

The campsites facing the water can get windy and the ones right in the midst of the bathrooms and sink area can be pretty loud and busy. 

You can book a campsite at Two Harbors Campground here.

Parsons Landing Campground

Parsons Landing Campground

Number of sites: 8 tent sites 

Fees: $20-$26 per person per night

Facilities: Fox box, fire ring, picnic table, chemical toilets, water and firewood (for an additional cost and must be purchased ahead of time)

Features: Campsites are right on the beach, secluded and remote, well taken care of facilities, not much shade, and no potable water 

With its small and secluded nature, Parsons Landing is another favorite campground to stay at on the Trans-Catalina Trail. 

It can be hard to find available campsites at Parsons, but if you can, I highly recommend staying here. 

Parsons Landing Campground provides a very different camping experience than the rest of the TCT campgrounds, most notably, you get to camp right on the beach. 

The beach is sandier on the west side and more rocky on the east side. We stayed on the east side of the beach in one of the most private campgrounds at site #1. 

If you want to camp at Parsons Landing, the main thing to keep in mind is that you have to plan ahead. 

There’s no potable water, but you can add 2.5-gallons or more of water and a bundle of firewood and firestarter to your campsite reservation for an additional cost. 

These items are then dropped off in the lockers near the bathrooms on your date of arrival to the campsite. You’ll need to pick up the key for your locker in Two Harbors before you set off. 

As long as you’re okay with a little extra planning, Parsons Landing is a unique place to camp on Catalina Island and a great way to end your last night on the Trans-Catalina Trail. 

You can book a campsite at Parsons Landing Campground here

Read my full blog post about Camping at Parsons Landing (including everything you’ll need to know and plan ahead of time to camp there).

What to Pack for the Trans-Catalina Trail

What to Pack for the TCT

5-Day Itinerary for Hiking the Trans-Catalina Trail

5 day itinerary for the TCT

Day 1: Avalon to Black Jack (10.7 miles)

Day 2: Black Jack to Little Harbor (8.2 miles) 

Day 3: Little Harbor to Two Harbors (5.3 miles) 

Day 4: Two Harbors to Parsons Landing via Silver Peak Trail (6.7 miles) 

Day 5: Parsons Landing to Two Harbors via West End Road (7.7 miles)

Other Itinerary Options for the Trans-Catalina Trail

trans catalina trail itineraries

3-Day Itinerary

Day 1: Avalon to Black Jack (10.7 miles) 

Day 2: Black Jack to Two Harbors (13.5 miles) 

Day 3: Two Harbors to Parsons Landing via Silver Peak Trail and back to Two Harbors via West End Road (14.4 miles)

4-Day Itinerary (Option #1)

Day 1: Avalon to Black Jack (10.7 miles) 

Day 2: Black Jack to Two Harbors (13.5 miles) 

Day 3: Two Harbors to Parsons Landing via Silver Peak Trail (6.7 miles) 

Day 4: Parsons Landing to Two Harbors via West End Road (7.7 miles)

4-Day Itinerary (Option #2)

Day 1: Avalon to Black Jack (10.7 miles) 

Day 2: Black Jack to Little Harbor (8.2 miles) 

Day 3: Little Harbor to Two Harbors (5.3 miles) 

Day 4: Two Harbors to Parsons Landing via Silver Peak Trail and back to Two Harbors via West End Road (14.4 miles)

Backpacking the Trans-Catalina Trail in 5 Days

Day 1: Avalon to Black Jack Campground (10.7 miles)

Our hiking group of four included me, my boyfriend (Suneel), Suneel’s cousin (Ashu), and Ashu’s wife (Wendy). 

We woke up around 5:30 AM in Garden Grove to make it to the San Pedro ferry in time, not sure how traffic was going to be and wanting to be on the safe side. 

The ferry ride over was pretty uneventful and took about an hour and 15 minutes. Towards the end, Suneel and I made our way to the top level to look at Avalon from the water. 

I’d already witnessed how beautiful Avalon Harbor is from the ferry on a trip to Catalina a couple of years previously, but this was Suneel’s first time on the island so I wanted us to take a peek. 

Plus, it was a clear, blue sky day so it was especially beautiful looking out over Avalon from the ferry. 

Since this was May 2021, masks were still required and no food or drink was allowed to be consumed on the ferry, regardless if you were vaccinated or not.  

Catalina express ferry into Avalon

We weren’t in much of a rush once we arrived in Avalon. 

It was going to be our longest hike of the trip this first day, but we also knew we’d have four more days of backpacking. 

I think we wanted to appreciate a couple of hours in Avalon before setting off. 

We immediately made our way to the Conservancy Trailhead store that’s right in downtown Avalon to pick up a trail map and snap a picture in front of the trailhead sign. 

After the store, we stopped by Catalina Coffee & Cookie Co. to grab breakfast, coffee, and one of their famous cookies. 

While we were waiting for our food, the guys went to grab sandwiches from Vons, which would be our lunch later that day (did I mention this was a pretty bougie backpacking trip?). 

After filling up on food and coffee, we were finally ready to set off. 

We left the town behind with our full backpacks and started walking towards Hermit Gulch Campground along Avalon Canyon Road. 

And when I say road, it’s an actual paved road that you walk up for this first part of the trail, complete with a nice golf course that you pass by. 

It was about a 1.5-mile walk to the campground from the Conservancy Trailhead starting point in downtown Avalon. 

At Hermit Gulch, we used the bathroom and refilled our water before setting off on our first steep incline of the day. 

We came across the first Trans-Catalina Trail sign to the right of the campground and followed that trail as it wound its way around Avalon Canyon. 

It quickly turned into a steady incline of switchbacks up the canyon. 

We took a good amount of pauses on this uphill stretch to catch our breath and take in the stunning views looking back towards the dwindling view of Avalon Harbor. 

This section was also where we decided to make it our goal to take a picture at every mile marker. 

The goofier the better and we got more creative as the hike went on and we started running out of poses. 

After about two miles, we made it to the top and enjoyed one of the best views of the day at Hermit Gulch Lookout. 

Hermit Gulch Lookout is also where we met our first trail buddies. 

There were a few different groups of hikers that were all doing the same 5-day itinerary and we would come across them throughout the TCT, at campgrounds and different resting points. 

Once we had those steep two miles behind us, the rest of day 1 felt much easier. There were still plenty of ups and downs, but nothing compared to the hike up to Hermit Gulch Lookout. 

From Hermit Gulch Lookout, we hiked for another three miles through hilly terrain that featured plenty of lizards, cacti, and other desert-like brush. 

On the way, we saw some bison on the ridge in the distance and got super excited.

Right after the bison, we stopped for lunch at a park near Haypress Reservoir and the Laura Stein Volunteer Camp.

It was already pretty hot out due to our late start from Avalon, but we happily devoured our Vons sandwiches and refilled our water before doing the last section of the day. 

The last section of the trail was around four miles and had a lot of hilly ups and downs. 

Along the way, we counted more lizards, took more pictures at the mile markers, saw more bison in the distance, and came across more lofty views of the Catalina coastline. 

Right before we got to the campground, we also came across a mule deer that quickly ran off once we got a little closer. 

getting into black jack just before golden hour

We came into camp right around golden hour, pretty exhausted from our first day on the trail and ready to relax and take off our hiking shoes. 

Black Jack doesn’t allow open fires so we just made a quick dinner, played some games in Wendy and Ashu’s tent, and sipped on a hot toddy before calling it night pretty early.

Day 2: Black Jack Campground to Little Harbor (8.2 miles)

Although we were a little sore after day 1, day 2 on the TCT felt much easier in terms of elevation gain and loss. 

We had a quick breakfast but didn’t eat too much since we knew we’d be eating a big lunch at Airport in the Sky soon, which is not only an airport but has the DC-3 restaurant and gift shop too. 

About a mile from our campsite, we had our first up-close bison encounter. There was a bison laying in the shade right in the middle of the trail! 

We gave him a wide berth, going off-trail to do so, and silently hoped he wouldn’t pay us too much attention. 

Once we got to the other side, we took some pictures of him from a distance and continued on our way. 

From Black Jack Campground, it’s only about a two-mile hike to the airport, so it took us about an hour to get there.  

We had a little more of an uphill climb before doing a steep descent through Cottonwood Canyon and then another steep ascent to get up to the Catalina Airport in the Sky. 

On the second ascent, we passed by a 2,000-year-old soapstone quarry that was excavated by the Indigenous Tongva people (the first people to call Catalina home). 

As we approached the airport, we discovered that the trail crisscrossed in an unnecessary amount of directions before actually taking us to the paved road that led to the restaurant.

Every time we thought we were about to enter the airport area, which we could see right next to us, the trail would take us in another direction. 

It was actually kind of hilarious although we were also pretty hungry at this point and ready to put down our packs.

We finally made it to the airport and DC-3 Gifts & Grill after a few more crisscrosses on the trail. 

DC-3’s specialty is the bison burger, but since I’ve tasted bison before (when I was in Montana a few years back), I decided to go with the standard beef burger (it was also about half the price). 

We spent an hour at the airport eating lunch and taking advantage of the flush toilets, shade under the umbrella, and the 180-degree view in front of us. 

After the airport, we had about six more miles before reaching our final destination for the day – Little Harbor Campground. 

We powered through the second section of the hike since it was mostly downhill and were treated to stunning views looking over Little Harbor from above on the way into our campground.  

I realized at this point that I’m much slower going down than up when I have a 27-pound backpack on, but the views were so incredible that I didn’t mind taking it a bit slower. 

After the steady descent, we arrived at Little Harbor Campground in the afternoon with plenty of daylight left. 

We set up camp and took a much-needed nap before walking over to the sandy beach near our campsite to relax for a bit. 

Little Harbor is such a scenic campground, it was nice to just walk around and chill out on the beach to rest our bodies and prepare for tomorrow’s journey. 

That night, we had our first fire of the trip, played card games, and feasted on a delicious camp meal before falling asleep just after dark.

Day 3: Little Harbor to Two Harbors (5.3 miles)

I think when we saw the mileage for day 3 we underestimated how difficult of a hike it might be. 

We also left our campsite later than usual because we figured the hike to Two Harbors wouldn’t take too long. 

Well, day 3, even though it was about half the mileage of day 1 was around the same level of difficulty. 

The main reason for this was the lack of switchbacks on the trail. At one point, we were just going straight up a steep ridge for a good 30-45 minutes. 

the climb to get to two harbors from little harbor

Without packs, that’s one thing, but with heavy packs, it becomes much harder to do those steep climbs. 

Add onto this the fact that we were hiking during the hottest part of the day and it was not the best combination. 

Even though this was such a surprisingly difficult hike, it was also one of the most scenic sections of the whole trail. 

When we left Little Harbor, we climbed our only switchbacks of the day and got to enjoy stunning views over Little Harbor and Shark Harbor for about a mile. 

Day 3, Little Harbor to Two Harbors

From the switchbacks, we continued climbing along the Isthmus of Catalina Island, slowly making our way to the top of the ridge with gorgeous coastal views all around us. 

On the way to the steepest part, we came across another bison on the trail that we had to go around. 

bison on the trans catalina trail

I managed to get a couple of cactus spikes in my leggings while going off-trail to do this, but luckily they didn’t pierce my skin too deeply. 

The steepest section was right before we got to the one covered shelter for the day.

At the shelter, we stopped and rested for a good 20 minutes or so to recover, eat some snacks, and take in one of the most stunning viewpoints of the day. 

From the shelter, we continued on the trail that went up and down until we reached Banning House Road, which is the steep dirt road heading down into Two Harbors.

Just before reaching Two Harbors, we also got some good views of Cat Harbor (aka Catalina Harbor).   

Hiking past Cat Harbor

The first thing we did when we reached Two Harbors was find the only restaurant in town for a nice sit-down meal, packs and sweaty hiking gear and all. 

Suneel and I split a couple of dishes and got a Buffalo Milk, which is the Catalina Island cocktail. 

It has Creme de Cocoa, Kahlua, Creme de Banana, vodka, and half and half. In other words, it’s creamy and delicious.

After getting our fill at the restaurant, we made our way to the Two Harbors Campground, which is another quarter mile from town. 

We got to Two Harbors with plenty of time to spare so after setting up camp, we did laundry, took showers, ate another meal at the restaurant for dinner, and explored the Two Harbors General Store. 

We were originally thinking of kayaking or snorkeling once we reached Two Harbors, but we were a) too exhausted from the hike and b) found out the rental place wasn’t open since it wasn’t a weekend (or high season yet). 

We also made sure to pick up our locker key from the Two Harbors Visitor Services for Parsons Landing, so we’d have access to our water and firewood the next day.

Day 4: Two Harbors to Parsons Landing (6.7 miles via Silver Peak Trail)

Having learned our lesson the previous day, we set out early from Two Harbors Campground to tackle what we heard was one of the hardest sections of the Trans-Catalina Trail. 

The Silver Peak Trail is no joke.

Most of the other hiking groups that were doing the same Trans-Catalina Trail itinerary as us didn’t even attempt this trail and just did the West End Road to Parsons. 

We thought about doing that but ultimately decided that we wanted to do the full Trans-Catalina Trail.

And what was one more difficult climb and descent? We’d already had plenty of them over the past few days, right? 

Overall, the Silver Peak Trail was hard but it wasn’t anything too crazy compared to what we’d already hiked. 

I think we had also built it up enough in our heads that our expectations were at a good level. We were expecting it to be hard so it somehow ended up feeling easier. 

Day 4 on the Silver Peak Trail was the most elevation gain of the trip and there were some parts that were just straight up instead of switchbacks similar to the day before. 

It helped that we took our time and just focused on one section at a time, alternating between resting and then tackling another half mile. 

The hike went by quickly, probably because we knew it was our last hard hike of the trail and we were all excited for camping at Parsons Landing. 

The hardest stretch was the last section after the covered shelter that was just a steep descent down a loose gravel road. 

At some parts, the road dropped a solid 45 to 60 degrees and we had to just slip and slide our way down and hope for the best with our heavy packs.

This was one of the many times on the trip that I wished I had brought hiking poles for better stability and balance. 

Ashu was nice enough to lend me his for this section since I had about nine blisters on my feet by this time and the downhill motion was pretty painful. 

After the steepest part was done, we had another mile of flat trail before reaching Parsons Landing. 

Day 4, Two Harbors to Parsons Landing

We were the first ones there since we had left so early from Two Harbors and we found our campsite and set up our tents on the rocky beach.

Parsons was everything we were hoping for – it was quiet, remote, and felt like a little paradise. 

We were also excited that we had made it to our last night on the trail and that we were able to enjoy it in such a pretty place. 

After resting for a bit, we explored the campground area and dipped our feet in the water. 

Some people do the nine-mile hike from Parsons Landing to Starlight Beach (which used to be part of the old Trans-Catalina Trail) after getting in or before heading back to Two Harbors. 

If we had one more night at Parsons Landing, I probably would’ve been up for it. Since we didn’t, we just decided to take it easy and enjoy our last day on the beach. 

There’s hardly any shade at Parsons Landing so we all ended up at the communal partially covered area near the bathrooms once it got to be the hottest part of the day. 

That night, we made a fire and had our delicious freeze-dried meals that we picked up in Two Harbors. 

We talked about our favorite parts of the hike around the fire and went to bed just after the sun went down, exhausted but ready and excited for our last day on the Trans-Catalina Trail.

Day 5: Parsons Landing to Two Harbors (7.7 miles via West End Road)

The next morning, we woke up around 3:30 am to try and see the blood moon that was meant to show around 4 am. 

Unfortunately, the sky was completely covered with clouds so we didn’t get to see it at all, but it still helped us get up and out on the trail just after sunrise. 

Day 5 was not only our last day on the trail, it was also my 31st birthday. 

After reaching the 31-mile marker, Ashu and Wendy surprised me with a little trail pop tart that had a candle in it and sang me happy birthday. 

celebrating my 31st birthday at the 31 mile marker

I seriously couldn’t have asked for a better way to ring in 31. I felt grateful for our little hiking group that made this whole experience so enjoyable. 

From there, it was about a seven-mile hike on a mostly flat trail back to Two Harbors on the West End Road. 

We made good time with how easy the trail felt after all of the huge hills we’d climbed across the island. 

With that said, we also took plenty of stops with how gorgeous the West End Road is.

The trail snaked its way through a Boy Scout Camp and a number of scenic coves, most of which are privately owned. 

We had beautiful coastal views for pretty much the whole hike back, which was a great way to round out the Trans-Catalina Trail. 

After arriving in Two Harbors again, we took a picture with the Trans-Catalina Trail sign and congratulated ourselves with another Buffalo Milk in town. 

We only had about an hour in Two Harbors before the afternoon San Pedro Ferry whisked us back to the mainland. 

I couldn’t stop smiling on the ferry ride back.

Tips for Hiking the Trans-Catalina Trail

Tips for Hiking the TCT
  • Keep your packs light by refilling at towns and eating at restaurants – Because it’s surrounded by so many towns and tourist spots, the Trans-Catalina Trail is a more bougie backpacking trip than what you’ll find in other parts of California. But this also means you can use that to your advantage to pack lighter. Every campsite except for Parsons Landing has potable water and there are multiple meals you can grab from towns or the airport to reduce the amount of pack weight. For instance, we grabbed breakfast and lunch from Avalon on day 1, lunch at Airport in the Sky for day 2, lunch and dinner from Harbor Reef Restaurant on day 4, and lunch from Harbor Reef Restaurant on day 5.  
  • Wear long pants and stay on the trail – Poison oak is common on Catalina Island and a reason to wear long pants while you hike. Unless you’re avoiding bison, it’s also best to stay on the trail. This is not only to protect the natural habitat on the island but also because you’ll want to avoid cacti, ticks, and rattlesnakes. 
  • Start early – If there’s one thing we learned the hard way while hiking the Trans-Catalina Trail it’s to start as early as you can each day. You’ll want to give yourself enough time to set up camp before it gets to the hottest part of the day. As we learned on day 3, climbing those Catalina hills when it’s hot out is not fun and is an easy way to get heat stroke with the lack of shade. 
  • Bring plenty of water and sun protection – Speaking of the lack of shade, bringing plenty of water and sun protection is a must when hiking the Trans-Catalina Trail. I carried a 3L hydration bladder with me and I got through most of it by the end of each day. I also wore a breathable long sleeve hiking shirt with UV protection, a bucket hat, buff, sunglasses, and long pants every day on the trail. And of course, I always lathered up on sunscreen at the start of each day and sometimes reapplied in the afternoon. 
  • Moleskin and band-aids are your friend – This was partially due to the fact that I bought my Merrell hiking boots only a month before this trip, but I got a ton of blisters on the TCT. We ended up running out of band-aids and moleskin by the last day and I wish I had brought more because my feet were in a lot of pain by the end of the trip. If you’re prone to blisters (or even if you’re not), bring plenty of band-aids and load up on the moleskin just in case! 
  • Remember to have fun – From keeping a lizard count to taking goofy pictures at each mile marker to talking about how funny bison are until they gorge you, we managed to find ways of keeping things fun on the trail. And, in general, our hiking group was supportive and always open to doing what was best for the group. This helped with overall morale when we were going through especially tough sections of the trail and it made a 5-day hike that much more enjoyable. 
  • If you want an easier hike, look into the gear hauling service – The TCT is already a pretty friendly trail for beginner backpackers with how many conveniences there are throughout the hike. However, if you’re looking to take it up a notch, you can look into having your backpack hauled to each campsite for you. We talked about potentially doing this in the future if we hiked the Trans-Catalina Trail again since we already feel like we accomplished the trail the “hard” way by lugging our own gear. It ain’t cheap but if you want to do the full trail and don’t like wearing a heavy backpack, it’s a service to look into. You can find more about the gear hauling service for the Trans-Catalina Trail here.

FAQs About the Trans-Catalina Trail

Is the Trans-Catalina Trail difficult?

Yes, at 38.5 miles and 9,600 feet elevation gain, I’d rate the Trans-Catalina Trail as a difficult trail. 

With that said, it’s a great trail for both beginner and expert backpackers, even without a ton of training beforehand. 

It’s also easier the more days you give yourself. Doing the Trans-Catalina Trail in 3 days would be very difficult because of how long each hiking day would be and the elevation changes. 

Spreading it out over 4-5 days is much easier, although still a challenging experience. 

We didn’t train much before doing the TCT, but we planned our trip well and made sure we were hiking within our limits each day. 

You’ll just want to make sure you’re in good shape and that you can easily hike up to 10 miles at a time with decent elevation change.

is the trans catalina trail difficult

How long does it take to hike the Trans-Catalina Trail?

You can hike the Trans-Catalina Trail in 3-5 days. We chose to hike it in 5 days which was a very doable pace for our group.

How much does it cost to do the Trans-Catalina Trail?

Because of it being right in the middle of a very touristy island, the Trans-Catalina Trail isn’t the cheapest backpacking trip. 

You can make it cheaper by bringing all of your own food and not eating at restaurants, but even still, campsites are on the expensive side. 

Campsites alone cost around $50-$100 per person, depending on how many nights you’re on the trail. 

The parking at the ferry port is around $60-$100, again depending on how many days you’re hiking for. And roundtrip ferry tickets with Catalina Express cost $76. 

If you’re doing 5 days on the Trans-Catalina Trail, I’d probably budget around $230-$280, not including gear or food.

how much does the TCT cost?

Do you need a permit for the Trans-Catalina Trail?

Yes, but luckily your camping reservations act as your Catalina Island hiking permit. Just make sure to have these on hand or printed out and you’ll have your Trans-Catalina Trail permit.

Is the Trans-Catalina Trail a thru-hike?

The Trans-Catalina meets the definition of a thru-hike, which is an end-to-end backpacking trip on a long-distance trail. 

However, I would label it as a “mini’ thru-hike since most thru-hikes are much longer, covering thousands of miles and sometimes months on the trail (like the PCT).

Is the Trans-Catalina Trail dog-friendly?

Technically, most of the Trans-Catalina Trail allows dogs. However, I wouldn’t recommend bringing your dog on the hike. 

There’s little shade, bison and other wildlife to contend with, and long hiking distances and elevation gain could be pretty brutal for a dog. Also, dogs aren’t allowed at all at Hermit Gulch and Two Harbors Campground.

Looking for other California hikes? Check out our guides to the Berkeley Fire Trails, best Bay Area hikes, best hikes in Laguna Beach, best hikes in Orange County, best Malibu hikes, best Santa Cruz hikes, best Torrey Pines hikes, best Big Basin hikes, best hikes in San Francisco, best San Jose hikes, best Joshua Tree hikes, and best Big Bear hikes.

Get your FREE Los Angeles Mini Guide + a printable checklist with 100+ things to do in the city!


Mimi McFadden Headshot

Mimi McFadden
Founder & Editor-In-Chief

Mimi McFadden initially started The Atlas Heart in 2013 to write about her adventures abroad. But since 2019, The Atlas Heart has become a love letter to the Golden State. Mimi enjoys sharing her first-hand knowledge and expertise with the places she knows so well and making the most comprehensive travel guides possible. When she’s not hiking and exploring new places in California, she loves to travel abroad, read in her cozy chaise lounge, play basketball, and connect with friends and family over board games. Over her 28 years in California, she has lived in Santa Cruz (18 years), San Diego (5 years), and the San Francisco Bay Area (5 years), where she currently resides.

Looking for more Southern California travel inspiration? Check out these related posts below! 

Catalina Island Hiking Guide: Best Trails & Viewpoints on the Island

Best Catalina Island Beaches

The Perfect Catalina Island Day Trip

Camping at Parsons Landing Campground

Things to do in LA

Things to do in San Diego

Backpacking the Trans-Catalina Trail Pin 1

Pin this image for future reference

Hi, I'm Mimi! I'm an outdoorsy Californian who has spent over 28 years immersed in the incredible natural beauty that California has to offer. My goal is to inspire others to get out and find their next adventure in California. Whether it’s escaping to an alpine lake in the Sierras, finding peace among the giant redwoods, or road tripping down the PCH, there’s always more to explore in this beautiful state.


Leave a Comment