Trans Catalina Trail (TCT) Hike Guide

The Trans Catalina Trail, a mini, 38.5-mile thru-hike across the rugged island of Catalina, is a very doable adventure for almost every hiker and backpacker. Most people take between two and five days to complete the trail, which winds its way around Catalina. Along the way, you’ll experience expansive ocean views, the unique Channel Islands ecology, challenging terrain, and spectacular beachside campgrounds. In this complete Trans Catalina Trail (TCT) guide, I’ll show you everything you need to know to hike the trail and plan it out so that it’s a perfect fit for your hiking abilities.

When planning, always check the park website and social media to make sure the trails are open. Similarly, check the weather and road conditions.

Trans Catalina Trail Overview

  • The Trans Catalina Trail, officially 38.5 miles, is generally followed from Avalon in the south of the island, to Parsons Landing in the north. Nothing stops you from going the other way or doing it in sections, but this routing is the way the TCT is officially laid out.
  • The actual island of Catalina is only 22 miles long and 7 miles wide.
    Catalina island hike
    This is the basic layout of Catalina Island. You’ll hear people refer to the “west end” or “east end,” and they are referring to the two main landmasses connected by “the isthmus.” The narrow isthmus is where Two Harbors is located. The main center of population and visitation is Avalon, in the southeast. Outside of those two towns, the island is sparsely populated.
  • The hike is usually broken into five logical segments (from south to north on the map above).
    • Avalon (town) to Black Jack Campground (purple line – 11 miles) – a gentle climb out of Avalon and a series of ups and downs through the interior of the island, with a good share of sweeping vistas.
    • Black Jack Campground to Little Harbor Campground (red line – 8 miles) – a climb up to the Airport in the Sky where you can get breakfast or lunch, and then a long descent into the only campground on the rugged west coast of Catalina.
    • Little Harbor to Two Harbors (blue line – 5 miles) – my favorite section, with incredible views, and a tough climb up a ridge along the west bluffs.
    • Two Harbors to Parsons Landing (green line – 6.5 miles) – you’ll have a tough climb out of town to a high ridge, and then a very steep descent into Parsons Landing.
    • Parsons Landing to Two Harbors (orange line – 8 miles) – as the last section of the TCT, this is a flat cake-walk along the coast with views into hidden coves and beaches.
  • You can take five days and do a segment a day, but most people combine segments and do it in 3-4 days.
  • You’ll likely book a ferry to the start in Avalon, and then book a ferry back from the northern town of Two Harbors.
  • The Catalina Island Conservancy manages most of the island and handles the camping and hiking permits.
  • The hike is known for its ups and downs, with many climbs and descents steep and made tougher by the camping gear on your back.
  • Leashed Dogs Allowed dogs are allowed on the TCT, except at Two Harbors and Hermit Gulch campgrounds. The harsh environment, lack of water, and presence of bison make it a pretty dog-unfriendly environment. I would strongly consider leaving your dog at home for this one.

How to Hike the Trans Catalina Trail

Catalina island hike
Planning your TCT hike is usually the biggest challenge. Lodging is the hardest thing to secure. Once you have that booked, the rest is gravy. Or bison dogs with onions and relish, like I’m eating here at the airport cafe along the trail.

The TCT isn’t a hike you just show up for and do, you have to plan and book before you go. There are a few variables that you have to align. I’ll talk in detail about each step later in the guide, but to give you an overview, here’s how you should go about it.

  1. Assume that you’ll go from south to north (Avalon to Parsons Landing to Two Harbors), which is how the Catalina Island Conservancy recommends the hike, at least for first-timers.
  2. If you have the time, choose the four-day itinerary, which is a good balance between hiking and enjoying the campgrounds. I know that not everyone can take this long to do the hike, so if you want 2 or 3 day options (or 5), I have those too.
  3. Check the ferry schedule for the days that you want to go. There are not ferries every hour. Often you are limited to 1-3 options per day. Once you have the ferry times, you can start planning where you are going to stay. Don’t book your ferries until you secure your lodging.
  4. Work backward on dates for lodging, checking the availability from north to south. Often the northernmost campground, Parsons Landing, is the toughest, and they get a tad bit easier as you go backward and work your way toward Avalon.
  5. Once you have lodging lined up, book it immediately.
  6. Then book your ferry tickets.
  7. Then, if you need one, apply for a free permit.

Trans Catalina Trail Campgrounds and Lodging

As I mentioned earlier, securing the lodging is key. The Catalina Island Conservancy releases camping spots on Jan 1 of every year. Ideally you’ll set this date in your calendar and try to hit the website as soon as they go live. If you don’t have that opportunity, don’t worry, people do cancel and spots do open up during the year. You just have to keep checking.

Book campsites online here or try giving the Catalina Island Company a call (310-510-4205) with the sites and dates you’d like.

  • There is no backcountry camping on Catalina. You have to stay in one of the official campgrounds or a hotel.
  • If you stay at a campground, it’s important that you use the food storage lockers. The rodents, crows, and foxes of Catalina Island are experts at chewing through packs and bags, and will often attempt it if given even a second or two.
  • All of the campgrounds listed have toilets.
  • Each campground usually has a ranger who either lives or visits the camping area. They will be able to help with any camping needs, and can also communicate with the Conservancy if there is an issue.
  • You can arrange to have your camping gear shipped between campgrounds, but it’s not cheap.
  • If you want to swim at one of the beach campgrounds, be aware that the Pacific Ocean is usually pretty chilly.
  • If you book online and see a (summer only) two-night minimum stay, just book the stay and then call the Conservancy at 310-510-4205. They will waive the 2-day minimum and refund you one night if you are hiking the TCT.

Late winter / early spring is a great time to do the TCT. You avoid the summer crowds, the vegetation is green, and the temps are generally cooler.

Parsons Landing

Catalina island hike
Parsons Landing offers primitive camping on the beach, and is usually the toughest campsite to book.

My favorite camping spot on the Trans Catalina Trail is easily Parsons Landing. There are several camping spots located right on the beach, in a protected sandy cove. Each site has a small fire pit and area to store your food and pack. There is no running water, but you can have water and firewood delivered to your campsite upon arrival for a small fee from the Catalina Island Company.

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You can check out my detailed guide of Parsons Landing here. It’s a fun hike backpack to for a weekend if you don’t have the time for the whole TCT.

Catalina island hike
If you stay at Parsons Landing and order water and firewood, it will arrive in these lockers. Pick up your key in Two Harbors before hiking up to the campground. Rangers from the Catalina Island Company deliver the water and wood each day.

Two Harbors Campground

Catalina island hike
People have mixed feelings about the Two Harbors campground. You are on the water, but the campground itself is not primitive

If you’re going to camp in Two Harbors, there is a big campground ¼ mile south of town on the bluff. The campground usually offers regular sites where you can pitch your tent, and also offers canvas tents and cots that you can rent. Avoid sites 5,6 & 7 as they are right next to the bathrooms. Sites #9, 10 and 11 have great views, and #1-4 are closest to the water with the best views. There is a water refill and cold water (open) showers. If you walk 5 minutes into town, you have access to hot showers (where there is a electrical outlet to recharge devices), a restaurant, and general store. The general store will also deliver food to this campground for a fee.

Banning House (Two Harbors)

Catalina island hike
It’s not a campground, but the Banning House is one of my favorite places to stay when hiking the TCT.

If you want a break from camping, I highly recommend treating yourself to a room at the Banning House Lodge in Two Harbors. It’s the only real non-camping option, and after a long day of hiking or a few nights in a tent, having a hot shower and comfy bed can feel incredible. The staff is very friendly and they offer wine & cheese and breakfast on the patio overlooking the ocean. If you can make it work, springing for the cliffside room will give you incredible views of the sunset and Catalina Harbor.

Catalina island hike
If you stay at the Banning House, you can enjoy breakfast or snacks on the veranda overlooking the water.

Little Harbor Campground

Catalina island hike
The Little Harbor campground has some sites that are right by the beach, and all of them have a table and fire pit.

Little Harbor is my second favorite campground. It’s more of a traditional campground and has a nice beach where you can relax. It’s the only campground on the more rugged west coast of Catalina. Just examine at the tent site map carefully, some tent sites are far away from the ocean and don’t offer any views. Unlike Parsons Landing, campers can take a shuttle bus into Little Harbor, so it’s not limited to hikers. Generally it’s very pleasant, but it can get loud when groups are here. There are cold water showers and water fills. You can get food delivered here from the Two Harbors General Store, and firewood from the Catalina Island Company.

There are three smaller, more secluded campsites in nearby Shark Harbor. These are part of the same Little Harbor campground and are booked through Little Harbor reservations.

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You can rent leisure gear from Wet Spot Rentals. Confirm and book before leaving.
Catalina island hike
The highlight of Little Harbor is the beach.

Black Jack Campground

Catalina island hike
Black Jack Campground is the only campground located in Catalina’s interior. It’s not the most spectacular campground, but it’s nice enough.

Black Jack Campground is a popular option because it’s the closest to Avalon, and within a day’s hiking if taking the morning ferry to the island. It’s located up on a hill in a grove of pine trees, but doesn’t offer any ocean views. There are no showers, but there is a water fill here.

Hermit Gulch (Avalon)

Catalina island hike
Hermit Gulch is a traditional campground in Avalon, away from the boozy hustle and bustle of the main part of town.

If you want to camp in Avalon, this is your only option. The nice thing about Hermit Gulch is that it’s about a 20 minute walk up Avalon Canyon, away from the waterfront. The campsites are close together, and if you have a rowdy crew staying at the campground, you’ll hear them. It is a convenient jumping-off point, right next to the beginning of the trail section of the TCT.

Catalina island hike
You can also rent canvas tents with cots at Hermit Gulch.

Avalon Hotels & Rentals

Avalon is the main town on Catalina Island, and is set up well for overnight visitors. There are several hotels, bed & breakfasts, and vacation rentals that you can book. There’s also a supermarket in Avalon if you need to stock up with supplies. When I stay in Avalon, I’ll try to find a place away from the hustle and bustle of the waterfront. I’ve found the Holiday Inn, which is a few minutes inland, is a good option.

Trans Catalina Trail Itineraries

Catalina island hike
When deciding how far to hike each day, don’t forget to account for the ups and downs along the way, which are the most challenging aspects of hiking the TCT. Aside from Black Jack, all the other campgrounds are at sea level.

Now you have an idea of how long it will take and where to stay, let’s talk about actual itineraries. Below are suggested itineraries based on popular routings. When you’re deciding how long to go, you need to not only determine what lodging you can book, but also what your fitness level will allow and how far that you’ll be comfortable hiking each day with a heavy pack on your back. It’s also important to note that the TCT is hilly, and often the climbs go straight up. This means that going up AND down is usually slow with a pack.

If you want to estimate your pace, I recommend packing your backpack with all the gear you will bring and then go for a short and hilly day hike. Expect to go slower with a full backpack than you would with a lighter day-hiking pack. Most folks average between 1.5-2.5 mph when hiking with a full backpack. If anything, based on the conditions, be conservative when planning your pace on the TCT. Worst case is that you get somewhere early and relax on a beach.

When planning your itinerary for hiking the TCT, know that hiking during dark is not permitted.

5 Days / 4 Nights

Catalina island hike
This is the easiest approach to the TCT and should give you plenty of time to soak it all in, explore side trails, and relax at the campsites. It’s a great itinerary for beginners who want to have fun hiking and avoid an injury from pushing too hard.
  • Day 1
    • Ferry to Avalon
    • Hike from Avalon to Black Jack Campground – 11 miles
    • Camp at Black Jack Campground
  • Day 2
    • Hike from Black Jack Campground to Little Harbor – 8 miles
    • Camp at Little Harbor
  • Day 3
    • Hike from Little Harbor to Two Harbors – 5 miles
    • Overnight in Two Harbors
  • Day 4
    • Hike from Two Harbors to Parsons Landing – 6.5 miles
    • Camp at Parsons Landing
  • Day 5
    • Hike from Parsons Landing to Two Harbors – 8 miles
    • Ferry back from Two Harbors

4 Days / 3 Nights

Catalina island hike
This is probably the most popular approach to the TCT, and is a good balance of hiking and resting.
  • Day 1
    • Ferry to Avalon
    • Hike from Avalon to Black Jack Campground – 11 miles
    • Camp at Black Jack Campground
  • Day 2
    • Hike from Black Jack Campground to Little Harbor – 8 miles
    • Overnight in Little Harbor
  • Day 3
    • Hike from Little Harbor to Parsons Landing – 11.5 miles
    • Camp at Parsons Landing
  • Day 4
    • Hike from Parsons Landing to Two Harbors – 8 miles
    • Ferry back from Two Harbors

3 Days / 2 Nights

Catalina island hike
If you’re an in-shape hiker and time is at a premium, the long weekend / 3-day itinerary is a good option.
  • Day 1
    • Ferry to Avalon
    • Hike from Avalon to Black Jack Campground – 11 miles
    • Camp at Black Jack Campground
  • Day 2
    • Hike from Black Jack Campground to Two Harbors – 13 miles
    • Overnight in Two Harbors
  • Day 3
    • Hike from Two Harbors to Parsons Landing to Two Harbors – 14.5 miles
    • Ferry back from Two Harbors

2.5 Days / 2 Nights

Catalina island hike
This itinerary should only be attempted by very fit hikers who are used to not only the distance, but also the climbing. It’s a great option for those who can bail out of work early on a Friday, catch a ferry, and only have the weekend to hike. And if you stay at the Banning House, you don’t even need to pack camping gear, just a day pack and change of clothes.
  • Day 0
    • Late Ferry to Avalon
    • Overnight in Avalon
  • Day 2
    • Hike from Avalon to Two Harbors – 24 miles
    • Overnight in Two Harbors
  • Day 3
    • Hike from Two Harbors to Parsons Landing to Two Harbors – 14.5 miles
    • Ferry back from Two Harbors

Trans Catalina Trail in One Day

Nope. Well, if you are a trail runner and can do better than a 4-5 mph pace, you should be able to complete the 38.5 during daylight. If you are running, the uphills will be walked, and most downhills are so steep that you have to take them slow. If you are considering this, I’d say take a good look at the gradients on the elevation profile to figure out where you can make good time and where you can’t.

Trans Catalina Trail Permits

The good news is that for hiking permits, if you have a camping reservation on the island, it serves as your hiking permit. There is no need to get any other paperwork for the hike. If you are doing an itinerary that doesn’t include any camping, only lodging, then you need to get a free permit online. You don’t need to pick up or carry any paper, just make sure you have a copy on your phone (and that it’s charged). Since you are only allowed to camp at a designated campground, the (lack of) camping space serves as the quota system. Book your campsites and you are good to go.

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Getting to the Start fo the Trans Catalina Trail

Catalina island hike
Unless you’re a high-roller who can fly or helicopter into Catalina, expect to take the ferry across from the mainland. The ferry usually has a bar and snacks on board. You might be asked to check your backpack in when you board.

Assuming that you’re going to do the hike along the recommended routing from Avalon to Two Harbors, you’re going to have to arrange for your ferries from each spot. There are several mainland ports that have ferries to Avalon, including downtown Long Beach, Newport Beach, Dana Point, and San Pedro (Long Beach harbor). For Two Harbors, a much smaller town, the options are limited, with a ferry to San Pedro and a seasonal shuttle to Avalon. There is no scheduled land transportation between Two Harbors and Avalon; a taxi can cost several hundred dollars. There is also a shuttle bus between different points; the schedules vary by season.

So what most people do is take the (easier) hit on the mainland side and drive to San Pedro. From there you can park (for a fee), get a one-way ferry ticket to Avalon, and then a one-way ferry ticket back from Two Harbors. Different seasons have different schedules, and the ferry website is easy enough to use and book a ticket on. Getting ferry space is usually not a problem.

The ferry from San Pedro to Avalon is about 75 minutes depending on the sea conditions. There is sometimes a direct ferry from Two Harbors to San Pedro, but most times you have to stop in Avalon, which is about a 2 hour trip in total. When there are storms, the ferries can be canceled. Make sure you stay up to date by checking their website before leaving.

Catalina island hike
You can park at the Ferry Terminal in San Pedro for a daily fee.

Trans Catalina Trail Packing List

Catalina island hike
A tale of two TCT hikes: on the left, a smaller day pack used on a two-day itinerary, on the right, a larger pack with gear for five days.

One of the biggest mistakes I see on the Trans Catalina Trail is people hauling huge backpacks with a ton of gear. For many folks, including day hikers, the TCT is often one of the first real backpacking trips that they do. If you Google “what backpacking gear do I need,” you’re going to get a lot of strong opinions. You don’t need a lot of stuff. Do yourself a favor and stick to the basics unless you backpack often and have a preferred setup. Here’s what I would get (or rent from REI). Check out my gear page for my current picks and what I’m using now.

  • Get a 40+ liter backpack to carry all your gear.
  • Having a 3 liter water bladder will hold enough water between refill points (more below). You don’t need a water filter. The refill points have drinkable water. Make sure you drink and refill often in the summer. According to the rangers, most summer rescues occur from dehydration.
  • Get a small, light tent. Campgrounds have lockers where you can store your pack.
  • I find that having an inflatable sleeping pad and pillow make my nights more comfortable.
  • Nights can be cool, especially close to the ocean where winds can pick up. A 3-season sleeping bag (30F) is the most that you need to stay warm. If you already have a lighter sleeping bag, consider getting a sleeping bag liner which will make it warmer if needed.
  • I use a small lightweight stove which is reliable and easy to use. When I hike the TCT I take advantage of the spots where I can buy food or have it delivered.
  • Bring something to start a fire to light your campfire wood with.
  • You’ll need good footwear, especially if you’re not used to hiking this much or this far. I highly recommend a hiking shoe or trail runner (see my latest picks here). Don’t make the mistake of a heavy boot that could give you blisters.
  • Don’t be fooled by the “average temperature” charts that put it always between 50-72F. Generally the days are hot and the nights are cool, but it can get much hotter in the summer (90s) and very chilly when camping by the ocean (40s).  Bring layers to stay warm at night and to peel off as it gets hot. The weather can change quickly in this maritime environment.
  • The trail is totally exposed to the sun. Having lightweight gear for the day with sun protection is a good move.
  • I’ve found ticks on me when hiking here. I use lotion-based insect repellant now and don’t have any problems. Other hazards such as poison oak or snakes are easily avoided by watching your step.
  • It can rain on Catalina, and its position in the middle of the ocean means that rain can be unpredictable. I bring a lightweight shell and light rain pants with me, which I also wear at night when it gets cool.
  • Comfy shoes or flip-flops are great for after you peel your hiking boots off.
  • Trekking poles are a must, especially if you have a big pack on your back. The climbs and descents are steep and can be slippery. Trekking poles will save you from having to butt-scoot down some of the more extreme slopes.
  • If you’re brave enough to enter the chilly Pacific, bring a bathing suit and maybe even a mask.
  • Don’t forget a headlamp for navigating camp at night.
  • If you look at cellphone coverage maps, some show the whole island as having coverage. You might be able to snag a signal in the interior, but don’t count on it. Two Harbors and Avalon have decent service. Make sure you download your maps on your phone and/or buy a paper map from the Conservancy visitor center in Avalon (or from some REI stores or online).
  • I like to keep things simple so I load some books on my phone’s Kindle app and put a movie or two on there to watch in my tent. I have a USB charger to keep them topped off. Keep your electronics in your sleeping bag with you. If they get too cold, the batteries will drain quickly. And don’t forget to put your phone into flight mode when outside of Avalon or Two Harbors, otherwise it will drain down quickly as it searches for a signal.

If you are doing the 2-day itinerary and are staying in hotels, then you only need to bring day hiking gear and a change of clothes.

Water and Services Along the Way

Catalina island hike
The General Store at Two Harbors, where the traditional  TCT route ends, is a good place to pick up a shirt, patch, or sticker to commemorate your TCT adventure.

Make sure you bring some cash with you, the credit card machines on the island (found just about everywhere) don’t always work outside of Avalon.

  • San Pedro / Long Beach
    • REI stores in Manhattan Beach and Huntingdon Beach
    • Supermarkets in San Pedro
  • Avalon
  • Top of Hermit Gulch Trail (3.5 miles)
    • Toilets
  • Haypress Reservoir (6 miles)
    • Toilets
    • Water Fill
  • Black Jack Campground (11 miles)
    • Toilets
    • Water Fill
  • Airport Cafe (13 miles)
    • Toilets
    • Water Fill
    • To-Go Food
    • Dine-In Food
    • Gifts
  • Little Harbor Campground (24 miles)
  • Two Harbors (29 miles)
    • Pay showers
    • Restaurant
    • General Store (which will deliver to Two Harbors campground)
      • Cooked Whole Pizzas
      • Food & Drinks & Alcohol
      • Gifts
      • Limited Gear (charging cables, basic hiking gear)
    • Laundry
    • Water Fill at Laundry and At Dinghy Dock Picnic Area (see directions)
    • Phone Charging at Some Tables at Restaurant
  • Parsons Landing (30.5 miles)
    • Toilets
    • Water and Firewood Delivery From Catalina Island Company (arrange beforehand)
    • Often extra water is left by previous campers. Sometimes the rangers clean these up right away, sometimes you can find a few around.

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Going to the bathroom off the trail is highly discouraged in this fragile ecosystem. When you need to do your serious business on the hike, try to hit one of the toilets along the way that I’ve just listed.

Trans Catalina Trail Maps

The actual Trans Catalina Trail is a bit of a mixed bag, and generally when I hear that someone was disappointed with the experience, it’s because they were expecting different types of trails and wilderness. Overall the Trans Catalina Trail, which is a route using other trails and roads, is a combination of single-track trail, small dirt roads, and short sections on “busier” dirt roads. And when I say “busier,” know that this is generally means the odd Conservancy or delivery vehicle. Most people don’t drive out of Avalon. And while Catalina is barely developed, the hike does pass through reservoirs, a small town, and some developed campgrounds. It’s off the beaten path, but it’s also not a hike through the middle of the Sierra Nevadas.

Grab the official Catalina Island Conservancy Map of the TCT here.

Types of Trails

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Some trails are single-track like this. They’re also steep like this. Only the climb out of Avalon has switchbacks, otherwise you’ll be going straight up or down. Trekking poles are a must in some sections.
Catalina island hike
Most of the TCT is on small dirt roads that are not open to traffic like this.
Catalina island hike
And there are some stretches where you’ll see the odd automobile, but generally I’ll only see a handful for a whole TCT hike. Drivers will usually slow down for hikers when passing. If you ever need help along the TCT, finding the nearest road and flagging down a vehicle is your best move.

Trail Markers

Catalina island hike
These small markers will be your best friend on the TCT. They are frequent on the trail, and usually placed right after a junction. If you make a turn and don’t see one of these, I’d check the map to make sure that you’re in the right place.
Catalina island hike
You’ll also see a good number of these Catalina Island street and trail signs along the way, especially at key turns and intersections.
Catalina island hike
You’ll also have these mile markers for most of the entire 38.5 mile route. They are oriented on the south-to-north route.

When I did the guide, a section before Little Harbor, on Springs Ridge, was closed, and there was a detour along the parallel Sheep Chute Road. I’ve updated the map and GPX file to have the latest route down Springs Ridge. Either way, you’ll be fine.

Interactive Map

Explore Map on CalTopoView a Printable PDF Hike MapDownload the Hike GPX File

Free Nav Tools:  GaiaGPSAllTrails

Guides to Help You Navigate

Elevation Profile

Catalina island hike
The Trans Catalina Trail is a story of ups and downs. After a long day or in the heat, the smaller climbs can be as tough as the bigger ones. The three major climbs are out of Avalon, out of Little Harbor, and then out of Two Harbors.

Landmarks on the Hike

LandmarkDistanceElevation
Avalon Dock Trailhead10
Hermit Gulch Campground1.5280
Hermit Gulch Viewpoint3.41500
Haypress Reservoir61350
Black Jack Campground111520
Airport in the Sky131602
Little Harbor Campground1810
Two Harbors2410
Granite Benchmark271780
Parsons Landing30.510
TCT Terminus38.520

3D Map

Catalina island hike
From Avalon (on the left) we climb into the interior, then across the island to Little Harbor. From there, we hug the west coast until we come down to the isthmus and Two Harbors. Then it’s up in the hills of the west end, down to Parsons Landing, and back to Two Harbors.

Starlight Beach / Old Route

Catalina island hike
The old Trans Catalina Trail route used to end at rugged Starlight Beach, at the west end of the island. Photo Chris Hunkeler

Before 2017, the Trans Catalina Trail had a different route, and if you’re doing research online you may see guides that follow that route. The beginning of the hike went around Catalina’s east end, and the “end” of the hike was Starlight Beach, at the tip of the island’s west end. The Conservancy changed it to the current route outlined in this guide, and I think it’s for the better. The new route is easier logistically, focuses more on great spots to camp, and avoids the steep (and some would say dangerous) hike to Starlight Beach. If you want to see what the original route looks like, I have my old track up here.

Hike Brief

Catalina island hike
Aside from some minor human-made features, much of what you see on Catalina Island will look the same as it has for hundreds of years. This photo of Little Harbor is from 1888, and the view is basically the same today.
  • The island of Catalina was never connected to the mainland. Every creature or plant found on the island arrived by wind, water, or humans.
  • Catalina Island’s full name is Santa Catalina Island, and it’s one of the eight channel islands of California, but not part of Channel Islands National Park.
  • Native peoples like the Tongva inhabited the island for 8000 years before the Mexicans and Americans came and stamped their authority on the area. Even then, Catalina was way off the beaten path and home to smugglers, illegal mining, and hunters.
  • It wasn’t until the 1920s when chewing gum millionaire William Wrigley Jr. bought most of the island and developed it into a tourist attraction. The golf course and aviary that you pass on the beginning of the hike are from of those days. You might recognize the name Wrigley from the Cubs’ Wrigley Field in Chicago. Well the team would do their spring training here until World War 2.
  • In the 1970s the Catalina Island Conservancy, a private non-profit organization, took over much of the island with the aim of preserving and restoring the natural environment. Today they own 88% of the island and manage the longest publicly accessible stretch of undeveloped coastline left in Southern California. They also manage the trails and campgrounds that you’ll stay at on the TCT hike. Because of them, the TCT is a beautiful hike through native lands, not high-rise resorts and condos.
  • The Trans Catalina Trail was conceived until 2009, when the Conservancy came up with the idea and encouraged backpackers to tackle this new thru-hike. The island has over 165 miles of trails.
  • There are about 150 bison that roam the island. If you don’t see them, you’ll see their big dung piles (aka the “buffalo chip”) for sure. They are the (population-controlled) descendants of bison brought over in 1924 for a film shoot. It’s important to stay at least 150 feet away from them. If they feel threatened they can charge, and they are faster than you. If they are blocking the trail, you have to either wait or improvise and go around. I’ve seen a flippant group of hikers get charged once. They had to jump into a gully. Take it seriously.
    Catalina island hike
    This is too close. Don’t do this. And FYI, you can see bison almost anywhere except downtown Avalon. That includes campgrounds and the beaches. They generally like to follow the roads and trails. Photo David Galvan
  • If you’ve seen the movie Step Brothers with Will Ferrell, I’m sure you’ll remember the Catalina Wine Mixer. The island actually capitalized on the movie’s cult status and threw the festival. The inside joke is that in the movie, the actual mixer takes place in Palos Verdes on the mainland, and in some shots you can see Catalina in the distance, way off the coast.
  • While you might see some bison, bald eagles, snakes, mule deer, or other creatures, the massive winner in terms of cute is the native Catalina Island Fox. In 1999 it was was endangered; there were only 100 left. The Conservancy worked hard to restore the population, and today there are nearly 2000 on the island (and they are no longer endangered). They are docile and friendly, but obviously, don’t feed them or touch them. They will try to steal your food if it’s left alone and do bite humans when threatened.
    Catalina island hike
    The ultimate cutie, the Catalina Island Fox. Photo Wikipedia.

Trans Catalina Trail Hike Directions

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Video Directions

Turn by Turn Directions

Avalon to Black Jack Campground

Catalina island hike
Hop off the ferry in Avalon and make the right along the waterfront.
Catalina island hike
Head down along the waterfront to the middle of town.
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Once you’re in town, take any one of the streets up into the interior to Avalon Canyon Road. Avalon gets over 1 million visitors a year, and cruise ships dock here, so it can get crazy. Stay sane, make a supermarket stop if you need to, and walk back away from the waterfront to Avalon Canyon Road.
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Head up Avalon Canyon Road. You’ll see signs for Hermit Gulch. It should mellow out a lot compared to the waterfront area. Keep walking up the paved Avalon Canyon Road.
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After about a mile on the road, look for the turnoff on the right to enter Hermit Gulch Campground. We’re going to be hiking through the campground and out the other side to the trail.
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Head through the campground, bearing right as you head toward the back end of it.
Catalina island hike
When you get to the end of the Hermit Gulch Campground, make the right.
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At that turn you’ll see signs for the trail. Start the climb up from Hermit Gulch on the single-track trail.
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So now you start the TCT proper. You’ll have a climb of about 1200 feet until you reach Divide Road.
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As you climb, you’ll start to get views down into Avalon Canyon.
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The good news about the climb out of Hermit Gulch is that, unlike the other big climbs, there are steps and switchbacks along the way, making the effort a little easier.
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Soon you’ll climb high enough to start seeing the ocean and the mountains on the mainland. The big mountain to the right as you climb (and not in frame here) is Saddleback Mountain, the highest point in Orange County. The mountains you see here are Angeles National Forest, and the high point is Mt Baldy.
Catalina island hike
You’ll see the mile markers as you climb. When you get to about 3 miles, you’re almost at the top.
Catalina island hike
Soon you’ll crest the ridge and have views over the west side of the island. On a clear day like this you’ll see San Clemente Island in the distance. San Clemente is the southernmost Channel Island and is run by the US Navy. You can’t visit unless you are a Navy SEAL or Marine who goes there to train.
Catalina island hike
There’s a nice pavilion with some interpretive displays at the Hermit Gulch Viewpoint.
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Make the right at the Hermit Gulch Viewpoint and start hiking on Divide Road.
Catalina island hike
You’ll pass a toilet at the junction with Lone Tree Road, off to the left. It’s a nice little day hike from Avalon. For us on the TCT, go straight down Divide Road.
Catalina island hike
At this point, the views that the Trans Catalina Trail are famous for are before your eyes. Behind you will be the East Mountains of Catalina.
Catalina island hike
You’ll get glimpses to your front of two important landmarks. On the left here is Mt Orizaba, the highest point on Catalina. But more importantly, on the right you’ll see a tall pointy peak, which is Black Jack Mountain. Just to the left of the mountain is Black Jack Campground.
Catalina island hike
And as you continue on Divide Road you’ll get great ocean views toward LA.
Catalina island hike
And you’ll be able to see down into Avalon, where you started the TCT.
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After around 5 miles in, look for the turnoff onto a trail on the left. There’s a sign here for the TCT.
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Here’s the sign at the last intersection. Now we’ll be on single-track trails mostly as we hike through the interior towards Black Jack.
Catalina island hike
Go through the fence, following the signs.
Catalina island hike
Continue hiking along the single-track trail. There will be points where you can see the busy Airport Road off to your right. You’ll always have Black Jack Mountain in the distance to give you a sense of how far you have to go.
Catalina island hike
Shortly after passing the fence you’ll come to the top of a ridge and see Haypress Reservoir below you. We’re hiking down, around to the right, and then back out the other side to the left.
Catalina island hike
Af the bottom of the hill, go through the gate to the right.
Catalina island hike
And then make the left onto the road.
Catalina island hike
And then you’ll pass by the reservoir, which is actually a natural pond, Haypress Pond. This was one of the natural water collection areas used by native peoples.
Catalina island hike
The facilities are all the way on the right as you go around the reservoir. There is water and toilets.
Catalina island hike
Otherwise continue around to the other side and pick up the single-track again.
Catalina island hike
It’s about 6 miles from when you leave Haypress. From here until Black Jack, you’ll have a few miles of ups and downs.
Catalina island hike
When you get up to the road, do the quick crossover and check out the viewpoint into Toyon Bay. Then head back across the road to continue the TCT.
Catalina island hike
When you cross over from the viewpoint, there’s another Trans Catalina Trail sign.
Catalina island hike
Ups and downs. Follow the single-track through the hills.
Catalina island hike
When you get to the top of the hill, make the right onto the road.
Catalina island hike
And shortly after that, look for the left turn to continue on the single-track trail.
Catalina island hike
Another canyon to cross as you hike through the interior. You’ll be able to see the trail in front of you.
Catalina island hike
Cross over Middle Ranch Road to continue on the trail.
Catalina island hike
When you crest the last climb, you’ll get some expansive views.
Catalina island hike
Hike downhill toward the viewpoint with interpretive displays, and then make the left. If you want to fuel up before the last big push up to Black Jack Campground, this is a good spot.
Catalina island hike
Now we just have to cross Cape Canyon to get to Black Jack. The campground is in the group of pine trees to the left of Black Jack Mountain.
Catalina island hike
At the bottom of Cape Canyon is this great bench made out of Catalina road signs. One of the only shady spots on the hike.
Catalina island hike
When you get to the Cape Canyon Reservoir, make the right on the road.
Catalina island hike
And after a minute bear off to the left onto the single-track to start the climb up the other side of Cape Canyon.
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You’ll pass the 10 mile marker. The climb is steep, and can be tough if you are just starting your TCT adventure and have a heavy pack on. Take your time, you’re almost there.
Catalina island hike
The trail levels out and you have a relatively flat stretch before getting to the campground in the trees ahead.
Catalina island hike
Here you are, Black Jack Campground! There are toilets on the right. The trail continues straight through, past the toilets.
Catalina island hike
The water refill is directly across from the toilets.

Black Jack Campground to Little Harbor

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Head up the road from the campsites.
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Make the right on the Cape Canyon Trail.

If you want to do a side hike to the highest point on Catalina, Mt Orizaba, make the left here and go up the road. It’s about an extra hour (out and back) to visit. At the top is an aviation radio beacon (VOR) used by airplanes to navigate.

Catalina island hike
The views from the trail open up to the east as you wind your way on the TCT.
Catalina island hike
Keep following the dirt road, Cape Canyon Trail. TCT markers confirm that you’re in the right place.
Catalina island hike
Make the left and start heading downhill into Cottonwood Canyon.
Catalina island hike
As you head down into Cottonwood Canyon, you can see the airport buildings up to the right.
Catalina island hike
Look for this marked turnoff to the right to continue on the TCT.
Catalina island hike
As you descend into Cottonwood Canyon you’ll see the airport in front of you. That’s our next stop.
Catalina island hike
At the junction, make the left to finish off the downhill.
Catalina island hike
You’ll pass the 12 mile marker at the bottom of the canyon. From here you start climbing up toward the airport.
Catalina island hike
As the climb eases up, you’ll see the airport in front of you.
Catalina island hike
Go straight at the airport loop trail junction, following the TCT sign to the airport. If you want to visit a 2000 year-old Tongva soapstone quarry, you can do a short side trip to the right here on the airport loop. I put the waypoint in the interactive map. Please be respectful.
Catalina island hike
Okay, welcome to the Airport in the Sky! To continue on the TCT, go straight. But I recommend making the side trip to the cafe, which is a traditional stop on this hike.
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Hikers welcome!
Catalina island hike
The original airport, called Buffalo Springs Airport, was blasted out of the hills here and opened in 1941. There’s no commercial flights here now, but there have been in the past. In recent years the airport fell into disrepair and the Marines showed up to restore and repair it.
Catalina island hike
The cafe is in the main airport building.
Catalina island hike
You can get food and gifts here, and you’ll be sharing the experience with tourists who came up the Airport Road, bikers, and pilots.
Catalina island hike
The food here is good, go crazy. Of course they have everything bison on the menu too. Some folks eat here and also order food to-go, eating it at Little Harbor later. It’s pretty much all downhill to Little Harbor, so if you’re considering buying food to-go, don’t worry about lugging it up hills.
Catalina island hike
There’s a nice outdoor patio area to eat.
Catalina island hike
Or if you’re hot, cool down in the indoor seating area under the gaze of a bison on the hearth.
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When you’re done, head back to the trail and make the right to continue on the TCT.
Catalina island hike
Pass over El Rancho Escondido Road as you loop around the airport.
Catalina island hike
And you’ll get your first glimpses to the ocean off the west coast of Catalina (where the fog is here).
Catalina island hike
Once you’re on the other side of the runway, you’ll loop around Buffalo Springs Reservoir.
Catalina island hike
When you get to the end of the reservoir, make the hard left on Empire Landing Road.
Catalina island hike
Although this stretch is mostly downhill, there are some small uphills.
Catalina island hike
You’ll have some nice views over to Palos Verdes before you wind away from the east coast. People actually swim the 20 miles from here to Palos Verdes, which is pretty incredible.
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You’ll also get your first views of Catalina’s west end, which you’ll hike after you cross the isthmus at Two Harbors. The peak in the middle is Silver Peak, and at 1804 feet is the highest point on the west end.
Catalina island hike
At around 14.5 miles in, bear left onto Sheep Chute Road, which you’ll take all the way down to Little Harbor.

Note, the current route has you going right, and then down Springs Ridge. I’ve put that into the interactive map and GPX file. The route is similar to this descent down Sheep Chute Road. If you take the Springs Ridge option, just join the directions below at Little Harbor.

Catalina island hike
As you cruise downhill Little Harbor comes into view below.
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At the split, you can go either way. Left is a little less steep.
Catalina island hike
Keep hiking straight, avoiding the side roads into the old cattle grazing areas.
Catalina island hike
At the bottom of the hill make the right onto Little Harbor Road.
Catalina island hike
And then make a quick left onto the road through the campground.
Catalina island hike
Lots of toilets here.
Catalina island hike
There are also water fills located around the various tent sites. This is a good place to fill up before heading to Two Harbors.
Catalina island hike
Make sure you check out the beach, even if you are just hiking through. It’s a beautiful little cove and great place for a bite and breather.

Little Harbor to Two Harbors

Catalina island hike
To continue on the TCT, go through the campground road and look for the trail turnoff to the left.
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Once you hop off the road, there’s a last water fill, TCT sign, and the trail in front of you.
Catalina island hike
This climb out of Little Harbor starts what many consider the prettiest stretch of the Trans Catalina Trail. It also entails about 1100 feet of climbing.
Catalina island hike
As you climb the switchbacks out of Little Harbor, you’ll see the trail wind its way up along White Bluff.
Catalina island hike
Keep right at the use-trail to the left.
Catalina island hike
As you ascend up the small dirt road, you’ll start to get incredible views of the west end cliffs.
Catalina island hike
The trail climbs up right along the edge of the bluff.
Catalina island hike
Towards the end of the climb, it get really steep, and your trekking poles will help.
Catalina island hike
Soon you ascend to the top and rewarded with spectacular views of the entire west end. There is a survey marker here, called the Goat Benchmark, that was first recorded in 1875 as part of a coast survey.
Catalina island hike
Here you are at the viewpoint by the Goat Benchmark. The rock jutting out in front of you is called Catalina Head and it protects Catalina Harbor. Soak it all in and then continue.
Catalina island hike
Now we’re hiking on a wider dirt path that follows the ridge. It’s mostly downhill but there are few bumps to climb up. The views from this stretch are still incredible.
Catalina island hike
When you get toward the radio tower, keep straight on Banning House Road.
Catalina island hike
Soon you’ll see the east side of Two Harbors known as Isthmus Cove in front of you.
Catalina island hike
Hike through the gate.
Catalina island hike
Keep heading downhill when you come to the turnoff for Cat Harbor Overlook.
Catalina island hike
And soon the western part of Two Harbors comes into view. This is the official “Catalina Harbor” and is the most protected anchorage on the island.
Catalina island hike
As you get closer to Two Harbors, avoid the side roads and keep heading straight downhill into town.
Catalina island hike
Once at the bottom of the hill you’ll come to a big open space, with the yacht club on your left. Making the right brings you into town, which I recommend stopping at. Going left down the other side of Catalina Harbor continues on the TCT.
Catalina island hike
Heading into town will bring you to the pier and visitor area.
Catalina island hike
As you make your way in the pay showers and laundry are on your right. You can fill up with water here.
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When you get to the waterfront, look left to see the Two Harbors Campground about 0.5 miles east. There’s no need to visit there unless you’re staying there.
Catalina island hike
From the waterfront the restaurant and general store are right behind you. The thing to do at the restaurant is to drink Catalina’s signature cocktail, a Buffalo Milk.
Catalina island hike
The General Store is tucked in the back to the right of the restaurant.
Catalina island hike
It’s a good place to stock up on food or anything else that you may need before continuing. They also serve whole pizzas all day, which comes in handy if it’s not a serving time at the restaurant.

Two Harbors to Parsons Landing

Catalina island hike
From the big intersection where you entered Two Harbors, head up the far side of the water.
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As  you start along the water there’s another TCT sign.
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You’ll be on a wide dirt road over to the boat anchorage. When you get to the dinghy dock (on the left here), look right for a fence and a small picnic area.
Catalina island hike
The picnic area has a water fill and toilets, the last before Parsons Landing.
Catalina island hike
This section is nice as you hike alongside the harbor and can see all the boats.
Catalina island hike
But then you swing away from the harbor and hike through an area that seems to be the resting place for all of the island’s old construction equipment. In the distance you can see the TCT head uphill on the Silver Peak Trail, which is where you are going.
Catalina island hike
Now it’s time to work as you do the last big climb on the TCT up Silver Peak Trail. You’re going to climb about 1700 feet straight up in 2.5 miles. The Conservancy calls this “a very challenging portion of the TCT, but one of the most rewarding.”
Catalina island hike
Keep hiking straight up, avoiding the side trails.
Catalina island hike
Hike through the gate.
Catalina island hike
Just past the gate you’ll see a TCT sign.
Catalina island hike
It’s always hard to capture the steepness of the trail in a still image, but this one somewhat gives you an idea of the gradient as we pass the 26 mile marker.
Catalina island hike
Don’t forget to turn around and soak in the views, which are spectacular.
Catalina island hike
Go left and uphill at the junction with Water Tank Road.
Catalina island hike
And shortly after that, avoid the Mt Torquemada Trail to the left and continue up along the ridge. The worst of the steep climbing is done at this point.
Catalina island hike
Now that you’re so high up, the views are incredible once again.
Catalina island hike
You’ll start getting glimpses of the Granite benchmark peak that you’ll be passing in the distance.
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To the left is the Granite benchmark, the second-highest peak on the west end. Visit if you’d like, otherwise just take the path to the right and continue along the ridge.
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Stay left at the intersection with Boushey Canyon Road.
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And then you’ll see a viewpoint pavilion, the TCT continues down to the right on Fenceline Road.
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You’ll get some nice views of Silver Peak from the viewpoint which is the west end’s highest peak at 1804 feet.
Catalina island hike
It was the best of trails, it was the worst of trails. All the TCT climbing is done, and now you have a nice long downhill with great views. But the trail is incredibly steep, and it’s tough to keep your footing when descending, even with poles.
Catalina island hike
Keep going straight, avoiding any small utility side roads.
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You’ll see Parsons Landing beach in front of you as you descend.
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Cross over the gate.
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At the junction close to the bottom, make the left to stay on the official TCT route.
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Stay left at the little turnout. The grasses around you here are all native, replanted by the Conservancy.
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At the T-junction, make the right.
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And here you are at Parsons Landing!
Catalina island hike
Even if you’re not staying here, it’s nice to explore the beach and chill out for a bit.

I have a full guide to Parsons Landing here if you’d like to explore the campsites.

Parsons Landing to Two Harbors

After all the ups and downs of the last 30 or so miles, the remaining part of the Trans Catalina Trail is a cakewalk along the coast.

Catalina island hike
Continue on the small trail (marked TCT) at the top of the campground where you arrived.
Catalina island hike
You’re treated to a single-track trail with some gentle uphill.
Catalina island hike
When you get to the split, you can go either way.
Catalina island hike
When you get to the larger road, make the left and continue downhill.
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Hike through the gate.
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And soon you’ll hike hiking through the Boy Scout’s summer camp complex at Emerald Bay.
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Stay on the main road that winds through the park.
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And soon you’ll be hiking along a dirt road on the side of the cliff, with the ocean below you to the left. The views are like this until the end.

As I was creating this guide, this story about toxic dumping in these beautiful waters was published.

Catalina island hike
From here until the end you’re just following the coastal road. No big climbs, just a nice cruise.
Catalina island hike
There are some nice little beaches below.
Catalina island hike
If you just went straight in the water to Two Harbors, it would be about 2.5 miles. But instead you’ll hug the coast, winding into the coves and canyons, for about 7 miles.
Catalina island hike
There are nice viewpoints with benches along the way.
Catalina island hike
Keep your eye out for the mile markers, they’re still with you!
Catalina island hike
Hike on the road around Howlands Retreats, which you can book as a glamping experience.
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For the next few miles the routine is the same. Hike in through the cove and valley, and then back out to the ocean.
Catalina island hike
There’s a toilet as you get closer to Two Harbors.
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The last cove is Fourth of July Cove, which houses a private yacht club.
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Once past the last cove, hike past the Conservancy sign as you enter Two Harbors.
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You did it, Two Harbors!
Catalina island hike
You can cut down to the beach as you enter Two Harbors, but the official TCT route continues straight on the road, inland for a little bit, and through a residential neighborhood.
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And soon the road will deposit you at the big square in Two Harbors. The TCT sign there is the official terminus.
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That’s it, 38.5 miles or so! Grab your photos and head to the ferry.
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The ferries leave from the dock in the middle of town. If you booked online, get a paper ticket at the window here. You can also leave your backpack on the dock in designated line spaces ahead to the left.
Catalina island hike
If you’ve got time, grab a bite and relax.
Catalina island hike
But keep your eye open for the ferry. If you miss it, chances are you’ll be here for another day.

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About the Author: Tung Chi