Trans Catalina Trail

Catalina Island Backpacking Misadventures

In early 2009, I stumbled across a small article about a backpacking trail on Catalina Island in the now defunct National Geographic Adventure magazine that stirred my interest in taking our camping experience to the next level. The article was about the recently designated Trans Catalina Trail (TCT), which at that time it was only 27.5 miles from Hermit Gulch Campground, near Avalon, to Parson’s Landing Campground on the far north end – today the entire route is about 10 miles longer. Having never been backpacking, but wanting to go, I decided that this was the perfect starter backpacking trip for us. The original plan was to go over the long Thanksgiving weekend that year, but that did not end up working out, and we ended up waiting another year before going between Christmas and New Year’s Day in 2010.

The plan was to catch the ferry into Two Harbors and camp there for the night. Over the following days we would work our way over to Little Harbor, Black Jack, and finally into Avalon.

The Buffalo and the Trail

After an uneventful, but great night, sleeping among buffalo prints on a cliff over looking the ocean at Two Harbors Campground, we set about on our journey across Catalina Island. Our first hurdle and sign of the trouble to come, was the hill getting up and out of Two Harbors – it was long, somewhat steep, and mud slicked. We eventually made it past the hill and up and over the next few miles of rolling ridge line with some of the most amazing views of the snow capped mountains and the Los Angeles Basin below.

Right around 3rd mile of the day the terrain changes from grass-covered rolling hills to more rocky and desert looking, with an abundance of prickly pear cactus covered hills. Upon descending down one steep hill we were stopped in our tracks by one of the island’s local inhabitants blocking our path about 300 yards away. Standing in the trail feeding on the grass between the cactus was a massive buffalo. There was no way to pass it, on one side of the ridge trail was a steep slope covered in cactus, the other side was a cliff that had given way to sharp drop off. So we waited.

We ended up waiting for more than 2 hours on that ridge. Finally, the beast had moved maybe 20 feet from the trail and we thought we could make a break for it. We were not sure what the odds were, knowing that the buffalo could run much faster than we could, but we did not know what else to do. So we quietly and slowly continued down the hill until we were within 20-30 yards and ran like we had never run before. In our minds we probably broke some speed records, but in realty we were definitely dragging our butts with 20 lbs on our backs. As we ran past the buffalo it slowly turned its head as it kept chewing the fresh grass, and ultimately did not pay us much attention. We continued running for at least another 30 yards up the hill until we were sure we were past the buffalo, which apparently did not care as much about us as we did about it.

The Storm

We finally made it down the hill past the buffalo and into Little Harbor Campground, and it was a beautiful sunny afternoon, but we knew a storm was foretasted. There had been a number of storms that had rolled through the area in the past several days and weeks, leaving the island soaked and muddy.

After arriving in Little Harbor we found our campsite, one of the few that were closest to the beach. Again, just as we were in Two Harbors, we were one of the only occupants of the campground. We pitched our tent, got settled in, and found our firewood placed on the rim of the concrete fire pit as expected. We wondered down to the beach took a few photos and watched the picturesque sun set in the west. As the sunset came and went we started out campfire and quickly burned through the firewood we pre-bought and attempted to burn fallen palm tree fronds to no avail.

After a while the Catalina Conservancy Ranger came by and asked us if we knew there was a big storm coming, and if we wanted a lift back to Avalon or Two Harbors. We said we knew about the storm and were fine. However, about 3am the rain started and by 5am the wind was whipping, pushing our unstaked tent in on itself. After sitting in the tent for awhile to let some of the wind pass, we decided that we should take the road, thinking it would be the safer choice to get to Blackjack.

Three Steps Forward, Slide Two Steps Back

We managed to get everything packed up and our rain gear on and slog our way up the hill and out of Little Harbor to the main road. Once we got to the top of the hill we stopped and found ourselves looking back down at the campsite we had just left we could see the blue waters of the harbors mixed with mud and silt streaming in from the hillside from the aggressive storm that had just passed. While the scene was striking and serene, we mainly stopped because we were dying from the humidity as the rain and the wind stopped and our body heat was bearing back in on us under the vinyl rain ponchos. So after stripping the rain ponchos off, we kept moving, only to find quite possibly the muddiest dirt road known to man.

So much mud. We slogged on, past El Rancho Escondido, up the hill above the low-hanging cloud line. This slog took hours, many more than it was supposed to. As much as we tired their was no way to avoid the mud, if you were not sliding backwards, you were sinking an inch or more into the soft road. Every now and then we had to stop to try and remove the extra mud that was caked onto our shoes as it was adding an extra pound or more to each foot. We desperately needed a break, somewhere to sit for a moment and take a breather, but there was nothing to sit on, no benches, no rocks, just mud. So with Blackjack Campground still seemingly hours away we set our sites on a new target, The Airport in the Sky.

Airport in the Sky

Catalina’s Airport in the Sky was like a beacon in the night. This is where we had to stop, we were both miserable, so we detoured into the Airport seeking shelter from the wind, which had picked back up, and hoping they would have some place warm and dry. Upon walking up to the main building we were able to drop our packs on the benches in front, strip off some damp clothes, and try and get as much mud off of our feet as possible before entering to avoid tracking across the shiny Spanish tiles inside.

Once inside, we could hardly contain ourselves, we were hoping for a warm place to sit and maybe a snack machine, but we were overjoyed when we saw that there was small cafe inside that served hot meals and most importantly, beer. So we ordered a plate of nachos and a couple Coronas and made our way over to the massive stone fireplace that contained a roaring fire and was adorned with a bison head. After demolishing the nachos and beers, we opted for one more round – we were sure we had earned them. We then discussed our plan of action, do we try and get back on the actual TCT vs the road and make our way to the next campground? Or is there another option?

The entire time we were sitting in the cafe, we kept seeing the airport shuttles that take people to and from Avalon pull up and leave. So we decided that maybe we could pay one of them to take us to the next campsite (yes, we knew it was cheating on the trail, but whatever). I chatted with one of them and they agreed that they could take us to the road that turned off and went to Blackjack, but we would still have to hike in the mile or so from there. We took him up on the offer, he drove us and refused to take our money and wished us good luck on the rest of our hike.

The Creepiest Campground Ever

After hiking into Blackjack Campground on yet another slippery muddy road, we noticed something – we were all alone. The sun was now setting as we found our designated campsite and pitched our tent, and still no one showed up. We could see a couple campsites where someone had reserved rented camping gear that was delivered to their campsite as promised by the Conservancy, but their was no one. The gear just sat there lifelessly on the picnic tables.

We then surveyed the rest of the campground and realized that the campground looked like a movie set that could be used for some sort of massacre horror movie. There was a massive stone grill in the center of the campground with a big crank wheel that moved the steel grates of the grill up and down. There was also an eerie steel well looking thing that sat by itself in the campground. Finally, there was a gigantic blue tarp covering, what we ultimately found out was firewood, but upon initial inspection we were sure it was covering bodies. Eventually, we managed to convince ourselves that there were no dead bodies and no one with a chainsaw lurking in the empty campground and get ourselves to sleep.

The Long, Steep Road To Avalon

The following morning we got up early, packed up and hit the road, literally. After our scaring experience with the mud the previous day, we opted to head back the way we came in after being dropped off by the shuttle driver to Airport Road to make our way into Avalon. As we hit the road, we made our way past one of the many benches on hills that dot the Trans Catalina Trail. Perched on the top of the benches were two crows, which were convinced have been following us across the island. At many times during our hike across the island we would often see a couple large crows flying or perched on trees or other objects. We began to joke that these crows were waiting for us drop over dead in the mud so they could poke at the remaining food in our bags.

After we joked about the crows we continued our hike back into civilization.What we did not realize about our chosen route to Avalon, is that it was longer than staying on the trail and the last mile or so is pretty much like walking straight down non-stop. While the end of the road is a scenic eucalyptus tree lined road with panoramic views of the ocean, Los Angeles, and Big Bear further out, it is a pretty strenuous downhill hike, especially with an extra 20 lbs on your back, that will make you want to ice your calves by the end.

After much complaining about the pain in our legs, we managed to drag ourselves into town, where we had booked a hotel for the night. However, we had to make a stop before checking in, we had to go to Vons to grab some pain relief in the form of booze and pharmaceuticals. We walked through the tiny grocery store, stinking like no other and dropping bits of dried mud through the store, grabbing the few items we needed and making our way to the checkout and to ultimately our hotel down the street.

After cleaning up a bit we proceeded try and visit all of the dive bars in downtown Avalon. From what I remember we succeeded, or at least that is what my hangover was telling me.

The Boat Back to Reality

The next morning after a fist full of Advil for my aching body and the hangover, we made our way over to the ferry terminal and caught the Catalina Express to start the trek back to the mainland. As we sailed away from Catalina, reality began to set back in and we talked about our plans for the new year. Three things were top of mind for us. The first, was that we needed to do this trip again, and do it properly via the entire TCT – which we attempted again in 2016, more on that later. The second thing was that, we needed to do more backpacking, and start thinking about other destinations. The third thing, was bigger, it was on the scale of life change big.

One of the things that we had been discussing extensively prior to and during the trip was moving to another city. As we sat on the boat, we collectively came to the decision that it was time we pull the trigger and put things in motion to move away from our home in Phoenix, Arizona. We had been talking about moving for some time prior to the trip. Most of the talk about moving centered on Portland, Oregon, a place we had pretty much convinced many of our friends that the should relocate to as well. Its not clear what happened on our hike across the island, but at some point the island got to us and helped us make this big life change.

While we did not end up in Portland, we did end up making a move soon after. So be forewarned that long exposure to scenic views, nature, and loads of mud can bring clarity and push you to make the big changes in life that you have been avoiding for one reason or another. Had it not been for that trip we may have never moved and may have never experienced the bad camping as we did when we first moved to California, and ultimately we may have never started this website.

So, in the words of the TV show Lost, “The island works in mysterious ways”. Get out there and embrace it.

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