Our Visit to Virgin Islands National Park:
A National Park in a tropical paradise? Oh yes!
Virgin Islands National Park is exactly what I pictured in my mind when I think about a tropical paradise. Beautiful fine sand beaches with a gentle tropical breeze. Gorgeous blue waters with gentle waves. Swimming and snorkeling in those clear, blue, warm waters. Palm trees swaying in the wind.
Virgin Islands National Park is all that and more!
Beaches, Beaches, and more Beaches
The US Virgin Islands has three main islands: St. Croix, St. Thomas and St. John. Virgin Islands National Park takes up most of the island of St. John.
There are many beaches on St. John, most of them in the National Park. All of them are post-card beautiful. Without a doubt, this park is all about the beaches. They are the most picturesque beaches I’ve been to.
Unlike the more commercial Caribbean beaches, the beaches here are more pristine, natural, and quiet. Don’t expect cocktail service or fancy cabanas. The natural beauty rules, as you would expect for a National Park.
Most people travel to St. John via St. Thomas, location of the main city and airport. There is also an airport in St. Croix, but that is much further away from St. John.
From Red Hook in St. Thomas, it’s a short, 20 minute ferry ride to Cruz Bay, the main town on St. John and the location of the Virgin Islands National Park visitor center.
We decided to make Trunk Bay our first stop in the National Park. Trunk Bay is very popular because it has good facilities and services, a beautiful beach, and the Trunk Bay Cay you can swim to. It features an “underwater trail” with markers that provide information about marine life.
There are changing facilities, showers, a concession stand for food and drinks, and a place to rent beach chairs and snorkeling equipment. It was so wonderful to rinse the salt off of my body right away.
We got there early enough (before 10 am) to get a parking spot, rented beach chairs and snorkeling gear, and found a nice shady area. The beach is not very wide (distance from ocean to trees) but relatively long (from one end of the beach to another). Like many beaches on St. John, it’s in a bay.
Trunk Bay is well known for snorkeling but it depends on the wind and the surf.
When I rented the snorkeling gear, we were warned the underwater visibility is poor due to the strong wind and surf churning up the sand. Sure enough, the visibility was poor and the currents strong, which are not ideal conditions for snorkeling. I could not read the signs of the underwater trail.
Pick Your Snorkeling Location
When the wind is blowing from the north, like it was the day we were there, head to the beaches on the southern part of the island. When the wind is blowing from the south, head to northern beaches for snorkeling. St. John is flexible in that way. You can get good snorkeling if you know where to go.
Summary of snorkeling locations:
|Honeymoon / Saloman||Trail||Closest to visitor center|
|Hawks Nest Bay||Trail|
|Trunk Bay||Car||Good facilities; Snorkel rental; Offshore cay; underwater trail|
|Cinnamon Bay||Car||Offshore cay; gentle slope|
|Maho Bay||Car||Sea turtles|
|Francis Bay||Car||Calm water; Good for beginners|
|Leinster Bay / Waterlemon Cay||Trail||Offshore cay|
|Haulover Bay||Car and trail||A beach on each of north and south side; Pebble beach|
|Salt Pond Bay||Hike|
|Lameshur Bay||4 wheel drive access|
There are many beaches for snorkeling in Virgin Islands National Park. NPS web site provides a nice listing.
The northern shore is just lined with one gorgeous beach after another. You can go “beach hopping” along the norther shore. All of them are beautiful. You can’t go wrong with any of them. Many are accessible by car.
Another beach with great facilities is Cinnamon Bay. There is a campground at Cinnamon Bay.
Virgin Islands was devastated by hurricanes Irma and Maria, two category 5 hurricanes that hit the Virgin Islands within two weeks of each other in September, 2017, including Cinnamon Bay.
Cinnamon Bay facilities are just coming back on line in January, 2022 as the campground just opened.
The middle of the island is a mountain with Bordeaux as the peak at 1,286 feet. There is little flatland on the island. The peak is near route 108.
There are many trails for hiking in the mountain and most of them are either along the coast, or from the middle of the island to the coast.
Saltpond Bay: Short trail from a parking area on the southeast of the island to Salt Pond Bay and the salt pond. The bay is beautiful and great for snorkeling. Salt Pond is an inland pond that smells like Sulphur.
Rams Head: A 2.3 mile trail from Saltpond Bay to an rock outcropping and a beautiful view.
Lind Point: A 2.3 mile loop that goes from the visitor center in Cruz Bay to Honeymoon beach along the coast
Caneel Hill Trail to Caneel Hill: While the full Caneel Hill trail is 4 miles long, it’s one mile from the trailhead near the visitor center to the top of Caneel Hill where is there a nice platform with a 360 degree view. It rises from 33 feet to 676 feet in that one mile so it’s fairly streneous. The view is well worth the hike.
Leinster Bay: A 1.9 mile trail from Annenberg Ruins to Waterlemon Beach along the coast
Reef Bay Trail: One of the most popular trails that descends from a trailhead on Centerline Road at 787 feet down to Reef Bay on the southern coast. The Rum Bay factory ruin is along the way, along with a short spur to a petroglyph. While the descent is easy, what goes down must come back up. Be sure to allocate enough time and water for the return trip. This out and back trail is 4.4 miles long.
L’Esperance Trail: A 5.8 mile out and back alternative to Reef Bay. It goes from a trailhead on Centerline road at 755 feet down to Reef Bay.
The first European settlers on St. John were the Danes in the late 1600s. Sugar was the main crop and slaves were imported to work the plantations and the forest was clear cut to make room for the plantations.
Annaberg sugar plantation, the largest on the island, was built in 1731. You can tour the ruins from the sugar plantation.
In 1733, a slave revolt happened and lasted 6 months until the French came in. Denmark emancipated the slaves in 1848 and soon after, the plantations closed and the population declined by 70% between 1845 and 1945.
In 1917, the United States purchased the US Virgin Islands from Denmark for $25 million to establish a naval base and US Virgin Islands became an US territory.
The Laurance Rockefeller’s Jackson Hole Preserve donated about 60% of St. John to the National Park Service to protect it from future development and the Virgin Islands National Park was established.
Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument
Off of the coast of St. John is the Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument, which protects the coral reefs and the mangrove forest around St. John. There are many mooring slots for private boats to spend the day or over night. A permit is required. It’s important to moor the boat rather than to drop anchor, so the fragile coral reef is not damaged.
The monument was established in 2001.
Impressions of Virgin Islands National Park:
Virgin Islands National Park is a tropical paradise with many gorgeous beaches, clear blue ocean, excellent snorkeling, scuba diving, tropical hikes of different difficulty levels, and historical sites. You can come and just relax at the beaches that are easily accessible by car, or hike to secluded beaches where roads can not reach. Along the way, there are beautiful overlooks. This is just a beautiful park and well worth visiting!
Virgin Islands National Park Rating:
(Note: Ratings are on a bell curve, which means there are as many 5 star ratings as 1 star ratings. All National Parks are wonderful, which makes this a very strict rating scale)
|Element||Rating (out of 5 Stars)|
Guide to Virgin Islands National Park:
Top Attractions at Virgin Islands National Park:
- Trunk Bay
- Maho Bay
- Saltpond Bay
- Caneel Hill
- Reef Bay Trail
- Rams Head
- Annaberg Ruins
- Cinnamon Bay
One Day Visit Plan:
- Get to Trunk Bay (if the north coast is calm) or Saltpond Bay (if the south coast is calm). Relax on the beach and go snorkeling.
- Visit the Annaberg Ruins after Trunk Bay, or hike the Rams Head trail after Saltpond Bay
- Hike the Caneel Hill trail from the visitor center to Caneel Hill, and return via Lind Trail
Practical Info for Visiting Virgin Islands National Park:
- Fly into St. Thomas.
- While taxi is available to the popular sights, to have true freedom to explore requires a rental car
- There is a passenger ferry from Crown Bay (35 minutes / $20), Charlotte Amalie (45 minutes / $13) and Red Hook (15 minutes / $8.50) in St. Thomas, as well as ferry to other islands. The fares are for non-residents with an additional fee for baggage. There are many more ferries from Red Hook compared to Crown Bay or Charlotte Amalie.
- There is a car ferry from Red Hook to St. John. The car ferry costs $65 (February, 2022) round trip ($50 one way) plus a $3 port fee at Red Hook.
- While many companies operate the car ferry, they are all the same price. You can purchase the ticket on line or take a chance like we did and just show up to catch the next ferry. There is a $5 charge for using the credit card. We had no issues but we did show up 30 minutes before the departure time. If you do a round trip ticket, your return ferry must be with the same company, so watch for the return times. The ferry operates frequently during the day.
- Jeep is a very popular rental option. Most of the roads are paved, but the pavement is bumpy in many places with sharp turns and steep hills. For the most part, Jeeps are not required.
- St. Thomas offers more lodging options but St. John has many quaint resorts
- Camping in the National Park is at Cinnamon Bay, which just opened in January, 2022 after it was closed due to the twin Irma / Maria hurricanes in 2017.
- Be prepare for the strong Caribbean sun. Use coral safe sunscreen to protect the reefs
- If you have a boat, you can moor them in designated places. A permit is required.
- There are frequent showers, but most of them lasts less than half an hour.
- Expect things to be expensive, especially on St. John.
Virgin Islands National Park Facts:
- Size: Virgin Islands National Park has 15,052 acres, Ranked 60th.
- Visitors: 323,999 in 2021, ranked 46th. It finally recovered to the pre-hurricane level. Visitation is fairly constant through the year.
- Peak Month in 2021: 36,551 visitors in June
- Low Month in 2021: 17,224 visitors in September (hurricane season)
- Entrance Fee: None.
Date Visited: Feb 3, 4 2022