My friend Alan and I said "screw Valentine's Day" this year and instead used our three day weekend (President's Day!) to backpack the 37.5 mile Trans Catalina Trail. Total mileage for the trek was close to 55, and included more than 9,000' of elevation gain, plus equal loss. It was one of my most challenging treks to date, and it was Alan's first. He handled it like a champ.
We took the last ferry to Catalina on Friday night and got up at 4:30 am on Saturday to kick off our journey. We packed up and left the Hermit Gulch campsite outside of Avalon before beginning the three mile walk to the trailhead. We were graced with some incredible light from the start and enjoyed the coastline scenery.
Knowing that we were going to have to cover more than 50 miles in less than three days, and that this was going to be Alan's first backpacking trip, I made an effort to pack really light for both of us. Alan is carrying my Boreas Lost Coast 60L, and I managed to get him into the "Lightweight Backpacking" base-weight category. For this trip, I carried my Boreas John Muir 30L with a base-weight of about eight pounds, with a total bag loadout of 22 pounds.
The first several miles of the trek were dry and exposed as we traversed Catalina's interior. Our planned stop for the day was Black Jack Campgrounds, 14.5 miles in. We reached that destination by 1pm and decided to push onto Little Harbor, so I called the Conservancy to change our campsite reservation.
Fortunately the hike from Black Jack to Little Harbor was mostly downhill. Along the way, we missed an intersection on the trail, and didn't realize it for another half-mile. Instead of continuing on our path (which would've added another mile or so to this section of the hike) we picked out the trail in the distance and then traveled off-trail to reach it. Figured I'd break Alan in right.
We eventually got back on the trail after hopping a couple of barbed wire fences (designed to keep the bison from roaming about) and were heading off into the sunset. Our decision to push onto Little Harbor that day was rewarded with wide sweeping vistas of the mountains, ocean, and harbor below. We were also rewarded with something really unique:
We watched a sunrise over the ocean that morning, and got to watch the same sun set over the ocean that night.
Once the sun set, we hiked the last couple of miles to camp by moonlight, found our spot, set up the ground cloth and bags (weather conditions for the weekend were amazing, and we opted for no tent or shelter) and induldged in some Backpacker's Pantry Shepard's Pie and Swiss Miss before crashing for the night.
The next morning we rose early again to get a jump on the day. The hike out of Little Harbor was straight up a mountain, but our efforts were once again rewarded with wide sweeping vistas, mountains on all sides, and views of the ocean all around. The path was narrow and steep as we skirted multiple ridgelines to the crest. This was one of my favorite parts of the entire weekend.
Once we reached the top of the ridgeline, we paused to take in the incredible scenery and the amazing morning light before climbing the last few miles down to the town of Two Harbors - our 26 mile mark.
By the time we reached Two Harbors, we had 7 miles under our belt that day, with another 11.5 to make it to Starlight Beach (the terminus of the Trans Catalina Trail) and 4.5 after that to make it to our campsite at Parson's Landing. Alan had injured his ankle several years ago, and it was giving him issues now, so we decided to part ways. I would be continuing the last 16 miles solo and meeting Alan back at Parson's (which was another 8 miles away from Two Harbors.) After that quick decision we refilled our water bottles, stocked up on snacks, and parted ways. Then I tackled the steepest section of the trek under the hot afternoon sun, and took Gandalf's words to heart: "Fly you fools!" I made it to Starlight Beach in 3:30.
"Fly, you fools!"
Starlight Beach was absolutely stunning, and well worth the 37.5 mile hike. There was no one around for miles, and so I skinny dipped for the first time. The coarse black sand felt amazing to my sore feet. The cool Pacific water was rejuvenating, and I ate lunch and dried off under the warm afternoon sun in the company of some sea lions.
After relaxing for about an hour, I began the last of my hike for the day - 4.5 miles to Parson's Landing. The trail was steep, but mid-way through I was rewarded once again for my efforts. As I stopped midway up a steep hill to sit for a water break, a bald eagle soared not 20 feet, directly above my head - wings in full-spread. It was one of the most majestic things that I've ever witnessed. I continued hustling and made it back to Parson's Landing in 1:20 (averaging 3.38 miles per hour.) When the beach and campgrounds finally came into view, I was atop a ridge and could see the long road winding the last mile down. I couldn't contain my excitement, so I cinched the straps on my bag, held on tight to my camera, and trail-ran the last section down. It felt great to move so quickly after such a long day, but my knees hated me the following morning.
Alan was there waiting for me when I arrived and he had already begun setting up camp. There is no potable water at Parson's, so I used our locker key to pick up our water supply and firewood for the night. We cooked dinner, started a fire, and then watched an incredible sunset over the beach and continued watching as the stars appeared one-by-one. We both shot timelapses of the incredible scene before us, staying up extra late (9:30pm) to watch the stars dance across the sky. When we couldn't keep our eyes open any longer, we put out the fire and slumped into our sleeping bags, and fell fast asleep.
We slept in until 8:30am on Monday - knowing that we only had an eight-mile hike back to Two Harbors, and our ferry didn't depart for the mainland until 4:15. We slowly got up, stretched, and packed up. We had extra water so we left it with a Catalina-local family who was car camping on the beach. They were incredibly generous and offered us the ample leftovers from their hot breakfast, which included eggs, sausage, hash browns, and cinnamon rolls. After an amazing breakfast and a great conversation about life on the island, Alan and I were on our way.
The trek back was slow because we were both tired and sore, but the road ran alongside the coast and offered amazing harbor views. We met some other backpackers along the way who had also been camping at Parson's Landing and quickly developed a kinship on the trail, trading stories of our past adventures, and adventures yet to come.
Our main motivating factor for making it back to Two Harbors (besides the obvious ferry departure) was the bison burgers that we knew would be waiting for us at the restaurant in town. With that in mind, we trekked on. And on. And on. This was probably the slowest eight miles of our entire trip! We finally made it back to Two Harbors, but before making the final hike down we paused to take in the amazing harbor view.
We had a few hours to kill before the ferry left, so we indulged in our bison burgers, and made some more new backpacking friends. I showed off my ultralight kit and Fancy Feast alcohol stove. Everyone was impressed as I stressed the advantages of Ultralight. The ferry finally came and the timing of our departure couldn't have been better. The Golden Hour had just set in and the light as we left the harbor was glorious.
On the ferry ride back to San Pedro, we watched as the island slowly faded behind us, silhouetted by the setting sun. Dolphins were diving and swimming alongside our vessel and Alan managed to get a few shots of them with his zoom lens.
Upon arrival in San Pedro, we were greeted by the the Battleship Iowa, the massive HANJIN freighter, and the Vincent Thomas Bridge.
This backpacking trip across Catalina Island was an incredible experience. It was my first Ultralight venture, the first time I logged solo backpacking miles, and represented the greatest mileage covered on any trip I've done thus far. It was Alan's first backpacking trip, and the first time he's seen the stars in years. Both of us had an amazing time, and gained clarity into our own lives. For me, it represented something greater. I want to dedicate my life to inspiring people to discover themselves through the outdoors. Nearly every trip I go on is with new people, and it's often their first outing. I love guiding, and watching that self-discovery take place. Alan and I were both challenged physically and mentally, and became better people because of it. Trips like these reinforce the convictions I have for exploration. And I can't wait to go back to Catalina and discover it in a new way.