Posted by: David and Deirdre Hayward | July 28, 2011

Trans Catalina Trail

July 21st 2011

12.5 miles  2,100′ elevation gain

We are in Avalon on Santa Catalina Island. We came out yesterday from Long Beach on the Catalina Express – they were offering a free round trip if you travel on your birthday! Our intention is to hike part of the Trans Catalina Trail and I have booked seats on the hiker’s special 7:30 am shuttle to the airport. Dee is a little apprehensive as she has not hiked much recently and doesn’t do well in the heat. This was not helped much when we picked up our hiking permit at the Conservancy office yesterday and the lady on duty told her the temperature in the interior could be 20 degrees higher than in Avalon (where it was already in the upper 70s), that the trail was very rugged and by no means flat! I have tried to reassure Dee that there are several points at which we can “escape” to the road and flag down the shuttle if necessary.

We arrive early for the shuttle having visited Jack’s bakery for coffee and bread for lunch. This gives us the chance to talk with the driver. She claims the trail is easy and that the cloud cover probably won’t burn off until late morning. She also shows us the crossed arms signal to use to stop the bus if need be. This is more encouraging. There are three other riders, although they are going to the airport and from the look of their equipment won’t be hiking far. The driver is also a guide and gives us a great commentary on the island and its history – in fact she almost goes past our drop off point so engrossed is she in her presentation. We alight the bus at the junction to Black Jack Campground.

Road to Black Jack

The mist is swirling around us and visibility is less than 20 yards! It is in the low 60s and Dee dons her jacket. We set off up the dirt road towards the campground. Within minutes the mist has condensed fine droplets in our hair and these sparkle in the limited light. The track ascends slowly, scrub and cactus alongside. There is supposed to be an old mine here somewhere, but I think the only way we would see it is if we fell down the shaft. The road contours around Black Jack Mountain and we meet a junction offering a path to the top (it’s the second highest peak on the island). We pause only briefly – although it’s only a short climb we will see nothing, so there seems little point. Ahead on our left a large picnic ramada looms out of the mist – we must be near the campground.

The "trail" begins...

At this point we meet the Trans Catalina Trail proper and descend into Black Jack Campground. It looks delightful – set in a stand of pines with water, tables, and toilets. But it is deserted. Not a soul to be seen, nor any evidence of human occupation. Is this an omen? Here the trail becomes a trail, pushing its way through scrub and trees. Visibility remains problematic.

Sitting bison.

I don’t think we will see bison on this part of the island, but just as I’m saying that, we spot footprints and a relatively fresh pile of dung. Moments later Dee freezes. “Did you see it?” she asks. “See what?” “The bison. It crossed just in front of us like a ghost”. I have no reason to doubt her, although I am annoyed that she didn’t tell me in time so I could see it. Not a few minutes later any doubts are dispelled, as a huge animal ghosts across the trail in front of us. It really is an eerie experience. “There’s another one sitting down” says Dee pointing at a large rock. I scoff, but as we go past I see there is an overhang to the rock with a sort of beard hanging down. The beard twitches and a horn glints through the mist. This time we can get pictures, albeit of dubious quality without mist piercing vision. We feel fulfilled, as least as far as bison are concerned.

Cape Canyon Reservoir

White Sage

The trail appears to open out a little as we approach Cape Canyon Reservoir. The map shows this to be quite a large body of water, all we can see is a few feet lapping at the bank by the side of the trail. We descend slightly to cross Upper Cape Reservoir Road. It is a little clearer here and to our surprise a couple of vehicles go past on this dirt road. The visibility has improved but still no views are available. We climb uphill past a little seat made out of signposts. The white sage is entangled with cobwebs, which in turn are laden with micro-droplets of water glistening in the feeble light.

We just saw an island fox.

Dee has finally removed her jacket. The next section presents an uphill climb, but not too severe. This trail is not particularly rugged by our standards and so far the going has been relatively easy. We crest a small hill and there below us is an island fox. Shall I try for a picture or make sure Dee sees it? I beckon her over and eventually she sees it. We exchange stares for several seconds and the fox then trots away into the mist with a swish of its long tail. Now that was worth seeing!


We pass through a burnt area – presumably from the 2007 fire. Some steeper sections bring us to another dirt road which we will need to follow for a hundred yards or so before diving down into Renton Pass Canyon. We can see the trail below us but … there is a herd of bison astride the trail. (The trail was constructed using bison tracks and if ever proof of this was needed, here it is). Indeed one is sitting across the trail right by a trail sign. Dee is not quite panicking, but close. We descend and take a diversionary route slightly to the left of the herd (or in Dee’s case not so slightly). The driver had told us that although accidents are rare, it is not a good idea to walk through a herd! This gives us a great opportunity for pictures, although I am not sure Dee is holding her camera very steadily! We regain the path only to encounter a few solitary individuals who present no problem. As we climb out of the canyon another group of 6 or so  are trailside. Somehow Dee manages to stampede them – fortunately in the opposite direction from us. Enough Bison already!

Above Haypress

We now head in a more easterly direction and cross the airport road. The trail takes a D shaped swing behind the road to visit what is presumably a view-point. Yes, all we can see is a bank of cloud. Across a ridge we get our first blue sky of the day and below us is Haypress, a body of water beautifully nestling in the hills. We descend to the pond and turn left to again meet the airport road. Horror of horrors! Here is a playground with swings and a slide. There are several cars parked here and children are playing. This is no lunch stop for us. We quickly turn our backs, pass behind the lake, through a gate and up the hillside back into the mist.  This area is fenced to prevent deer and bison from damaging vegetation recovering from the fire. At the top of the hill the sun is shining again and before us is the local radio tower. We exit the fenced area, pass by the tower and are now on the Divide Road, our way for the next couple of miles. The dirt road climbs gently and offers good views of the surrounding hills. We can see Avalon below us, nestled under a bank of cloud. Time for lunch.

Divide Road above Avalon.

We keep left where the Lone Tree Trail branches off and ascend to the top of the Hermit Gulch Trail. (We did the Lone Pine via Hermit Gulch on a previous visit). We have our first company of the day. A group who have come up Hermit Gulch and will return via the Memorial Trail. We are told that by doing that you can get into the Botanical Garden for free! The gardens are on the agenda for tomorrow. Besides we had continued on the Divide Trail on our previous visit, so its down Hermit Gulch we go. This is trail again, a little steep and overgrown in places. It is now quite warm so we are glad to be going down. We meet three hikers on their way up. Each asks us how much farther do they have to go!

Hermit Gulch Campground.

The hillsides here at the back of Avalon are scarred by bulldozed tracks, again presumably a byproduct of the fire. Hopefully they will revegetate. Eventually we reach the canyon floor at Hermit Gulch Campground and walk down the Memorial Road back to Avalon where a shower will be rapidly followed by well-earned alcoholic beverages!



  1. Sounds like a beautiful island. Enjoy it.
    We do not walk far these days, 12.5 miles sounds a great distance especially when climbing.

  2. Nice write up. I am jealous of the buffalo sightings.

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