An Ocean at Your Doorstep
Two Harbors, Catalina Island
In most places, seven miles one-way would be too far to hike for an easy backpacking trip. That's because in most places, trails go uphill and downhill. But if you're backpacking to Parson's Landing Campground on Catalina Island, almost the entire seven-mile trail is flat, and smoothly surfaced as well. The seven miles whiz by in less than three hours so quickly that you're almost sad when the hike is over, because the scenery is so good along the way.
The trip to Parson's Landing begins with a boat ride from Long Beach or San Pedro to Two Harbors on Catalina Island. If you take the express boat, you arrive in shortly over an hour, and begin hiking from the spot where the boat drops you off. Head to your right (north) down the harbor's beach, and then briefly uphill past some small cottages until you join the wide, flat dirt road that follows the contour of the coast along the mainland side of the island. Turn right on this road (called West End Road on maps but never signed anywhere) and you're on your way.
The Catalina Coast
The next five miles are about as flat as any trail could be, and about as scenic, too. You get nearly nonstop views of Catalina's rocky coastline, with one hidden cove after another appearing every half mile or so. On your right, you'll see colorful kayaks bobbing along in the sea, pelicans diving for lunch, and miles of clear emerald water the stuff that has made this end of Catalina Island famous the world over for SCUBA diving and snorkeling. On your left, you get a close-up look at the island's foliage, which consists mostly of prickly pear cactus more than you've probably ever seen in one place. In spring, cactus and wildflowers bloom, and at Cherry Cove (one mile out), the native cherry trees burst into color. If you get homesick for the mainland, you can squint your eyes and just make out Long Beach and the Orange County coast, a mere blur of land some 20-plus miles away. Most people find they enjoy seeing"civilization" from this distance.
As you march along, you'll pass several private camps belonging to church and scout groups. Keep your eyes peeled after you pass the camp at Howland's Landing, 4.5 miles out, because shortly past it is a marvelous stretch of white sandy beach where you can take a break and a swim if you wish. It is marked by a couple of tall, rocky sea tacks about 150 yards offshore. An obvious spur trail leads off the main road down to the beach. Beyond this beach, you'll pass another large camp and begin to see signs for Parson's Landing, further ahead. Keep hiking, heading inland and starting to climb a bit, then take the well-signed right fork. The trail leads up a dry, grassy ridge, and when you reach the top, you spy your destination on the other side: a beautiful rocky pocket beach. Head for it, and take your pick of six possible campsites right on the beach, each equipped with a picnic table and fire grill. Every site is reasonably private and secluded from the rest. There is only one decision left to make: Should we put up the tent or go swimming first?
When you pay for your campsite reservation at Parson's Landing, your fee includes a key for access to a locker at the campground. In the locker, you'll find bottled water (in 2.5-gallon bottles) and plenty of firewood. Other than that, you are on your own for supplies. It's a long hike back to Two Harbors, so make sure you've packed all you need. Sunscreen is a must, as well as adequate food and cooking supplies.
Aside from the fabulous beachside setting, the best thing about camping at Parson's Landing is that it gives you a perfect base from which to day hike around the secluded northwest side of the island. Many people hike the seven-mile round-trip to Silver Peak, which offers great views. Be sure not to miss the four-mile hike to Starlight Beach, one of the most remote beaches in all of Southern California.
Facilities, reservations, fees: There are six campsites at Parson's Landing, each with a picnic table and fire grill. Bottled water and firewood are provided. Vault toilets are located near the beach. Reservations and a camping permit are required; there is a nightly fee for campsites. Pets are not permitted.
Who to contact: Two Harbors Visitors Services, P.O. Box 5044, Two Harbors, CA 90704; tel. (310) 510-1550, fax (310) 510-0244.
Maps for backpacking: A trail map of Catalina Island is available when you pick up your camping permit. For a topographic map of the area, ask for Santa Catalina West from the USGS.
Season: Year-round; spring and fall are best.
Directions: Two companies provide ferry transportation to Two Harbors from San Pedro and Long Beach. Advance reservations are recommended. Phone Catalina Express at (310) 519-1212 or Catalina Cruises at (800) 228-2546. (Catalina Express is the faster of the two ferry services.)
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication