First-off, a caveat and some revealed biases. As a So. Cal. resident, I love Catalina and have been out there about 3-4 times per year for the past 25 years, so I know it extremely well. Whether by boat, kayak, bus, foot, or any other conceivable means, I have traversed all parts of the island, and highly recommend it to folks who have not yet experienced this little gem. As for the bias, I am not a fan of the island’s interior. Honestly there’s not much to see there and, in my opinion, the real magic of Catalina is along the water.
While most of my trips have been water-based (kayaking, fishing, etc), I enjoy hiking and have been intrigued with the idea of the Trans-Catalina Trail since it officially opened. This past week, I figured I'd give it a go, or at least a part of it. My quick 24-hour blitz was focused on the island’s west end and I purposefully avoided the section from Avalon to Little Harbor as I don’t consider it a good return on my physical/time investment. It’s a big up and downhill slog with very little to see. I am also not a fan of the Hermit’s Gulch or Blackjack campgrounds as they do not do justice to the camping splendor that can be had on the island.
I ended up doing the 15 mile hike from Two Harbors (2H) to Parson's Landing (Parson’s) yesterday and it was mixed blessings. I am well aware that the TCT is, for the most part, nothing more than a bunch of interconnected fire roads that traverse the island with no switch-backs or contours that go straight up and down. I started in 2H and did the TCT via the Silver Peak Trail which is a straight-up climb to the 1750’ summit. This was pretty tough, but the views along the way are spectacular and I enjoyed the solitude, seeing no one on the trail.
When I reached the summit, after photos and some rest, I was excited to hit the 2 mile section to Parson’s. I’d read that it was treacherous and slippery, and the reviews were correct. This must be why this section of the TCT is rated as Class III, as it required me to side-step down a good mile wondering if such a steep incline could even be safe for a fire vehicle. Seriously, this is a downhill technical scramble. I made it to Parson’s and had the whole beach to myself. As a Southern Californian, this was pure ecstasy! Parson’s is one of the best campsites on the island and I always enjoy being there. I woke and broke camp at 530am and made the 8 miles on the West End road to 2H in about 2 hours. With the blazing sun having yet to break fully and cool air, the hike and photos were amazing. Ironically, the West End road is not formally a part of the TCT, which I find odd as I consider it one of the best hikes on the entire island with consistently spectacular views of the coastline along the way.
Overall, I'm glad I did it, but would never consider the entire trail, particularly if this was my first or only visit to Catalina. Here's why…
1. I’ve already revealed my bias on the island’s interior of which the TCT is a major part. For me, I’d rather forego the time & physical demand it takes to hike it and be on or in the water or just relishing some of the scenery and tranquility at one of the beach-based campgrounds.
2. Also mentioned, most of the trail is simply fire roads or, in some cases, paved roads, so it doesn’t give me a “hiking trail-like” feeling that I get being in the backcountry.
3. If you're just trail running or looking for a nice section hike while on the island for a brief period, this could actually be good. Run to the airport and back or hike to Parsons from 2H via the West End road. Good times. Overall, the TCT is best section-hiked in my opinion.
4. I believe the best way to see the real Catalina is from the water. A great option would be to mix it up and do the TCT sections from Little Harbor to 2H (probably the best section of the TCT) and then rent kayaks, do a 2-hour paddle to one of the many boat/kayak-in only sites and do some primitive camping and have the entire beach/cove to yourself. You could also kayak to Parson’s, camp for a couple of nights and do the Parson’s /Sliver Peak/Starlight Beach loop of the trail.
If you want to do the entire TCT, here are some tips…
1. GO ULTRALIGHT! I’d say if your pack weighs more than 17lbs with food and water you would be well-served to rethink this. I saw tons of folks with 40+lbs packs headed for the trail and nearly wept. If your gear is heavy, consider renting some of the lighter stuff (or getting some used on the internets) – your legs will thank you later.
2. Bring trekking poles. All the other reviews stressed this and I avoided it since I switched the weight of the poles for a light fishing set-up instead. In retrospect, as I rub my thighs and calves while writing this, I realize that not bringing them was a big mistake.
3. It gets very hot during the summer and there is virtually no shade, so think about doing the trail anytime between late Fall to early spring. In any event, bring a brimmed hat, sunglasses and plenty of sunscreen.
4. A word about water. You're usually no more than 6 miles from potable water on any part of the trail, so don't overdo it. I don't drink a lot and 1 liter was plenty for my trek in the midday sun. If you drink a lot, bring 3 liters but no more than that.
5. In my opinion, (outside of the aforementioned kayak/boat sites), the ONLY places to camp are Little Harbor and Parsons. If you do either or both of these, you’ll get the best of all Catalina has to offer. If you’re hardcore and doing the entire trail, blaze from Avalon to Little Harbor and do a zero-day there (avoiding Blackjack). If you miss camping at LH, you’ve missed one of the best experiences in Southern California.
6. Get the TCT map from the Catalina Conservancy. It’s detailed, has mile markers and elevations. Definitely worth the $2. You can pick these up in Avalon or 2H.
7. If you’re a mile-pounder and need a legacy of brutality entry in your journal, then, by all means, do the TCT! I can’t think of a tougher hike in the area that offers better views and solitude.
8. Be sure to stop by the Airport in the Sky and the Harbor Reef restaurant in 2H for some tasty buffalo burgers and Catalina’s specialty drink, “Buffalo Milk.”
Enjoy and if you’re trip planning, feel free to hit me up with any questions, ideas or advice.
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