Trans Catalina Trail - Arrival Day
Updated: Feb 24
I spent five days thru-hiking the Trans Catalina Trail (TCT) in January; I had a day on either end of my trip to do local day hikes and look for survey marks. Hiking the TCT has been on my bucket list since first learning about it. I have prepared individual articles to journal each day's activities as I experienced Santa Catalina Island. Each daily report begins with a recap of the hiking statistics and ends with the Relive® 3D video of my route for that day as bookends to my day's activities.
Quick Navigation Links
I encourage you to follow my journey as it unfolded, enjoying the articles chronologically; however, for ease, these links allow you to jump between specific days. All links open in a new window so you won't lose your location. (Note: each daily article will start with these links)
TCT Day 1: Hermit Gulch CG to Black Jack CG
TCT Day 2: Black Jack CG to Little Harbor CG TCT Day 3: Little Harbor CG to Buffalo Flats CG Two Harbors
TCT Day 4: Buffalo Flats CG Two Harbors to Parsons Landing
TCT Day 5: Parsons Landing to Buffalo Flats CG Two Harbors
Departure Day Survey Mark Hunting
Thru-Hike Statistics - Summary
The TCT is 38.5 miles long; these stats below roll up my entire week of hiking activity, including my day hikes. Each daily report will have similar stats for that particular day.
Dates: January 21-27, 2023 (7 days)
Distance: 51.40 miles
Total Elapsed Time on Trail: 36h 23m
Total Moving Time on Trail: 29h 11m
Highest Elevation: 1,791 Feet
Elevation Gain: 8,706 Feet
Trailhead: Various, as noted in the daily details
I did not begin tracking mileage using my GAIA GPS App until I arrived at Hermit Gulch Campground. It is approximately 1.5 miles from the port to the campground; I've included that 1.5 miles in the abovementioned total distance.
Stopped time is mainly attributed to lunch breaks on the trail; on Day 2, I spent 2.5 hours at the Airport for lunch and charging my battery packs. Additionally, survey marking hunting accounted for a good chunk of stopped time.
I created the acronym "SMASH" as a shorthand reference for Survey Mark Scavenger Hunt. Throughout the week, I found and documented 18 survey marks and shared the details of those recoveries as they happened; these stats recap those activities.
Recovery Dates: January 21-27, 2023
Total Marks Recovered: 18
Discs Recovered: 14
Non-Disc Type Recovered: 3 (1-Navigational Light, 1-Microwave Mast, 1-Microwave Tower)
Surprise Recoveries: 2
Searched For; Could Not Find: 3
Targets Not Attempted: 8
Survey MArk Scavenger Hunt - A Brief History
Oxford's English Dictionary defines a Scavenger Hunt as:
"a game, typically played in an extensive outdoor area, where participants have to collect a number of miscellaneous objects."
There is usually the requirement that the items cannot be purchased, and in situations where the item cannot be removed, photographs of the object are acceptable proof that the item was found.
Geocaching is a variation of a scavenger hunt where participants use a GPS receiver or other navigational aids to hide and seek small containers at specific coordinates. Within the Geocaching community, a category focuses specifically on Benchmarks. Technically, a Bench Mark is one specific type of survey mark; however, the term is often used generically outside the Land Surveying profession to refer to any survey mark.
My interest in survey marks didn't develop through organized geocaching but through hiking. In 2020, I entered a few hiking challenges, requiring participants to complete specific hikes and self-report their progress, usually posting some form of photographic proof on a social media platform. Many hikes I completed during these challenges had brass discs mounted in rock or concrete monuments at the summit. My social proof was often a "shoe-fie"; a picture with my hiking boot next to the survey mark at the summit. The more I hiked, the more survey marks I found, and the more interested I became in their history, my obsession with survey marks began.
Nowadays, I do extensive research before heading out to look for survey marks, plotting them on my GAIA GPS App. Even so, I still come across survey marks that I wasn't expecting to find, but most of my recoveries result from doing my homework and then doing the legwork.
This graphic shows the route I will hike on the Trans Catalina Trail, with waypoints established for survey marks to look for. As you'll read below, just because there is supposed to be a mark, there doesn't always mean there will be!
I strive to include some information in every survey mark article about the process and tools I use and the history and/or significance of the survey marks I've recovered.
One of my primary tools is the National Geodetic Survey Data Explorer, a web-based resource cataloging survey marks with a permanent identification number (PID). There are hundreds of thousands of permanent survey marks throughout the United States. I couldn't guess how many marks (worldwide) are set by commercial or private surveyors not listed in the NGS database. Survey marks serve an essential role and should not be disturbed or destroyed. When I mention that I have recovered a survey mark, that means I have located it and verified its location and condition; usually with a series of photographs that include a close-up view of the mark, one from eye level showing the immediate surrounding, and then one or more that show the mark with the horizon in the background (generally taken on cardinal points)
I built a database where I record all the pertinent information about the survey marks I recover; the data I collect closely parallels the information collected and maintained by the NGS. I have more than 1,400 recoveries in my database, including examples of 51 different types of survey marks! The recoveries I made while in Catalina include four types that are NOT the standard brass discs.
Style: My trip reports are a form of journaling. I strive to write them from a real-time perspective, so each day's activities are presented conversationally as if it is happening "today" despite being written well after the event. All videos are linked to my personal Facebook page with the audience set to public; I have found they load and play better this way. I took over 500 pictures during the week and can't possibly include them all; however, I've curated the collection to enhance my story best.
Affiliate Relationships/Sponsorships: Simply put, there are none. I have no financial relationships with any companies (or their products) I mention in this series. My opinions are my own, and you can agree or disagree with them. My site is not monetized; it is a labor of love for me to share my experiences and passion for the outdoors. Links to external websites provided further information outside my scope or expertise and were valid when I published the articles.
Leave me a Comment: I welcome your thoughts and comments; however, please be respectful to other guests and me in your comments.
GPS Data: I use an iPhone 13Pro and GAIA GPS App to track my activity. While hiking, I put my phone in airplane mode to save battery life. I use the Relive® App to create 3D "Follow Me" videos of my hikes. My elevation profiles are created online using GPSVisualizer, and when analyzing data, I use GPX Editor to pinpoint the time, distance, and elevation between specific GPS coordinates. All of these tools use the same GPS data points collected by my iPhone; however, they each have proprietary algorithms for processing that data, so it's not uncommon that there will be minor variances between distances and elevations. I do my best to reconcile them all, but they don't always tie out exactly.
Trip Planning and Preparation
After my successful summit of Mount Whitney last August, friends and family asked, "So, having climbed the highest peak in the continental United States, what's next?" Some expected me to set my sights on more technical 14ers or travel to find higher peaks. However, I wanted to do something different and liked the appeal of weeklong, solo backpacking adventures. At the top of my list was to thru-hike the Trans Catalina Trail.
For those unfamiliar with the term "thru-hike," it is a multi-day, point-to-point, continuous hike, often on a long trail. Notably, the Triple Crown of Thru-Hiking includes the Continental Divide Trail (3,028 miles), the Pacific Crest Trail (2,653 miles), and the Appalachian Trail (2,194 miles). The Trans Catalina Trail may be one of the shortest thru-hikes, but it is both scenic and challenging.
Naturally, when I shared that thought, the next question was, "So, when are you going?" 🤣Logistically, I plan major hiking trips in the summer, but the TCT is exposed and offers little shade from the summer sun; hiking it during the summer would be HOT! My busiest time at work is February through April, so I tentatively booked a week of vacation for the third week in January and crossed my fingers that I could get campsites for the entire week.
I visited the Catalina Island Company's website for Backpacking the TCT and read through the entire site; this is the launching pad for booking your campsites and includes links to arrange boat transportation to the island, plus a host of other good-to-know information.
Conventional wisdom says to book your campsites first, starting with Parsons Landing because it has the fewest sites and can be the most difficult to book. After you've got your camping reservations, book transportation on the Catalina Express or Catalina Flyer based on where you're departing from. Campsites are released on January 1st and can fill up fast. As with many places requiring reservations, cancellations can open up sites throughout the year on a first-come-first-served basis.
Because of the timing of my trip, I booked my Catalina Express reservations in November to ensure I had transportation, not wanting to wait until after January 1st to see if I got all my camping permits, only to struggle with not being able to get there when I needed to. Worst case, I could cancel my boat reservations without penalty if I hadn't gotten the campsites. As it turned out, hiking the trail in the off-season worked perfectly on several fronts. I took the boat from the San Pedro (Long Beach) terminal to Avalon and booked my return trip departing from Two Harbors back to San Pedro at the end of the week.
What the TCT lacks in mileage, it makes up for in elevation gain. The official trail is 38.5 miles long, and even though the highest point I reached was only 1,791 feet, I had almost 9,000 feet of vertical gain. The most common itineraries range from 3-5 days; fewer days translates to less gear and food required and a lighter pack. I built my itinerary around my arrival and departure days, giving me five days to complete the TCT, with a night of camping before and after the hike. This schedule allowed me to look for survey marks and enjoy the whole experience comfortably. I never had a hard mileage day; I could leisurely set up and tear down camp, and as a solo hiker, I wasn't bound by someone else's schedule or desires.
Happy New Year!
I don't usually stay up to welcome the New Year, but nearby neighbors were shooting fireworks at midnight, so I was outside with our horses to keep them calm. When I returned to the house, I tried to sign into the reservation system to get my campsites, but the system was overloaded, and I couldn't even book my first night. I stayed up for a half-hour trying but quickly gave up and went to bed.
I was back online at 7:00 a.m. with much the same results. I posted a message in the Trans Catalina Trail FaceBook group asking if the Visitors Center was staffed, and someone replied promptly, saying yes. While watching the spinning pinwheel on my computer, I started dialing (and re-dialing) the Visitors Center until I got through. The woman who helped was fantastic and walked me through making my reservations at each site, telling me which were the most requested sites at each campground. The trip was a GO! 👏🏻 😊
I was unnecessarily worried about the availability of campsites even though my trip was only three weeks away. The high traffic on the website was a scramble for the best campsites during peak season; as it turned out, I was the first person to book at all but Hermit Gulch campground and had my pick of sites!
Base weight versus the Big Three
You may hear the terms "base weight" and "big three" tossed around among backpackers and thru-hikers; sometimes, they are used interchangeably, but they are different. Base weight includes all your gear except consumable items such as food, water, and fuel. The big three include your pack, shelter, and sleep system (sleeping bag, pad, and pillow). My big three weighed in at 14 lbs 5 oz:
Osprey Aether Plus 70L pack Medium, 5 lbs 10 oz
Nemo Forte 20º sleeping bag regular, 2 lbs 14 oz
Nemo Tensor ultra light insulated sleeping pad long/wide, 1 lb 5 oz
Sea to Summit Deluxe Aeros Ultralight Pillow, 4.6 oz
REI Co-op Passage 2 Tent with Footprint, 4 lbs 2 oz
My pack weight was 48 lbs 8 oz, and my consumables (food for six days, water, and fuel) weighed 13 lbs 8 oz. when I left home. I typically only carried 2 liters of water and a bottle of electrolytes daily. Every campsite had potable water except Parsons Landing, so there weren't long water carries. However, I did order the "package" that contained 2 gallons of water, a bundle of firewood, and a fire starter; it was waiting for me in a locker when I arrived at Parsons Landing.
At 48 pounds of gear, you may think I had a lot of extraneous stuff in my pack, but that wasn't the case. I gambled that the weather would be good all week and left my rain shell and pants at home, opting to carry a disposable poncho instead. I significantly pared down my first-aid and repair kits to include only what I might need.
I packed and did not use my Nemo Moonlight Backpacking chair and Gossamer Gear Ultralight Umbrella. Every campground had a picnic table, so the chair was unnecessary, and I used my umbrella for about a one-mile stretch, but it was too windy, and I had to take it down.
True "hiker trash" might forgo packing extra clothes to minimize pack weight, but I was thankful I packed an extra pair of pants. As I was changing into my base layer before bed at Black Jack campground, I noticed that I split the seam in the seat of my Duluth Trading Co. hiking pants at some time during the day!🤣 🤷🏻♂️ I alternated between my two RailRider Versatac hiking shirts daily, as they rarely completely dried out overnight. As far as my food went, I nailed it. I only had three "hot" lunch meals left because I chose not to cook at lunchtime (I had ready-to-eat food for my lunches in addition to ramen and soup options)
Navigation and Permits
I preloaded the GPX tracks for the full TCT into my GAIA GPS and established waypoints for all the survey marks that I wanted to look for. I left my compass at home and had a printed copy of the official TCT map in my pack, along with my CA Fire Permit and receipt for my campsite reservations. These were all saved on my phone, but it's a good idea to have paper copies if something happens to your phone. The trail is so well signed that I only used GAIA to check my progress and look for survey marks.
Time to Go. I've got a boat to catch!
Today began with a typical "Alpine Start" as my alarm went off at 3:42 a.m., only I wasn't preparing for an early snow hike, just the opposite, I was headed to Santa Catalina Island for a week in the sun, and I needed to be at the Catalina Express Terminal in Long Beach for an 8:45 departure to the Island. Traffic in Southern California can be unpredictable, so I planned an early departure to compensate for potential delays. The drive was uneventful, leaving me plenty of time to check in and queue up for the boat ride to Avalon.
US Coast Guard rules prohibit transporting flammable material on board, so I left my fuel canister at home and bought a new one in Avalon. The boat to Avalon was full, so packs and other gear had to be stowed below deck. I took my umbrella and trekking poles off my pack but didn't have time to remove and store everything else hanging outside my pack. As it turned out, it wasn't an issue because everything was well-secured. On my return trip, I packed everything inside my pack, but only eight people were on the boat, and I kept my pack with me. 🤷🏻♂️
The weather was perfect, and the trip was estimated to take 75 minutes; I napped 💤 on the boat, so to me, the ride felt much shorter 😂. By 10:00 a.m., I had disembarked, shouldered my pack, and began my adventure with a few survey mark recoveries, a trip to the Catalina Conservancy Trailhead Store to pick up a fuel canister and TCT stickers (a must-have!), a stop by Von's for a cold Gatorade and a battery for my Bluetooth camera remote.
AVALON BAY SOUTH LIGHT (PID: DY2961)
Type of Marker: 14 - Navigational Light
First Observed: 1975 by the National Geodetic Survey
I like easy recoveries like this one! This is located at the end of the pier where the Catalina Express Ferry docked. The actual Station is the point at the apex of the navigation light. There is a similar light across the bay on the north side, but my travels didn't take me there. 🤷🏻♂️
There was another mark on my list to look for at the end of the pier, CABRILLO MOLE (PID: DY2962), identified as the center point of a group of wooden pilings at the northernmost corner of the concrete pier, one meter in diameter; however, I didn't see any wooden pilings remaining.
CASINO (PID: DY2952) Surprise Proximity Recovery
Type of Marker: 44 - Microwave Mast
First Observed: 1934 by the US Coast and Geodetic Survey
I term this a surprise proximity recovery because it wasn't on my radar as a mark to look for. When I prepared my list of marks to search for, I excluded those too far from my intended hiking route, ignoring this and many others in Avalon because I didn't want to walk around town all day with my full pack on. I took this photo standing on the pier, looking across the bay, because I thought it was a cool view. Little did I know I could zoom in on the small mast atop the building for the recovery!
With two quick recoveries and my "to-do" list items checked off, I hiked through town to Hermit Gulch Campground. I arrived at campsite number six at 11:45 a.m. and started to set up my tent and stow my gear. With everything set up, I had a quick lunch of SPAM Singles, dried pineapple rings, and a granola bar. My schedule for this afternoon was to look for a few survey marks on the island's southern end (in the opposite direction of where I'd be hiking tomorrow,) so I wanted to do a day hike today to see what I could find.
Divide Road Loop
Date: January 21, 2023
Distance: 7.10 Miles
Total Elapsed Time: 3h 43m
Total Moving Time: 3h 28m
Highest Elevation: 1,496 Feet
Elevation Gain: 1,621 Feet
Trailhead: Hermit Gulch Campground
Tossing a few essentials into my slackpack, I headed up the Hermit Gulch Trail to Divide Road on the same trail I will start on tomorrow morning, so it was a good preview of the beginning climb without the weight of my entire pack.
The views from the trail were breathtaking, and it was apparent I had hit the sweet spot for my trip. Two weeks ago, the island was inundated with rain, and all the trails were closed. Today, everything was green, and the trails were open and mostly dry.
Coming Up Empty
The first recovery on my list was KNOB RESET (DY2938), located at the end of a ridgeline on the southwest side of the Island. After reaching Divide Road, I headed south for 1.5 miles to the ridge and followed a game trail to the end of the ridge, losing about 325 of elevation on the half-mile trek. I spent almost an hour searching for signs of the reset station disc and its reference marks but found nothing.
I returned to the road and started towards my remaining three targets, EAST PEAK RESET (DY2942), CAT2_SCGN_CS2000 CORS GRP (PID: DL7682), a Continuously Operating Reference Station, and NORTHEAST POINT 1876 (PID: DY2941); however, it was late enough in the afternoon, I knew I'd be pushing darkness on my way back if I continued; I turned around and headed back to camp. For a change of pace, I descended via Avalon Canyon Road, which passed through the Wrigley Botanical Garden at the bottom. It was a graded fire road, not as long or dramatic as the Hermit Gulch Trail, and easier on my knees.
I was back in time to fix dinner in the daylight and fill my hydration bladder for tomorrow's hike. Sticking to my meal plan, I had the Good To-Go Smoked Three Bean Chilli, which was excellent.
I liked having today free to hike and look for survey marks and not have to hit the ground running on the TCT; however, I can understand why many hikers bypass Hermit Gulch Campground and start the trail the same day they land in Avalon. Hermit Gulch Is a developed campground with a fair number of weekend campers. The facilities are excellent and convenient to town, yet it doesn't have the tranquility of primitive camping. Locals residents were racing their cars up and down the road that goes through the campground to the Botanical Gardens, and the campers who didn't abide by the 10:00 p.m. quiet hour were clueless about how their voices carried through the campground. 🙄
Relive® 3D Video of Today's Day Hike To Divide Road
I turned in early, worked on a crossword puzzle for a while, was content with my first day on the island, and was ready to start my trek tomorrow!