Backpacking Catalina Island: Day 1, Two Harbors to Little Harbor
I hate boats, I hate being on, around, or even talking about them. Not for the typical fear of sinking or drowning, but there's an unexplainable something that just gives me the chills (not to mention I get horribly motion sick). So when I found out I had to take an hour-long ferry across the Pacific Ocean to get to Catalina Island, I was like "give me some Dramamine, because not even a boat could stop me from getting there."
I knew backpacking Catalina was going to be an amazing time. Even though my boyfriend and I were only staying for the weekend, with everything I had researched and heard about the island, I felt it had to be the most magical place. Arriving on the ferry into Two Harbors made me realize why this island was so sought after.
In this post, I'd like to introduce you to our backpacking weekend on Catalina Island. Starting with our first day on the island, showing you my exact emotions and experiences throughout the trip so you will have some insight into what it's like to traverse Catalina Island.
San Pedro Ferry
While San Pedro has the farthest Catalina ferry dock from San Diego (our starting point), they have the only boats that dock at Two Harbors instead of Avalon (the main city on the island). This dock was in the middle of a huge shipping port, which had me a bit sketched me out at first. With hundreds of shipping containers and some of the largest barges I'd ever seen I thought we had the wrong spot. But just at the end of all the docks and cranes is a tiny building under a green version of the golden gate bridge that says "Catalina Express".
Getting to the dock at around 7:30 for our 9:30 boat we had to wait outside the gates until they opened up the ticket area. Once they were opened just after 8, we went into the Catalina Express building to get our tickets. Normally, they have a little cafe open so you can grab food before the boat ride, but because of Covid it was closed.
After we grabbed our tickets it was time to get in line for gate 1 and we bided our time until getting on the dreaded ferry ride.
When the boat arrived we had no idea that they had luggage holding below deck. Approaching the ferry, I was so scared that they might take my backpacking bag, which holds pretty much all of the most expensive and cherished items I own. Luckily they didn't care enough to make me put it below, so I brought it aboard, but it was a close call.
Another nice feature of traveling off-season is that the boat was at about 40% capacity, so we were able to grab a spot to the side with some legroom. Once the boat started moving I was a little tense, but the whole ride was surprisingly steady. The beautiful views didn't hurt either, though I suggest boarding on the far side of the boat to get views of the mainland as you head out of the harbor.
One thing to note, as of writing this, with Covid regulations you must wear your mask the entire hour ride to the island. Bar services are closed and you're not allowed to drink any beverages or eat any food the entire time, so be prepared before stepping onboard.
Pulling up to Two Harbors was an unreal moment. Seeing the island come into view as we broke through the morning fog seemed like something out of a movie, like we were transported to a whole other dimension.
The clouds were still low and scattered along the island's mountain tops, and the water became as clear as one of those computer wallpapers of the Bahamas. I was completely awe-struck.
Getting off the boat was a simple task with our backpacks thrown over our shoulders we were able to skip the baggage line and head straight towards town. At the end of the dock, we saw a building that read "camping check-in." While we had no idea that we needed to check into our site, it seemed like an obvious choice to at least see what we needed to do. The woman at the window was actually very helpful with making sure the firewood we had ordered was sent to our site and also gave us clear directions on how to get to our trail.
Turning around and heading into Two Harbors, we instantly realized this place could barely be called a town. While being absolutely beautiful full of tall palm trees and cobblestone pathways, with one beachside bar, a general store, and a restaurant, it was what I would call a pit stop. But at least this made the town and getting out of it extremely easy to navigate. Plus, the general store had anything you could possibly need for your trip, including alcohol of every variety and a plethora of camping supplies.
With my $8 coffee in hand, we headed out to start our hiking journey towards Little Harbor.
The Trans-Catalina Trail
The Trans-Catalina Trail was extremely easy to find from Two Harbors. There's only one road out of town, so we followed that and took a left at the Yacht club situated at the harbor across the way.
What started as excitement and an open mind for the journey, quickly turned into dread as we traversed up the first hill of the day (little did I know it would not be the last). This first incline was no joke, with 1,000ft of elevation in roughly a mile and a half, I was stopping every ten minutes to "take a picture" (my code for I'm dying, I need to stop, but I also get to take some pictures so win-win).
Once we got to level ground there were a couple of trails and a gate, we were a bit confused at first, but it looked like the gate route was actually the option we needed, assuming it was there to keep the bison out of town.
After another steep incline and coming over the next ridge my boyfriend (Steve) stops and lets out a frightening "Holy Shit!!!". I was freaking out, what could it possibly be? Did he forget something, hurt something? So I take a few steps closer to him and then I saw what he was so amazed by.
A bison, just over the ridge. It was maybe 15ft from us, then it looked up and stared. We were both stammering, "What do we do? What do we do?!" Looking around we see that there are several bison over the ridge, it's a whole heard of 20 or more. Somehow I remembered that the papers we received at check-in had "what if" bison information, we pulled them out and read that we needed to stay at least 110ft away from them and simply leave them alone (surprisingly enough).
We were both timid, but since the herd was covering the entire trail forward, our only way out was off into the brush and cacti off the trail to avoid any unwanted confrontations. While it may seem ridiculous to be so cautious around these big cows, you really don't realize how big an animal is until you're face to face with it. And even though these are gentle herbivores, they've been known to charge and trample ignorant tourists, and we did not want to be added to that list.
As we traversed off-trail around the bison herd, I couldn't help but stop every 10 seconds to take more pictures, it was one of the coolest natural occurrences I had ever seen!
When we arrived at the bottom of the hill past the herd we saw other hikers coming over the hill and right down the trail where all of the bison were standing on! They walked right through 20 plus bison taking selfies and coming within 6ft of some of them. I thought I was about to watch a national geographic special happen before my eyes if these bison got agitated with the hikers. But the hikers went through, with no interference! Nothing! I'm sitting there just dumbfounded, how did they not get trampled?! Are they bison whisperers?! Either way, we still felt justified in taking the long route and avoiding any possibility of danger or intruding on the animal's day.
Heading up yet another hill onto a mountain ridge we were greeted with another amazing surprise. Mist. A thick cloud of vapor obscured the trail in front of us, giving a mystical Lord of the Rings type adventure setting to the hike. We could barely see 20ft ahead of us at most points, with the fog being so dense, and I loved it.
We walked up and down many smaller hills on the single-track trail through the clouds, not knowing what lied ahead. About another mile or so into the walk, we saw a picnic table on the edge of the cliffside, so we took a break there to grab a snack and take in this surreal situation we were witness to.
Continuing on our trek up and down the hilly ridgeline, we passed probably 15 people which really wasn't too distracting or annoying. It is a thin trail, but it was nice to take a break and step aside for our fellow hikers to pass us. Plus, they would give us updates on how many more hills were ahead so we could mentally prepare.
Finally seeing the campsite in between the clouds off in the distance was like a miracle. Even though it was only a 6-mile hike, with the full backpacks and intense elevation gains, we were overjoyed to see refuge approaching.
Little Harbor Campground
As we made the final descent into the Little Harbor campground, we could see across the entire park, and it was beautiful! Even though it was still cloudy and misty, the campground looked like a little paradise. Full of enormous tropical palm trees and grassy sites that led right up to the ocean, we knew we made the right choice.
This amazing campground is said to be "the best campground in the west" and I completely agree. The park encompasses two harbors, Little Harbor and Shark Harbor. We were lucky and snagged a site was right on the beach on the Shark Harbor side.
When we were actually in the campground looking for our site, we realized we didn't know how to get there. Pulling out our small paper map from the camp check-in we realized that our campsite was another half mile up another hill and around the corner, which was mildly disheartening after thinking we were finally done with the hiking portion of our day.
Rounding the bend to a cliffside with a restroom and a trashcan I was a little confused, I really hoped that was not where we were staying for the night. I thought we were supposed to have this amazing sight right on the water. Until Steve, who was looking over the cliffside saw the three beautiful private campsites of Shark Harbor.
Coming down onto our site was such an incredible feeling and also a little disarming. I knew we were supposed to be in a cove by the beach, but our site was literally on the beach, we pitched our tent directly into the sand! This was a first for me, and even though we weren't directly in the surf I was saying a silent prayer to all of the ancient gods that my $500 Nemo backpacking tent didn't get swept off to sea.
After setting up camp, we explored the area a little bit. Climbing over the large rocks surrounding the camp we came upon a small hidden beach between the two harbors, but with the cloudy weather, neither of us was enjoying a typical beach day.
The harbor was surrounded by these beautiful rock formations, some of which had veins of quartz through them and succulents growing from the sides. Truly some unique and beautiful natural occurrences.
There were also two over sites in this small cove, with one of them already taken, and the other with a pile of firewood sitting there waiting for the next arrival.
Steve, being the awesome planner he is, brought some refreshing seltzers for the end of our day. So once we were set up and done with our exploration, we cracked open some slightly warm bubbly alcohol and finally relaxed.
While we both wished it wasn't 50 degrees with a breezy mist, it was still a beautiful experience to be sitting on an island beach after a long day of hiking. (I did find out afterward that Little Harbor campground is situated on the windward side of the island, which is why it was extra breezy for us). The firewood bundles we bought being delivered directly to our campsite was a very nice touch, even though the wind made it almost impossible to feel the warmth, we still tried.
As we were throwing on the last log, we saw some headlights coming down the trail above us. The site next to us with the one bundle of firewood was still empty at this point, but it was about 9:00pm so we just didn't expect them to show up, but there they were. A group of about 6 20-year-olds coming down to the cove to retrieve their campsite for the night.
20 min after their arrival, two of them came over asking to borrow some of our fire. While normally I'm absolutely introverted and am almost petrified of strangers, there is something about being in nature that brings out the friendly and charismatic side I never knew I had. So we all chatted a bit. Apparently, they came from Avalon that morning, meaning they traversed roughly 18 miles in just that one day! Either these people were expert backpackers or complete idiots that had no idea how difficult that actually is because damn, that's far for one day.
I ended up giving them one of my firestarters so they could get their fire going and we could finish off the night. Again, with the wind, it was a little breezy inside the tent, but we managed to fall asleep to the sounds of the nearby crashing waves on our private shore.
That wraps up Catalina Island day one! While my typical blogging style is more facts and helpful tips, I decided to take a story-telling approach to show a little more about how I experience a backpacking trip and a travel situation. I thought it might also give more personal insight on this trip than I could say in one formal blog post. I hoped you enjoyed diving into my trip as much as I enjoyed writing about it!
Also, subscribe to get notified next week when I finish off this story with days 2 and 3 of my Catalina Island adventure! And if you're looking for more facts and figures for a Catalina Trip you can check out last week's post for a more direct approach.
If you have any questions about Catalina or the story I told today, or if you have your own experience with Catalina I would love to hear about it! Feel free to contact me or leave a comment below, so we can all learn and share about this amazing location!
Until next time,