Backpacking for Beginners: Catalina Island's glorious campground is worth this short, steep hike
Little Harbor on Catalina Island was named on of the "best campgrounds in the West" by Sunset magazine. (Courtesy of @catalinaaboveandbelow)

Backpacking for Beginners: Catalina Island's glorious campground is worth this short, steep hike


For decades, Santa Catalina Island has drawn visitors to the charming seaside town of Avalon, an escape from Los Angeles that feels a thousand miles away but takes less than an hour-and-a-half to reach.

Most begin and end their trip there, never venturing beyond the harbor to the island’s rolling, wind-swept hills and panoramic vistas—a landscape so uniquely beautiful that it and the neighboring Channel Islands National Park were named a UNESCO biosphere reserve in 1976.

It is possible to get out into that backcountry on a day trip from Avalon but, if you really want to explore Catalina in depth, there’s only one option: the Trans-Catalina Trail. Snaking 38-and-a-half miles over the island’s peaks and valleys from Avalon to Two Harbors, this trail is a hardcore trip for serious backpackers.

But if a grueling multi-day slog appeals to you as little as it does to us, there is a better way—an overnighter that leads you straight to the campground Sunset called “one of the best in the West.”

Hiking on Catalina Island(Courtesy of @catalinaconservancy)

What to Know About the Trans-Catalina Trail

Most hikers start the Trans-Catalina Trail at Avalon but, for this trip, you’ll take the ferry to the other side of the island, getting off at Two Harbors. Although you’ll only be hiking a little under six miles to the beachside Little Harbor Campground, we’re not gonna lie, it’s tough. After crossing through the little community, the trail immediately begins climbing at a steep angle. It’s not fun but hang in there, the views from the top will remind you why you’re doing this.

The rest of the trail doesn’t get much easier. The ups and downs over the rolling hills will have you gasping for breath but at least you won’t have any trouble finding the trail. Just keep your feet pointed southeast on the Trans-Catalina and enjoy the views; keep an eye out for bison, the offspring of a herd brought by a film crew in the 1920s. Near Little Harbor, a series of switchbacks take you downslope to the campground.

Even if you didn’t have to hike there with a heavy pack, Little Harbor would feel like paradise. The private cove has a broad half-moon beach and, just behind it, a campground with 23 campsites with fire pits and picnic tables (firewood is available for purchase on site). Sites must be reserved in advance. Numbers 10, 11, and 12 have the best views right on the edge of the sand.

If you’re interested in hiking and camping but don’t love the idea of packing all your stuff along, stop into Two Harbors Visitor Services when you arrive and schedule a gear haul. They leave for Little Harbor at 1pm and will drop off your pack (along with boogie boards, kayaks, etc.) for $15 each way. The Two Harbors General Store can also deliver any food and drink you purchase there for $35.

The hike back to Two Harbors is just a reverse of the trail’s first section. Be sure to check the ferry schedule to know what time you should leave in order to make it off the island.

Little Harbor Campground.(Courtesy of @catalinaconservancy)

How to Get There

Your first task is to get from the Bay Area to the port at San Pedro on the edge of Los Angeles, about a 400-mile, seven-hour drive from San Francisco. Once there, park in one of the many overnight parking spots on site for $20 a day.

The Catalina Express ferries passengers from San Pedro to Two Harbors. They run three trips a day between early June and early September, some of which go straight to the port (1 hour and 15 minutes each way), and others that stop in Avalon along the way (2 hours and 30 minutess). September through the end of October, there are two ferries daily. From November through May, ferries do not operate on Tuesday or Thursday. Round-trip fares from San Pedro to Two Harbors are $77 for adults, $70 for seniors, and $62 for kids 11 and under.

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