Best Trans Catalina Trail Itinerary

Looking for the best itinerary for hiking the Trans Catalina Trail? The TCT is one of the most beautiful backpacking trails in the United States but planning a thru-hike can be challenging. Read on to find some of the best itineraries for the TCT!

Hiking the Trans Catalina Trail in January 2024
Table of Contents
- Planning a Trans Catalina Trail Itinerary
- Best Four Day Itinerary for TCT
- Why Take Longer than Four Days on the TCT

At only 38 miles, the Trans Catalina Trail is the perfect trail to visit without taking too much PTO. In my opinion, four days for the Trans Catalina Trail is the perfect length to hike this trail. Most of the days we hiked, we had ample time to hang out at camp and enjoy our surroundings without being too rushed. In my experience, five days would have been too much hanging out at camp and not enough hiking per day (it is backpacking, after all!). Three days would have been possible, but rushed. And the only possible way I could think of realistically doing the trail in four days is to not camp at Parsons, which was my favorite site!)

Read on for why a four day itinerary is the best for the Trans Catalina Trail!

As always, follow the principles of leave no trace when you're out exploring! Pack out all trash, leave wildlife alone, and generally leave it better than you found it - for more information visit the Leave No Trace Center.
View of my campsite from Little Harbor with my Nemo Dragonfly OSMO tent [Affiliate Link]

Planning A Trans Catalina Trail Backpacking Itinerary

Planning a backpacking trip can be challenging, but the logistics required for the TCT make this one especially difficult exciting! Planning around the ferry schedule during off-season is one of my proudest accomplishments in 2024. If I were planning this trail again, I would plan the ferries before literally anything else, including my flights to California.

Once you have a handle on the ferry schedule, the next step is making sure to get permits, which requires knowing in advance which campsites you want to stay at.

Trans Catalina Trail Campsites

Mileage is based on FarOut app mile markers.

  • Hermit Gulch (mile 1.5)
  • Black Jack (mile 10.8)
  • Little Harbor (mile 18.8)
  • Two Harbors (mile 24.2)
  • Parsons (mile 30.8)

Parsons and Little Harbor are cannot miss campsites. If we hadn’t been able to get permits at these two campgrounds, I think our hike would have felt significantly less exciting. We also stayed at Blackjack. It was a good campground but I didn’t pick the best spot – we were right by the bathroom.

Morning at Blackjack – it’s not a beach sunrise but it’s still pretty

I’d recommend planning your entire trip around making sure you get sites at Little Harbor and Parsons. Campsites in busy season book out super far in advance.

Permits for the Trans Catalina Trail open for the year on Jan 1 at midnight PST – with one exception. If you want to visit Catalina in January, permits are available on Dec 1 at midnight PST. I set my alarm for 3a, but the site didn’t roll over to the next year so I ended up calling the Catalina Island Conservancy to book over the phone later that day. I basically had my pick of campsites, which was great.

Additionally, high season requires a two night minimum on campsites. This can be waived by calling the Conservancy and stating that you are backpacking the TCT. Since I called anyway, I didn’t have to deal with this issue.

For more information about planning your backpacking trip to Catalina, check out my guide to the ten things you need top know before planning a Trans Catalina Trail hike!

Best Four Day Itinerary for the Trans Catalina Trail

I highly recommend my TCT itinerary! I’m obviously biased but I researched the crap out of this trail and was excited that my planning paid off for an amazing experience.

The best Four Day Itinerary for the TCT is:

  • Day 1 Early ferry to Avalon to Blackjack (10.8 miles)
  • Day 2 Blackjack to Little Harbor (9.5 miles)
  • Day 3 Little Harbor to Parsons (12.2 miles)
  • Day 4 Parsons to Two Harbors, late ferry out (7.5 miles)
Great views of the ocean from Catalina Island

In my opinion, this is the best itinerary for the following reasons:

Good amount of time at camp every day to chill

The one exception was our first day hiking to Blackjack, but I think part of that was messing around in Avalon for about an hour when we arrived. When we were at Little Harbor and Parsons, we got to camp before 3 pm each day which left plenty of time for exploring and relaxing.

Reading on the beach at sunset >>>> putting my tent up in the dark
Skipped Hermit Gulch

This campsite looked kind of boring and has a reputation of being a party campsite (not what I want when backpacking).

Very Manageable Mileage Each Day

None of the days felt endless or too hard. We had enough time to hike at a good pace with rests without trying to rush to camp.

Visits the Two Best Campsites

As I’ve mentioned before, Little Harbor and Parsons are definitely the best campsites! They are the peak Catalina experience.

Leaves Time to Eat at the Best on Trail Restaurants in the US

And when I say the best on trail restaurants, I mean the best! Airport in the Sky, located between Blackjack and Little Harbor, serves food. We stopped there in the morning of our second day and ate some amazing breakfast burritos!

Enjoying the sh*t out of a Airport in the Sky breakfast burrito

Two Harbors has a restaurant as well. Unfortunately it was closed when we went through, so we ate snacks from the General Store. They also serve pizza but my stomach was bugging me so I just stuck with my tried and true – plain tortillas.

Cons of A Four Day Itinerary

I think the only downside of a four day itinerary for me is that we did not get to do the Starlight beach extension loop. I wish we had had time for that. We had a lot of time in Two Harbors on our last day which I think would have been more enjoyable if the Two Harbors Restaurant had been open. But overall I really felt like our itinerary was the perfect mix.

Looking for more help on how to plan a backpacking trip? Check out my guide to planning a backpacking trip here!

Why Take Longer than Four Days

Not sold on a four day itinerary? There are many reasons to stretch your trail experience out to five days. I’ve listed them out below!

Adding a Visit to Starlight Beach

Starlight beach, while not an official part of the TCT, is a side trip that backpackers often take to add an amazing stop on their trip. If you’re planning on a trip to Starlight, I’d recommend booking two nights at Parsons. This will allow you to slack pack a day trip to Starlight.

Doing Two Harbors to Starlight to Parsons in one day is possible, but not recommended because of the mileage and elevation gain/loss. I would only recommend this option if you are very comfortable with multiple double digit backpacking days with a lot of elevation change.

Starlight Beach Itinerary

  • Day 1 – Arrive in Avalon, hike to Blackjack
  • Day 2 – Blackjack to Little Harbor
  • Day 3 – Little Harbor to Parsons
  • Day 4 – Parsons to Starlight, back to Parsons
  • Day 5 – Parsons to Two Harbors, ferry out

Ferry Schedules

As I mentioned earlier, timing the ferry schedule is one of the key logistical pieces to a successful TCT hike. During the off season, ferries only go to Two Harbors every other day. End up in Two Harbors on a day that the ferry doesn’t run and you’re SOL for getting to back to the mainland without an expensive shuttle.

Depending on your group’s timing, you may opt for a later ferry to Avalon on the first day. If this is the case, you’ll want to camp in the Hermit Gulch campground, which is only 1.5 miles out of town.

Late Arrival Itinerary

  • Day 1 – late ferry to Avalon, hike to Hermit Gulch
  • Day 2 – Hermit Gulch to Blackjack (honestly, this day would probably be kind of boring)
  • Day 3 – Blackjack to Little Harbor
  • Day 4 – Little Harbor to Parsons
  • Day 5 – Parsons to Two Harbors, ferry out
The ferries may be logistically challenging, but the views from the ferry are incredible

Permits Availability

One other thing that could require a different itinerary than what I recommended is permit availability. These campsites are very popular in high season and its often competitive to get what you want
Like I mentioned earlier, if you can’t get a site at Little Harbor or Parsons, I’d recommend pushing off your hike until you can. This was a huge part of the experience and I don’t think the hike would have felt the same without these overnights.

Permit Limited Possible Itinerary

Assumes Little Harbor and Parsons are available, but not on consecutive nights. This is very subjective to permits that are available.

  • Day 1 – Avalon to Blackjack
  • Day 2 – Blackjack to Little Harbor
  • Day 3 – Little Harbor to Two Harbors
  • Day 4 – Two Harbors to Parsons
  • Day 5 – Parsons to Two Harbors
Not sure about what gear to take on the Trans Catalina Trail? Check out my TCT gear locker! I list out everything I took on trail. 

Updated March 16, 2024

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