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.