Though Santa Catalina Island is a beautiful backpacking destination, close to Los Angeles, and accessible without a car, there is an odd lack of useful information about hiking the island. The Santa Catalina Island Conservancy has brochures and such, but they leave out some important information. This node is an attempt to remedy that situation. Also included is some basic information (available elsewhere) to give those who haven't visited before an idea of what I'm talking about.
Aside from the boat-in campsites (which are beyond the scope of this writeup) there are five campsites on the island available to the general public. All accept reservations, which can be made via the Conservancy website. Tapwater is available (except at Parson's Landing) and firewood is available by advance purchase (except at Hermit Gulch, where wood fires are prohibited).
Hermit Gulch is the largest and most urban campground, located only a mile from the city of Avalon and on the trolley line (so you need not walk if you prefer not to). Its selling point, as far as I'm concerned, is that at $12 per night it's the only affordable
lodging in Avalon. The campsites are small, extremely close together, and the 10PM quiet time is sporadically enforced. Be prepared for late night and early morning noise, people tromping through your campsite, and anything else you might expect from a population of non-backpackers. Wood fires are prohibited.
Blackjack is a small, secluded, beautiful campground tucked into a pine grove near the island's highest peak. Due to its isolation, it is the campsite which is most likely to be deserted. I heard an endangered Santa Catalina Island fox barking
outside the tent at two in the morning while camping there, which was a real treat. I also came too close for comfort to a rattlesnake, which was less of a treat. My brother reports that his designated campsite was occupied by a stationary bison, forcing him to choose
For those who prefer not to hike up from sea level, the Conservancy runs a Safari Bus service to a trailhead just a mile and a half from the campsite, but if you don't like hiking, then there's not a lot to do at this site. A word of warning: Though the maps all say that
there is a phone at this site, all I could find was the remnants of one. I do not know if there is cell phone reception at Blackjack.
Little Harbor is a quiet campsite by the ocean, and the only one on the North side of the island. Since the Safari Bus stops in this campsite, you can expect some campers to be of the get-drunk-party-all-night variety, but the campsites are rather spread out, some have grass, and the area is quite pretty. Shade is at a premium, but the cool breeze off the ocean should help keep you from
Two Harbors campground is a great place to stay if you want to be somewhat off the beaten path, but still within a few minutes' walk of a grocery store. I haven't stayed at this site (though I have walked by), so I can't comment on it too much, but it does look pretty and there are not one but two beaches within walking distance.
Parson's Landing is the one campsite I have not yet visited. It is also the only site which the Safari Bus does not visit, so hopefully the seven mile walk from Two Harbors helps keep the traffic down. Bottled water is available to those who rent campsites.
I don't know whether it's the lay of the land or the decisions of those cutting the trails, but hiking on Catalina island involves a lot of up and down. Remember that you are at the top of an undersea mountain, and a steep one at that. Water is scarce on the island, so bring plenty of containers. Most trails on the island are actually fire roads, unfortunately, but there are a few vehicle-free trails here and there.
Below are notes on hikes that I have done, including some tidbits that I wish I had known before I started. Trail marking is somewhat erratic on this island (many trails are marked by their initials, by paper signs, or by nothing at all) so it is very helpful to know where to turn.
Two Harbors to Little Harbor: When I hiked this path, I took the Banning House Road shortcut, in order to get off the beaten path a bit and avoid the sporadic traffic on Little Harbor Road. Banning House Road is an extremely steep fire road which climbs almost straight up to a high peak at around 1100 feet, then heads down the other side to Little Harbor Road. Lug soles are a must for this path. Since there is a water spigot near a bison corral shortly after you rejoin Little Harbor Road, I was able to get by with two liter-sized bottles of water for this hike, with a moderately heavy pack and temperatures in the 80's. The remaining portion of the hike, on the road, was easy compared with the grueling climb on Banning House Road. Though I haven't tried staying on the road the entire time, its lower elevation leads me to believe that that would be a much less grueling, if longer, hike. To find the trailhead for this hike, starting at the Two Harbors store, walk away from the beach until the road comes to a T at a schoolhouse. Turn left, and keep climbing uphill. When you
reach a heavy, bison-proof gate, you'll know you're going the right way. I saw a herd of bison near the corral area on this hike; I understand that they tend to congregate there.
Little Harbor to Blackjack Campground: Once again I chose to hike the fire roads rather than the main road for this hike, which is likely the reason that I chose to call this the most difficult and grueling trail I have hiked on the island. To do the hike that I did, follow the road South out of Little Harbor until you reach an unmarked, grassy fire road heading uphill (inland) off to the left. Follow this trail, climbing up above the Rancho Escondido buildings that you will see off to your right, until you get to a path leading downhill to your right, towards Rancho Escondido. Follow that trail, descending to the ranch. This ranch is privately owned by the Wrigley heirs, but if you're lucky and there's a tour coming through you may be able to fill your water bottles and use the flush toilets while you're there.
After you are, hopefully, rested and refreshed, cross the road and continue down into a shady gully. At the bottom of the road, the road comes to an unmarked T: choose the left path and proceed through the scrub onto a path that would make a better roller coaster than hiking trail. Though your total net change in elevation is only around 1000
feet from this point, be prepared to climb into and out of gullies the whole way up. Partway up this trail, you will see an inviting fire road heading off to the right, going downhill. As of my last visit, this was a dead end (albeit with recent signs of construction), so don't go down there. Eventually you will find a junction with a sign and an arrow proclaiming, "Cottonwood Campsite, 100m". While this leads to a perfectly good campsite, the water spigot is dry and I don't think you're supposed to camp there. Soon after
this sign, you will come to another T in the road. Make a right, then a quick left to go down the hill to the Blackjack campground; make a left to get to the Avalon-Airport road.
With a heavy backpack, I only needed a liter and a half of water to
get to Rancho Escondido on this hike. Rancho Escondido to Blackjack,
however, required closer to 2.5 liters. To be safe, bring four for the
hike, unless you want to count on filling up at Rancho Escondido.
Blackjack Campground to Avalon: This is a
long, easy walk down a paved road with airport traffic going by every
ten or fifteen minutes. The road isn't particularly pleasant, though
the view out over the ocean is very nice. I have to confess that I
hitchhiked the latter half of this hike, and I probably won't try it
again. The reverse route involves a long steep climb out of Avalon
followed by a flattish road, but you can water at Toyon Junction after
the climb. Unfortunately this road is the only way out of the Avalon
area to the rest of the island.
Hermit Gulch, East Road, Renton Mine Road, Pebbly Beach
Loop: This is a beautiful, though long, twelve mile hike
around Avalon. Starting at the trailhead at the top of the Hermit
Gulch campground (on your right as you ascend the road), head up the
Hermit Gulch trail for a steep, 2.4 mile climb out of the Avalon
valley. (This is the only non-fire-road trail that I've hiked on
Catalina.) Once you reach the top, you've done most of your climbing,
so sit down and have a rest, then make a left onto the East Road fire
road and be prepared for some gorgeous views of Avalon, the Pacific
Ocean, and (on a clear day) the mainland. As you make your way along,
two unmarked roads will head off to your right: they are both dead
ends. Heading down the hill, you will run into Renton Mine road:
making a left will take you down to the paved Pebbly Beach Road. From
here you can make a left, climb a little, and take the short route
back, or make a right, go downhill, and have a look at the
island's industrial section. Both routes will deposit you back in
If you have a car, getting to Catalina island is easy. Daily trips
depart out of Long Beach, San Pedro, Dana Point, and sometimes Marina
del Rey. For those without a car, consider Metro buses 445 and 447,
both of which go from Union Station to the terminal at San
Pedro. You want the Harbor Beacon park&ride lot stop. Bus 446 is
acceptable as well. Or take the Blue Line to Long Beach and walk from
there to the Long Beach terminal, or Santa Monica's Blue Bus number 3
to Marina Del Rey.
Updates to this node and additional information will be greatly
appreciated. I will add more as I hike more of the island.