Backpacking The "New" Trans-Catalina Trail
Trip: Trans-Catalina Trail (50+ miles)
Trip Dates: Wednesday, November 22nd - Sunday, November 26th, 2017
See the entire TCT map here
Photos by Derek Tse (@keredest)
While most people may spend their Thanksgiving surrounded by family and watching football, eating turkey, and sleeping off Tryptophan, we did things a bit more... unconventional this year. Myself and five friends started in Avalon and backpacked across Catalina Island and it turns out, it was one of the best Thanksgivings ever! Even though Catalina is just 22 miles off the coast of Southern California, there were moments in which we felt like we were in another country.
In fact, I had been planning this trip to hike the Trans-Catalina Trail with a fellow WTC student since May. The trip was literally five months in the making and in that time, the Catalina Conservancy actually changed the trail head and parts of the trail! One thing I've been working on lately is flexibility so a few phone calls, Google searches, and Word documents later, I adjusted the trip plans accordingly. And without further ado, I present to you: our experience...
We departed from the Long Beach port at 6:00am on Wednesday, November 22nd on the Catalina Express and were rewarded with a beautiful sunrise on the hour/hour and a half ride to Avalon. Once in Avalon we took a few pictures, had a minor panic about someone possibly forgetting a headlamp (all was well), and arranged for Catalina Backcountry to transport our bag of Thanksgiving essentials to Little Harbor Campground. And then, at about 8am, we were off to Blackjack Campground. Prior to the change in trail head, we had planned on staying at Hermit Gulch but actually moved our reservation for Blackjack up a night and added a night at Little Harbor instead (great call). Even with the change of the trail head, the 11-mile hike was TOUGH. When people tell you hiking the TCT is like riding a roller coaster in terms of elevation gain and loss, they are not joking around. Pack light and buckle your hip belt, you're in for a wild ride. I had planned the hike for November in hopes of some cooler weather on the exposed trail (the historical average is 60 degrees...) but, no such luck as it reached 91 degrees and we all certainly felt it. At one point Jeremy talked about going to Patagonia and "taking a ferry to Easter Island." When we questioned that logic he replied, "well it's this far *holds up two fingers measuring one inch* on the map." We teased him about that the rest of the trip, it was just too funny. Day one was a test of both physical and mental strength and although it was a challenge, we all made it and savored each and every bite of our dinners and enjoyed a campfire thanks to the fellow campers who left some wood behind.
Day two was monumental for both our morale and our appetites. The plan was to hike from Blackjack Campground to Little Harbor Campground, stopping at the Airport in the Sky on the way for some Bison Burgers and concluding the day with an epic Thanksgiving feast thanks to Packit Gourmet! All in all, the day was perfect. We hiked the 2.25 miles to the airport, literally indulged in burgers, corn dogs, hot dogs, candy, Gatorade, ice cream, etc. etc. and simply relaxed. While on our way to Little Harbor we [finally] came across the long awaited bison!! Although we did not have a beach side campsite (reserve sites 11 or 12 for that), we merely had to walk across the street to go for a swim in the ocean to cool down. Around 3:30pm we started preparing for our Packit Gourmet Thanksgiving dinner (read more here!!) but realized the sun was setting before our eyes. We brought the party to the beach and marveled at the sunset while enjoying delicious food and great company. Back to the campsite we went for another campfire complete with plenty of laughs and backpacker's cheesecake (thanks again Packit Gourmet!) Naturally, we were on "backpacker's time" throughout the trip and climbed into our sleeping bags around 8/8:30 to rest up for another beautifully scenic and adventure-filled day.
From Little Harbor to Two Harbors, day three did not disappoint. Sure, it was 'only' a five mile day but if you haven't figured out by now, I wanted my first "thru-hike" to be enjoyable and the TCT was perfectly suitable for that with some adjustments. Considering we woke up early to get on the trail by 6am or so (seriously, it was HOT for November and we wanted to beat that heat), we arrived in Two Harbors before 8am. Luckily for us Two Harbors is basically a five star resort when you're hiking as it has amenities: a restaurant, hot showers, laundry, general store, and a harbor I could sit and stare at all day. We took hot showers, celebrated our success thus far with a couple of drinks, ate fish tacos, and just relaxed. We were sure to order more water for Parsons Landing and get our locker keys (all of the campgrounds have potable water with the exception of Parsons Landing in which you pre-order and the conservancy delivers) prior to setting up at our five billion star campsite at Two Harbors Campground. At Two Harbors, try to reserve sites 1-4 for a spot right on the bluff. We could not have been more lucky; our home for the night was breathtaking and we again had a campfire after an enjoyable dinner back in town at Harbor Reef. When I say breathtaking, I mean it. We were right on the water, could see the lights across the ocean light up Los Angeles, yet the sky was lit by stars.
We opted for the coastal route on day four to get to our final campsite at Parsons Landing. Pro tip - every campsite at Parsons Landing is incredible. We had site #8 which was HUGE but further from the 'restrooms' (porta potties). A few things to note: the 'new' trail now makes a loop (ideally: from Two Harbors to Parsons Landing via Silver Peak Trail & Fenceline Road then Parsons Landing back to Two Harbors via the coastal route) and does not go all the way to Starlight Beach. Knowing we wanted to still go to Starlight which would mean we had a 16 mile day ahead of us, we decided to take the coastal route. It turns out the additional 4.5 miles to Starlight weren't so bad and if I was to do the trail again, I would take the inland route to Parsons and the coast back. Half the group decided to continue on to Starlight Beach after an early lunch and it was completely worth it even if my feet were sore. Coming down the mountain and seeing the rugged coastline while overlooking the westernmost point, Starlight Beach, completely eased my pain as I was overcome with joy. To think we hiked the entirety of Catalina Island, from east to west is such a rewarding feeling. After admiring the beauty that laid before our eyes and soaking our feet in the waves of the cold ocean, we made it back to camp with some daylight to spare. The clouds rolled in, forming an overcast and a scene that was straight from a movie. We played a couple games of "Roll for It" before burning through our FIVE bundles of firewood while watching Jeremy take equally as many shots.
The following day we packed up our tents one last time and made our way back to Two Harbors. While we wanted to switch our 4:30pm ferry tickets to the 11:30am ferry, there was just too long of a wait list... no room for us. More beers, more Roll for It, and countless laughs later we headed back to the mainland for proper showers and comfortable mattresses. This is a trip that I will always look back at so fondly. Even though everyone knew me, no one really knew each other but the group dynamics were dynamite! From Danny's jokes to Jeremy's entertainment to Ruth's conversation to Derek's photography and navigation to the all-star, MVP of the trip: Christa. For those who might not have read my post about my experience in Zion, I won a permit for The Subway and met two girls from Houston while hiking it from the bottom up. Christa offered to take my picture for me (I liked her already just for that!) and it turned out we not only had the same name but the same daypack, too! We've kept in touch since summer and Christa flew from Houston to join us on Catalina for her first backpacking trip. The Trans-Catalina Trail is a pretty lengthy trail and to agree to do it as your first backpack AND finish it, it is truly admirable. Although the first day was not anyone's favorite, we all did it! Christa and I have plans to visit three National Parks in January, explore New Zealand in June, and trek to Machu Picchu in July. Adventure awaits!
Thank you Derek Tse (@keredest) for the awesome photos!