I’m a government employee these days, but during the shutdown I was considered “critical staff” because part of my job is to manage active construction. Those projects didn’t stop so neither did I. But going into week #3 of being the only person in the office, I needed a break and asked one of my co-workers to take over. And then what did I do with that time? Went backpacking of course!
One of the magical things about California is camping on the coast in the winter. The temperature is great, there are no mosquitos, and… it’s the ocean! I had actually just heard of the Trans-Catalina Trail when I was fact-checking for my last blog post on the Channel Islands, and it seemed like the perfect way to get away for a few days clear my mind.
It turned out to be a pretty expensive camping trip with the parking, ferry ride, and campsite fees, but it was still cheaper than any other 3-day vacation and definitely worth it. The trail is about 40 miles long and many people do it in 4 days starting from Avalon, or they skip the far end of the island. Since my main motivation was camping on the beach I chose to do the trail in the opposite direction to line up campgrounds and mileage and ended up bussing the last 10 miles (mostly downhill and the least scenic section) because of the ferry schedule. The Conservancy helped me book campsites (there is a 2-day minimum unless you’re hiking the trail), and away I went.
The ferry dropped me at the dock in Two Harbors, a town that turned out to be just a restaurant, a general store, a campground, and a few houses. First stop was the Visitor Center to get my campsite reservation, where two other groups were frantically trying to change their tickets to take the ferry off island asap. Apparently the wind the night before destroyed their tents… A little foreshadowing.
Anyway, I was super excited and took off on my hike. From Two Harbors I climbed up to the highest point of the trail over 6 miles, and it was steeep. Long sections of the TCT are old dirt roadways, which just go straight up and down the hillsides, not switchbacked like most “trails” do. It’s rough, slow going, but gets you directly up to incredible scenery. I was immediately blown away by the beauty of the island – turquoise blue waters, red earth, green cactus, old fencelines, and snowy mountains in the distance.
The views got better and better all the way up, and then as I started descending down this ridiculously steep, loose roadway the wind reeeeally picked up. It was the kind of wind that you hold on to your hat laughing because of how ridiculous and fun it was.
When I finally got down the hill, the campground awaiting me was right on the beach as I expected. Past campers have built little rock walls around the campsites to block the wind but none of them could hold up to the 30 mph gusts. This was the most remote I would get on the trip – there is no fresh water so they sell you a locker key with 2.5 gallons of water and firewood. I ended up not using mine because so many other people left half-full water jugs, and it was way too windy to have a fire.
I found my campsite and realized I was the only person there. One group of guys that I had passed on the way up were also camping there, but in a separate cove. So I hopped from campsite to campsite trying to find one that most protected me from the wind. This was extra important because for the first time ever I had opted to leave my tent at home. I brought the poles and the fly in case it rained, but I didn’t bring the actual meshy part of the tent that connects the pieces altogether, in order to save a pound of weight. I planned to not use it at all but as the sun started going down the sea mist started soaking my sleeping bag, and then when the wind switched direction the sand felt like piercing hail, so I made it work with piles of rocks on each corner stake and was up holding onto the fly until the wind died in the wee hours of the morning.
The sunrise was beautiful, but I didn’t have a lot of time to wait since I had a long 14 miles day to hike. The trail looped back to Two Harbors along the coast past a number of boyscout and private camps, and then climbed up another very steep grade to Tower Peak. I took a short side trip out Cat Harbor Overlook on the recommendation of a local I had met that morning (thanks Matt) and then continued out across the ridge. It was breathtaking and reminded me of my hike on the Wales Coastal Path years ago.
Halfway along the ridge I passed another solo lady hiker who told me there were bison on the trail and she had had to detour for miles around them. This is what I was most afraid of – a herd of 14 bison had been brought to the island in the early 1900s to film a movie and they still roam free wherever they want. I ended up having to detour around two separate bison and then a small herd of three. It was really scary because they are HUGE (bulls weight a literal ton) and can charge without much warning. I navigated carefully along deer paths through fields of cacti watching them from the corner of my eye. Eventually I got to Little Harbor campground, known to be one of the most beautiful in California.
The moon was so bright that I could read my book even after my headlamp died, and I slept very well. I woke up early to watch the sunrise over the bay and it’s a good think because around 730, when I was just starting to pack up, three bison walked right into my campsite. What a crazy experience.
I set off uphill again for the climb to the famous Airport in the Sky, where I ate the rest of my food, took off my boots and waited for the shuttle down to Avalon. I had started the trip on Monday and the ferry doesn’t operate back to the same port on Thursdays so I had to cut off the last leg from the airport back down to the port. Everyone else on the bus wondered if I had seen any bison…
Avalon was a much larger town than I thought it would be. In fact, large cruise ships stop there for the day on their way down to Baja Mexico, but once all those folks left for the day town was really quiet and lovely. I set myself up at the Brewhouse for coffee, beer and pizza and had a number of great rotating conversations until it was time to catch my boat back to the mainland.
This trip was unexpectedly difficult and unexpectedly beautiful, and I will definitely be coming back to finish the whole trail.