Island Hopping

Virgin Islands National Park Is One of the Country's Least-Visited Parks. You Should Go.

There are many good reasons to visit this tropical paradise, aside from its pristine beaches and abundant coral reefs.

By Matt McGowan October 19, 2022

Trunk Bay on the island of St. John.

I came here, to the beaches of Virgin Islands National Park, because of a different national park 3,700 miles away.

Every summer, my wife and I go to Washington state to visit her family. For several years, we’ve tried to talk friends into joining us, in part because there are so many wonderful things to see in the Pacific Northwest.

This year, one couple took us up on the offer, and when we asked them where they wanted to go, they settled on North Cascades National Park. On our way there, I asked my friend why they chose North Cascades over the more popular Glacier National Park or Olympic National Park or any of the other beautiful locales around Spokane. “It’s one of the least visited national parks,” he said.

After Googling some, I found out he was right, and I also found a list of other less popular parks—a list that included the National Park of American Samoa, Dry Tortugas National Park and the Virgin Islands. As soon as I saw pictures of Virgin Islands' beaches and read that it takes up two thirds of the island of St. John, I decided to visit it.

The park is located roughly 1,000 miles from Florida, just east of Puerto Rico. Getting there can be a pain, because St. John does not have an airport, so you need to either take a boat there or (more easily) fly to nearby St. Thomas and hop on a ferry to St. John. It’s hard to do all this in a day, unless you’re traveling from Florida.

Day One: A Snorkeling Paradise, Especially for Beginners

When I read that Virgin Islands National Park had an “underwater trail” near a rocky island at the renowned Trunk Bay, I was more than a little dubious. It seemed like a hokey gimmick—a feeling I admit had more than a little to do with my fear of large stretches of open water. I love to swim, but the thought of going too far off the beach terrifies me.

It helped that there were other people out there, including many children, so I joined them. Once I did, I didn’t want to leave. Ever. In addition to schools of brilliant blue tang, thinner than my reporter’s notepad, I saw 1,000 sergeant majors and a parrotfish with more colors than the spectrum.

As you swim along the trail, bordered by three buoys in a triangle, you encounter signs that tell you what you’re seeing. They identify fish and coral and explain the relationship between these organisms. One sign told swimmers: “Drift slowly. Let the fish get used to your presence and more will appear.”

I did as instructed and drifted with the waves. I followed fish around rocks and large blooms of coral reef. At one point, I saw an endangered hawksbill sea turtle. "Come on," the turtle seemed to be saying to me. "Follow me." I swear he slowed down so I could. I drifted behind him as far as I could until I had to come up for air.

When I looked up and realized I was all alone, I didn’t care. Something about floating with those fish and seeing that turtle and just swimming for hours, surrounded by nature, made my fear disappear.

I wasn’t distracted by the obstacles and petty conflicts of life. I was living in the moment, effortlessly, maybe for the first time in my life.

Day Two: Tourism and Archeology

Almost every beach on St. John is either a historic or prehistoric site. Cinnamon Bay, a world-class beach on the north shore, is both. At this place, where the earth brims with almost unfathomable natural beauty, the National Park Service tries to balance tourism with preservation. The site is both a public beach and an in-progress archeological excavation site, and has been so for more than 50 years.

I met staff archaeologist Brittany Mistretta at what’s left of the Cinnamon Bay Estate House, the oldest historic structure built by Europeans on the island. Constructed in 1680, the house served many functions, including as a warehouse for pirate booty and, until Hurricane Irma in 2017, as an archeological lab with exhibits.

In December, Mistretta earned her doctorate in archeology from the University of Florida. With financial assistance from the nonprpfit Friends of Virgin Islands National Park, she did her dissertation field work at the park.

Mistretta is continuing work started by archeologists in the 1960s. Since that time, professionals in her field have unearthed and identified a pre-Columbian village of the Taino, the first New World people encountered by Columbus in 1492 (though not on St. John).

The archeologists have found many important sites, including a “fish pen” off Cinnamon Cay and a ceremonial house more than 1,000 years old. At a small site close to the edge of this roughly five-acre village, archeologists have discovered artifacts dating back to the birth of Jesus.

On top of all this, literally, are the remains of a 300-year-old sugar plantation. Archeologists have found buried remnants of a plantation house, including a well-preserved floor that was charred in a fire during a slave rebellion in 1733.

Day Three: More Fish and Coral

Two days after snorkeling at Trunk Bay, I rented a dinghy and took off for the north shore. Before leaving Cruz Bay, the man who rented the craft told me some recent customers had spent all day at Waterlemon Cay. I noticed people at this spot as we cruised by, but we decided to return to it later after visiting a dense reef farther east.

With fully formed coral clusters of many shapes and colors and large waving sea fans, some of them bright purple, this first reef was spectacular. But it was Waterlemon Cay in Leinster Bay that blew my mind. The cay is a small island that you can access by swimming from a moored boat or a small beach near the ruins of the Annaberg Sugar Plantation.

From our dinghy, I swam to the island and around it. I saw orange coral and kelly green coral and crimson coral. I saw coral as red as the flowers on the flamboyant trees dotting the hillside.

There were more parrotfish and blue tang, of course, and then I saw a humpbacked, wedge-shaped, goggle-eyed trunk fish that looked angry. His inhospitality was compensated for, however, by a black and yellow angelfish that I followed halfway around the island.

What You Need to Know

There are many good reasons to visit this tropical paradise, aside from its pristine beaches and abundant coral reefs. Because St. Thomas and St. John islands are U.S. territories, a passport is not required. (I did bring mine, and it helped me get through security more quickly. If you have your passport, it gives you freedom to visit the nearby British Virgin Islands, which you can see from St. John across a relatively narrow passage.) Also, it’s easy to communicate here, because the locals speak English and you don't need to exchange currency.

Where Is Virgin Islands National Park?

The U.S. Virgin Islands sit approximately 120 miles east of Puerto Rico in the Caribbean Sea. The U.S. Virgin Islands is made up of three islands: St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix. The national park is on St. John, and, in fact, encompasses about two thirds of the island.

When Should I Visit?

Depends on what you like: more people and predictable weather or fewer people and less predictable weather, including rain almost daily and, of course, the threat of hurricanes. The peak season for tourism runs from November to August. Many restaurants and hotels, including the park’s only vendor at Cinnamon Bay, close during peak hurricane season in September and October. The upside to this, though, is fewer people during these months, so it isn’t difficult to find a place to park, even at the most popular beaches. And some good restaurants remain open, especially in Cruz Bay and Coral Bay.

How Do I Get Around on the Island?

It’s possible to see the island without renting a vehicle. A public bus that costs just $1 runs back and forth across the island on Centerline Road, or Highway 10, the main route between Cruz Bay on the west end and Coral Bay on the east. Also, from Cruz Bay, many taxis deliver tourists to and from beaches on the north shore. However, renting a Jeep, especially in the off-season (when roads are less crowded and parking at beaches isn’t a problem) is a great way to see the island. But remember: People drive in the left lane here, like in England.

What Should I Do When I'm There?

I would have been content to beach-hop for four days, which I pretty much did, but I realize people might want to do something other than roll around in the sand and surf.

As I mentioned, the snorkeling is fantastic. It’s easy to do this at almost any beach, but you might consider renting a dinghy or larger boat that can take you to more remote areas. Also, boats can be moored at most national park beaches, so you can beach-hop that way, too.

There are also several hiking trails throughout the park. One small network of trails is located right behind the park's visitor center and takes you to two beaches—Salomon and Honeymoon—that can only be accessed only by foot or boat. These hikes are short, not much farther than 1 mile each way, but be warned: Nothing is flat here. The trails, like the roads, twist and roll.

Some trails lead to sugar plantation ruins, including the major ones: Annaberg and Catherineberg. Susannaberg, on Centerline Road not far from Cruz Bay, is home to the Windmill Bar, one of the coolest spots on the island and the best place to watch sunsets. I’ll let you in on a secret: The show doesn’t end after the sun disappears. Sit still and watch the twinkling lights of St. Thomas come on across the strait.

Because of the lack of development, Virgin Islands National Park, and St. John in general, is a dark sky area and a wonderful place to view stars. Every Wednesday evening, year-round, park guide Mark Whitefoot lugs a telescope down to Cinnamon Bay and hosts guided stargazing from 8:15 to 9:15 p.m.

Lay Some More Fun Trivia on Me

In 1956, Laurance Spelman Rockefeller, the fourth child of John D. Rockefeller, donated land purchased on St. John with the stipulation that it be protected from future development. This land eventually became Virgin Islands National Park.

Though the park comprises roughly 60 percent of the island, much of the island's waters, coral reefs and shoreline became protected as part of the park, when the Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument was created in 2001.

Also: In 1957, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the theoretical physicist known as the father of the atomic bomb, purchased two acres on Gibney Beach and built a cabin. For many years, he sailed here with his wife and daughter.

Matt McGowan is a former newspaper reporter who has worked for many years as a science and research writer at the University of Arkansas. His short stories have appeared in Adirondack ReviewDeep South MagazineArkansas ReviewBig Muddy and others. His first novel, 1971, published by Auxarczen Press in 2021, is available on Amazon, and a collection of short stories will be published soon. McGowan lives with his wife and children in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

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