You don't have to travel outside the United States to unwind on a white sandy beach surrounded by crisp, turquoise water. Located on the Caribbean land of St. John, Virgin Islands National Park is a small treasure offering pleasures of island living to its visitors.
The tropical feeling is intensified by more than 800 subtropical plant species growing in the high-elevation forests and mangrove swamps. While around the island live stunning coral reefs full of fragile plants and animals.
The Virgin Islands are an exciting place to explore through activities like boating, sailing, snorkeling, and hiking. Discover the beauty of this national park and enjoy the benefits of one of the world's most beautiful beaches.
Though Columbus sighted the islands in 1493, humans inhabited the area of the Virgin Islands long before. Archeological finds show South Americans migrating northward and living on Saint John as early as 770 BC. Taino Indians later used the sheltered bays for their villages.
In 1694, the Danes took formal possession of the island. Attracted by the prospects of sugar cane cultivation, they established the first permanent European settlement on Saint John in 1718 at Estate Carolina in Coral Bay. By the early 1730s, production expanded so much that 109 cane and cotton plantations were working.
As the plantation economy grew, so did the demand for slaves. However, the emancipation of slaves in 1848 led to the decline of the Saint John plantations. By the early 20th century, cane and cotton plantations were replaced with cattle/subsistence farming, and rum production.
The United States purchased the island in 1917, and by the 1930s ways to expand tourism were being explored. Rockefeller interests bought land on Saint John in the 1950s and in 1956 donated it to the Federal Government to create a national park. On August 2, 1956, Virgin Islands National Park was established. The park was made up of 9,485 acres on St. John and 15 acres on St. Thomas. In 1962, the boundaries were enlarged to include 5,650 acres of submerged lands, including coral reefs, mangrove shorelines, and sea grass beds.
In 1976, Virgin Islands National Park became part of the biosphere reserve network designated by the United Nations, the only biosphere in the Lesser Antilles. At that time, the park boundaries were once again expanded in 1978 to include Hassel Island located in St. Thomas harbor.
When to Visit
The park is open year-round and the climate does not vary that much throughout the year. Keep in mind that summer can get very hot. Hurricane season typically runs from June through November.
Take a plane to Charlotte Amalie in St. Thomas, (Find Flights) the take a taxi or bus to Red Hook. From there, a 20-minute ride via ferry is available across Pillsbury Sound to Cruz Bay.
Another option is taking one of the less frequently scheduled ferries from Charlotte Amalie. Though the boat takes 45 minutes, the dock is much closer to the airport.
There is no entrance fee for the park, however there is a user fee to enter Trunk Bay: $5 for adults; children 16 and younger for free.
Trunk Bay: Considered one of the most beautiful beaches in the world featuring a 225-yard long underwater snorkeling trail. A bathhouse, snack bar, souvenir shop, and snorkel gear rentals are available. Keep in mind there is a day-use fee.
Cinnamon Bay: This beach not only offers a water sports center that rents snorkel gear and windsurfers, but will also arrange day sailing, snorkeling, and scuba diving lessons.
Ram Head Trail: This short yet rocky 0.9 mile trail is located off Saltpond Bay and takes visitors to a surprisingly arid environment. Several kinds of cacti and the century plant are visible.
Annaberg: Once one of the larger sugar plantations on St. John, visitors can tour the remains of the windmill and horsemill that used to crush the sugar cane to extract its juice. Cultural demonstrations, such as baking and basket weaving take place Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Reef Bay Trail: Descending through a steep valley into a subtropical forest, this 2.5 mile trail showcases ruins of sugar estates, as well as mysterious petroglyphs.
Fort Frederik: Once the property of the king, this fort was part of the first plantation built by the Danes. It was taken over by the French.
One campground is located within the park. Cinnamon Bay is open year-round. From December to mid-May there is a 14-day limit, and a 21-day limit for the remainder of the year. Reservations are recommended and can be made by contacting 800-539-9998 or 340-776-6330.
The luxurious Caneel Bay is another option located at Cruz Bay offering 166 units for $450-$1,175 per night.
Areas of Interest Outside the Park
Buck Island Reef National Monument: One mile north of St. Croix is a stunning coral reef that encircles almost all of buck island. Visitors can take a marked underwater trail either by snorkeling or on a glass-bottom boat and explore the reefs unique ecosystem. Hiking trails are also located on 176 land acres with breathtaking views of St. Croix.
Open year-round, this national monument is accessible by charter boat from Christiansted, St. Croix. Call 340-773-1460 for more information.