In 2009, I heard about the Trans-Catalina trail, which is a 37 mile trail that traverses Catalina Island in Southern California. This sounded like a great opportunity for my first backpacking trip. My better-half was all for it, so while we tried to go in 2009 it did not work out timing-wise. We finally ended up planning it for the winter of 2010, and luckily my great employer at the time (I worked at Off Madison Ave at the time, a great interactive marketing agency if you ever need one) closed up shop between Christmas and New Years, so we had our dates set. One might think it would be too cold to backpack in the winter, but to the contrary, it would have been too hot to do the hike in the summer, and the temperature was perfect.

The Buffalo and the Island

Catalina Island is pretty deserted except for the two towns on the island, Avalon, the larger of the two, and Two Harbors, which is more like an outpost than a town. However, like an episode of Lost, you never felt like you were alone on the Island. You often saw large hoof prints everywhere in the mud and what looked like large cow pies, which were from the locals. By locals I mean the buffalo that live and roam the island. Well, really they are Bison, not buffalo, which do not natively live in North America, it is a common misconception.

In 1924, a herd of 14 bison were brought to the island for filming a movie. It is disputed whether the movie ever got made or not, as the adaptation of Zane Grey’ The Vanishing American that the bison are commonly associated with does not have any buffalo in it, and may not have even been filmed on the island. Either way, after production shut down on whatever movie they were brought in for, they simply were turned loose on the island. Since they were now on top of the island’s food chain, their population took off, hitting 600 in 1980’s, but has since been brought down to 150, via birth control of all things. The heard of 150 that roams the island can easily be found by visitors.

First Encounter With Catalina’s Bison

Buffalo on the Hill
Buffalo on the Hill

The first day of our Catalina Island backpacking trip was spent getting to the island from Long Beach Harbor. We took the ferry into Two Harbors, and were spending our first night at the campground by the same name just outside of town. The campground was completely empty, so we picked a nice spot on a cliff overlooking the ocean with Los Angeles 30 miles away in the distance. While we were pitching the tent we noticed large hoof prints everywhere. This left me with an odd camping experience, instead of worring about bears and my tent, I was worring about whether or not I was going to wake up to a cold bison nose prodding at our tent.

After pitching our tent and settling into the completely empty campground, we decided to go exploring. We walked over to the the harbor to take some pictures and check things out, and that is when we saw them. Up on the hill above us we saw two large bison grazing in the tall grass, and just then a third bison comes barreling down the hill to join them, and then they all started running. It was then that we decided that we should leave the area.

The Bison and the Trail

Catalina Island Ridge
Catalina Island Ridge

The next day we set out on our journey across the island. While the Trans Catalina Trail is not a terribly difficult trail for backpacking, it does have a lot of hills that send you up and down on the trail, and often you do not know what is on the other side of the next hill, this led us to our next encounter. About mid-day we made it to the top of one hill on the west side of the island, where the trail turned into a full ridge run. On one side of the ridge was a steep slope, filled with prickly pear cactus and on the other side was a drop-off where you could see that there had been numerous landslides.

As we were making our way down the ridge we both stopped dead in our tracks, as several hundred yards in front of us, a large solo bison was grazing several feet off of the trail. With no good route to go around the large animal due to the drop-off and cactus, we decided to wait it out, hoping that it would move on and we could proceed. After an hour of waiting the bison had not gone, and was now closer to the trail than before. I decided to call (surprisingly there was cell phone service) the Catalina Conservancy to for advice on what to do. They were really no help, advising us to keep away for fear of it charging us. They offered to send a ranger out to assist, but it would be a while before they could get there since were on a remote part of the island. So, we waited some more, again hoping the bison would move along.

Buffalo on the Trail
Buffalo on the Trail

After waiting for a while longer, the bison had finally moved a little further away from the trail, and we started making our way down the hill in the hope that we could pass. We stopped at several points as we traversed the several hundred yards between us and the animal, just to make sure it had not moved back onto the trail. When we were finally close enough that we could walk quickly past it we made a break for it. We did not want to run for fear of spooking it into a charge, so briskly made our way by it, passing within less than 10 feet from the massive beast. As we rushed by it, the bison took a break from its continuous cycle of feeding, raised its head, turned and looked at us just long enough for me to make eye contact with it as we passed.

We continued rushing past it and made our way to the next hill, breaking into more of a run the further we got from it. Once we got on the other side of the hill we had to stop, we were out of breath and the adrenaline that had kicked in when we decided to go for it, was now wearing off. Standing there tingling from head to toe from the rush, we took stock of what had just occurred and could do nothing but laugh, as we were sure the bison was no threat to us after all, and was more interested in the healthy patch of grass it had stumbled upon.

Little Harbor Campground Sunset
Little Harbor Campground Sunset

We continued on for the day, eventually making it to Little Harbor campground for an amazing sunset. That night and the next day would prove to be just as interesting as the day we had just had due to a massive storm that was heading our way, but alas that is a story for a another Sunday.





 Sunday Coffee is a feature on that we try and deliver weekly (no promises) for you to enjoy along with your coffee on Sunday mornings. It is often just a picture and a quick story to put a smile on your face and give you some positive vibes to end one week and prepare for the next. We hope you are able to enjoy it somewhere outdoors, whether it be your patio or your campsite. 

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Justin is an IT Professional, focused on cloud, mobile, and infrastructure management and security with his consulting business, as well as chief bottle washer for this website. In addition to, Justin also runs and writes for the technology infrastructure-focused blog, and the mobile device-focused blog


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