40 Miles in 4 Days: Backpacking Catalina Island

by Katrina Wise on October 10, 2018

Last November, during Thanksgiving week, my boyfriend and I set out to hike the Trans-Catalina Trail. What an experience. It was parts brutal, parts laughable, but most importantly, a huge accomplishment.

This was my first time backpacking ever! Of course, I had been camping plenty of times in my life, but in most of those experiences, I could hop in my car if I forgot something and I could pack as much food and clothing as I wanted; however, this backpacking trip required a month of planning, buying new gear, and mentally preparing for 4 days and 40 miles with my boyfriend. At the time, we had only been dating 8 months; it was going to be a huge milestone in our relationship. We jokingly said if we can survive this, we can survive anything. Good news, we survived.

To prepare, I read a book by Inga Askamit: “Highs and Lows on the John Muir Trail.” In this book, she walks you through her experience as well as the extensive planning it took to get through it.

I had to buy all new gear (from REI) – backpack, trekking poles, tall hiking boots, inflatable pillow, air mattress, cocoon, utensils, and most importantly, a reusable coffee filter. It was well worth the investment because, spoiler alert, I now love backpacking!

The Trans-Catalina trail is designed to hike from campground to campground for 37-40 miles; however, we had a few discrepancies in our planning. Typical planning, you hike from Avalon to Black Jack, Black Jack to Little Harbor, Little Harbor to Two Harbors, Two Harbors to Parson’s Landing, back to Two Harbors to catch the ferry.

Two issues: we wanted to complete this in 4 days and one of the campsites, Two Harbors, was full on the day we would have arrived there; we had to plot a route from Little Harbor to Parson’s Landing on our second to last day, which would have required us to climb two big peaks. As ambitious as we were, we knew this was going to be too much for our rookie bodies. We opted for the coastal trail versus the Silver Peak Trail which was more mileage but less elevation gain in one day.

Getting there: We parked our car in San Pedro, took a Lyft to Long Beach, hopped on the Catalina Express to Avalon. The dolphins swimming alongside the boat got us excited about our adventure ahead. Avalon reminded me of a mini Waikiki. I remember feeling extremely out of place as I had my bulky backpack and hiking attire amongst a sea of tourist in fedoras, Hawaiian shirts, sandals, and sundresses. We set up camp at Hermit’s Gulch, a mile inland from Avalon, and went to bed early before our voyage began.

Day 1

We hiked from Hermit’s Gulch to Black Jack campground (~10.7 Miles and ~1600 ft elevation gain). We were overly confident that we had enough water when we passed our only option of pottable water on the trail to Black Jack. We ended up running out of water at mile 9. It was about 93 degrees out, our packs were at their heaviest, and there was very little shade. I had a meltdown because it was hot, I was stressed about water, and I felt my heavy backpack was suffocating me.

Near our last drops of water, we found a very small shaded area, ate through tons of energy chews and dried apricots, and mustered up the energy to complete the last 1.7 miles of the trail. Lesson learned.

When we finally made it to our campsite, water from a water tap never tasted so good. The campers before us left some propane behind, so we were ecstatic about the good karma. We rested, drank coffee, ate, and stargazed.

Day 2: Thanksgiving

We hiked from Black Jack to the Catalina airport (2.5 miles) and had a delicious breakfast (well, more delicious than dehydrated meals). It was another hot day ahead of us; 88 degrees at 8 am. We then hiked ~6 miles from the airport to a remote beach campsite called Little Harbor. On the way, we saw a herd of bison and had to detour off the trail to avoid any bluff charges. We also saw two bald eagles. This trail was mostly bearable, but once again, there was little shade to defend us from the blazing sun.

When we finally saw our destination we practically ran down the hill – I guess you could say this was our turkey trot of the day. We witnessed the most beautiful sunset and ate our chili, rice, and turkey sausage, thankful for our mini paradise and Backpacker’s Pantry dehydrated meals.

Day 3: Our biggest day

We got up at 5:20am, ate, took down camp in the dark, then made our way to the next destination 12 miles away. The first 5 miles were the most beautiful part of the entire trail. This was our highest elevation gain (~1800 ft).

After 2 days of hiking, we were a bit nervous, but we both admittedly felt really strong. I think we were both very energized by the view, especially the sunrise. The ridge took us to Two Harbors where we took a break, ate brunch, and refilled our water packs.

We then went back on trail to Parson’s landing (~7 miles). We skipped Silver Peak Trail and took the coastal trail to our campsite. Because this trail was very little elevation gain, it felt like forever. Our blistered feet, sore shoulders and tired minds were anxiously looking for our final destination. Also, side note, thank goodness for trekking poles; they really saved us.

We jumped in the ocean as soon as we got to our beach campsite. After a bonfire and our final camp meal, we went to bed, ready for our final day of mileage and voyage back home to showers and filtered water.

‍Day 4: The final trek

We slept in, packed up, and took the easy route back to Two harbors (~7 miles), had a celebratory beverage, and waited to set sail back to San Pedro to our car.

After successfully completing my first backpacking trip, here’s a few pointers that I have carried with me in other adventures.

Don’t overpack. What you bring is what you carry so make sure you will need it. I packed too many pieces of clothing that I could have managed without.

When there is water available, always refill. We would have saved ourselves a lot of meltdowns had we stopped for water.

While protein bars are good, dried fruits and energy chews saved us! Something about the hot weather and a dry protein bar did not mix.

Plan your calories. When buying dehydrated meals, be sure to check that you will be replenishing your body with enough calories after a strenuous hike.

Try to enjoy the view. We found ourselves rushing to the next destination, probably because of the heat.

Wear sunscreen and reapply. My boyfriend got sun poisoning after not taking my advice to apply sunscreen on his legs, enough said.

Buy a map. Sometimes the trails weren’t always easily marked. We would have been lost without one.

Cut your toenails. This sounds silly but it will save you some hurt toes.

Hike your own hike. This was something I read in the book mentioned above – “Highs and Lows of John Muir Trail.” It was the best quote I could have read prior to this trip. Don’t compare your hiking capabilities to the group passing you or to the group you’re with. My boyfriend was always a few hundred feet ahead of me, especially on the downhill, but I knew my body and its limits. Running down or up a hill to catch up with him was not within them.

All in all, this was an amazing voyage. And now, we tend to prefer the quiet rural backpacking trails over the busy drive in campsites.

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