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Boats, Backpacks and Booze: Why You Should Try Island Backpacking

Trans Catalina Trail and The Channel Islands

By: Kristen Fuller + Save to a List

Island backpacking is quite fun…actually, any type of coastal backpacking is always an adventure. In the past four years, I managed to take on SEVEN coastal and island backpacking trips!

  • Crystal cover (two times, both of which I lead )
  • Lost Coast Trail (solo adventure)
  • Trans Catalina Trail (I lead and organized)
  • Channel Islands (three times, two of which I lead/organized and third time I simply tagged along)

There is just something about waking up to the sound of the ocean, watching the deep orange sun dip into the sea, and not having to carry tons of layers and technical gear that makes coastal/island backpacking SO fun and easy. 

Trans Catalina Trail: A dream mixed with bison, big miles and endless memories

In 2017, a group of six strong women and I set out on a multi-day backpacking trip across Catalina Island. We boarded the first boat from Long Beach to Avalon and spent three glorious nights and four days hiking across the entire island. We awoke to stunning sunrises, tackled huge elevation changes, encountered bison on the trail, fell asleep to the sound of crashing waves and barking sea lions. Within this short trip, we all became lifelong friends (we still keep an active group chat). We didn’t realize it at the time, but after we departed on our boat home from Two Harbors and got settled back into the daily grind, we all agreed that this was a backpacking trip of a lifetime.  This trip was my favorite backpacking trip to date. Not only because of the adventure and the scenery but because of this group of women. Some of my most favorite moments consisted of the following:

  • Witnessing Shuping light her puffy jacket and picnic table on fire with her alcohol stove on night one
  • Debating whether we should slide into Parson’s Landing on our sleep mats because the trail was THAT slippery
  • Drinking Bloody Marys with Shannon on the boat ride home
  • Trying to figure out how to get around the bison on the trail while Shuping is setting up her tripod in a field to photograph the herd.
  • Eavesdropping on Lara’s double life ( I say double life because she was in the Coast Guard, is an excellent baker, is a momma and travels the world). 
  • Waking up the ranger at night (after drinking a couple of beers and having a long day on trail) at Two Harbors because they forgot to deliver our firewood. 
  • Falling asleep to barking sea lions at Two Harbors
  • Sunset at Starlight Beach
  • Lunch at Little Harbor

Over the years, I have been invited to hike the Trans Catalina Trail time and time again, yet I always turn down the opportunity mainly because there is just no way another TCT adventure can be as good as my first. 
I have decided that the only way I would repeat the TCT is if I can bring my little Moo. Although dogs are allowed on the entire trail, they are not allowed to camp at Two Harbors, which makes logistics a bit more complicated but still do-able. Unlike the Lost Coast Trail in Northern California, which is extremely rocky (Yes, I included the link to my blog on the LCT), the TCT is small loose gravel and dirt, which most dogs can handle. 
The TCT was so magical; I started adventuring to other islands off of California! 

Trans Catalina Trail itinerary: Summer 2017

  • Day 1: Boat into Avalon from Long Beach and hike to Black Jack (roughly 10 miles). 
  • Day 2: Black Jack to Two Harbors (roughly 13 miles). We stopped at Airport in the Sky for a drink (or two) and had lunch at Little Harbor. I would highly recommend camping at Little Harbor as it is stunning. We saw so many bison on the trail this day! Big elevation change this day, and our motto was “what comes up, must come down”. We rolled into Two Harbors as the sun was setting into the ocean and rushed to the general store to stock up on real food and wine. We also had wood delivered for a fantastic beach campfire, and we woke up to the sound of barking seals. The sunrise the next morning was divine, and I have this photo plastered all over the main page of this blog site. 
  • Day 3: Two Harbors to Parsons Landing with a hike to Starlight Beach for sunset (roughly 16 miles). The elevation change this day was out of control, knee-breaking! Sunset at Starlight Beach was a memory that is forever ingrained in my heart (and brain). You must order water and firewood at Parsons Landing as there is no water available, and fires are allowed (this can be done when you make your campsite reservations). We camped on the beach and fell asleep and woke up to the sound of crashing waves. 
  • Day 4: Parsons Landing to Two Harbors (approximately 8 miles) to Long Beach. 

This trip was challenging in so many ways. The elevation change, having to carry all your water each day (you can only refill at camp), playing Russian roulette with the bison, and the relatively long miles had us hiking the from morning to dusk. However, I would not change this amazing trip for the world. I would recommend making your campsite reservations first then book your boat tickets but be aware that the arrival and departure boats go into different locations so Uber or a car shuttle will be your best friend. Also, make sure you order water and firewood and Parsons Landing and firewood at Two Harbors. There are showers and a general store at Two Harbors, which makes the ending of the trip that much sweeter. Starlight Beach is technically part of the “Old TCT” (they changed the trail the same year we hiked it), but it is so worth the added side trip, especially for sunset. Note that most of Catalina can only be accessed by foot, so hiking the TCT is a spectacular experience since this is the only way to truly experience the whole island. 
I unintentionally started an annual tradition of island backpacking, and each year, these trips seem to get better and better. 

TCT vs. the Channel Islands

She here is the deal… I use the term “island backpacking” lightly when it comes time to these adventures. Although the TCT was a legit backpacking trip, our adventures in the Channel Islands consisted of carrying an overnight pack 2-3 miles from the boat to camp. So, although you need backpacking gear such as a smaller tent, stove, and sleep set up…we were not doing big miles, climbing over mountain passes, crossing rivers or snowfields, or setting up and breaking down camp daily. I honestly think the Channel Islands trips are a great first-time backpacking experience or a good gear shakedown for those who want to test out the waters of this wild thing that is called “backpacking”. 

Santa Cruz Island 2017

In the few months following our marvelous TCT adventure, when I was still leading a women’s hiking group, I was asked last minute to lead a trip to the Channel Islands.  I jumped at the opportunity. I love leading backcountry trips and meeting new people. I believe I have a lot of knowledge and experience to offer (for whoever wants to listen), and I also love learning new tricks of the trade from fellow backcountry partners.

The Chanel Islands National Park is a string of five stunning uninhabited islands off the coast of Venture. I did my undergrad at UCSB, so I spent some time diving around these islands but never actually set foot on them. This is the least visited National Park in the U.S, and there is truly nothing like it. Catalina just does not compare. 
The plan was to depart Ventura Harbor by boat into Santa Cruz Island, specifically Scorpian Anchorage (Prisoner’s Harbor is another side of the island that you can explore on a separate trip). We would then hike 2 miles with all of our stuff into camp. The campgrounds are well-intended with pit toilets and potable water. 
Let me be very honest. The loading/unloading experience is a complete cluster, and all I have to say is just go with the flow, listen to directions, keep an open mind, and be patient. It is all totally worth it in the end. 
This trip consisted of 15 women camping and hiking across Santa Cruz Island. There is SO much to do on this island, so I spent my days hiking and my evenings drinking wine. The foxes are quite aggressive and SO cute. Make sure to keep all your scented items in the “fox box” (basically a bear box). These cute little fur creatures will come right up to you and will be so inclined to take one home (don’t do this). The good news is that these little guys were almost extinct, but thanks to the conservation project with the help of my Alma Mater (UCSB), the foxes are now thriving! 

Santa Cruz Island 2018: The return of the “women who walk and wine” 

The trip I lead to Santa Cruz island was so spectacular I knew I wanted to go back again, but with this time, I wanted to book an all-day sea cave kayaking tour. Santa Cruz 2019 was a blast, and I know every single girlfriend who accompanied on this trip would agree. I believe there were a total of 12 of us, and I was the common denominator, so it was super fun to introduce friends to other friends on this trip. Our trip was summed up by cute island foxes, boxed wine, yelling at my GoPro to take a photo, Ranger Bethany, sea cave kayaking, and photoshoots. We had a blast (and have the pictures to prove it). I carried in 2 boxes of wine and made sure each gal had a wine glass everywhere she went. Ranger Bethany greeted us at the boat for the second year in a row, and whether it was a ranger-led sunset hike or a ranger hosted movie night, there we were…all 12 of us with our boxed wine. We were quickly nicknamed, “the women who walked and wined.”

We had ridiculous photo shoots on our hikes and experiences some of the most stunning sunsets and sunrises from multiple vantage points. On the second day, we wandered over to the kayaking hut to board our kayaks for a day of sea cave exploring (make reservation months in advance). This was a once in a lifetime experience. I lost count of how many sea caves we kayaked through, but I was in awe the entire time. There was nothing else like it, and our guides loved having a group of 12 cackling women. Sure, a couple of us flipped overboard once or twice, but we all managed to make it back to shore alive and had a blast on this adventure. 
On day three, a couple of friends and I decided to go snorkeling, so we rented a wetsuit and fins and went for a swim. I am a scuba driver through and through, so snorkeling is sort of like what snowshoeing is to skiing ( a bit boring). However, I must say, this was some of the best snorkeling I have ever done, and it was so worth the early morning and cold plunge. 
The following are some of my favorite hiking spots on Santa Cruz Island via Scorpion campground
Smuggler’s Cove
Potato Harbor
Scorpion Canyon Loop
Cavern Point

Santa Rosa 2020: Lessons Learned 

When my friend Rebecca decided to put a trip together to venture to Santa Rosa Island, I jumped at the opportunity. It was quite the logistical trip for me as I had to drive from Mammoth to Orange County (for personal and professional matters) then to Ventura to board the boat.  Rebecca had a personal emergency and politely asked if I could take over the trip. “Of course”, I said.

The morning of my drive to Ventura, I was supposed to wake up at 3:30 AM; however, things drastically went sideways. I woke up at 3 AM to a coyote at my bedroom window, paws up on the window screen, trying to get my dog. A coyote mauled my dog Moo at my parent’s house while I was in Nepal this past November, so waking up to a coyote at my window while my dog was in my bed, was a living nightmare. 
I was already nervous about leaving her at my parent’s house because of the coyote issues they have been having.  I sent a text saying I was not going to be able to attend this trip because I am just not comfortable leaving my dog here. 
Sometimes, we have to make tough calls. We have to cancel trips, make hard decisions, and go with our gut. I knew if I went to Santa Rosa, I would be a nervous wreck. I would be consumed in my thoughts, wondering whether she accidentally slipped out the side door. I have learned that it is tough for people to understand the position I am in when I talk about this fear, but if you have ever had your dog hunted by a coyote continuously, you will probably understand where my head is at. It is a terrible position to be in, and sadly, I can no longer leave my dog in SoCal at my parent's house, which means, in the meantime, I can no longer attend trips out of SoCal where I cannot bring my dog along. It just is not worth going through what I endured in November.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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