Camping Catalina Island, Two Harbors

A tent by the beach, kayaking in sea caves, standing 1000 feet high on a cliff above the crashing waves and… you. Using Lightweight backpacking to share a great vacation.

  We added a few extra items to our packs (swimming goggles, ultralight beach towels, beach umbrella. etc.) and set out to San Pedro in Southern California to catch the ferry over to Two Harbors on Santa Catalina Island.
Easy going carrying light 25 and 30 lb. backpacks boarding the ferry. Some folks are making 2 and 3 trips from the dock to get all their stuff aboard. We didn’t have scuba diving or spear fishing in mind and didn’t have large coolers of beer or anything to lug. Hell, I felt carrying an extra day pack was pushing it.
Ferry ride to Catalina Island, Two Harbors dead ahead.
Breaching for us off the port bow.
The ferry ride over to the island is great. Nice ocean breeze on the upper decks and it feels like you’re going somewhere, even though it’s only an hour ride. About half way we spot whales off the port bow ahead of us and the captain slows the vessel so we can watch them pass. We coast passed and get within 30 or 40 meters as they breach 4 or 5 times for us. Blues or humpbacks, not sure. What a sight. I manage to catch a pic of one ½ out of the water. The trip is starting out wonderfully.
Coming in to Isthmuth Cove
Coming in to dock at Two Harbors you can see the entire bay, the community and campground. That’s it. Lots of boats moored, a few yachts and there is a a pirate sloop moored by the caves. Very fun.  
A pirate vessle moored by the caves.
And that’s why we chose it. It was also the week after the 4th of July so it was even quieter than usual. Most people having played the weekend before. Just what we’re looking for. When you arrive you check in for the campground at a shack by the dock and most people pile their bags, coolers and gear by this shack for a truck to take it up the ¼ mile to the campground. We, of course,  forego this and skip the hour wait for our gear to arrive. We hike it with our lightweight packs. It’s more like a stroll really which takes you up and over a small hill where you get a nice view of the surroundings. The town, hills and people kayaking in the clear azure water.  Here’s the googlemap on it:,-118.5011956,2719m/data=!3m1!1e3?hl=en
The camp site view to Bird Rock.
The town is small. One restaurant, one general store, a small hotel and a handful or two of homes. Oh yeah, and a yacht club.

A short walk to the camp site offers a nice overview of the town, Isthmus Cove and the boats. Bird Rock out in the cove is home for Sea Lions who welcome you with barks that can be heard in camp.
A lovely view from camp is the icing on the cake.
Using the side of my camp axe to hammer tent stakes.
We find our reserved campsite easily and see one just a little bit away that has a shade cover. It’s July and this is a desert island, that shade would be appreciated, so, we drop our packs and head back down to the check-in shack. They are very accommodating and back at camp we set up shelter in the new site and check out the accommodations. Water is close with a usable sink but the port-o-potties are horrendous.  We will NOT be using those. There are showers but an alternative will need to be scouted. As there are a few hours til sunset still left, we decide on checking out town and taking a stroll. I pack the day pack with some snacks and water, the towels and my trusty survival kit and we head out.
Two Harbors is pretty much what you expect from a small California desert island town. Just imagine Gilligan and the crew got saved and the Professor and Mary Anne went back and set up shop for tourists on Giiligan’s island. The Howle’s moored their yacht in the bay. Ok, their small yacht. Mary Anne is placing jewelry and trinkets on shelves at the general store for tourists to buy while Ginger opened a nice restaurant and bar. Gilligan is tending bar and renting kayaks as the professor oversees maintenance and runs an oceanic science project just outside of town. The Skipper lives out on the back bay in a little run-down boat and every once in a while paddles into town on a kayak to have a drink and stock essentials after deciding once again not to squeeze a bullet into his brain from his trusty old Navy .45. That pretty much sizes it up. (Did that last part get too morose?)
We head out of town to the west to see the other side of the island and maybe catch the sunset over the edge of the world on the Pacific. The town sits on a small stretch of land between two small coves or bays, hence, Two Harbors. Boats are moored on either side to the East and West and beautiful mountains rise on both the north and south sides.  It’s a pretty setting even with the drought. Things are a little browner and dryer than the tour-book photos right now.

This is an Ad Photo, looking west over Two Harbors. (Not this green when we were there.) Isthmus Cover in foreground with just a few boats and Catalina Harbor in background. These were much busier with boats during our stay. The campground is that little sea-side scene just out of pic on the left. Note the steep mountain on left at rear of shot. That's Upper Ballast. More on that in a sec. Lower Ballast is that end of the trail on the left side of Catalina Harbor in background.
The stroll thru town takes about 1 ½ minutes and we see some folks in a golf cart so we figure its rush hour. A nice winding trail takes you along the south side of the west side harbor where there are Pelicans circling and the diving into the bay with a splash as they fish. At the end of the trail you find yourself at the end of the earth. Only water lies beyond and it is a beautiful vista. A bench there (we find out later this point is called Lower Ballast) provides a place to rest and we have a snack. There are only 3 options for continuing on from this point. Walk back the way you came or continue along the shoreline which is rocky, flanked by cliffs and undoubtedly short as it will be cut off by a cliff, or go up, WAY up, to Upper Ballast about a thousand feet above the crashing waves. The class 2 climb
(3 in some places)  goes 1000 feet straight up the quickest way possible without being vertical. It is steep with no switch-backs and looks treacherous, taking you along the edge of the sea-side cliff at many points. Add to this the fact that huge portions of this cliff-side have fallen in landslides recently and you get a pretty knarly climb. My partner says, “Let’s do it.” (She tells me later she had no idea it was so intense, the look from the bottom is deceiving if you haven’t done climbs like this before.) We are pushed to a healthy and ‘mostly safe’ limit on the climb as we chase the sunset up the hill. At sea level where we start, the sun has already gone behind the mountains to the north (kind of NW really) but it is still shining on top of the summit above us. As you scramble up the steep incline the large
Looking down to Lower Ballast.

Cracks along the trail near land slides.
We beat the Sun to the top.
portions of the cliff-side that have fallen in land slides down to the sea creating have created new portions of the trail in parts of the trek. The climb is exhausting and strenuous but we crest the summit together and get a breathtaking view just beating the sun as its rays send shafts of light at us over the mountains to the north.
Looking past towards the end of the world.
Tired dawgs
The trek back to town from here is mild as the trail is a road that winds down the mountain and hills into town. This would be a much easier way to reach Upper Ballast but either way, the reward is well worth the trek. When we arrive in town it’s off to the one restaurant in town which offers a few different options for eating. You can dine in the fancy-schmancy part or the bar or during the day there’s a grill option. We decide the bar is more our style and enjoy some nice food and drink and get a few details from the locals. We will head back to camp but not before grabbing a shower. Showers and laundry facilities are available right in town and they are a nice step (or ten) up from what’s offered at the campsite. We try out our new REI camp towels.
GEAR REVIEW: The XL REI MultiTowel Lite camp towel is huge (a fine size for a beach towel) and lightweight enough to be part of your kit anytime.  If you’re expecting to be able to jump in the water, lounge around the beach or have a shower available on a trip, this towel fills the bill without filling your pack. In fact if you travel and do hotels, it would be a great alternative to those lousy hotel towels. It’s soft and quick drying with a feel that is amazing. I might like this better than my home towels. I could literally use this every day and be very happy. The REI MultiTowel Lite comes in sizes ranging from XXLarge 59 x 36 inches - 15.3 ounces to Small 14 x 10 inches - 0.75 ounce and from $10 to $30. We chose the X Large 54 x 25 inches - 6.4 ounces, $22. This is the familiar size of a
home towel at a 3rd the weight and pack-space. Large enough to lay on at the beach comfortably or wrap around you after a camp shower without compromising your dignity. The size Large 36 x 16.5 inches - 2.9 ounces, although great weight savings just feels too small to have the luxury of a full towel. Maybe if I only wanted something to dry off with after a lake swim but not big enough for beach fun. The small and medium sizes might as well be nice rags for doing dishes and cleanup.  I have less expensive microfiber towels for the pots and pans and wiping condensation from tent walls or grit from tools. But as a body towel, for the money, this thing rocks! I mean, dries!

The stroll to the campsite under the full moon is perfect after a few drinks at the bar and we find the a quiet camp with only the Sea Lions making a ruckus out on the rocks in the water. A peaceful night without even zipping up our tent has us stargazing and sleeping comfortably on our Airbeams. (See my blog; GEAR REVIEW - The Air Beam Sleeper from Gossamer Gear)

The next morning a deer visits our camp in the early hours. The morning starts with some fresh-brewed press coffee and then a stroll back into town. After a bite at the grill we decide to do some kayaking. Neither of us has kayaked before and this seems like a good way to die in the ocean. Two Harbors has rentals available for just about any water sports at a small shack. With very minimal instruction we are off to the sea and paddle out to Bird Rock where those dang Sea Lions were making such a ruckus all night. We are both sold on the kayaking experience immediately and want one. We tell the Sea Lions about the 10pm “quiet time” at camp and then head to the cliffs along the water just south of camp.
There are multiple caves to explore and the clear water gives you ample views of fish as you paddle. A light lunch on the beach followed by a nap and some fun tide-pooling makes for a relaxing beach vacation day. A fox is spotted by our camp when we arrive that night.

The next day is spent much the same and wraps up our vacation nicely. Strolls, tide-pooling, lounging on the beach and dealing with a little sunburn from the kayaking. We catch the late ferry out and feel rejuvenated. All in all this is a nice easy trip and allows for multiple opportunities for adventure and/or relaxing. There are many more trails we’d like to explore and we will return. The cost for 2 people was not excessive (ferry, campsite, food and drink and $2 showers, firewood which is required to purchase there as no flammables are allowed on the ferry, etc.) it came in at about $500 for both of us. One note; the firewood was extremely hard wood and took an awful lot of splitting to get going. Maybe we got a bad batch but I’ve been building fires my whole life and have never had such a hard time. I recommend taking some Esbit fuel tabs or something to help you with this (no gas for stoves allowed on the ferry).
Catalina Island Two Harbors is a great getaway with a ton to offer and none of the hustle and bustle of Avalon on the island. Highly recommend it during certain “quiet times” of the year.

Now, go outside and play.





Trip report - West Fork Gila River  

Early June 2014

A side trip up the Gila testing new gear and educating a new hiker.

It’s the beginning of summer in the Southwest. Anybody who lives here knows what that means. Heat, heat and more heat. It seems to catch us off guard every year. One day it’s just all of a sudden 110 degrees. This year was no exception. If you’re not familiar with the desert Southwest of Arizona, New Mexico, California and Texas just imagine it’s hot and all day there is a furnace on full blast pointed right at you. It’s brutal. Deceptively so. You don’t realize how much it sucks out of you because your sweat evaporates as soon as it passes thru your skin and hits air. Nothing is wet. Nothing. Even puddles are dry. Skateboarding as a kid, the grip tape on our decks would begin to slide off. The heat too much for the adhesive. In high school my brother made a solar oven as a project. When he was almost done I told him he didn’t have to go to all that trouble and I proceeded to cook an egg on the car hood. So, yes, it can be done. It’s hot. Climate change has not helped.
I’m taking my companion out on her 2nd backpacking trip, ever. Just an over nighter on our way back from a trip to New Mexico. We decide on the Gila River. Kind of spur of the moment but there’s nice hiking up there and she’s never seen the Cliff Dwellings. More importantly, there’s water. Crucial to an enjoyable outing in the desert for beginning hikers. The relief a good stream supplies cannot be over-rated. And of course, if things go wrong, you’ve got water.
We head up to the West Fork of the Gila just north of the cliff dwellings. The plan becomes to hike in a few miles, find something nice and have a day then see the cliff dwellings the next day and head out. It’s a good plan. Simple. What could go wrong? 
West Fork of the Gila trail head.
We head out at the trail head after checking with the Rangers. Very helpful, friendly folks. My companion is packing just under 25 lbs. and I’ve got about 30 lbs. Each of us carries enough water for the trip which is overkill here because even the smaller West Fork of the Gila River is a good year round source. I always use these short trips to test gear I’ve been working on and this trip is no exception. I’ve finally been able to purchase a Gatewood Cape poncho shelter from Six Moons Designs. I’ve done my homework with it. Set it up in the backyard a number of times and made a bathtub-style ground cloth for it which I’ve also tested and worked the bugs out of (no pun intended) in the backyard. I’m confident this is good and adequate shelter but there is always that tinge of doubt. Did I test it enough? Especially because I’ve made up a way to sleep 2 in it (the cape is made as a solo shelter)? Will it be comfortable enough for her? I don’t think I’d normally test a shelter with a partner new to backpacking but she’s tough and into it. She loved the 1st trip she did and it was a very windy night that got chilly in the small 2 man tent I have. 
We hike about a mile and a half maybe 2 thru the beautiful wooded area. There are a few easy river crossings which at this this time are more like creek crossings because of the drought and nice grassy areas that are just a little too open to sun. The trail basically follows the river winding back and forth thru the canyon. It veers off at points into the woods or grassy knolls but the canyon is clearly easy to navigate. At a break I noticed she is a little slow and quiet. I suspect the sun is taking its toll on her as we cross the open areas between wooded areas. 
[NOTE: When guiding or just trekking with others it is extremely important to be aware of the physical and emotional state of others as well as yourself. Emotional signs as well as physical signs are very good indicators of the onset of fatigue, dehydration and hypothermia. Do not let the destination get in the way of the trip. The tendency for those not doing well is to “not want to ruin it” for the others on the trip so they will want to ignore, tough it out or fight thru the malady. These maladies also cause us to lose our common sense and make bad judgment calls so this exasperates the problem.]
After a short while we took another break in the shade of the nice cottonwoods and drank some water. She was becoming irritated (another sign of dehydration) and I realized we would not be hiking as far as we had originally planned. We agreed that a nap was a good idea. [Calming the body and lowering your body temperature while hydrating does wonders for dehydration.] Feeling much better after the rest and drinking more water we are back on the trail and finding that it splits with one trail going to “Hell’s Hole” about 6 mi. and another going up a side canyon to “Little Creek” just 1.5 mi. We take the short trail off into a side canyon to someplace called ‘Little Creek’ but as we head up it we realize ‘little creek’ doesn’t have any creek. No water this way so we get off and follow this “creek” down to where it should meet the West Fork we were originally on. Once meeting the West Fork I figure we should just have a bite to eat and scout a place to make camp.
[NOTE: I am familiar with this area but we have no detailed map as this was a spur of the moment decision. I am mapping our trail in my notebook but veering into a side canyon would have taken us away from our main point of reference, the river. We’ve hiked up river, it hasn’t split so the car is down river. As I have no topo or GPS and knowing a side canyon in this area can quickly turn into a maze, I feel better sticking to the river. Even if that is not on a “marked trail”. For instance, if something happen to me, she could just head down river to where the rangers are. No turns, canyons or trail splits to remember. Sometimes it’s just best to keep it simple, especially when someone is not in top form.]
We cross and cool off in the river again and find ourselves bush-whacking a bit in the heavy undergrowth of the banks. There was a pretty big flash flood thru here about a year ago and it washed a lot of debris around. Then we find some trails. Following one to get us out of the heavy undergrowth, I see this is an animal trail and find bear tracks. There are deer, coyote and bear as far as I can tell and I’m thinking we do not want to be camping where they are making their rounds. There are no good camp sites in this overgrown washed out area around the banks and the canyon walls are steeper on this side further limiting options. So we cross the river again and find a beautiful shaded rock to have lunch. After some chipotle chicken salad, cheese and crackers and drinking more she’s feeling good and we scout some nice rolling hills just up the west side of the river. It will be a little breezier up here, away from bugs around the river and we are a ways off from any bear tracks. 
We’ve come about 3 miles up the river canyon. If we went a little further we would be into some gorgeous canyons the rangers told us but I do not want to push it. Her 2nd backpacking hike, I want to build up to longer hikes. We have the whole afternoon to make camp, take a swim and explore. The hill overlooks the river and is tucked up in the tall pines providing some shade and allowing for a sweet breeze. It has easy access to the water and is off the bear trail. Nice place for a camp.
We set up camp and take a swim. Have some nice cold early evening libations. (It is so nice to have a little refrigerator on an outing.) Then cook up some grub. The UL camp stools I modified are a pleasure to have and work like a charm (see my Lightweight Luxury blog for more info on these). The Vargo Hex stove with esbit fuel tabs is simple, easy, ultralight and does the job well when campfires are restricted which is pretty much everywhere out here in the Southwest right now. Things are dry. I use a 12 or 15 Liter dry sak filled with water from the river in this case, to have at camp when making a fire or using a stove.
Cooking on a stool in an ultralight camp.
[NOTE: Extreme fire danger and lack of water along with intense sun and overwhelming heat in the desert southwest make for a unique mixture of hazards that require a particular set of skills and distinct mind-set to navigate safely. Many hiking blogs I read are from
areas that do not have these particular problems so I will try to emphasize these here in the HotshotHiker blog. Speaking with Search & Rescue people here unveils endless stories of hikers from other parts of the country who have underestimated the inherent dangers of this region. Luckily, if you can get cell reception and make the call, they immediately have your location. They typically tell you to stay put and they will come.]
Setting up the Six Moons Designs Gatewood Cape is easy and my new bathtub floor I made goes in so nicely. The Cape is a very nice desert shelter providing a safe haven from rains and heavy winds that can pop up while supplying ample air flow to keep cool at night. Adjusting it open and allowing a view and more breeze is simple. The bathtub floor adds a sense of security especially for someone who isn’t familiar to sleeping in the bush and keeps us dry in the event of rain, something we do not get to test on this trip. The night is beautiful and the wind thru the pines majestic. We star gaze with some tea and bourbon on the camp stools for a bit before hitting the hay. Literally. I’ve laid a nice deep layer of grass I collected under our ground cloth and CCF pads. I realize this is not ‘Leave No Trace’ practice, however, on the climb to this particular camp site we saw 3 deer pads in the bush. Areas where deer have tamped down the grass and curled up for the night. This is what animals do. I am in the constant process of internal contemplation about issues like this. On the other hand, the last trek I took was a less than satisfactory sleeping experience on my foam pad. I have used nothing but foam pads for over 35 years on camping. Maybe it’s just growing older but I think I am ready to make the switch to an air pad. Humm… That aside, it is an incredible night and well appreciated. I do alright on the foam and sleeping 2 in the cape is much nicer than I expected. We did not feel crunched for space at all. The design of kicking out the pole to enlarge it works well.
Setting up the Cape
The next morning we putz around a bit and have some nice French press coffee. I am one who enjoys a good cup of Joe in the morning and have never found an instant pack that satisfies. The 1 oz. French press I made for my 700 ml olicamp space saver mug is so nice and easy that I can’t see the benefits of anything else. We try some unimpressive dehydrated eggs ranchero breakfast. Should have brought some eggs in my refrigerator. But the view can’t be beat.
All star-gazing, gear testing and coffee done, we pack up camp and head down river. We take a leisurely time, cooling off in the water and shade along the way. [Wet bandanas around the neck are one of the key elements in desert hiking.] Even though it's hot, we have no problems with our light load packs. This is my 4th trip with the Gossamer Gear Mariposa backpack and I can't say enough good things about it. Comfortable, well designed and rugged enough for any light expedition. My companion is using a lightweight Outdoor Products 46L pack (Wally World special) which she found comfortable and easy to carry. It has a few design problems but gets the job done and does really well for a $30 pack. You can tell it’s hot because we see virtually no wildlife on the trip except for ever-present Turkey Vultures and a large Swenson’s hawk. Animals, other than the human animal, have long since figured out it’s just nuts to be tooling around the desert during the day. The bear sign and such we came across were fairly fresh but did not make themselves known or mess with my bear bag hung about a 150 feet from camp. Coons, ringtail and coatimundi are notorious for rope climbing in Arizona. Apparently here in New Mexico they haven’t taken up the trade.
We pick up a couple pieces of trash along the way back, always a good practice, and this makes the Rangers happy. Leave the place better than how you found it. The walk is easy and any malady from the day before is gone. I had called off going any further in on the hike mainly in case the signs of dehydration were the on-set of something more serious or got worse. Even so, we had a great time and felt good after the hike. We refreshed and did the mile up to the Gila Cliff Dwellings which are remarkable because you can go into these and explore around. I highly recommend the trip but will not go into great detail here as a quick search will get you plenty on it.
The Gila Cliff Dwellings in New Mexico.
The company was great, the sites were marvelous and the gear worked perfectly. What a good time. 
Now go play outside.


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