Hello wholehearted friends! As promised, we’re back with the second part of my thru-hike across Catalina Island. But first, can we all agree that dogs are the best? We’ve had our little husky pup, Zelda, for about a week now and she’s just perfect. She snuggles (and kicks) all night long while her head rests on our pillows, taking turns spooning Joel and myself. She loves to run fast and and is ever so curious. Her personality comes out a little bit more each day as she begins to understand this is her forever home. She’s going to be so much fun on hikes and camping trips… and anything involving snow! If you want to see all of her adventures, follow her on Instagram here: Zelda’s Rescued Life.
Now, back to our regularly scheduled program…
We woke up with the sun at Black Jack Campground the next morning. Our muscles ached and bodies felt stiff. Each move we made was deliberate and in fear of pulling an already overly tight muscle. The most mundane tasks, like getting dressed, required so much effort. We sluggishly broke down camp after breakfast and rearranged our packs attempting to lighten my load. We felt as though we were moving in slow motion and it made us laugh. Our bodies may have felt broken, but our spirits were intact.
Before leaving, we checked the map for the day’s route. We had some options: we could hike the Trans-Catalina Trail, which was our original plan, or we could take one of the alternate trails found on the map. The Upper Cottonwood Road trail appeared to be less demanding in terms of elevation and looked to save us a few miles. It was an easy decision. We would take the alternative route to the coast then make our way toward our next campsite at Little Harbor Campground.
As we took our first steps out of camp, we prayed today’s hike would be more forgiving than the day before. After hiking over the first hill, we realized our prayers were lost in the breeze, that 40 mph “breeze” I mentioned in Part 1. It didn’t matter which trail we took, it all would have been the same: peaks and valleys across the whole island. Regardless of the island’s topography, this is what we came for. We knew it wouldn’t be easy. We also knew we were capable – physically and mentally, and we weren’t willing to give up. After all, we were heading to a campsite on a beach, isn’t that reward enough?
The stiffness eased as our bodies warmed up with the temperature on the island, yet we were definitely moving slower than the day before. My pack didn’t feel any lighter and we both begin to feel the bruises on our shoulders and hips. Every misplaced step down was torture on my knees. But, even with all this against us, we were determined, rejuvenated, and excited. We were excited to get to the beach, to play in the ocean, to watch the sunset and have an entire day to rest. Those emotions overruled the pain we felt. Our mental game was strong. Every peak we reached restored our excitement as we could see our destination growing closer and closer. We did our best to make every step intentional, which helped make us present to the beauty surrounding us. Even when a gust of wind literally blew Joel’s favorite hat from his head and into a deep valley far below, he kept walking. Sure, he was bummed it was gone, but he knew it wasn’t the end of the world and he sure as hell wasn’t going to let it ruin his day.
The Upper Cottonwood Road was just that – a road. And while all roads double as trails on the island, it’s width allowed us to hike side-by-side. We talked about the alien base rumored to lie under the ocean in the channels surrounding the island. We talked about the serene energy we felt being there and we talked about the bison who’s giant piles of shit littered the trail.
Bison shit was everywhere, and yet we hadn’t seen a single one. In fact, we hadn’t seen much wildlife up to this point at all. The day before, we saw a single fox trot across a meadow in the distance before disappearing into the brush. That’s it. Fortunately, we had four more days on the island.
We hiked from Upper Cottonwood Road to El Ranchero Escondido Road as we descended upon the far side of the island. Our slow and steady decline led us to a small fork in the road that hid a trail just beyond that. A possible shortcut? We could continue our current route on El Ranchero Escondido Road or take this tiny detour through tall dead grass. We took a chance, veered off course and followed the narrow single-track trail through tall dried grass until it spit us out onto a wide dirt road. We found ourselves on Sheep Chute Road, looking out into the ocean. We could see Whales Tail in the distance, a rock formation on the edge of the island in the shape of, you guessed it… a whales tail. We were so close we could taste it. Just beyond that beautiful rock formation was our destination, Little Harbor Campground.
Sheep Chute Road was another trail we could have taken from Black Jack Campground. The road crossed the Trans Catalina Trail a few miles further than The Cottonwood Road. As the road approaches the cliffside, it turns into switch-backs running through the center of Little Harbor Campground and continuing on to the village of Two Harbors. We could have walked a few extra miles on the (relatively) flat dirt road, or we could take a shortcut down the long steep grassy ridge. Guess which we chose? The shortcut, obviously! Joel went first to make sure the path led all the way down to the beach. I stayed where I was until his confirmation, as descents were hardest on my already throbbing knees. Once he saw that the path did in fact lead to the beach, he waved me on and I met him where he was – standing in view of a bison grazing 300 feet away. It was a majestic sight, even at that distance. After silently staring in awe for a solid minute without being noticed, we continued down the ridge to the Shark Harbor, then up and around Whales Tail to our campground. We made it, with daylight to spare. We fell in love instantly. The campground was clean and practically empty. We had the whole place to ourselves, almost. We meet our fellow camper as we arrived, who let us know that it gets real windy at night and that he was leaving the next day. We looked around, found our campsite and dropped our bags. The ocean breeze was everything in that moment. Then the pain set in. The bruises were real now and my left knee was swollen, but we had two nights to rest and recuperate. Two nights to absorb everything this island gives us and heal.
Little Harbor is simply amazing. Three sites sit at the edge of the beach and several more are available further inland. We booked site 10, right at the edge of the beach. It included a shade structure, picnic table, fire ring, bench, and bear box. The campground offers a row of port-a-potties, outdoor sink and showers, communal tables, potable water, and a “Ranger Station” (only open during peak season) where you could purchase propane and wood for fires. You could even rent ocean kayaks to be delivered to you!
After setting up camp, camera in hand, we used the remaining daylight to explore our surroundings. We saw a bison casually make his way into the campground. He paused and posed, about 25 feet from me, letting me capture a few photos before moseying out of sight before the sunset. It was a moment I’ll never forget.
Moments later, the sun began to dip into the ocean and set the sky ablaze. Pastel pinks turned bright orange and deep violet. We watched from the beach, hand in hand, not saying a word. It was one of the most beautiful sunsets I’d ever seen and favorite memories from our trip. When it had finally set, we made our way back to our site and made a delicious dinner. Doesn’t everything taste better after a long day of hiking?
After dinner, Joel walked over to the sink to wash out our bowls. Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted a few foxes, starting their day, scavenging at a nearby campsite. Island foxes are a little bit larger than your typical housecat and known for stealing anything they can, hence the necessity for bear boxes. When Joel returned and told me what he had seen, we set out to see them together. We saw a couple dozen foxes hiding throughout the dense brush thanks to the light of our headlamps. After a successful search, we tucked into our sleeping bags, and dosed off to the sound of crickets and waves crashing in the distance.
I woke up with a pounding headache the next morning. Joel offered to retrieve medicine from the bear box and upon his return, noticed a flat rock sitting at the edge of the yoga mat right outside our tent. It definitely wasn’t there the night before, so we considered it a gift from our fox friends.
I got up and rushed toward the row of port-a-potties. The headache was familiar and a symptom of something else. I had started my period. I rolled some toilet paper up and shoved it into my underwear before returning to my pack to look for the bag of tampons I had accidentally left in my other suitcase, at my parents’ house. Panic set in when I realized I left them behind. Then Joel said sternly, “Are you going to let this ruin your trip?” I thought about it before answering, “fuck no.” It very easily could have ruined my trip, but I choose not to let it. Joel’s honest question was the little kick in the ass I needed. Besides, I could get tampons the following day when we got to the village of Two Harbors. In the meantime, it meant rolled up toilet paper stuffed into my undies.
Running to the bathroom every few hours to change the toilet paper wad in your pants really isn’t that bad. We still spent our “day off” exploring the campground and the beach. We scrambled over rocks on the nearby ridge. We took hundreds of photographs of everything. To top it all off, we watched another gorgeous sunset over the ocean as the tide came in. When it was dark, we set out to see the wildlife around us, lit with only our headlamps. We saw more foxes and even another bison. It was exactly what we needed before our longest and most challenging hike ever, which was the following day.
Read about our longest and hardest hike to Parsons Landing later this week in the final installment of the Catalina Series. Be sure to check it out! Until then, let us know if you have any questions! Tweet us and tell us something you want to see or know! Or shoot us a direct message through our Wholehearted Instagram page. We want to hear from you! Let’s grow this community together!