Los Angeles Area Hikes

Cottonwood-Black Jack Trail to Little Harbor
By Ann Marie Brown & Julie Sheer
  |  Gorp.com
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Key Info
Level : Moderate
Total Distance : 8.0 miles noe-way
Hiking Time : 4 hours
Elevation Loss : 1,650 feet
Summary : This hike across Catalina Island’s interior to a secluded beach campground traverses undeveloped wilderness that only a small fraction of Catalina visitors ever see.

The Hike
For many people, a trip to Catalina Island means shopping in Avalon and taking a glass-bottom boat ride. But if you’d rather spend your time on a trail than in a T-shirt shop, the island’s backcountry interior beckons. How does it sound to be stranded on your very own tropical island?

The logistics of this trip are a bit more complex than your average day hike, but the payoff is well worth the extra effort. It’s best done as a one-way hike with an overnight campout at Little Harbor, but it is possible to make it a day hike in one very long day.

First, there is a one-hour boat ride to Catalina Island from Long Beach or San Pedro. Then, you need reservations for bus transportation to the Cottonwood–Black Jack trailhead, located about seven twisty, steep miles inland from Avalon. Buses leave twice a day in the summer, once a day in the winter. If you aren’t backpacking, you also need a free hiking permit, which can be obtained from the Catalina Island Conservancy. Reserve a permit by calling the conservancy before you go (310/510-1421).

When you get off the boat, pick up your bus tickets at Pavilion Lodge, about a block away from the Avalon ferry landing. (Go right on Crescent Avenue; the lodge is at the corner of the first street on the left, Claressa Avenue.) To get to the bus stop, keep going north on Crescent Avenue and then go left on Catalina Avenue to Island Plaza. The bus ride takes about 20 minutes and drops you off at the trailhead, Black Jack Junction, elevation 1,350 feet. From here on in, you’re likely to see more bison than people.

Before setting out, snap some ocean shots. Once you head inland, it will be a while before you see water again. The first mile is a steep 350-foot climb on a fire road. To the south is Black Jack Mountain, topped with a radio tower. At 2,006 feet, it’s a shade shorter than the island’s highest point, 2,097-foot Mount Orizaba. In 1.3 miles, go right at the sign for Cottonwood Camp/Little Harbor. (If you get to the turnoff for Black Jack Campground, you’ve gone too far.) You’ll pass through an unlocked cattle gate; be sure to close the gate behind you. For the next 6.7 miles, you’ll be hiking through the best of Catalina’s backcountry.

It shouldn’t be too hard to spot bison. A herd of 14 were brought to the island for a film shoot in the 1920s. They took well to the climate and multiplied. Because of overpopulation and destruction of native vegetation, more than 100 were removed from the island in 2003 and transported to Indian reservations in South Dakota. The bison population numbers about 150 these days. The shaggy beasts graze on the grassy hillsides and also use the Black Jack Trail as a thoroughfare, so watch your step.

The trail ultimately descends, but there are plenty of ups and downs along the way. As you wander, you’ll have expansive views of oak woodlands scattered over the hills. Bush poppy, Catalina mariposa lily, and Catalina daisy are abundant in the spring. Big bunches of prickly pear cactus sport bright yellow blooms. Keep your eyes peeled for deer bounding through the brush.

The ocean views return about 3.4 miles in, where the trail meets a road at El Rancho Escondido, a ranch once owned by the Wrigley family. As you walk down a path through the ranch, take a look at their sleek Arabian horses. The Wrigleys bred Arabians and used them for ranching in the 1930s. The rest of the ranch is off-limits except for visitors on special tours.

Beyond the ranch, you’ll turn left onto an unsigned dirt road marked on maps as Escondido Road. The ocean is straight ahead. It’s still 3.3 miles to Little Harbor, but the road is well graded and mostly flat. In two more miles you’ll reach an ocean overlook with a breathtaking view of your destination. This is the photo opportunity of the day. Waves crash on the rugged shoreline below. Little Harbor Campground is set just beyond the beach under a canopy of palm trees.

Continue 1.2 miles to the camp. If you have reservations to spend the night, the campground has water, picnic shelters, fire rings, chemical toilets, outdoor showers, and a pay phone. There are two beaches, one that’s perfect for swimming and the other with more surf.

Whether you are camping or day hiking, the return trip is easy. The Safari Shuttle bus picks you up right at the campground then drops you off in Avalon. Feel free to buy a T-shirt when you return. You’ve earned it.

To get to 2,097-foot Mount Orizaba, the highest point on the island, from Black Jack Junction, hike 1.3 miles, past the turnoffs for Black Jack Campground and Cottonwood–Black Jack Trail. After those turnoffs, take a left off the Black Jack Trail and from there it’s 1.1 miles to Mount Orizaba. From Little Harbor Campground, you can also hike to Two Harbors, 5.7 miles north; take the main trail north out of the campground for 2.5 miles, turn left on Banning House Road, and it’s 3.2 miles to Two Harbors.

Catalina Express provides ferry service to Avalon from Long Beach Harbor. Call 800/481-3470 or visit www.catalinaexpress.com for a departure schedule, reservations, and fee information. Reservations and a fee are required for bus service across the island; call 310/510-8368 or go to www.catalina.com.

Information and Contact
For camping reservations and fees, call 310/510-8368 or go to www.catalina.com. Dogs are not allowed. For more information, contact the Catalina Island Conservancy, 310/510-1421 or www.catalinaconservancy.org. Hiking permits can be picked up at the conservancy office at 125 Claressa, at the Wrigley Garden, or Airport-in-the-Sky. A free trail map is available when you pick up your hiking permit. An online trail map is available at www.scico.com/camping/home.html. A trail map is also available from Franko’s Maps, 808/834-6887, www.frankosmaps.com.

Published: 2 May 2006 | Last Updated: 21 Nov 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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