If you could dream up the perfect island beach it would have to resemble those in the United States Virgin Islands! There you’ll find the whitest sand, bluest water, greenest mountains and the most amazing coral reefs. I get chills just thinking about it. There are not enough adjectives to describe just how beautiful this place is so you’ll just have to go see for yourself. The park exists in a few isolated islands and controls about half of St. John. I can only speak for St. John and I’d say it’s perfect if you hate crowds, love the beach, snorkeling and all other ocean activities. Oh and don’t forget all the amazing ruins and hiking trails! You’ll really really like it if you enjoy camping but if that’s not your thing there are plenty of resorts on St. Thomas which is where you will fly in and out of. Once in St. Thomas it’s a short ferry ride to St. John but before we took that ride over there was a master plan.
It was nearing the end of December 15′ and I really wanted to start the New Year in a National Park. The plan to move to Seattle really pushed me to explore the few Eastern National Parks and all that’s green in the Southeast. The US Virgin Islands were at the top of the list and what better time to go then January where you’d freeze most anywhere else. Lucky for me the first two guys I brought the idea to agreed almost instantly and a few days later we had cheap flights booked (coming from Atlanta) and a camping spot reserved in Cinnamon Bay! We were really looking forward to 2016 and it did not disappoint.
The first day mostly involved travel. Plane – Taxi – Ferry – Island Taxi – Home aka Cinnamon Bay. To be honest it was really more like glamping. The bare sites were all booked but we found a platform tent available and it was well worth the added comfort ($93/night). I’d highly recommend spending a few more bucks on the platform tent. You’ll have a gas grill with 2 burners, you’ll be above the ground sleeping in little cot and all the linens and cookware are provided with a small deposit. After a snorkel sesh around the cay you can even cool down in a shower. The cots are more like what I think a prison bed would be like but did I mention it takes less than 60 seconds to walk to the beach!
Cinnamon Bay has the only campground in park boundaries and in my opinion it also has the most beautiful beach in St. John. Never once did we see a crowd and the people we did see passed by with a smile. Good vibes were all around!
Once we settled into camp we ran to dip a toe in the ocean then took some time to walk up and down our front lawn. Sunset was unreal and totally worth all the noseeum bites that left little red memories all over my legs and arms.
Later that night we had restless legs so we decided to hike up American hill. The trail head is across the road from Cinnamon Bay Campground. If you plan on doing any hiking download the app ‘St. John Off the Beaten Track’ (http://seestjohnapp.com/) as it will be your ultimate resource for in depth information and history for every trail. With our headlamps on we started up the trail. You’re either going up or down hiking in St. John so take lots up stairs and stretch those calves before your visit. After a half mile up the Cinnamon Bay trail you’ll arrive at the Estate House ruins. It was definitely eerie at night but so dang cool.
We had no idea how gorgeous of a view it was until later in the trip so look at the featured photo and you’ll see the amazing view of Maho Bay. After the hike we got some well earned rest. We only experienced rain at night and it was then when it seemed like all 144 species of birds would come out to sing. It was oddly pleasant and made me chuckle thinking of some of their goofy names like the Mangrove cuckoos, brown boobies, pearly-eyed thrashers and bannaquits.
The next day we focused on snorkeling and hitting the different beautiful beaches. We started with Trunk Bay which is known as one of the most enchanting beaches in the world and I think that’s why it’s an extra $5 to enter. The self guiding underwater trail was disappointing and overrun but the beach itself lived up to the fame. Didn’t take any pictures for some reason, maybe because of the exhausting walk or that my eyes couldn’t leave the beach.
The next stop was Watermelon Bay which had abundant wildlife and a mesmerizing coral reef. We circumnavigated Watermelon Cay seeing tons of fish and a few turtles all while inhaling tons of salt water. The main difference here was its rocky shores covered in sea urchins which made it difficult to navigate without shoes. Don’t let that stop you from exploring and be like my friend who had a waterproof phone case, it’s incredible down there!
After a snorkel and before heading back on the Leinster Bay trail we walked up the Johnny Horn trail to ruins of a Danish guardhouse. Being a guardhouse it gave us a spectacular view of critical passage ways from the old times.
All hail the Cloud Master!
We then headed back to our home beach for some relaxing. We took one more snorkel trip around Cinnamon Cay and it had some of the coolest things I’ve ever seen underwater. On the backside of the cay is an incredible alley way of coral that just blew my mind. The rest of the night we chilled knowing we had a long day of hiking ahead.
One friend opted to stay at the home base that next day and I’m thankful because he went back up American Hill and took the best photo of the weekend (featured photo). Another friend and I took a cab to the south side of the island to hike the Ram Head trail. It’s a stunning trail that’s rocky, exposed and covered in cactus. With all the interesting vegetation and dramatic ocean views this hike is a must.
It was a perfect hike but far away from most of the park so it was unlikely a cab would return. We knew we had to start walking up the road to a little cafe we passed on the ride in. It was incredibly hilly and hot but how can you get down living on island time!
The cafe was much further than we realized but when we eventually made it we rejoiced with cold water and pain killers (the drink). From there we called a few taxi services but had no luck so we took to the parking lot asking for a ride to the next trail head. It took around 30 minutes of holding our thumbs up to secure a ride and it was so relieving. The guy was a school teacher from Boston and was nice enough to take us to the next big intersection where we got our next ride within 2 or 3 attempts! It was lovely couple from also from the mainland living a more simple life on the island. They dropped us off at the Reef Bay trail head for our longest hike of the trip. The trail passes a number of sugar mill ruins in a lush forest while descending 1,000ft down to the Reef Bay Valley.
It felt like we were in Jurassic Park except we only saw lizards, crabs and snails…
There’s also a spur trail that takes you to a dry waterfall covered with petroglyphs.
Shortly after the petroglyph spur you’ll reach the Reef Bay Sugar Factory ruins right next to the beach. You can walk though it and say hey to all the crabs that call this place home.
There wasn’t another sole at the beach and the water wasn’t as clear in Genti Bay so we decided not to snorkel. I remember eating a snickers, stretching our legs then starting back up the trail to Centerline road.
After the grueling hike up we had to decide either to hike back to camp through more intense elevation change or hitchhike. Without hesitation we put our thumbs out and our hands together praying for a ride. In no time we were cruising in the back of a small truck. It took us 3 rides to get back to Cinnamon Bay and because everyone was so kind it made for an unforgettable day. We laughed when we jumped out of the last truck bed as another guy hoped right in taking our place.
It was a glorious day topped off with an island summer ale from St. John Brewery. It ended up being another perfect night with the choir of birds and don’t forget those Antilliean-crested hummingbirds. We’d be leaving the next day so we woke up early and swam around the cay one last time. We also snorkeled around Little Cinnamon Bay where there’s sunken plane parts and at the time a large sting ray.
I will absolutely be back to explore more reefs, other islands and the one trail that got away, the Bordeaux Mountain trail to the highest peak in the park! If you can bring food you’ll spend almost no money outside of a flight. Plan a trip to the US Virgin Islands National Park for a peaceful beach vacation or heck move here. No excuses if you live in the Southeast!
I have only been to 12 of the 59 National Parks as of November 2016 but people often ask me which is my favorite and I always give the same answer: You can easily make an argument for each park being the greatest and that’s why I will never stop pursuing them! But I usually follow that up with something about the US Virgin Islands!!