Iconic Hikes Vol. 3: Reef Bay Trail
The history of St. John lies hidden within the forests of Virgin Islands National Park.
This edition of Iconic Hikes features a park many people may not even realize exists, Virgin Islands National Park. Comprising almost two thirds of the island of St. John, the park features pristine beaches, dense tropical forests, and historic ruins. Almost half the park territory includes the surrounding waters as well, incorporating coral reefs off almost every coast. It is a rugged island paradise ready to explore.
The Reef Bay Trail is the park's most poplar hike, and also one of its most strenuous. The trailhead is located 4.9 miles from Cruz Bay on Centerline Road, the main road that crosses the island. There's space for 4-5 cars to park at the trailhead. If you don't have your own transportation, taxis and a bus system run along Centerline as well. Another option would be to book a spot on the guided hike offered by the National Park Service and the Friends of Virgin Islands National Park organization. They will provide transportation to and from the park's visitor center in Cruz Bay.
The trail enters the sub tropical forest down a set of stone stairs. As you descend into the lush environment, look out for information placards along the way with notes on the environment around you. After about half a mile, you'll pass the remains of the Josie Gut Sugar Estate that dates back to the eighteenth century.
After another mile, the slope of the trail tapers off to a more gentle grade as you enter dry forest in the lower elevations. Shortly after passing the remains of Estate Par Force, a small house built in the 1930's, you'll reach the junction with the Petroglyph Trail.
A short 0.4 mile walk will end at a picturesque waterfall that cascades down a forty foot cliff into a shallow pool below. Along the edges of the pool one can clearly see petroglyphs carved into the rock, probably left there by pre-Columbian settlers known as the Taino. The presence of the unexpected waterfall in the dry environment results in an oasis of greenery that makes for a serene location to contemplate the rich history of the island.
Return to the Reef Bay Trail and follow it to its terminus at Genti Bay, where you'll find the remains of the Reef Bay sugar factory. The remains are mostly intact, having seen use up until 1916. Reef Bay was one of the few sugar factories to survive after the abolishment of slavery on the island, converting to steam power. You can explore the remains inside and out, and they offer an excellent view of the industry that shaped the island's past and present.
Your return trip depends on your mode of transportation. The most direct path to the trailhead is to return the way you came, climbing to the ridge following Reef Bay Trail. If you opt for the guided hike, a boat will pick you up at the shore and return you to Cruz Bay. Alternatively, if you're feeling adventurous, one can pick up the Lameshur Bay Trail and reach Centerline Road near Salt Pond. From there you can pick up the island's bus route at its terminus (beware, the bus schedule can be unpredictable).
Distance: 4.2 miles roundtrip. 5.0 miles with side trip to Petroglyphs and a waterfall.
Difficulty: Moderate. Trail descends about 1000 feet from the trailhead to the bay with some steep and rooted sections.
Trailhead: Reef Bay Trail trailhead on Centerline Road.
Route: Out and back on Reef Bay Trail, with an optional side trip to the Petroglyphs.
Permits: None needed. NPS ranger led hike can be booked through Friends of Virgin Islands National Park for $40. The guided hike covers transportation to the trailhead and returns via boat to Cruz Bay.
Best Time To Go: April to June will offer the best combination of excellent weather and fewer crowds. Peak visitation is December to March. Avoid visiting July to November due to hurricane season and excessive heat.