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Catalina – Parson’s Landing

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Spring is here which means it’s time to get serious about outdoor adventures. It’s already starting to get terribly hot here in Southern California, so we’re trying to take advantage of the local trips before summertime. One of the trips on my ever growing list was Catalina. The island is just an hour ferry ride away from the South Bay, making it easy to visit for just the weekend (or even the day really). Besides just a general interest in visiting an island that is just off the coast, I was very curious about the Trans Catalina Trail as a multi-day backpacking trip that was close to home. We decided a weekend visit was in order and opted to stay at the Parson’s Landing campground.

Parson’s Landing is about about six miles from Two Harbors, the southern bay where you can take a ferry to from the mainland. Unlike Avalon, which is a bit more developed, Two Harbors feels like a sleepy beach town. Now the thing about camping in Catalina is that besides making site reservations (camping is only allowed at designated campsites), you also have to buy locker keys to get water and a bundle of firewood. There is limited water on the island so filtering water isn’t usually an option, particularly in summer. Even though the whole thing feels a little bit like a scam, I just decided to look at it as a luxury to have our water and firewood delivered to our campsite.

The forecast for the weekend of our trip, booked months in advance, called for rain of course. This also meant that there was particularly stormy weather at sea, making for a bit of a wild ferry ride out to the island. The skies held while we hiked out on to the Trans Catalina Trail. The trail itself isn’t so much of a trail as it is a dirt road that rises steeply to the top of the island. Once at the ridge line, you can enjoy views of both coasts of the island. I could imagine this hike being not so pleasant during the summer months when it is warmer, there is no escape from the sun and the island grasses have dried. And of course, what goes up, must come down which is where you may find yourself inching down the fenceline trail. This trail is steep and rocky and all around a drag. There is probably some efficient way to hike this section but I certainly don’t know what it is. A few hikers passed us, as I was going really slowly, and they of course both wiped out on the loose rocks.

After finishing the fenceline portion, we found ourselves on one of the hiking only trails which was quite lovely and my favorite part of the hike all together. Being on a road the entire time was a bit dull. A single track trail, winding through open fields was a relief. And just like that we were at our campground.

Parson’s Landing is really spectacular. We snagged site two, which is one of the more secluded spots. All the sites are directly on the beach (unlike in Point Reyes for instance where you are on a cliff above the beach). There is a giant salt water container at the site though, evidently for fire safety, which is a bit of an eyesore. There were several fire rings set up around the camp with rocks stacked high to block the wind. We made our dinner and started a fire just as the sun started to set. We sipped hot cocoas by the fire before it started to rain pretty heavily and we jumped in the tent and spent the rest of the evening there, cozy and dry.

Magically it stopped raining by morning and we at breakfast on the beach. Normally we start hiking home just after breakfast as we often have a drive at the end of each trip. Being so close to home, even with the ferry ride, we were allowed a few hours to relax. I dug into a book (Nobody Is Ever Missing which I really enjoyed and recommend) and just listened to waves crash on the beach. It was perfect.

We hiked back via the coast road. This road is about a mile longer but as the name suggests, it runs along the coast, rather than over the top of the island. It was a leisurely hike with no elevation gain really at all. Though this route is not as secluded (you pass several camps along the way) I enjoyed it a lot more than the Trans Catalina Trail. I’m glad that we did both trails in the end but the best part about this backpacking trip was the camp itself by far, so might as well go with the easier hike. While waiting for the ferry we ran into several other hikers who had just completed the whole trail. None of them seemed particularly enthusiastic about it to be honest.

I really wanted to see buffalo on our visit but didn’t realize they are contained to another area on the island. If you don’t already know about the buffalo, they were brought to Catalina for use in a movie and then left behind to fend for themselves, and have multiplied over the years. Upon returning home, I learned the buffalo do a fair amount of harm to the island and aren’t in particularly good health. There have been several efforts to reduce the herd size (they’re now on birth control) but the conservancy that manages them has stopped short of removing the herd altogether. You can read more about the effects of the buffalo here. It is fascinating.

The trip was brief, relatively easy and a perfect escape. I can’t stress enough how lovely Parson’s Landing really is once you arrive. It’s a wonderful place to just totally unplug and get away. It really does feel different being on an island, being able to look back at the big city you live in and be completely separate from it. When we returned, even though we had done a fair amount of hiking, I felt entirely relaxed and refreshed. I’d like to return and check out some more of the island and perhaps go kayaking or snorkeling.

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