Avoiding getting impaled by bison, protecting your food from sneaky ninja squirrels, and searching for the elusive Island Fox.

In my tent at the Hermit Gulch campground in Avalon, Catalina.

A Walk on an Island

I hiked a few bits of the Trans Catalina Trail (TCT) in 2021. This year, I thought I’d walk the full 38.5-mile trail. The endless “atmospheric rivers” of March wiped out all five campgrounds on the trail. By my arrival day, four had just opened, but the remote Parson’s Landing was still closed.

I walked the two legs from Two Harbors to Parson’s and Parson’s to Two Harbors in 2021. Over multiple years, I will have walked the whole TCT.

And if Ishkur, Ninurta, Tefnut, or one of those Rain Gods can be more chill in 2024, I might walk the TCT contiguously.


All images were created with a Sony α7c mirrorless camera and a 40 mm f2.5 Compact G lens, except for images by Kyle and McKenzie. Selfies were handheld or captured with a Sony RMT-P1BT remote, Leophoto MT-03 tripod, and MBC-18 ball head. RAW files were processed in Adobe Lightroom Classic.

Hermit Gulch Campground

The first night at a slightly light-polluted Hermit Gulch turned out to be the only night with clear skies. This is my best weak attempt at astrophotography for this hike.
Morning at Hermit Gulch Campsite #1!

Of Atmospheric Rivers

I was a little disappointed that the Parson’s Landing Campground was closed. I’d waited a while to book a reservation at this small, remote campground. It was a bummer to lose it.

When Ranger Regina LMK that all the campgrounds had been closed and that Hermit Gulch had only reopened two days before my arrival, my disappointment turned to feeling lucky that I was able to hike and camp at all.

I was able to hike three of the five legs of the TCT and stay at four of the five campgrounds. Including the two legs I hadn’t previously done.

Ranger Regina and 4-1/2-month-old Ranger Jake at the Hermit Gulch Ranger Station and Micro Camper’s Store.
Campsite #1 comes with this cool tree stump chair.
Before the intense March rains this “Hermit Gulch River” was flat land. The heavy rains carved this small stream and the rangers built a series of small bridges with lights to get campers from one side to the other.

Hermit Gulch to Blackjack

A giant cruise ship nestled underneath a dome of clouds and somewhat dwarfing the tiny village in Avalon Harbor.
Hannon and McKenzie heading out of the Haypress Recreational Area and into the 2nd half of the Hermit Gulch to Blackjack walk.

Hannon and McKenzie

I met Hannon and McKenzie near the beginning of the Hermit Gulch to Blackjack walk. I’d passed a small fork in the trail, and the path I was on seemed to be going in the wrong direction for a while. I bumped into them as I was backtracking my steps and turned to their superior navigational skills. Turns out I was heading the right way. It’s just a lot of walking southeast, so you can eventually go northwest.

Halfway between Hermit Gulch and Blackjack is the Haypress Recreational Area. It’s got picnic tables, fresh water, toilets, and a small play area. We stopped there for lunch.

McKenzie and Hannon on the way to Blackjack.
On my way. Photo by Hannon.
Mile 9.

Blackjack Campground

Blackjack was fly-infested! At least they chilled out when the sun went down.
I saw a water tower atop a hill and thought I’d hike up to it. Then, I noticed that the hill was covered by a herd of bison.
Clouds and fog rolled in over the ocean side of the island.
Blackjack Campground. Campsite #5.
The fog kept rolling in, and by morning, the campground was covered in mist.
A small beetle helped me pack up camp.

Blackjack to Airport in the Sky

The campground after Blackjack is Little Harbor. On your way there, you pass The Airport in the Sky, where you can land your DC3, have a bison burger, pick up a plush bison, or just fill your water bottle. The trail out of Blackjack was foggy, and the trees were dripping moisture.

“Bison in The Mist” — That herd of bison on the hill last night had moved onto the trail. Mark and Teresa headed out first and took a large detour through the brush to go around them. When I arrived, Ranger Machado came by and helped with Bison negotiations.
Ranger Machado encouraging the bison to head back to the hill. He encouraged me to “stay close to my truck.”
Ranger Machado, friend of hikers and irritator of bison. He said, “they know us, and they don’t like us.” He also explained that there were two different sets of Rangers on the island. One operates two of the campgrounds and the other operates the other three campgrounds. One operates the Two Harbors showers, restrooms, bar, cafe, restaurant, store and beach amenities. The other owns the ridge line. He said, “if you get sick or injured, we’re the EMT’s you’ll be glad to see.

Airport in the Sky

The “Airport in The Sky” is 12 miles out of Avalon or two miles from the Blackjack campground. And another six miles away from the Little Harbor Campground.

  • Runway Length: 3,000 feet
  • Elevation: 1,602 feet
Airport in The Sky, Air Traffic Control Tower.
The case of the missing bison burger and the half-eaten oatmeal-raisin cookie.
Airport Cat.
Hannon brings McKenzie her Bison Burger.

I think everyone agreed that a “Bison Burger” tastes sort of identical to a “Cow Burger.”

A Bison Burger with cheese is US$24. If you add tax that’s $26. If you add a 20% tip it’s $31. For simplicity of exchange rates, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has fixed one Bison Burger = US$25. As you’ll see when we get to Two Harbors, you can rent a Beach Palapa for 14 Bison Burgers (US$350).

Airport in The Sky to Little Harbor

The TCT trails seem to go up and down a lot. Just when you think you’ll never start descending, Little Harbor appears on the horizon.
California Wildflowers.
Kyle finishing the last mile on the walk into Little Harbor.

Little Harbor

The many campsites of Little Harbor. The rock that sticks partly into the middle of the harbor separates Little Harbor on the right from Little Harbor/Shark Harbor on the left. There are just three campsites on the beach at Shark Harbor. Mark and Teresa were at Shark Harbor A, Kyle was at Shark Harbor C, and I was lucky to be in the middle at Shark Harbor B.

Shark Harbor

Looking out of my tent and to the rolling waves of Shark Harbor.
Teresa getting water. Her and Mark’s yellow tent is at Shark Harbor A.
Kyle’s campsite at Shark Harbor C. He brought an ax to chop his firewood.


At Shark Harbor, Kyle said that his “real life” was so demanding that it was hard to get away for trips like this. He wanted to experience as much as he could during this special time.

A day later, at dinner with Hannon and McKenzie in Two Harbors, I asked them if that other life is “real life” and this “trail life” some alt life, dream, or fantasy?

At the end of Psych 135 — Social Psychology, at UCLA, Barry Collins’ parting advice to us was simple and notable, “Balance in all things.”

Barry said that if he spent all his time attending to institutional demands, he wouldn’t be very happy. And if he only focused on personal satisfaction, things quickly became a mess.

Maybe all life is “real life.”

Experiencing Others

One day in South Carolina my cousin Kathryn reluctantly followed some soldiers she’d been ministering to in jumping off a huge cliff. She paused in her run to leap at exactly the wrong place. Instead of landing in the water, she crashed on the rocks below and shattered her femur.

Emergency paramedics arrived to evacuate her. I wasn’t there, but I’ve been told that before she’d allow them to lift her broken body, she required them to answer a question, “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your lord and savior?”

It was a funny moment on a terrifying day. A day so agonizing that even many weeks and many miles away from the event, it still, and always, makes me tremble to my core.

If you spend enough time with people you meet on the trail, you might eventually discuss Jesus Christ. Or whether you think Donald Trump is the messiah or the devil. Or any other ideological topics.

What’s great about time on the trail is that these are rarely the first topics. Instead, we might focus on the weather. Or how your body is handling, or not handling, the pounds on your back and the miles under your feet.

I’m only aware of three uses for Facebook:

  1. Sharing cute baby photos
  2. Yelling at people you putatively love over their “stupid” ideological positions
  3. A multinational corporation deconstructing your human essence, grinding you into a paste, and producing an almost infinite number of derivative products to sell to corporations and governments.

On the trail, all of that feels a million miles away. Instead of arguing over worldviews, we coordinate navigating miles of trail and thousands of feet of ascent and descent. These aren’t the only things that matter. Still, the trail feels like a place to share common experiences more than a place to yell at each other.

Surf Sounds

Santa Catalina Island, Little Harbor, Shark Harbor, Campsite B.

The sounds of the surf outside my Shark Harbor tent were so soothing! I’m not sure what it is about surf? Because our primordial ancestors crawled out of the sea? IDK! What I do know is that my little on-camera microphones in my tent weren’t up to capturing the sound at all. So here’s a sample of, well, sort of nothing. Next time, I’ll bring nicer microphones.

Mark said that the surf was so loud that it kept him awake. It was loud! But for me, it didn’t keep me awake. It felt so right. I’d love to get a decent recording next time and play it at home. When you’re actually there on the beach with all the sand and crisp air, it’s remarkable.

Every night of the trip, even at Fly & Fog Blackjack, I slept as well or better than I do at home. And always longer than I do at home. At home I’m always so busy with something “important.” On the trail, activity becomes much more synchronized with the rising and setting of the sun.

The Light Bulb & The Electric Grid

I’m always surprised to remember that the Light Bulb and the Electric Grid are both only about 150 years old. Before that, if the sun wasn’t up, you could light a candle or lamp, or go to sleep. For the 40,000 years of our species cultural history, and the 100,000 years of our species history, our human ancestors existed without light bulbs. Probably nobody was sleep-deprived.

Sometimes when I teach upper Paleolithic art in my classes, I’ll ask my students to spend one night with no electricity. To try to get some small sense of how these ancient humans existed. Most students will say that this was the hardest thing they had to do all semester. And then one or two will say, “I’m a park ranger. I do that all the time.”

Rock Collection, Shark Harbor, Catalina, California.
Even though I’ve got my hood up, Shark Harbor was the warmest campground, or camp night so far. Warmer than Hermit Gulch, and warmer than the slightly colder from the fog, Blackjack.
Dawn at Shark Harbor. The sun struggles to break through the clouds. And fails.
Past Kyle’s campsite, there were these huge patches of deceased…
…tiny Velella Velella jellies. AKA “By the wind sailors.”
Kyle walked about three miles SE from Shark Harbor to Ben Weston Beach. In the water and on the beach, he saw thousands of living Velella Velella. He said that when a wave crashed, many Velella were tossed into the air. He wanted to swim but wasn’t sure if they were poisonous or not — unlike the poisonous Portuguese Man O’War, they’re not. Or at least “most people aren’t sensitive.” — Photo by Kyle Smith.
About Velella Velella (by the wind sailors)

Little Harbor to Two Harbors

McKenzie and Hannon’s All-you-can-eat Breakfast Bar.

The Elusive Catalina Island Fox

I saw, but have no proof.

McKenzie and Hannon have proof, but did not see.

During this trip, we’ve been a little too close to bison and had to have a ranger nudge them off the hiking trail. We’ve been scavenged by food-stealing ninja squirrels. And everyone has wondered if they’ll have the chance to see the elusive Island Fox.

Unlike the bison and palm trees that were introduced to Catalina by Hollywood directors in the last hundred years, the Island Fox is believed to have been on Catalina for 5,000 years. The island fox lives on six of the eight California Channel Islands. And nowhere else on Earth. The tiny island fox is Catalina’s apex predator.

Where’d the crystal critters go?

Finn, The Last Jedi

In 1998, there were about 1,300 island foxes on Catalina. Between 1998 & 1999, a virus wiped out 90% of the population. It is believed that only about 130 island fox survived. Thanks to a captive breeding program the Catalina Island Fox population today is believed to be about 1,600. The United States Fish & Wildlife Service has “down-listed” the fox from “Endangered” to “Threatened.”

McKenzie left her shorts on her and Hannon’s picnic bench overnight. When she got up this morning they were covered in paw prints. Presumably from the Catalina Island Fox. Photo by McKenzie.

Yesterday, on the trail from Blackjack to The Airport, I stopped to take off my warm clothes. My pack was on one side of the trail as I changed on the other. An Island Fox walked up and stood near my pack for a moment. When I gestured to pick up my camera, it darted instantly into the brush.

McKenzie and Hannon have proof, but did not see.

I saw, but have no proof.

National Geographic video on the Island Fox
A purple wildflower and a look back as I hike out of Little Harbor and start on the trail to Two Harbors.
About 2/3 of the walk to Two Harbors was clear. Then the fog rolled in.
Wait, wut? Is that little tiny “pagoda” up there really where I’m headed? (hint: yes)


I didn’t know there was this much green in the whole galaxy.

Rey, The Force Awakens

I flipped through my September and October 2021 pictures, and the whole island is brown. It’s amazing how green the island is here in April 2023. All those “atmospheric rivers” of March were good for something. The island is so green! And with so many wildflowers.

Green, green, green!

Mountain Goats — these two “mountain goats” with full packs and no trekking poles scampered past me just before I reached “The Pagoda” and quickly disappeared into the distance. She’s from Wisconsin. He’s from Hermosa Beach.


The entire walk was overcast except for our first leg from Hermit Gulch to Blackjack. That first leg was intense, with direct sun and no shade. Surprisingly, the temperature was only around 65°F, but it felt a lot hotter.

Hiking on overcast and even foggy days is more pleasant. Even so, there’s a certain smallness vs the brilliance of a vibrant solar day.

Still, rainy March and overcast April are part of why the island is so green! There’s plenty of sun to come in the months ahead. But I don’t know if this island will ever be this green again.

Orange wildflowers.

And the Fog rolls in

From Little Harbor to The Pagoda, the walk was clear. At the pagoda, I sat to have some food. As I sat there, the fog rolled in, and the clear view of the trail I’d just walked was replaced with a misty haze. As I walked forward, fog rolled up the side of the island and streamed across the trail. Kind of like this:

Fog rolling across the Trans-Catalina Trail on the hike from Little Harbor to Two Harbors.
Hannon and McKenzie at Mile 23.

Two Harbors

Campsite #1 at Two Harbors Campground.
The view out of my tent and across Isthmus Cove.

Teresa, Mark, and that Damn Squirrel

I can’t swear that this is the same squirrel that stole Teresa’s dried mangoes last night at Shark Harbor, but I’m pretty sure it is. I think it followed Teresa and Mark all the way to Two Harbors. Or maybe hitched a ride in one of their packs. Last night at Shark Harbor, it scampered into their food locker, snatched her zip-lok of dried mangoes, and scampered up the hill with it. It was almost the perfect crime. Almost. But it stopped to tear the bag open and eat a piece. The poor squirrel didn’t anticipate how much Teresa wanted her dried mangoes. She chased it up the hill and got the rest of her fruit back. Now, it shows up at their Two Harbors Campsite #11 and demands to be fed. When we didn’t feed it, it flipped us off and went to scrounge from other campers.
McKenzie’s arm, Hannon, and their Restaurant Dinner at Two Harbors. They bought out the whole veranda! I’d thought that April would be similar to October, but it’s much quieter. Great food, though.
I usually get up at two or 3 a.m. for “pee & astrophotography.” Except for Hermit Gulch, it was cloudy every night. No astrophotography tonight. To make up, here’s my 3 a.m. photo looking across Isthmus Cove toward the pier.
Morning at Two Harbors.
You can rent a Palapa for just 14 Bison Burgers! Or a cozy Lounge Chair for a modest 2.4 Bison Burgers. But remember, no food or drink from the store or anywhere else is allowed at Harbor Sands. So be sure to budget a few Bison Burgers for your refreshments.
I took the 5-minute walk across the isthmus from Isthmus Cove to Catalina Harbor. Then, I walked along the beach till I came across this art installation on the cliffs.
Two Harbors houses.
Lunch and ice cream on the veranda before boarding the Catalina Express from Two Harbors to San Pedro.

The Voyage Home

Catalina Express to San Pedro.

Teresa and Mark

Teresa and Mark

Just about everyone I met on the trail had planned to stay at Parson’s Landing. Teresa and Mark and I finished at Two Harbors and headed home. Hannon and McKenzie, and Kyle, stayed another day and did the whole 14-mile Parson’s loop in a day without camping at the still-closed Parson’s Landing Campground.

Feet, resting.

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