A Day in Virgin Islands National Park on St. John

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A Day in Virgin Islands National Park on St. John

When you first think “national park,” you may imagine rugged mountain peaks, vast deserts or redrock canyons. Think again. At 7,000-plus acres of hills, valley and beaches, Virgin Islands National Park has all the outdoor offerings you’d expect, with one additional perk – it’s in paradise! Set on St. John in the glittering Caribbean Sea, the park offers hiking, boating, snorkeling and so much more. You’ll learn about the island’s complex history, encompassing from free and enslaved civilizations. You’ll snorkel in protected bays of aquamarine waters over seagrass beds that are home to green sea turtles. And you’ll explore the remains of Danish colonial homes and sugarcane factories. It’s a beautiful bounty of island, sea and rich culture and history, all in one blessed tropical national park.
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First things first – please plan to protect the reefs you’re enjoying by wearing reef-safe sunscreen. Make sure your sunscreen’s ingredients do not include oxybenzone, butylparaben, octinoxate or 4-methylbenzylidine camphor.
With that squared away, let the snorkeling begin! With more than 40 percent of Virgin Islands National Park underwater, this really is the best way to explore. You’ll glide along mangrove shorelines, over seagrass beds and above kaleidoscopic coral reefs. There are several snorkeling sites available, depending on your own snorkeling and swimming abilities, as well as the water and wind conditions.
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North Shore Beaches
Solomon and Honeymoon Bay are two white-sand beaches that can be hiked to from the park sign off North Shore Road, accessed from Caneel Bay or accessed by boat. Along the reef, you’ll find countless coral varieties, from brain to lettuce leaf, finger coral, colorful fish and a variety of other marine life.
At Hawksnest Bay, look for three finger corals of mainly Elkhorn coral reefs. These Elkhorn reefs are a federally protected species and very fragile, so please don’t swim over them, but instead around them. You’ll still see plenty of fish and reef marine life this way.
If you’re a beginning snorkeler, try the Underwater Trail at Trunk Bay. There are interpretive plaques along the trail teaching you about marine life. This introduction to tropical fish and coral follows the west side of Trunk Bay Bay, heads back to the beach. If you’re nervous about the water, stay close to the shore for calmer conditions.
Francis Bay is also great for beginners and home to an abundance of fish and small coral heads. There may even be a sea turtle or two, but for more of those gentle giants, read on. Follow the northwest shoreline to Mary Point to view gorgonians, tube sponges and colonial anemones.
If it’s sea turtles you seek, head to Maho Bay. The green sea turtles that frequent here in the early morning and late afternoon love the lush seagrass beds in the middle of the shallow bay. Head northeast for more fish and perhaps even an octopus tucked away in the crevices of the coral.
Venture out to Leinster Bay and Waterlemon Cay via the Leinster Bay Trail (10-minute walk from the parking lot to the sand). If you head out beyond the shallows, you’ll get to a dropoff where you can view Blue Chromis, sea turtles and gorgonians. If you hike another 10 minutes down the trail, you’ll get to Leinster Bay’s main beach, home to seagrass beds, fish, coral, gorgonias and more.
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Virgin Islands National Park may be famous for its pristine snorkeling conditions, but don’t overlook the opportunities for recreation back on land. More than 20 trails crisscross the park, including a path to petroglyphs and a route to ruins. Boardwalks lead to bird-viewing decks at salt ponds.
A few favorite hikes in Virgin Islands National Park include:
Yawzi Point Trail: A 0.3-mile easy hike past stone Danish colonial home ruins. Add on the side trails to small rocky beaches, if you wish.
Lind Point Trail: A short hike from the park visitor center to Honeymoon Bay or Solomon Bay.
Salt Pond: An easy 0.25-mile stroll to a beautiful beach.
Tektite Trail: A 0.7-mile moderate hike through desert-like terrain to Cabritte Horn Point.
Francis Bay Trail: Trail starting at Francis Bay Sugar Factory past Mary’s Point Estate house and around a salt pond. If you’re a birdwatcher, use the accessible boardwalk through the mangroves to two viewing platforms.
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If it’s a lazy beach day you’re after, Virgin Islands National Park boasts plenty to choose from. You can swim and snorkel at Hawksnest Beach. At Trunk Bay Beach, rated as one of the most beautiful in the world, you can follow the underwater snorkeling trail or just play in the waves or lounge on the sand. Cinnamon Bay Beach is one of the park’s longest beaches and offers a resort, campground, restaurant and other amenities.
Maho Bay Beach is a great spot for viewing sea turtles and offers 0.3 miles of beach for strolling in the sand. Francis Bay Beach, too, is a good turtle viewing spot and excellent for snorkeling and beachcombing.
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Historic Sites
Learn about St. John’s plantation past with visits to the island’s intriguing historic sites. See the remains of a windmill and horsemill at Annaberg, which was once one of the island’s larger sugar plantations. There are cultural demonstrations held on some weekdays, including baking and basket weaving.
While not as developed as Annaberg, Catherineberg is another St. John sugar plantation and factory. Look for the remains of the windmill and boiling house.
Reef Bay Sugar Mill is reached via a ranger-led three-mile hike through tropical forest. You’ll need to make an advance reservation and plan on taxi transportation to the trailhead and a boat ride return to the park visitor center.
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Explore the Visitor Center
Don’t miss the Virgin Islands National Park Visitor Center in Cruz Bay. It’s a great stop at the beginning of your trip to get the lay of the land (and water) and learn about the park’s natural and cultural significance. Check out the reef fish and coral displays, view artifacts from the pre-Columbian Tainos and tools used in sugarcane production in the late 1700s and early 1800s.

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