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Backpacking the Trans-Catalina Trail (TCT) – Everything You Need to Know

    Catalina Island is an inhabited island located 22 miles off the coast of Southern California. There are amazing hiking, camping, and backpacking adventures along the Trans-Catalina Trail. The island also offers fantastic kelp forest diving and a diverse wildlife population, including Bison!

    The Trans-Catalina Trail is a 40-mile trail (commonly referred to as the TCT Trail) that runs the length of the island. The hiking has its fair share of tough climbs complimented by never-ending views at every turn. There are some of the most amazing beachside campsites that offer unbeatable seclusion, and get this – there are even a few restaurants along the trail!

    We would highly recommend doing this adventure in the fashionable way that we like to call Backpack-to-Bourgeois. WTF is that? Simple: do an epic grind of a backpack, and end it with a pampering hotel stay where you treat yourself like the king or queen you are.

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    Backpacker on the Trans-Catalina Trail
    All smiles on the TCT Trail

    In this Trans-Catalina Trail Guide, we share all the logistics for planning a backpacking trip on the Trans-Catalina Island Trail.

    You should practice good trail etiquette at any destination you visit and remember to Leave No Trace. That means packing out your garbage, being respectful of others on busy trails, and following the established rules.

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    Trans-Catalina Trail Stats

    • Total Distance: 37.5 miles
    • Total Elevation Gain Loss: +/-7950 feet
    • Difficulty: Moderatly Challenging
    • Dogs Allowed: On the trail and at camp, yes (except for Two Harbors Campground)
    • Advanced Reservations Required: Yes (see Campgrounds Reservations section)
    • Number of Recommended Nights: 4 nights / 5 days
    • Cell Service: Sporadic.
    Epic 360 degree views along the ridgelines of the Trans-Catalina Trail
    Epic 360-degree views along the ridgelines of the TCT

    Getting to Catalina Island

    One of the things that makes this one of the most unique backpacks in the world has a lot to do with just getting there. In order to get to the island, you have to take a 60-90 minute boat ride via the Catalina Express. If you’re lucky you might spot some marine wildlife on this gorgeous ferry ride across the Pacific Ocean.

    Be aware that the boat ride can be cold and rough, so dress accordingly with layers. If you get seasick, consider taking preventive steps before the ride, such as purchasing anti-nausea bands or packing Dramamine. If you start to feel sick while on the boat, head to the back for fresh air and keep your eyes on the horizon.

    You must check in at the Catalina Express office at least one hour prior to your departure to pick up your ticket.

    It’s a good idea to call Catalina Express at (800) 613-1212  prior to your boat ride to ensure your trip has not been canceled due to rough seas.

    TCT Backpacking Overview

    The Trans-Catalina Trail runs east-west along Catalina Island which is part of the Channel Islands Archipelago.

    Now to be Uncle Frank, this hike should not be underestimated. Even though you are in Southern California under a beautiful sunny sky surrounded by gorgeous blue waters, rolling hills, and fuzzy Bison, this hike is a bit of a beast. There is actually considerable elevation gain (about 8k feet), a lot of very exposed sections which can be downright brutal in the hotter months, and minimal water sources. This means you will need to carry more water weight than you would probably like to. This is actually a common scenario when hiking the Channel Islands – see Santa Cruz Island Backpacking.

    Unlike most backpacking adventures, you are able to get your fill of civilization/humanity every single day. That means actual bathrooms, cooked food (pizza!), and even a general store. Parts of the hike follow a dirt road where are you will encounter the occasional vehicle or guided jeep tour. But come on, being able to be in the middle of a backpack and stop off to have a slice of pizza and a cold beer before you continue on is pretty f*cking epic.

    BlackJack Campground

    Catalina Island Weather

    On average, Catalina Island receives more than 260 days of sunshine every year. For the most comfortable weather and the best chance of seeing the sun, it is recommended to plan your backpack from September to early November. Just note that the landscape and foliage may not be as vibrant green this time of year. If you prefer the greenery and are willing to chance rain, late winter, early spring would be the best.

    Check the current weather conditions for Catalina island here.

    Campground Reservations

    Each campsite requires its own reservation and they may be booked up to a year in advance. Visit Catalina Island is a great source of information about each campsite, so I would recommend looking through this page before reserving. This is a very popular destination for backpackers, day hikers, bird watchers, and more so make sure to Book Early – the spaces fill up quickly!

    The prices as of December 2021 are:

    Here are links for each of the campgrounds on the Trans-Catalina Trail:

    BlackJack Campground | Little Harbor Campground | Two Harbors Campground | Parson’s Landing Campground

    backapck walks along the coast in Shark Harbor in the Trans-Catalina Trail
    Exploring the next-door neighbor, Shark Harbor just before sunset

    Permits for Backpackers

    Carry a copy of your camping reservations with you when hiking the Trans-Catalina Trail. I recommend having them downloaded to your phone because the cell reception is very unreliable. If you plan on doing some day hiking on the island, you will need to apply for a free permit.

    Trans-Catalina Backpacking Trail Map

    After you pop off the ferry in Avalon, stop by the Catalina Island Conservancy shop to pick up a detailed Trans-Catalina Island Trail map (free). Even though it is extra weight, it’s always recommended to have a hard copy map on hand just in case when backpacking. This map shows the location of water sources, restrooms, food, and other services are located along the trail.

    Trans-Catalina Trail Map

    Trans-Catalina Trail Backpacking Itinerary

    • Day 1: Avalon to Black Jack Campground | 8.75 miles
    • Day 2: Black Jack to Little Harbor Campground | 8.35 miles
    • Day 3: Little Harbor to Two Harbors Campground | 7.2 miles
    • Day 4: Two Harbors to Parson’s Landing Campground via the TCT | 7.24 miles
    • Day 5: Parson’s Landing to Two Harbors via the road and Lion’s Head | 7.2 miles

    There are many variations that can be done to this itinerary. Many people opt to cut the last portion of the hike off and finish up with a kayak rental after some pizza and beer at Two Harbors. Well maybe not many people, but we did! It’s your adventure, so make sure you make it yours!

    Here is a very detailed trail map on Alltrails:

    Water Availability

    Water is accessible in Black Jack, Little Harbor, and Two Harbors, but there is no potable water on the route between the campgrounds. Your campground reservation at Parsons includes 2.5 liters of water for the final night which will be waiting for you at your site.

    Try to get your gear weight down so that you can manage to carry at least 3 liters of water each day. We love using the 4L MSR Dromedary Bag for water hauls like this. Though it can add a bit of a flavor to the water, the bag is incredibly tough and trustworthy.

    Cell Phone Reception

    Don’t expect really any cell phone service on your Trans-Catalina Island backpacking trip. The reception will be very sporadic and unreliable. It’s a good idea to turn off or put your phone on airplane mode. Otherwise, your phone will roam about looking for a signal, draining your battery. How else are you going to get those banger IG boomerangs?!

    Leave No Trace

    Due to its sensitive ecosystem, backpacking the Trans-Catalina Trail comes with its own set of guidelines to keep in mind on top of practicing Leave No Trace.

    Catalina Island is home to a variety of species, including the island fox, bison, and some aggressive ravens. Always keep an eye on your meal. The majority of campgrounds feature fox boxes (also known as bear bins) where you may store your food and drink safely.

    Please read this twice: Bison are really dangerous! They have a top speed of 35 mph and can change behavior very rapidly of they feel threatened. Do not approach them for photos or any other reason. You will find them right on the trail and in the campgrounds. It’s common to have to wait until the herd moves on before continuing your hike. Always be on the lookout for any signs of aggression if they are present.

    We were stopped for a mid-trail snack for about an hour because the bison had decided that was the perfect place to graze. While waiting, we were joined by 2 other groups who also took the opportunity to take a rest.

    At the campsites, in town, or at the airport, there are restrooms available so please take advantage of them! If you have to go when not near a bathroom, make sure to observe Leave No Trace guidelines and pack out your toilet paper.

    Two Harbors Campground at night
    Two Harbors Campground at night

    Trans-Catalina Backpacking Gear

    Make sure to Download our 3 Day Backpacking Checklist. By adding in a couple more meals, snacks, and a little more clothing, you could easily adapt this to 4-5 days. Below you will find a list of the gear that we took on this trip. It includes almost every piece that we had with us in our backpacks.

    Note that in the late fall, winter, and early spring, evenings can be quite cold. Make sure to pack a beanie, long pants, and a warm jacket for the evenings.

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