Soloing the Trans-Catalina Trail through Sketches, Tips, and Photos

Out of the boundaries of Avalon and Two Harbors, the mostly isolated Trans-Catalina Trail (TCT) travels along exposed mountain ridgelines, deep into canyons, and leads to cliffs that meet the emerald and sapphire ocean far below.

The trail is an immersive reminder of how wild the island really is.

The TCT crosses the entire island, a total of about 50 miles including out-and-back dayhikes and hikes to the boat terminals. I’ve been to Avalon plenty of times as a kid. I’ve hiked out to Blackjack Campground for my first (and somewhat disastrous) backpacking trip. I returned for a week for my very first solo backpacking trip, and it was awesome.

Day 1: Avalon and Hermit Gulch Campground

Overlooking Avalon from the top of the Hermit Gulch Trail in Catalina Island
The town of Avalon in the distance from the top of the Hermit Gulch Trail.

The town of Avalon is the main attraction on Catalina Island. It’s crowded with boatloads (literally) of tourists.

TIP: Arrive at Avalon, camp the night in Avalon’s Hermit Gulch campground, and get an early start on the TCT via the Hermit Gulch Trail.

The TCT proper starts about six miles east on the Renton Mine Road. Getting there requires hiking out and back from Avalon. Arrangements for private transportation can be made, but that can be expensive. There is no lodging – dispersed camping, campsite or otherwise. You can get in early, arrange transport to the trailhead proper, and hike back out to Avalon to spend the night at the Hermit Gulch Campground. Remember: This means a climb from the trailhead, a climb back down to the campground, and a climb back up to start on the TCT the next morning.

I think taking the Hermit Gulch trail still counts! Taking the Hermit Gulch Trail right out of Avalon shaves only about four miles from the over-all hike, since the Hermit Gulch Trail is almost two miles long.

Two reasons for taking a night at Hermit Gulch Campground:

1. Logistics. Depending on the arrival of your boat, the type of reservations you’ve secured for camps, and the hours of the conservancy, you can end up getting a late start on the hike.

2. The trail from Avalon to Blackjack Camp is no joke. It’s technically possible to hike directly from Avalon to Blackjack, but you must be honest with your physical capability and skill level. Are you okay with hiking in the heat? Are you good with your navigation skills? Comfortable hiking into camp via headlamp if you get stalled by bison or lost?

Things to Do at Avalon:

1. Stop by the Catalina Conservancy office for a hard copy of their updated map (PDF link). They also carry interesting extras like wildlife guides. The Conservancy closes at 4 PM, so make that a priority stop.

2. Stop by the Atwater Hotel if you need to pick up a locker key.

Locker System: The rangers in Catalina stock lockers at each campsite with firewood (and water for the sites without potable water). You pick up your key for Blackjack at the Atwater Hotel and your key for Parsons Landing at the Two Harbors Visitor’s Center. All campsites for the TCT except Parsons Landing have potable water. If you don’t care about having a fire, you can skip the Atwater Hotel. You can also add an order of s’mores to your locker, or just pack ‘em in like God intended.

TIP: Things slip through the cracks. I didn’t get my key for Little Harbor campground because the rangers thought the Atwater would provide it, the Atwater thought the Rangers would provide it, and honestly? I’m not even sure there are lockers for firewood at Little Harbor. I don’t care about having a camp fire, so no big. I DO care about having fresh water at Parsons Landing. It’s important to double-check that they have that squared away. People are very helpful and go out of their way to make sure that you’re good to hit the trail. A little patience and understanding is all that’s needed.

3. Buy water. What? Yes. Catalina is in the middle of an extreme drought. Residents are timing their showers to 3 minutes and construction companies are using water shipped from the mainland in giant tanks. Every small reservoir I passed was cracked and bone dry. A ranger told me it’s preferable that visitors pack their water from the mainland in for the first leg of the hike or buy it at Avalon. People won’t keep you from using the spigots, but it’s vital that visitors do their part to address the water shortage in Catalina.

TIP: Now is the time to stock up if you forgot anything. The liquor store, grocery store, and a handful of active wear stores should have you covered for most basic hygiene/food/vice needs. If you think the sticker shock in Avalon is bad, wait until you see prices at Two Harbors.

4.Whether you plan on hiking directly to Blackjack Camp or staying the night at Hermit Gulch, it doesn’t hurt to chat with the rangers at the Hermit Gulch Campground. They can give you solid info on the trail, weather, and wildlife.

Don’t let the tourist trap exterior of Avalon dissuade you from exploring this little town, especially if you haven’t been to Catalina before! Things to do at Avalon to kill time and for fun:

1. Toward the end of the pier is a little turquoise shack and a patio. THEY HAVE THE BEST CALAMARI. Screw the fancy-lookin’ places on the street area proper, go to the freakin’ pier unless you’re a strict vegetarian or something like that.

2. Check out the local art scene. Catalina is home to some awesome artists and is visited by awesome artists. Seeing different takes on Catalina’s unique ecology is inspiring and gets you ready to explore and paint!

3. There’s a bunch of semi-sporty/sporty things to do right around town: zipline tours, kayak rentals, bike rentals, snorkeling, and parasailing. There are glass-bottom boat tours – all of this literally steps away from where the boat docks (the zipline tour is a bit of a hike out, though).

4. Be lazy, have a few drinks at the beach, check out the kelp forests from above and see the bright orange Garibaldi being the adorable, bright douches they are.

5. Shopping, if you’re insane. Avalon has the most souvenir selection, but remember, you’ll be keeping track of and carrying that crap across the whole island. So shop if your picky, hold off until you depart if you’re not. You’ll get a chance at the Airport and Two Harbors.

6. Golf. I haven’t the foggiest clue about how golf works except you hit a ball with a stick and walk to wherever it fell. You’re on your own with that one.

7. Chat with other tourists. Yeah, you’re a badass backpacker, but let’s own it – we can also be plenty touristy. I got a chance to chat with a few other fellow backpackers there to relax in Avalon, and the lady offered me cheerios from her bag because she knows how The Hunger is.

8. Fishing. People were catching fish right off the pier. Would make a nice pre-hike dinner at Hermit Gulch campground.

Once you’re done being a tourist, the Hermit Gulch Campground is a short mile and some change walk up into the canyon via a paved road. It’s your quintessential car camping experience, with showers, lockers, rentals from the office, and group camp cabins. The online reservation system has you pick a site, but it’s really first-come, first-pick.

Dinner at Hermit Gulch Campground - Chicken, Rice and Tomatos!
Dinner of rice, pasta, tomatos and chicken at Hermit Gulch Campground

TIP: Head toward the back for sites that are more private and have direct access to the Hermit Gulch trailhead. In the evening and early morning, look across the street toward the field. You’ll probably see a small herd of deer or flock of adorable California quails.

Day 2: Hermit Gulch Trail to the TCT to Blackjack Camp

Hermit Gulch Trail climbing to meet the TCT.

Before you hit the trail nice and early, here are some things to keep in mind:

It’s an awesome, challenging, gorgeous trail that can be a bit difficult to find sometimes. Pay attention and enjoy the eccentricity of it! The weirdness gets downright funny sometimes.

1. The TCT was not a pre-planned trail. It grew through connecting recreational trails, use trails, service roads and dirt roads. Most of it isn’t maintained. That said, this trail makes no freakin’ sense half the time. Expect a lot of elevation losses and gains, swerves inland and swerves back out toward the coast, and a lot of ‘WHAT WAS THE POINT OF THAT!?’. Sometimes you’ll come across a use trail or an unmarked dirt road. A map is essential.

Sketch of a part of the TCT to Blackjack.

Some climbs and descents are steep and make you feel like a mountain goat.  Some patches are nice, level singletrack through fields, some have you hiking short stretches of dirt road alongside vehicles (don’t worry, these are just connectors to fill gaps in the trails), some are rocky and require a bit of scrambling if you don’t have trekking poles. The trail ranges from class I – class III. It’s an awesome, challenging, gorgeous trail that can be a bit difficult to find sometimes. Pay attention and enjoy the eccentricity of it! The weirdness gets downright funny sometimes.

2. Catalina has cell phone signal some of the time. While phone signal is convenient and a much-touted aspect of Catalina, do not rely on it in place of skill and planning. It’s not always available.

3. Weather on the coast and during the early morning can be deceiving. A thick marine fog rolls in around evening and burns off late morning, providing perfect hiking weather.

That changes on a dime the second that marine fog burns off. It’s hot inland, hot up on mountain ridges, and there’s rarely the refuge of shade. Some inland parts of the trail drop you behind hills and mountains and cut off the relief of ocean breezes. I STRONGLY recommend just covering yourself in sunscreen, a sunhat, sunglasses, and a sunshirt.

3. BRING WATER. BRING SO MUCH WATER. Bring AT LEAST two liters more than you think you need, and be sure to refill when you pass Haypress reservoir. Even if you don’t think you need it. It is very arid, which is the killer combined with the overhead sun. With water, you’ll be fine if you take it easy, rest as needed, and replenish your electrolytes. I ran out one mile from Blackjack camp. It was a miserable experience. Please avoid it and bring a ton of water! Don’t worry about the weight. You’ll be drinking it down fast due to the aridity of the area. This place makes you drink and pee so much.

Good news: nothing that wants your food can kill you. Bad news: it’s like dealing with tiny, adorable, relentless bears.

5. Fauna: A lack of large natural predators and a lot of close human contact has led to some common behaviors in the wildlife to keep an eye out for. The island foxes, ground squirrels, and deer are BOLD, and they know humans = food. The foxes and squirrels have chewed through packs and tents to get to well-hidden food stashes, while the opportunistic crows are adept at pecking through packaging and water bottles and will go after your water.

Good news: nothing that wants your food can kill you. Bad news: it’s like dealing with tiny, adorable, relentless bears. The island foxes have a great sense of smell and don’t necessarily determine between snacks and sunscreen. Watch all your scented stuff and do the following:

  • The wildlife close to towns are worse about their scavenging habits. Use the provided lockers if you’re in doubt.
  • Keep a clean camp – watch your crumbs, wash dishes/brush teeth/cook away from your tent, check your pack for wrappers, and be fastidious about re-sealing packaging.
  • Generally speaking, if your stuff is in hidden in well-sealed packaging, you’re okay.
  • Keep a very close eye on your stuff. These animals might be bold, but they can be scared off with a yell.

The bison are very large, very strong, and just don’t care at all. They’ll do what they want, where they want. They’ll take a nap right by the road, stand in the middle of the trail for no damn reason, and have caused their own version of Catalina traffic. This is another reason I encourage an early start. You don’t know when you’ll run into bison traffic! Give them plenty of space (150’ minimum), don’t make eye contact, and don’t corner them. If you can’t give them 150’ of space by going around them, be prepared to take a break or backtrack and wait it out. I got held up by a pair of them for about half an hour. They are incredible, powerful creatures and fascinating to watch. Consider yourself lucky if you end up dealing with such a delay! It’s awesome.

In the rare event that you get charged by one, put something between you and it – tree, large boulder, whatever. Don’t mess with them, just chill if you see one.

Bison Along the TCT in Catalina Island
A pair of bison with the TCT junction sign just behind them.
Bison Along the TCT in Catalina Island
Chillin’ and waiting in a Bison traffic stall.

Rattlesnakes: They can be seen sunning themselves on the roadside and sometimes in the middle of the trail. They escape the cooler weather in the foliage. Just pay attention, particularly where the singletrack narrows and starts winding.

6. Flora: Wildflowers in spring, gorgeous red groundcover, wide golden fields – there’s not much you have to worry about except small patches of red and green poison oak and cacti. I highly suggest pants and being careful where you sit.

T he Hermit Gulch Trail is almost two miles of climbing up to the mountain ridgeline where it meets up with a wide dirt road. It’s not particularly steep or challenging. It can be rocky and a bit loose in some places, steep where the trail has eroded to underlying rock. The difficult parts are no longer than a couple yards at a time. Find your pace and go! The trail’s expansive views of Avalon and the ocean are a wonderful start to the day. The Hermit Gulch Trail is part of a loop that’s popular with Avalon day hikers, but an early start means the trail is nice and quiet. I had it all to myself when I hiked it and I was able to complete it in one go.

At the end of the trail there’s a nice little shade/seating area to take in the panorama of the ocean.

TIP: Keep an eye open for Handout, the resident Hermit Gulch Island Fox. The rangers nicknamed him so because he’s learned that the sound of opening ziplock bags means food and will come running to beg. Don’t feed him, obviously, but he’s a cute little dude and he’s got those puppy eyes down!

Hermit Gulch Trail
Handout’s somewhere around here…

Some backpackers skip the Hermit Gulch Trail and hike up to the ridgeline via a firebreak out of Avalon. It’s a much steeper but more direct route. It’s also technically not allowed.

You’ll be hiking along the ridgeline on a dirt road for a bit. Not the most fun, but there is a sweet tradeoff: the view of the ocean to your right, the view of the inland hills, mountains and valleys to your left. Keep an ear and eye out for vehicles and cyclists. About a mile and a half later you’ll see a TCT junction sign pointing left and inland on proper singletrack. You’ll pass through some gates meant to manage the bison’s wandering habits, so be sure to read the signs and close them securely after yourself if instructed.

Lone Tree off in the interior of Catalina Island
A lone tree looking inland. The trail is a viewpoint trail and not part of the TCT, but a nice little side-trip anyway.

Conclusion: bring a ton of water. Take photos, chill after a climb and enjoy the ocean breezes, take in the view, have fun with the weird, meandering singletrack. Problem solved!

This is where it gets beautiful, quiet, and a little rough. You’ll skirt a creek with beautiful flora, meander back out to look down on the coastline, skirt around Haypress reservoir, and generally have an awesome time if you don’t run out of water. Which I did. It was not fun. I was having a blast, then the aridity of the area hit me like a sledgehammer. I wouldn’t wish the experience on the douchiest of douches.

If you bring enough water, it’s an AWESOME experience. If you run out, it sucks. Conclusion: bring a ton of water. Take photos, chill after a climb and enjoy the ocean breezes, take in the view, have fun with the weird, meandering singletrack. Problem solved!

B lackjack Camp has potable water. Pick up your firewood if you’ve reserved it from the lockers toward the back of the campsite beside the porta-potties. The sites themselves are very spacious and surrounded by pines, while Blackjack Camp itself is situated on the side of Blackjack mountain.

Blackjack Camp
Looking out from site #2 toward the interior on a foggy morning.
Blackjack Camp
A one-person haven of solitude.

TIP: If you want an awesome view, aim to grab sites 1-4. They offer vast inland views and, if there’s no fog, lovely sunsets and sunrises.

Sketch of a woodpecker at Blackjack camp.

When I camped there the first time, a bison just randomly wandered through camp in the morning. This time around, a small flock of woodpeckers were doing their thing and being adorable not five feet from my tent. When I was there last time there were two other parties of backpackers who were really nice. This time? I had it all to myself and had my pick of sites. It was just beyond brilliant and never have I slept so well! (The dehydration stint may have had something to do with that, though).

A VERY IMPORTANT WORD ON TRASH: Please make sure to securely replace trash can lids. Someone failed to do this and it was like a frathouse party for the foxes, crows, and squirrels. The cleanup wasn’t fun, either. Trash can kill. When I went to the Grand Canyon in late April, the ranger told me they already had to put down 20+ deer due to them ingesting plastic bags that resulted in GI blockages. It’s a horrible way to die, so euthanasia was the kindest, most humane thing they can do. Animals will eat trash and the Island Fox is an endangered species. Make sure trash cans are properly closed after yourself. It takes all of a second and can avoid the sad situation described above.

Day 3: Blackjack Camp to the Airport to Little Harbor

Out of Blackjack Camp you’ve got two options:

1. Take the Airport Road to the Airport in the Sky, which is a well-used road with lots of big views. Slightly longer in mileage and not part of the TCT, but easier terrain.

2. Take the TCT, which goes down Blackjack Mountain into Cottonwood Canyon and climbs up to the Airport.

Hiking the Trans-Catalina Trail Down BlackJack Mountain into Cottonwood Canyon
Off the short stretch of dirt road after climbing down Blackjack Mountain that leads straight into Cottonwood Canyon.
Old Trail Sign in Cottonwood Canyon along the Trans-Catalina Trail
A cool old trail marker along the TCT in Cottonwood Canyon
Sketch of the trail from Blackjack to Cottonwood Canyon.

took the Cottonwood Canyon for its fascinating bit of hidden Catalina ecology. You’ll pass under a little grove of oak trees, pick your way through tall grasses, and admire the bright red and soft purple wildflowers. The trail itself is loads of fun. My only warning is to pay attention: sometimes the trail looks overgrown due to the tall foliage. There is poison oak. I suggest pants. Pants, generally speaking, are a good idea on the trail and in life.

You can skip the airport, but it’s an opportunity to get food that didn’t come out of a ziplock bag. Other things you can do at the airport:

  • Stock up on water at $1 a bottle.
  • Go pee – the bathrooms are clean. So clean. I felt like I was sinning when I took my dusty, sweaty self in there.
  • Buy souvenirs. Last stop for fancy general Catalina stuff. The store at Two Harbors is very Two Harbors-centric.
  • Grab an awesome cookie for now or later.
  • Watch the planes take off and land.
  • Visit the upstairs office for a large map and arrange any gear hauling, bus or shuttle services you might want later.

Out of the Airport in the Sky, you’ve got two options:

1.Take the Sheep Chute Road down to Little Harbor. This is the TCT proper, a bit steeper and more direct.

2. Take the El Rancho Escondido Road that parallels the Sheep Chute Road for a longer but less steep hike. You can literally see either road as you hike, so the direction difference is negligible.

The view just off the ranch at Catalina Island
At the top of the shortcut from the ranch leading from El Rancho Escondido Road to Sheep Chute Road.

Both offer great views as you approach Little Harbor. I chose the El Rancho Escondido road because the Sheep Chute Road is popular with the Adventure Jeep Tours. It was pretty cool to see a little old Grandma livin’ it up on one of those tours. What is not cool is hearing an engine rev and someone WHOO-HOO-ing behind me.

Both roads are exposed to the sun. Sunscreen, water, you know the drill.

TIP: The El Rancho Escondido Road passes right by the Ranch. It’s undergoing construction now, so the temporary equipment paths threw me off and I stopped to double-check my map. The awesome lady who works there walked out to meet me and give me a tip on a shortcut. It’s a little dirt road that climbs over a small hill and meets up with the Sheep Chute Road. The view from the top of that place is awesome and the Sheep Chute Road drops you directly into Little Harbor camp. Best of both worlds!

While pointing out the shortcut she shared her wealth of knowledge about the history of Catalina. In two years the Arabian horses will be back, there’s a small vinyard, and the ranch itself is a charming Spanish stucco building. If you like history, this is definitely a cool, short detour.

  • When the island caught fire (in general, the whole damn thing), the Wrigley family bought shares for the whole island, donated most of it to the Catalina Conservancy, and kept a little rectangular patch for the ranch and their vineyard. This is why building development is so tightly regulated and it hasn’t become a super-commercial, bougie place. This tends to happen with beautiful beachfront property. See: La Jolla, San Diego, a decade ago and now.
  • This ranch was a major player in keeping the Arabian horse breed around when its popularity was waning. They are beautiful animals.
The view hiking toward Little Harbor
The view looking toward Sheep Chute Road from the shortcut.
Hiking toward Little Harbor on the Trans-Catalina Trail
Hiking along Sheep Chute Road toward Little Harbor in the distance.
Sketch of the Sheep Chute Rd.
Sketch of the Sheep Chute Rd.

Little Harbor is a popular campsite during the summer. It’s nowhere near as crowded as Two Harbors or Avalon since it’s a drive from either boat terminal. During my stay there were maybe three groups of car campers scattered throughout the numerous and spacious sites. The sites are located along a bluff overlooking the cove and down toward the beach. There’s potable water and a ranger on site who mans the sale of firewood. This guy is the most chill guy ever, keeps the place spotless, and is over-all a great host for a beautiful camp. The beach is a quiet, pristine one, with a crescent-shaped shore flanked by two dark cliffs. Camping here was a restful, very relaxed experience with a beautiful view right out my tent.

View from Site 12 at Little Harbor in Catalina
Seriously, this is ten steps straight out from my campsite.
Sketch of my campsite at Little Harbor.
Sketch of my campsite at Little Harbor.

Day 4: Little Harbor to Parsons Landing

Sometime along the trail my knee rebelled, just a little. It’s been about two months since I dislocated, relocated and backpacked on my right kneecap at the Grand Canyon. How? With style, class, a makeshift brace made out of a sleeping pad, and setting the record for the slowest person to backpack the Grand Canyon EVER.

I could feel it start to slip and my stretched-out brace was useless. Since this was my first solo, I played it safe and took a shuttle from Little Harbor to Two Harbors, shaving five miles off the day’s hike. It was disappointing to miss that stretch of trail, but there were some nice consolation prizes. The shuttle got there late in the morning, so I had time to paint, have a nice breakfast, and photograph the beautiful morning ocean scenery. The lady who picked me up is also the manager for every camp ground on the island (SUCH a sweet gig) told me plenty about life as a resident on the Island.

At Two Harbors I stopped by the visitor’s center to pick up my key to Parsons Landing, filled up on water, and scoped the place out.

TIP: Two Harbors general store is pricey, but they have all the standard stuff and fuel canisters for your stove if you’re running low.

Most TCT itineraries I’ve seen online skip Little Harbor and set their third night camp at Two Harbors. Two Harbors is a nice, teeny-tiny little town. I would still stay at Little Harbor and skip Two Harbors next time I do this. Why?

Two Harbors is one of two terminals on the island, the other being Avalon. Within four miles of Two Harbors are multiple private resorts and group campsites.

This means that this nice, relaxed little town can suddenly become flooded with massive groups of tourists. Not the chill, friendly tourists of Avalon, but the stressed-out, herded-in-an-organized group kind. The short time I passed through Two Harbors I saw (NOT joking, overheard the camp counselors doing a count) a youth group of 100+ kids and a business leadership group of 40+ people. It’s pure freaking chaos. Many of them land, sort themselves out, and head off to their respective camps in a big cloud of dust. I much prefer the quiet, out-of-town isolation of Little Harbor.

Off the West End Road in Catalina Island
View from the West End Road. It’s more or less always like this.

Two options for getting to Parsons Landing:

1. The Silver Peak Trail, which is the TCT proper. It heads inland and climbs up Silver Mountain, then drops you right into Parsons Landing.

2. The West End Road, which is a little longer but is very easy-going as far as terrain. More of a walk than a hike, honestly.

West End Road from Two Harbors Sketch
West End Road from Two Harbors Sketch

I took the West End Road In consideration of my stupid knee, with the intent on resting it during my zero day at Parsons and hiking back to Little Harbor via the Silver Peak Trail. Despite the occasional vehicle, cyclist, and the fact that it’s a road and more of a long walk than a hike, the West End Road has its own charm. It follows the coastline for the most part, dipping inland at Cherry Valley and Howland’s Landing, giving a generally constant view of the coastline and the ocean. There are benches to sit and take in the view, and despite it being a road, it isn’t quite as crowded as one would think – IF you start early.

The West End Road swerves inland at Arrow Point, passing through what I THOUGHT was a prison work camp. The land itself is beautiful, but what people have done to it to make it ‘habitable’ is, um, interesting. There are tent-cabins lined up in damn near every available spot. I thought ‘Oh, cool, they have inmates doing firebreak work here!’. If you’ve watched Pit Bulls and Parolees, the inmates did just such a thing to save Tia Torres’ pit bull/random dog rescue facility from a wildfire when they were located in CA. I was thinking ‘Damn, I wonder how coveted this gig here is in a correctional facility’.

Nope. It’s Emerald Bay. People go there who aren’t incarcerated. They go there and get lined up of their own free will. They PAY to go there and get lined up of their own free will.

Once you get through Emerald Bay, this totally makes up for it!
Once you get through Emerald Bay, this totally makes up for it!

I got through that patch real quick. For some reason they put up signs to designate their group camp areas which occupy both sides of the road. One of them says ‘Parsons’ and seems to point in a totally random direction. Ignore it. It’s easy to identify because it’s painted light blue with a seriff font, a completely different sign than the ones for the TCT.

It’s a very fun stretch of trail after the monotony of the road, even if the views from the road were awesome. As the TCT proper climbs to the bluffs towards the shore and camp you’ll get amazing views of open fields and the ocean.

Shortly after heading inland at Arrow Point there’s a gate to keep out unauthorized vehicles, but cyclists and hikers can pass through the side. A short stretch of road later and you’ll see a fork with a sign for the TCT with an arrow pointing to Parsons Landing. Now you’re back on the TCT proper with its rocky, hilly singletrack. It’s a very fun stretch of trail after the road’s monotonous terrain. As the TCT proper climbs to the bluffs towards the shore and camp you’ll get amazing views of open fields and the ocean.

SUGGESTION: This “hike” to Parsons Landing via the West End Road from Two Harbors is a great way to introduce people to backpacking. It’s something the little ones could do or those who aren’t as able-bodied as some other backpacking trips would require. It’s ridiculously easy for the majority of the trip and ends with the brilliant payoff that is Parsons Landing. Note that I didn’t say it is handicapped accessible. A person still needs to be able to climb up a very, very short but somewhat steep area to use the bathrooms and be able to maneuver steps. There’s a dirt road to the bluff right above the campsites where the lockers and restroom are located, but I didn’t take it so I can’t speak to what condition it’s in.

Along the TCT into Parsons you’ll come across an unmarked fork. Head right and down to Parson’s Landing.

Looking down from the Trans-Catalina Trail at Parson's Landing
Hiking the TCT with Parson’s Landing in the distance.

Parsons Landing is an isolated beach, separated from the group camps and private coves of Catalina by distance and dramatic cliffs. The lockers and bathrooms are at the top of a bluff overlooking the beach. A short trail leads down to the beach where the five sites are located. Site three is the most central and open, which had its own charm. Sites one and two are located in little alcoves, flanked left and right by towering cliffs. The sites are extremely spacious and can easily give the impression of isolation. During the weekend the camp is a popular one, but given the space of each site, the limited number of sites, and the strict observation of quiet hours, it’s a pleasant sort of company where people are friendly, but generally keep to themselves. When I arrived it was heartwarming to see a group of kids living it up. Plus, kids say hilarious things. Overheard during my first day:

Kid 2: (skeptically) how?

By the time the weekend wraps up, you’ll see maybe one or two other people. Sometimes dayhikers from one of the closer resorts will wander through. You’ve got plenty of space and privacy to relax at Parsons.

Each site is equipped with one or more fire rings and a hanging-together-by-a-prayer picnic table. Take note of the large tanks marked ‘Salt H20 – For Fires Only’ up on the bluff. There’s also one at Camp #2.

I arrived with plenty of time to set up camp, paint, mess with my camera and old-school ND filters, make a small fire and enjoy the lovely, foggy nighttime weather.


At the beach in Parson's Landing, Catalina Island, in front of Camp #3
Parsons Landing Beach and Campsite View

TIP: At sunset the incoming cloudcover makes for a remarkable show of light and shadow over the water. Don’t forget to look back at the bluffs, cliffs and mountains for a beautiful array of gold fields and deep red succulents.

Sunset at Parson's Landing, Catalina Island
Sunset at Parsons Landing from Camp #2.

TIP: The sun is relentless during midday and there is little shade. The breeze is a relief during these hours, so take advantage of it by pitching a wide-open tarp or rainfly/footprint set-up for shade.

WILDLIFE: Watch your food, trash, and especially your water. Because there’s no fresh water at Parsons Landing, the crows have learned to peck through unattended water jugs. I hid my water the second it left the locker either under a jacket, my tent rainfly or in my tent.

Sketch of a seal just chillin' with us campers.
Sketch of the seal just chillin’ with us campers.

All the familiar Catalina wildlife are present at Parsons Landing. I even saw a couple of bison up on the hills in the morning. Keep an eye out for dolphins in the distance and seals! This little guy slid right up on one of the rocks steps away from the shore and didn’t really care that people were taking photos of him.

The weather was perfect at night. When my mom arrived at Two Harbors and hiked out to meet me the next day, I gave her my one-person tent and slept out under the stars and bright, full moon.

Moonlit Night at Parson's Landing, Site #1, Catalina Island
Night at Parson’s Landing Camp #1

Day 5 & 6: Parsons Landing and Departure from Two Harbors

We took an extra zero day because somehow my mom fell on the West End Road on her way to meet me. She arrived aching, scraped up but in good spirits and with ingredients to make hamburgers. The unexpected zero day was easy to accommodate because Parsons Landing, again, pretty much empties once the weekend wraps up. My mom has done some pretty rough trails in her time so her eating it on a dirt road is pretty funny to the both of us. She says it was because Emerald Bay shocked and dismayed her and she wasn’t looking where she was going!

Parson's Landing Plein Air
Painting in the shade of a dip in the cliff on the west end of the beach.
Sketch of Parsons Landing from site #1.
Sketch of Parsons Landing from site #1.

Extra days at Parsons pass very quick. There’s views around every corner, perfect for the plein air painter and photographer. It’s easy to wander the bluffs and small use-trails for fascinating and inspiring scenery. You can snorkel, fish, swim, or just bum on the beach. There is no lifeguard on duty, but the tide isn’t particularly rough. Be sure to check out the water around both cliffs that flank either side of the beach, because semiprecious stones and seaglass polished by the surf can be easily found. My mom assorted a nice collection of quartz, green seaglass, rose quartz, citrine, tiger’s eye, and amethyst. Obviously you can’t take them home with you, but they’re fun to find. A dayhike to Starlight Beach and back completes the TCT. Starlight beach may be where the TCT officially ends, but there is no camping there.

TIP: A lightweight, packable daypack comes in handy for exploring the area without having to unpack, figure out how to keep the critters from messing with your stuff, and then repack once you’re back. It’s a little extra bit of gear that’ll make a big difference, particularly for photographers and plein air painters who carry stuff with them because we’re artists and we’re weird.

Mom needed help getting jackets on and off as well as sitting up and laying down, so I had to stay within yelling distance. I can’t say I was disappointed. These things happen, Parsons Landing is gorgeous, and the tradeoff was worth it to share the finale of my first solo with family. My original itinerary included an extra day at Little Harbor to hike the smaller trails and paint, but I cut that short to accompany Mom home.

Hiking back to Two Harbors from Parson's Beach in Catalina Island
Hiking out via the TCT to the West End Road from Parson’s Landing.

We played it safe and skip the challenging Silver Peak Trail. We took the West End Road back to Two Harbors. It was a good call, too. Mom had to stop frequently to take her pack off due to the burning of her injured ribs and shoulder. I flagged down a passing motorist and, while he wasn’t licensed to take passengers, he was awesome and helpfully drove my mom’s pack into town. It’s usually a $250 fee for gear hauling service, but he didn’t charge us a dime. Awesome, awesome guy.

Sketch of Two Harbors from the beach.
Sketch of Two Harbors from the beach.

Freed from her pack and carrying nothing but trekking poles, a sunhat, and my spare water bottle (AGAIN WITH THE WATER SAM? YES I KNOW), she and I killed the remaining three miles. I’m so grateful to that guy, because she was able to enjoy the lovely view and nice ocean breeze. We got to Two Harbors with plenty of time to spare before our boat arrived. The wonderful ladies at the Visitor’s Center were incredible about accommodating my changed itinerary. I asked about our extra zero day at Parson’s Landing and they just gave it to us free AND refunded my reservation at Two Harbor’s campground. Definitely was not what I was expecting! While I don’t particularly care for the herds of people coming and going from Two Harbors, the people who work and live there are so nice and fun to talk to. I might not camp at Two Harbors now that I know it gets crazy-crowded, but I’ll definitely make sure to spend a little time there to be in that chill community and meet such cool people.

My first solo didn’t go exactly as planned. While I still have to hike the trail from Little Harbor to Two Harbors, the Silver Peak Trail and make it to Starlight Beach, I have zero regrets. The trails will be there when I return, and now I feel a lot more familiar with the trail to really enjoy it the second time around. In the meantime, I got to meet awesome people, learn a lot from them, spend time at an amazing camp with my mom, and I was forced to keep my butt in one place and really take in all the wild beauty around me. There’s something about the solitude of soloing Catalina that just nitro-fuels the will to create. I’m happy to report that my mom visited the doctor and her pain is abated a bit with prescribed Tramadol and strict orders to rest. She may be braced and bandaged in three places, but she has no regrets either.

Chillin' with my sketchbook/journal at Parsons Landing.
Chillin’ with my sketchbook/journal at Parsons Landing.

When the TCT takes you away from the two towns on the island, you get a firsthand look at the rugged, wild, beautiful terrain. The trail itself is challenging, eccentric, and hella fun. Dedicated backcountry backpackers might find the pockets of civilization off-putting. I say go for it! Experiencing the unique ecology of Catalina in solitude one day, then meeting the lovely people who call it home the next is definitely worth every moment.

For more inspiration to backpack the Trans-Catalina Trail, check out these awesome trip reports!

Jay’s Journeys

SoCal Hiker

The Big Wild


  1. Enjoyed your report! I really appreciate that you carried all those art supplies as well as being smart about carrying enough water. Your sketches are amazing. I wish I had the patience for that sort of thing. A camera is the best I can do. Thanks for sharing your journey.


    1. Thanks Jay, and the best you can do with your camera looks awesome to me! 🙂


  2. I just returned home from a 2 day Plein air trip to Pelee Island, to see your comment on my blog. Thank you for stopping by, and for taking the time to comment. I’ve taken the time to browse though your blog, and I must say I’m impressed, and I will return to read more of your adventures. You are living the dream I’ve dreamt for a VERY long time. But, now my legs are not what they used to be. Hiking leaves me with swollen ankles. But I love it so, and I do it in spite of the discomfort. Keep loving life!


    1. Sounds like such an awesome trip! I can relate to leg issues, and I hate to be that person who just gives out unsolicited advice, but have you tried compression socks? When my knee is giving me major problems it affects my entire gait and compression socks really help! Mom swears by them too. If you have and I’m just slow on the uptake I apologize, just thought I’d mention it because the socks really helped the swelling/pain that comes with having a funky joint :p lol I just want every hiker to be comfy! Thanks for stopping by and I’m definitely happy to meet a cool fellow hiking artist!


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