Virgin Islands National Park Multi-Sport

Virgin Islands National Park lives on a paradise Island... St. John. Image credit: Jonathan Irish

Virgin Islands National Park lives on a paradise Island… St. John. Image credit: Jonathan Irish

About 60% of the island of St. John where Virgin Islands National Park is located is protected parkland, and that excludes the 5,650 acres of parkland area that is submerged beneath the water surrounding its shores. St. John is the least developed and smallest of the three best-known United States Virgin Islands, and with just a couple of roads on the nine-mile-long island, it is hard to get lost and therefor conducive to letting travelers carve-their-own adventures.

The U.S. Virgin Islands (US VI) are well known to mariners and island hoppers for pure white sandy beaches and the turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea that bring them there. It’s one of those perfect environments to do what people love to do on any paradise island—soak in the sun, play in the sand, and swim in the sea. We did all of that. It’s also a perfect multi-sport destination. We composed ours of three activities: hiking, snorkeling, and relaxing. Relaxing as a sport? After canoeing backcountry in the Everglades, exploring the waterways of Biscayne, and camping in the Dry Tortugas, we thought that a little relaxation would be a fine thing to work into the itinerary at park #4. And, relaxing is sport in the US VI.  

Because we flew from mainland America to reach St. John (flying into St. Thomas first then crossing by ferry to the park), we had to leave our Airstream back in Florida. As we had no outdoor gear with us, we decided that this would be a good time to find a hotel to stay in for a couple of days (and take a proper shower.) In keeping with our goal to spend as much of 2016 within national park boundaries, we chose the only accommodation inside of US VI National Park: the Caneel Bay Resort on the north shore. Located on Laurance Rockefeller’s former personal estate, the resort provides access to some of the islands very best beaches, and provides equipment to explore them with. Learn to windsurf, paddle, dive—it’s all right there. Sharing this natural setting was a dream of Rockefeller, who was known professionally as an esteemed financier and philanthropist, and known better in his inner circles as a passionate environmentalist and preservationist. During the 1950s, he acquired 5,000 acres of parkland on the island and donated it to the U.S. government who established it as one of our 59 beloved U.S. National Parks in 1956.

How best to explore Virgin Islands National Park? Rent a Jeep, grab a map, and go!

How best to explore Virgin Islands National Park? Rent a Jeep, grab a map, and go! Credit: Jonathan Irish

60 years later, after one full day of leisure, we were ready to explore the park outside of the resort. We grabbed a map and rented a Jeep Wrangler with a basic no-plan plan in mind. “Don’t be alarmed by the low tire-pressure,” Jennifer with the leasing office said, “that keeps the tires from blowing out!” Okey-dokie. Off we drove along the steep, rocky, harrowing back roads that took us to the roof of the island and to the first stop on our multi-sport adventure.

Rams Head Trail located at Salt Pond is a short one-mile trail, but is difficult all the same as it is fully exposed to the heat of the blazing sun. The steep climb brings you along rocky cliff sides to a mountaintop where you have full panorama views of the island. We both loved this trail—short, sweet, and enough to break a sweat. It put us at a perfect vantage point to realize that while hiking is our activity of choice in many of the parks, where we really wanted to be at that very-high-up-near-the-sun moment was in the water down below.

Down we went.

Virgin Islands National Park, underwater. Image credit: Jonathan Irish

Virgin Islands National Park, underwater. Image credit: Jonathan Irish

Instead of swimming at the beach based at Rams Head, we ventured to other beaches on the island. Hawksnest had to be visited because of the Seattle Seahawks connotation (#12s). On the east side of the island, there is a galley of private residences offering beach access for $2.50 per person at a lesser-known local spot faved by locals called Vie’s . The same locals who sent us to Vie’s advised us to steer clear of Trunks Bay, the most popular beach on the island, because it is so overly touristed. We stopped there anyway to check out the famed underwater snorkeling trail. On the shore, the wide sandbar shaded by seagrape trees and coconut palms made it very photogenic and it was a very lovely place to just be. The underwater snorkeling trail—225 yards of coral reef along the seabottom marked with points of interest—is, in fact, a unique excursion. It’s pretty perfect for families with gaps in skill level and it’s quite accessible. If you are looking to find the wild jewels of the sea, it’s kind of a snore to be perfectly honest. At least while we were there, the area lacked abundant sea life in comparison to other places we’d snorkeled while visiting … places like Scott’s Beach back at Caneel Bay where we saw families of sea turtles, stingrays, sergeant major fish, other fish, octopus, puffer fish, coral of all sizes and shapes, and I think a shark… Jon says “maybe,” I say, “it was definitely a shark.”   

We got lost in those snorkels (what an amazing way to explore the world!), in long wanders through remains of ancient civilizations and among ruins of sugar plantations located in the lush vegetation that grows so wild on the island; and made time otherwise for a couple of really great meals restaurants in town that cater to foodies—a welcome change to the dehydrated camping food and protein bars we’d been living for three weeks prior. And aside from all that, we relaxed, saving up energy for a long trek to park #5! 

Follow along on the Greatest American Road Trip!

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This is not an error: you actually see only one hiking stick medallion from the US VI. We lost one. Hoping to find one online... stay tuned!

This is not an error: you actually see only one hiking stick medallion from the US VI. We lost one. Hoping to find one online… stay tuned! Credit: Stefanie Payne


4 down, 55 parks to go!

4 down, 55 parks to go! Credit: Stefanie Payne

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Categories: National Parks Centennial, North America, Stories, Where to Travel

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