This post is made possible with support from the Catalina Island Conservancy.
- Location: Airport in the Sky, Santa Catalina Island. Catalina Express operates boats to Avalon from Long Beach, San Pedro and Dana Point. Catalina Flyer operates boats from Newport Beach to Avalon and Two Harbors. Once in Avalon, walk to the Conservancy office at 125 Claressa Ave for your free hiking permit. Then, walk to the nearby Island Plaza to pick up the bus. The schedule is always subject to change, and while reservations are not required, it is recommended that you call them at least an hour in advance, at 310-510-0143, to confirm that you will have a ride.
- Agency: Catalina Island Conservancy
- Distance: 5 miles
- Elevation gain: 1,300 feet
- Difficulty Rating: PG-13 (Steepness, terrain, elevation gain)
- Suggested time: 3 hours, plus travel time from Avalon or Two Harbors to the airport.
- Best season: October – June
- USGS topo map: “Santa Catalina East”
- Recommended gear: Sun Hat; Sunblock; Dramamine (boat ride)
- More information: Airport area trail map here; bus schedule here (call 310-510-0143 for up-to-date fare and schedule information); Airport in the Sky info here
- Rating: 8
If you’ve made the effort to get to Catalina Island, consider going the extra step of taking a bus ride from either Avalon or Two Harbors to the Airport in the Sky, a hub for several trails that explore the island’s rugged interior.
Blackjack Mountain is the second highest point on the island, at 2,010 feet. However, nearby Mt. Orizaba’s 2,103 foot summit is inaccessible to the public, so effectively, this hike takes you to the island’s highest reachable point. A fenced-off communications tower prevents hikers from reaching the true summit,but from just below the top, one can enjoy a 180 degree-plus view.
The first 1.7 miles are on the Trans Catalina Trail. After the bus drops you off, head south on the Airport Road to a junction. Look for a trail heading downhill, signed for the Soapstone Quarry. Soon, you reach the Trans Catalina Trail (which is also called the Airport Loop Trail at this point.) Head left, enjoying great views of Blackjack Mountain and Cottonwood Canyon. You’ll pass the small soapstone quarry, with interpretive plaques describing how the island natives used it to build wares.
A quarter of a mile below the airport, the loop trail branches off to the left, while you stay straight on the Trans Catalina Trail. You make a pleasant descent into Cottonwood Canyon, through rolling hills that are similar to those of the western Santa Monica Mountains. Live oaks dot the landscape, providing occasional shade (although there’s not much on the whole route). There are also bunches of prickly pear, including some very small ones growing on the canyon walls. If you decide to take a break on the trail, watch where you sit – a lesson the author almost learned the hard way.
A steep descent brings you to the bottom of Cottonwood Canyon, where you begin an even steeper ascent. The trail joins a dirt road and then quickly branches off to the right, climbing up the hillside. During the rugged climb, you are rewarded with your efforts with nice views down into the canyon, toward the island’s western shore.
The grade moderates a little bit, and soon (1.5 miles) you come to a junction where the Cottonwood Canyon Trail (unsigned) heads downhill. Bear left and begin another steep climb, soon arriving at Blackjack Road. Here, you leave the Trans-Catalina Trail, which heads right toward the Blackjack Campground and head left. You can take a break at a shade structure, “Worth’s Wine Stop”, where you get nice views of Blackjack Mountain and Cape Canyon.
Continuing on, you’ll head downhill briefly and then you’ll take a right on a paved service road, beginning a moderate ascent to the summit. On the way, you get nice views of the eastern end of the island. A gate near the summit prevents you from reaching the very top, but you can sit on a rock and get a great view of the western end of the island.
On the return trip, consider making a detour of 0.3 miles each way to the Blackjack Campground. With picnic tables and shade from both structures and pines, it’s a nice place to take a break before heading back. You can also make the hike into a loop by continuing east on Blackjack Road, which intersects with Airport Road about a mile from the spur to the summit. From there, head left and follow Airport Road for two miles back to your starting point.
At the airport, if you have time, you can enjoy a stroll through the small nature center, where displays include a whale vertebra and rib. You can also see the small planes up-close on the runway, look at the airport’s vintage hangar, and grab a bite at the DC-3 cafe, which features a nice view of the island’s interior (and buffalo burgers–a fitting reward for the effort spent on the hike.)
Text and photography copyright 2012 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities. By reading this, you agree not to hold the author or publisher of the content on this web site responsible for any injuries or inconveniences that may result from hiking on this trail. Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.