Bikepacking Santa Catalina Island
I’ve been leaning in lately. Read: weekends were spent relaxing and ramping up for the week instead of seeing how far away I could get and how much I could exhaust myself with a scant 48 hours off. I became that office creature that has to remind themselves to stand up every hour. Its becoming too far a cry from the girl that summited Mount Whitney, Rainer, and Temple Crag in a single season. I need to get back out there, but unfortunately, not too far. I craved a birthday adventure new to me but closer to home.
Catalina has the $70 round trip ferry ride barrier to entry, but I decided that a 31st birthday adventure is a perfect time to treat myself to new experience.
I had my sights on the bucket list Transcatalina Trail, but I ran into a few logistical problems in the planning. The Catalina island company folk require a three day booking if you book over a holiday weekend, and that was a little bit long for my standards. That requirement prevented me from taking the long weekend to backpack the whole trail, which requires a booking at multiple campsites for a single night. Backcountry camping is not allowed on Catalina island. Additionally, at $25 per person, per night, the campsites are a little too expensive to skirt the rules and book 3 nights at each location for the purpose of the spending only one night at each.
Hiking the trans Catalina the old fashioned way was prohibitive logistically (for me) outside of an organized group unless I wanted to take time off of work and do it during the week. Since my birthday fell on the memorial day weekend, I decided that this was not in the cards. Instead, I decided to book 3 nights at Little Harbor campground and explore the island the best I could using the campsite as a home base. Little harbor campground was the best choice in my opinion, because it was voted “one of the best campsites in the west” by the bias Sunset Magazine. ]
My last hurdle was how to get around Catalina, especially how to get from two harbors to little harbor. I read this article and this one, bought a few bikepacking essentials, and headed off with my wonderful boyfriend Robin, in tow.
I would estimate that we each carried 25 pounds of gear. We have light backpacking / camping equipment and shared a tent. There was potable water at the campsite so we did not bother to carry more than a liter of water a piece. My biggest weight splurge was a full size towel. A towel for washing is just so nice when camping for more than 2 days.
Biking from Two Harbors to little Harbor really wasn’t so bad. It took us less than 2 hours and was downhill the entire second half. That commute was the make it or break it ride that I was afraid of making. Then it turned out to be easy. We got there around 3:30pm and chilled the rest of the day. We spent the whole evening sitting at the campfire (with delivered wood), walking around the little harbor cove at dusk, and drinking a flask of Whiskey.
We suspiciously saw some horseshoe prints in the sand. I knew there were Buffalo on the island but not horses. And even then, I had no idea that Buffalo wore horseshoes. Who is out there putting horse shoes on Buffalo? Perhaps it is the Catalina Island Conservatory. They charge $35 per bike for a reason. I’m sure the labor costs dominate in this situation.
The next morning we biked from Little Harbor to Airport in the sky. This route was beautiful. We past incredible scenery. I realized that I have never experienced a dry southern California island climate like this before. The trees had an otherworldly permanent windblown look. The rolling hills were more vast the higher in elevation we went. The ride was a punishing 1000ft of elevation gain for 8 miles. We ate a late breakfast at Airport in the Sky that turned into an early lunch. We headed off toward black jack campground in search of Buffalo. I wanted to justify purchasing a Buffalo stuffed animal. It would be silly to buy a stuffed Buffalo if I didn’t even see one. We spent another hour looking for buffalo when it started to rain. Eventually we saw one coasting a ridgeline in the distance. We turned around in the sprinkling rain using that as a satisfactory ending to our mission. I stopped back by Airport in the sky, purchased my Buffalo, named him horseshoe, and headed back to camp for a lazy afternoon.
That evening we decided to walk the trail from little harbor back to Two harbors to experience what some online sources call the best part of the trans Catalina trail. I felt rather refreshed despite doing a 20 mile bikeride earlier that day. It did not disappoint. It reminded me of the Kalaulau trail overlook from birthday visit to Hawaii last year. The views were break taking. A wave of mist enveloped us in the dusk as we hiked through the damp rain.
I was surprised that this hike does not get more press. It was one of the most beautiful hikes I have ever been in Southern California.
At this point, on May 27th 2019, its was 6 months at least since the vast expenditure of the wilderness took my breath away in its undeliberate beauty. Its moments like those when I realize intrinsically, deeply, that I really have to get out more. I lived outside for years, and then this. The four walls of a paying job kept me occupied for months. I forgot how much simpler happiness can be. This happiness had nothing to do with the feeling of satisfaction, growing and realized ambition, guilty accumulation of power and success, nor the tranquilizing nature of security. It was just beautiful. The simplicity gave me calm.
The next day we kayaked around the cove adjacent to twin harbors. The waves were copy and it felt more like kayaking the open ocean than the guidebook had me believe. I was exhausted from the 30 mile adventure the day before. Working my upper body to explore the harbor was a delightful respite. I also liked the convenience of the kayaks. The campground delivered them straight to the beach. It made our 3 nights 4 day adventure feel more like beach living than, say, renting a condo in La Jolla. That went some way towards helping me recapture the delightful youthful memory about that one month I lived in a Hotel in Coronado.
Packing up our gear was also an adventure. I was quite chilled out on the scenery and the exercise, and had to fight the pull of naps when pushing all of our camping gear in stuff sacks. At one point I found myself napping among the stuff sacks when Robin yelled to wake me up fro across the camp ground. A Buffalo had wandered into our campground! It was Horseshoe bidding us farewell.
I loved my time at Catalina and hope I get to return one day again. I’m sure it will be years. It seems like a lovely place to take little adventurers with the security of highly developed campgrounds and organized delivery services. The next time I come I want to experience a new adventure, but I’m not quite sure what that would be.
Video impressions from my adventure below