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The U.S. Virgin Islands National Park covers approximately three-fifths of the island of St. John and nearly all of Hassel Island in the Charlotte Amalie harbor on St. Thomas. Within its environs lie protected bays teeming with living coral reefs, white sand beaches shaded by seagrape trees and coconut palms, and lush tropical forests populated by over 800 species of plants. Mankind’s history within the park can be traced through ancient relics and rock carvings dating from the Pre-Columbian Amerindian civilization and remains of the Danish Colonial sugar plantations and the African enslaved laborers that supported them.
The story of the Virgin Islands as an official National Park destination begins in the early 1950’s after a visit by financier and philanthropist, Laurance Rockefeller. A passionate environmentalist and preservationist who sailed past St. John on a vacation cruise, he immediately recognized the importance of protecting this pristine Caribbean hideaway. Through his Jackson Hole Preserve Corporation, a non-profit organization he founded with family and friends, he acquired more than 5,000 acres of land on St. John and eventually donated it to the United States government.
Today, the Virgin Islands National Park is famous for its immaculate Caribbean beaches, world-class scuba diving and snorkeling and miles of rainforest hiking trails dotted with sugar plantations and ancient Taíno petroglyph rock carvings. The park is free of hotels and resorts, with one notable exception, Caneel Bay Resort on the north shore, which sits on Laurance Rockefeller’s former personal estate. Vacation visitors may also stay at one of the nearby St. John hotels or in the park's Cinnamon Bay campground.
There are a number of beaches around the park – some more remote and others well enjoyed by St. John locals and visitors alike.
Honeymoon and Salomon Beaches exist within the same bay, separated by a small rocky point of land. Stunningly beautiful, both beaches make you work a little to enjoy them; there are no roads in, beachgoers arrive by boat or hiking trail.
Hawksnest Bay is a favorite among St. John locals and families with young children. The parking lot is close to beach, meaning you don’t have to walk far before you’re on the sand. The beach’s eastern exposure makes it perfect for swimming in the light of the rising sun, though many native St. Johnians love the beach for the afternoon shade it provides as they "take a soak" after work.
Little Hawksnest is a beautiful, often overlooked ribbon of sandy shoreline just to the west of Hawksnest Beach. If you want to escape the crowds, Little Hawksnest is an easy two-minute rock scramble to the west – or left, if facing the sea.
In 1950, Robert and Nancy Gibney bought a 40-acre parcel on Hawksnest Bay after falling in love with St. John during their honeymoon. The Gibneys were an integral part of the "Beat Generation,” counting among their crowd poet Robert Lax, the painter Ad Reinherdt, and author Thomas Merton. The beat generation became the hippies, and when the Gibney children were teenagers, they welcomed many of their flower-children friends to Hawksnest. That tradition continues today, with Gibney Beach drawing more than its fair share of colorful and offbeat beachcombers.
In 1957, the Gibneys sold a small parcel of their land in Hawksnest to J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, and his wife, Kitty. It is said that Gibney Beach snorkeling is best from the Oppenheimer section of the beach.
Denis Bay is quiet and secluded, but you will need to be adventurous to reach it. On land, the bay is accessible only by a rugged rainforest trail. Offshore, it’s well protected by extensive fringing reefs, with a small channel leading to the center of the beach. When the seas are calm, there is marvelous snorkeling around the reef.
If you're looking for a private and intimate beach that’s easy to get to, Jumbie – named for the African word for zombie – is perfect. Because of how it’s situated, the beach can’t be seen from the road or the boats sailing to and from Cruz Bay. This once made Jumbie a favorite among lovers enjoying private liaisons, earning it the nickname “Honeymoon Beach.”
Explore one of the Caribbean’s most photographed beaches, featuring a self-guided underwater snorkeling tour, just a moment’s drive from the resort. Trunk Bay has white, sparkling sands, crystalline water, little fish darting at your feet, and, depending on the day, gently rolling swells or mightily pounding surf. The beach is framed by coconut palms and old ruins on one side.
Cinnamon Bay is one of the national park’s official campgrounds, with overnight accommodations for the general public and facilities that include a small general store, the T'ree Lizards restaurant, a snack bar, lockers, restrooms, changing rooms, showers, telephones, picnic tables and barbeque grills. Besides swimming, sunning, snorkeling and picnicking, Cinnamon Bay offers windsurfing, kayaking, volleyball, and camping.
Much like Little Hawksnest, Little Cinnamon offers a less-crowded alternative to Cinnamon Bay. Here, snorkelers may find the remains of an old Cessna aircraft that crashed and sank years ago. The propeller, the engine and one of the wings are visible most of the year. The wreck is in shallow water and can be found by snorkeling out from the eastern portion of the beach between the old stone wall and the first set of coconut palms.
Maho is the only north shore beach that you can drive right up to. It's the very informality of this beautiful and often-photographed beach that makes it so special. It's right there by the side of the road, no parking lots or signs, just the beach. Stately groves of coconut palms line both sides of the road. Just pull over under a maho tree and there you are!
In addition to its convenience, Maho Bay is calm and shallow, making it a great place to bring the kids, get them used to the water or teach them how to swim.
Francis Bay faces west, out of the trade winds. This keeps the surf calm and makes the beach ideal for picnics. It’s relatively unpopulated during the week, and its size means that it’s almost always possible to seek out a nice, private spot.
From the small and tranquil beach at the east end of Leinster Bay, you can access Waterlemon Cay (not Watermelon) for what’s commonly known as the "best snorkeling on St. John." The beach also makes for an excellent cool-off stop after a hike on the Leinster Bay, Johnny Horn or Brown Bay Trails.
Once you’ve had enough of the park’s sand, sun and surf – if that’s possible – you can explore its fascinating history, including the sugar plantation ruins and the ancient stone carvings along the Reef Bay Trail. This is a wonderful way to experience the inland beauty of the park while getting a little exercise at the same time.
By 1780, the Annaberg Plantation was one of 25 active sugar-producing factories on St. John. Other products produced here included molasses and rum. Slave labor was used to clear densely forested hillsides and to terrace the slopes around the plantation to make farming possible. Slaves were also used to plant, harvest and process the sugarcane. When slavery was abolished in 1804, Annaberg’s 518 acres were divided into smaller farms.
Today, trees have reclaimed the hillsides around Annaberg and the plantation ruins are protected by the Virgin Islands National Park. A trail leads through the factory ruins, where the juice was boiled and condensed to make raw sugar; a section of the rum still, and the remains of a 40-foot windmill and horse mill, which were used to crush the sugar cane to extract its juice. Placards and signs along the trail describe how sugar was produced and what daily life on the plantation was like.
The Reef Bay Trail is St. John’s most famous hiking spot. The secrets of St. John's tropical forests, petroglyphs, and sugar mill ruins come alive on this three-mile downhill hike. Highlights along the way are ruins of four sugar estates, including the last operating plantation on St. John, which closed in 1919; an array of interesting flora and fauna; and the Arawak Indian Petroglyphs, where the Caneel Bay symbol originated. At the bottom of the trail, a boat will pick up hikers and take them back to the Visitor Center. Hiking back up the trail is possible; however, the climb is steep and challenging in the heat and humidity.
Participants should bring lunch, 1-2 liters of water per person, any special medication, and a swimsuit for a quick swim at the trail's end. Wear good hiking shoes and cool, comfortable clothing. Light colors are less attractive to mosquitoes.
The hike is popular and reservations are required. Call 340-779-8700, or visit the Caneel Bay Resort Concierge Desk.
For more information on the USVI National Park, stop by the Visitor Center in Cruz Bay: Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., or call 340-776-6201. You may also visit the websites www.nps.gov/viis/ and www.friendsvinp.org.