Julia and I traveled out to Catalina Island last year for Valentines Day to hike the Trans-Catalina Trail. It was an incredible backpacking experience, but covering 55 miles in two days was really hard on the body. This year, we made our way back out to the island with our eyes set on a slower pace.
Like last year, we began our journey in Avalon, but this year we stayed at the Atwater Hotel. The Catalina Conservatory website states that you can pick up your hiking permit at the Atwater if you arrive after their open hours. For two years in a row now, we have found this to be untrue. The man working at the front desk of the Atwater called around and tried to resolve this for us, and eventually informed us that we only needed the printed confirmation of our campsite reservation to act as a permit.
Last year, we woke up early and got a start well before sunrise. It was imperitive as we’d be covering 25 miles on the first day. This year, I decided to shave some of that distance off by hiking the Hermit Gulch Trail and meeting up with the TCT later. The Hermit Gulch and TCT junction comes at mile 6.5 of the TCT, so I saved myself quite a bit of time by taking this direct shortcut (there is also a 3 mile walk from Avalon to the TCT trailhead).
To get to the Hermit Gulch Trail, take Avalon Canyon Rd past the golf course until you reach the Hermit Gulch Campground. The trailhead sits at the back right corner of the campground. Julia saved even more distance by taking the Stage Rd out of Avalon with plans to meet up with me at the Haypress Recreation area on the TCT.
The hike from Avalon to Little Harbor is 20 miles with close to 5000 feet of elevation change. There is water at Haypress Station, and food and water at Airport In The Sky.
The 1.6 mile Hermit Gulch Trail is steep and direct with only a few switchbacks. The sky was light enough when I started hiking to enjoy the trail without the aid of light, but the sun was still shielded by the hills to the east. When I was about halfway up the Hermit Gulch Trail, the sun began to break over the horizon and illuminated the island in a shimmering morning light.
After reaching the end of the Hermit Gulch Trail, I stopped to take in the beautiful views of Avalon still shrouded with a morning marine layer. The onshore flow was pushing the layer further onto the island as we hiked upward. There was also a flow coming from the east side of the island. As I climbed higher with views of the ocean on both sides, I could see everything under 200 ft of elevation was buried in the morning fog.
After leaving the Hermit Gulch Trail junction, I continued on the Trans-Catalina and ambled along at a pretty pedestrian pace. My feet were attempted to move forward, but my eyes were incapable of releasing their grasp of the early morning golden light.
Step by step I made my way along the Trans-Catalina Trail, and the views grew more captivation with each passing moment. I looked down at my watch, and confirmed that my timing was still on pace to meet up with Julia at the Haypress Station area. I was caught up in the moment and not really paying attention when I was jolted back into the moment by a large male bison rolling around directly on the trail. He didn’t look to be in any hurry to move, so I just stood there for a while wondering what to do. I’ve read quite a bit on the bison of Catalina, and knew that approaching one on such a narrow part of the trail was not a good idea. I ended up scratching my arms and legs up pretty bad descending the hillside to bypass the bison, but it was probably the right decision.
After passing the bison, I was only a quarter of a mile from the Haypress area and could see Julia walking on the road below. I met up with her right on time and we planned to stop for a short break at Haypress to rest our legs and refill our water. I was all set to do that until I saw another bison grazing just off of the trail. Julia continued ahead to Haypress, but I stayed behind for a picture. This turned out to be a bad decision. At first I took pictures from the side of the road, but the sun was beaming directly into my camera. To get a more compelling shot, I moved closer, right behind two thick branches. I decided to take one more step, and like a slapstick comedy scene from a b-rate movie, I stepped on a branch and the bison instantly looked up at me. We made eye contact for a split second, and I could tell he was not in the mood to tolerate my presence. I instinctively knew to turn and run. Years of football and track practice took hold of my body, as the muscle memory to sprint and survive kicked in. Like Lot’s wife, I looked back. Instead of turning to salt, I grew fearful and began to brace for impact as the bison gained. I tried to kick my speed into another gear, but my acceleration was foiled by the 20 pound backpack I was wearing. I turned one more time, and to my surprise the bison had stopped. My legs refused to do the same though, and I continued running until I was sure I was clearly out of his territory. Crisis averted.
When I finally met up with Julia at Haypress station, my heart was still racing and I was having a very difficult time putting my words together. It was starting to settle in for me how close I was to getting steamrolled. It was my own fault though. I should have given the bison his space and he would have never charged. I knew better. Lesson learned.
The second leg of the hike was much less eventful than the first. The Trans-Catalina passes through the east facing side of the island before cutting through the valley and reaching Blackjack Campground and the Airport In The Sky, Catalina’s airport. Blackjack Campground is 5 miles after Haypress, and makes for a nice shaded spot to take a break before a short 2 mile hike to the Airport in the Sky. Julia and I decided to take a different route to the airport this time though by taking Blackjack Rd to Airport Rd, adding 1.8 miles to the hike.
There are few things better than getting a bison burger, fries, and a lemonade after a long day of hiking. The foot at the airport is a highlight among highlights on the TCT. It’s also a lot of fun to sit and watch all of the planes flying in and out.
After leaving the airport, Julia and I began the 5 mile downhill hike to our campsite at Little Harbor. We were shocked to see 20 bison grazing on the hillside just downhill from the airport. I was much more respectful of their space this time. The marine layer from the west was pushing in on Little Harbor and it took some time before we could gauge the sea level visibility. To our surprise, things were looking good, which was a great boost to moral, as sunset at Little Harbor is the kind of thing that makes life worth living.
Last year I booked campsite 11 at Little Harbor which is the closest one to the beach. The only downside is that it doesn’t have a seating area or it’s own water spigot. This year I booked campsite 8, which is a bit overkill with 4 covered benches! It was the only site available though, as I booked this trip fairly last minute. It had a water spigot and a beach shower close by though, so I have no complaints.
After a taking some time to clean up, change, hydrate, and eat a snack, Julia and I made the short walk out to the beach of Little Harbor to take in the sunset. Just like last year, it was absolutely spectacular. Little Harbor is a place that never ceases to breath live into my mind and body. It’s a vortex for inspiration and motivation, a destination for energy and life.
With the colors of the sunset on my mind, the waves chanting in my ears, and the evening fog clinging to my skin like a hug from the sky, I went to bed and dreamt of things the mind can only see when it is truly free.
39 thoughts on “Hiking Hermit Gulch and The Trans-Catalina Trail From Avalon To Camp At Little Harbor”
We just did much of the same hike. It’s great out there. Nice write-up.
Thanks! Awesome that you just did the same hike, it’s a great one!
Always jealous of your posts and can’t wait to get to the West Coast in some fashion soon.
Thanks, Ian! I hope you can make it out soon!
Can’t say I’ve ever hiked with bison on the trail. Awesome photos.
Thanks, Miriam! They were brought to the island in the 1920’s for a silent movie and were never removed 🙂
Really? That’s interesting, a nice home for them.
They’re very fortunate bison. They get to live in paradise!
What a privilege to see the sunrise and sunset in such a gorgeous place! I love the mountains, and the pictures with the clouds below us are wonderful (and so are the others!)! Love the cacti!
Thank you for sharing and good luck giving your feet some rest 🙂
Thank you very much, Tieme! I appreciate the kind words.
You’re welcome 🙂
I love that you ate a bison burger after your showdown with a bison 😉 Sounds like an amazing hike, and as ever, your photos are stunning!
haha, the Airport in the Sky restaurant is known for it’s bison burgers, bison dogs, and bison jerky! Thanks for the comment, Nadine!
Be careful with the bison next time…glad you learned that lesson safely! Another great hike. I never thought of California as having so many awesome hikes.
I definitely will. I saw a few bison last year, but made sure to keep my distance. I got a little to confident this year, a lesson well learned.
This is one of California’s hiddend gems. Very few people visit Catalina, even though it’s only a short 1 hour ferry ride away from Long Beach. Those who do visit tend to stay in Avalon and never venture out onto the hiking trails. I’m not complaining though, I love having the trails to myself!
There is something about hiking in nature and having it all to yourself 🙂
Lovely photos, and whew, what a frightening moment with that bison! That being said, I loved how you turned the ordeal into a positive lesson for yourself. This looks like quite a lovely hike.
Thanks, Wade! It was a great lesson learned. I had read and heard a lot about giving the bison their space, so the worst part about it is that I should have known better. I’m lucky that I got away with a warning.
We all make those mistakes; it’s easy to be tempted into taking a closer look, then closer, then TOO CLOSE!
Bison charge sounds terrifying – a great story to be able to tell people though!!
It was absolutely terrifying! It could have been so much worse.
What a great read! You are a fantastic writer and person!
Thank you for sharing! We will be doing the TCT in a few weeks and I was looking forward to your posts! 🙂
Thanks for reading, Vanessa! Cool to hear that you’ll be doing the TCT soon! It’s a great hike. The Little Harbor and Parson’s Landing campsites are the best, with Two Harbor right behind. Have fun!
I love it out there. Great post. Something unusual and different. I took a helicopter out to the island once and then the boat back. The helicopter was interesting because we flew out of Long Beach harbor and got to see all of the barges and boats and containers. Sounds lame but it was massive like a sea of containers. Then of course, we got to see Catalina from the bird’s eye! It was worth whatever it cost us.
I’ll bet the helicopter ride was amazing. We took the Catalina Express to Avalon, and had planned on taking the same for our return. We met a great couple in Two Harbor with a sailboat and got to sail from Two Harbor to Long Beach. It was a great way to end the trip. I’m sure it was awesome seeing the barges from a helicopter. That’s a side of Southern California most never get to see!
Met people who sailed you home?! Well, that’s pretty darn awesome.
It was a lot of fun. As we walked into Two Harbors, we saw a goldendoodle, which is the same breed as the dogs we have. We got to talking with them, and they invited us to sail back on their boat. I wish all people were so awesome! It was also a lot of fun to sail with a dog 🙂
What an awesome Valentine’s Day trip! Sounds like you had quite the experience with that bison. Too bad Julia wasn’t videotaping the scene. Regardless, I am sure it is a memory that you will never forget!
We had such a good time last year that we had to come back. We’ll probably make this an annual Valentine’s Day trip! It would be pretty fun if Julia got that one on video 🙂
Wow! Looks an amazing place for a hike! Superb photos and excellent narrative – makes me want to pack my bags and passport and walk that trail 🙂
Thank you! Hopefully you can make it out and hike the island someday!
I can’t believe you outran a bison with a full pack. Thank goodness you did, but that’s seriously impressive. The third to last photo (sunset begins) is seriously one of the most beautiful images I’ve seen in my life — if I had a wall i would ask you permission to enlarge and print it.
Thanks! There was a time while playing college football I was able to run the 40 yard dash in 4.38 seconds. I don’t think I’m anywhere near that now, but it helped me put some distance on the bison with my first steps 🙂
I loved getting to read your post and see your photos! The best of photos have great stories behind them, I always like to say! It was well worth the shot- I love Bison Shot #1! My husband and I hope to make it out to the west Coast for some great adventures at some point! Thanks for the sharing!
Thanks, Sam! It’s always nice to look back on pictures like that 🙂 I hope you guys can make it out here soon!
As a new hiker, I have just discovered your blogs! You are a terrific photographer, writer, and storyteller! You and Julia seem like such awesome people! Thank you for sharing your stories and knowledge. I love living and learning through them! I am looking forward to a Catalina hike soon!
Hello Karen! Thanks for checking out my blog. Great to hear you’ll be heading over to Catalina for some hiking. There are a lot of great options!