Social distancing (between people and bison) on the wild side of Catalina Island
SANTA CATALINA ISLAND, California >> It was the first day of my trip to Santa Catalina, and the island was already working its magic. I saw no one for miles as I hiked an eastern segment of the Trans-Catalina Trail, which stretches from the town of Avalon to Parsons Landing, a secluded beach on the west side of the island.
But it did not last.
As I turned a corner, I came across two – or was it three? – bison basking on the hillside. I stopped. The beasts, with huge heads, shaggy beards and sharp little horns, stared at me. I looked back. They looked sweet, but I knew better. I had read warning signs on the island about how quickly they could charge. But my mind and body had stopped. How far away was I supposed to be?
Before I could think about it, God’s voice rang out, “Please go back! Turn around! ”I quickly pulled back. It turns out that God was a tour bus driver with a megaphone on a dirt road who could see what I couldn’t: I was walking towards 20 lying bison or standing along the trail.
Catalina’s wild side can be surprising, and not just because of the bison. The 38.5 mile Trans-Catalina Trail that hugs the ridges and crisscrosses the island in and out of the canyons made me feel miles away. How could I forget how liberating an island visit could be?
Planning a getaway is difficult these days; I did not want to move away from my home in the community of San Pedro in Los Angeles because of the pandemic. On Catalina, I felt safe and serene, all without straying from Los Angeles County.
The wild side
Catalina, the closest to the mainland’s Channel Islands, is around 22 miles long and 8 miles at its widest point. Most people visit Avalon, a seaside town with vintage hotels, taffy and souvenir shops, and a beach club with cabana service. Outside the city’s hilltop gates, around 88% of the island remains undeveloped and managed as a nature reserve.
You can’t rent a car, and there’s no Uber or Lyft. Wide dirt roads and the narrow TCT, as it’s called, lead to quiet coves, rocky cliffs, and scenery that will remind you of places far away. For me, it was a respite from the pandemic, if only for one night.
The island was once the realm of “otter hunters, smugglers, and ranching, mining and military operations,” according to a historical account. In the 1920s, it was owned by William Wrigley Jr., of Wrigley chewing gum fame, who developed Avalon. Exploring the less inhabited side of the island gives you an idea of what this land looked like when the Gabrielino-Tongva tribe lived there 8,000 years ago.
On my trip in early August the temperatures were balmy as I traveled the hilly roads inland before arriving on the west coast. The TCT, incredibly steep in places, offers views of the mainland and the Santa Monica Mountains on one side, the Pacific on the other.
The TST takes about four days, depending on how much time you want to spend on it. Backpackers can stay at four campgrounds along the way, each with a bathroom and running water.
It’s up to you how much you want to carry on your back on the trail, which gains or descends approximately 9,000 feet along the exposed course. Late fall and early spring are good times to beat the heat and the crowds. You must make reservations for each campsite before your trip.
“It’s amazing,” said Jasper Wood of Los Angeles’ Highland Park neighborhood, who hiked the entire trail from west to east with his wife, Christine. “I can’t believe it took me 20 years to travel the 29 miles to Catalina.”
The next day I ran into the Gross family and friends from the east coast of Maryland. The party of eight were supposed to hike Norway this summer. When that failed, a friend invited them to Avalon and suggested the lead. He got praise when I asked how they liked him. “It’s beautiful; the color of the water is my favorite,” one person said.
The easiest way
I wanted the backcountry experience, but I also wanted it to be easy. The answer has been Catalina Backcountry, a camping outfitting and gear hauling company that will take you pretty much anywhere you want to go in the outback – for a price.
I met Backcountry co-owner Larina Cassidy in Avalon to start the adventure. She was hauling my gear 16 miles on dirt roads to Little Harbor Campground, where I had a reservation. She set up a tent, sleeping bag, stove, chairs, utensils, cooking utensils and more. I also returned my food, which she put in a cooler to take away. All I had to do was carry a backpack and walk to Little Harbor, which was about a 12 mile hike. “Stick to the narrow tracks to stay on the TCT,” Cassidy advised.
Cassidy dropped me off at Mile 9 on the trail. I carried a map, but in the first half hour I missed an exit to the Upper Cape Reservoir and found myself on a wide fire road. I thought of Cassidy’s advice and doubled nearly a mile. I walked through the empty Black Jack campground and took a break in the small airport.
This part of the hike meandered around the interior of the island. After the encounter with the bison, I saw an island fox, which was watching me before disappearing into the brush. From the airport, I made my descent towards the ocean. The water sparkled and the rocky cliffs jutting out into the ocean looked like the legs of a huge animal. I liked everything about this moment.
I stumbled into Little Harbor and found my temporary home: a tent tall enough to stay in, a cot with amenities on the pillow (including a snap-on light strip and hand warmers), chairs around the fireplace and firewood, a two burner stove and all the utensils I would need to prepare meals.
I looked the other way and saw a lone bison standing at a nearby campsite. Would I never escape these beasts? I left him alone, keeping an eye open to make sure he didn’t come close. (Hikers are cautioned to stay at least 125 feet away.)
The next day I had a leisurely breakfast and felt guilty about leaving my dirty dishes for Cassidy to pack the rest of my gear. I joined the TCT for the 10km hike to Two Harbors, passing some of the most beautiful scenery along the way.
A thick layer of fog swirled around me as I reached a high point, and the path descended to the other side of the island. Once again, I had found a quiet place that felt safe and secluded from others – without giving up the rugged beauty.
I arrived at Two Harbors, where Cassidy met me for the ride to Avalon to catch my boat. My heart sank. Why hadn’t I spent one or two more nights? Why was I rushing home? I swore to come back. And I would absolutely choose the wild side again.