Virgin Islands National Park
Explore the pristine island paradise of St. John and Virgin Islands National Park.
Perched high on a rocky bluff 200 feet above the Caribbean sea, I'm buffeted by winds that whip in steadily from across an endless stretch of ocean. Behind me a dusty path meanders through shrubs and cacti along an exposed jut of dry land that expands into a tropical island, the only sign of civilization a nearby cluster of tent cabins nestled in the distant foliage. Calm seas, sheltered from the wind by the rocky peninsula I'm standing on, lap at the smooth pebbles of the shingle beach in the bay I traversed on my way out to this breathtaking view.
From this end of St. John, it's hard to believe that only a short hike, a taxi ride and a 15 minute ferry could land me back on the neighboring island of St. Thomas, a popular port for the massive cruise boats that crisscross the Caribbean year round. The contrast between there and here couldn't be more drastic. The hoards of tourists eager for duty free shopping or brief island excursions are nowhere to be found. On this end of St. John, Virgin Islands National Park stretches out before me, covering over 7,000 acres, almost two thirds of the island.
Much of the land was purchased and donated by the Rockefeller family in 1956 in order to preserve its natural beauty and rich history. Later, the park was expanded to include the surrounding waters that teem with coral and other wildlife. It's this unspoiled experience of the Caribbean that makes Virgin Islands National Park such an amazing place to visit.
Getting to the island first requires a flight to St. Thomas, as there's no airport on St. John. From there you'll need to catch a taxi (be prepared to pay cash) to Red Hook terminal where a short ferry ride drops you at Cruz Bay on the western and more populated side of St. John. The park visitors center is located in Cruz Bay, along with most of the typical options for lodging and shopping, though on a much more scaled down level than that found on St. Thomas.
Taxis are easy to catch at the ferry dock, and have established rates for locations across the island. If you're a camper or on a budget, the national park operates a campground at Cinnamon Bay. Rental cars are available as well in Cruz Bay, and may be a good option for those looking to avoid taxi fares that can add up quickly, as long as you're comfortable driving on the left and along steep winding roads. One last transportation option is the Vitran bus, which costs only $1 and makes stops along Centerline Road. No luggage is allowed on the bus, however, so it might not be an option when you're first arriving.
For a step up from camping, I highly recommend checking out Concordia Eco-Resort. It's located on the opposite side of the island from Cruz Bay, almost at the end of Centerline Road. Concordia's accommodations range from canvas walled tent cabins to studio apartments. The resort focuses on low impact living, utilizing solar power and rain water collection systems for many of their rooms, which are perched on raised platforms to minimize disruption of the jungle. The resort is a great location from which to explore the interior of the island and the more secluded southern beaches.
Within sight of the resort is a rocky peninsula known as the Ram Head (described at the beginning of this piece) reached by a short but rewarding hike for visitors to this end of the island. Follow the Saltpond Bay trail down to the beach (an excellent place for a quick dip or some snorkeling) and link up with the Ram Head Trail on the far side. The bay is named after the salt pond located nearby that provides a natural source of sea salt during the drier months. This end of the island lacks fresh water, so at times the landscape appears transplanted from a landlocked desert. The trail transitions seamlessly from sandy shores to cactus covered bluffs.
Halfway to the Ram Head, a fault in the peninsula funnels ocean winds to a point creating gusts strong enough to almost knock you over as you pear down into the exposed rock and crashing waves below. Looking back towards the island reveals just how much remains undeveloped due to the preservation the national park provides. It's an odd sight when compared to other Caribbean islands where tourism has led to high rise resorts, shopping malls, and groomed beaches crowded with umbrellas and lounge chairs.
If you're looking to spend a day relaxing at a classic white sand beach, head over to Trunk Bay. If you google "Caribbean beach" there's a good chance pictures of Trunk Bay may pop up. Operated by the park, this gorgeous stretch of shoreline features an underwater trail perfect for a first time snorkeler, crystal clear water, and a view that cannot be beat. Rental equipment, a snack bar, and restrooms are available, and there's a small entry fee. While one of the more developed beaches on the island, it balances a natural feel with amenities like lifeguards and showers.
A trip to Virgin Islands National Park isn't complete without a hike along the Reef Bay trail. The hike begins at the top of the ridge off Centerline Road. Take a scenic ride on the bus and hop off close to the trailhead at a restaurant and small shop called Chateau Bordeaux. If you have the time, grab a meal before setting out. The food is delicious, and you're on vacation, so a pre-hike rum concoction is in order as well. Best of all, the view from their deck alone is worth the stop. Alternatively, the national park offers a ranger guided hike of the Reef Bay trail that includes transportation to and from the trailhead starting at the visitors center in Cruz Bay.
The Reef Bay trail descends into the jungle from the road, passing small plaques along the trail with information about the flora and history of the area. Sugar estate ruins are visible along the way down to the bay. A mile and a half down, the trail intersects with the Petroglyph trail on the right, which leads to a hidden waterfall where pre-Colombian petroglyphs can be seen carved into the rocks at the base of the falls. The unexpected source of fresh water feels magical and it's no surprise ancient peoples would have been drawn to this place. Follow the Reef Bay trail to its terminus to find the Reef Bay sugar mill ruins, what's left of a sugar factory that processed sugar and rum until 1908.
From there retrace your steps up the Reef Bay trail to connect with the Lameshur Bay trail and follow that to Little Lameshur bay and Centerline Road, where you can catch the bus. Along the way stop off at the camp run by the Virgin Islands Environmental Research Station. If you love odd, forgotten bits history and science, the small museum here is a gem. Information about Project Tektite can be found within, an underwater habitat and research project that was run in the nearby bay in 1969 and 1970.
In no way have I gotten to experience all that the park or the island has to offer, and I look forward to exploring more on a return trip some day. I would love to have taken a kayak out and snorkel in the mangroves. There are several more ruins and vistas left to see. Numerous forgotten and unmaintained trails that cannot be found on the national park map beg to be explored. If you've ever been disappointed with visits to the Caribbean, give St. John a try. It's unfortunate that the invasive tourism industry found throughout the Caribbean pushes shopping and sterilized island outings that focus more on rum punch than seeing the natural beauty of the area. St. John offers a drastic deviation from what appears to be the norm on other islands, in large part to the protections provided by Virgin Islands National Park, so get out and explore.
Best Time To Go: Peak season is from December to March, but April to June offers milder weather and less rain. Avoid hurricane season from July to October.