Thanks to generous gifts from philanthropist and conservationist Laurance Rockefeller and others over the years, today two-thirds of St. John is protected as national park land. The designation not only prevents commercial development and keeps delicate ecosystems intact, it also makes St. John island the premier destination for nature lovers and anyone who wants to enjoy the simple pleasures of a pristine tropical island. It is also one of the best places for hiking.
One of the most popular things to do on St. John Island is hiking the national park trails. With nearly two dozen well-maintained trails ranging from beginner to intermediate, the island has the perfect hiking trail for you.
Many trails on St. John island connect and include spurs to historical ruins of interest, including sugar mills, schools and homes, as well as petroglyphs (early rock carvings) made by island settlers more than seventeen decades ago. Throughout the St. John island hiking trails and the national park are nearly a thousand varieties of plants, including wild orchids, bamboo, mahogany, mango, genip, soursop, papaya, and key lime.) Eagle-eye hikers may even see coffee and cotton plants from a back time long ago.
On St. John national park trails hikers also will see hundreds of birds species, including pelicans, grackles, hummingbirds, frigatebirds, egrets, herons, boobys, terns, ducks and sandpipers) and many different animals, including wild donkeys, deer, mongooses, prehistoric looking iguanas, and many varieties of lizards (including geckos & anoles).
Animals you won’t see on St. John island? Snakes, crocodiles, tigers or bears! Mongoose, originally brought to the island to eradicate nocturnal rats, are diurnal, and preferred the taste for snake. Today they dine on other feed, including your picnic lunch… even with a lid on your cooler, make sure it’s secure (we’ve seen these little guys in action and they can be quite crafty.)
Some of the most popular national park hiking trails on St. John island are listed below:
A 4.4 mile roundtrip from the entrance to Reef Bay Trail off Centerline Road (Rt. 10), the Reef Bay Trail is almost all shaded and ends at Gentri’s beach, a secluded white sandy beach with shallow reefed waters, the best for snorkeling. Bring good hiking shoes (not flip flops!) and plenty of water for the trip. The return hike is one that justifies that yummy burger at Skinny Legs afterwards.
The first half mile of the Reef Bay Trail is steep and not for the feeble, often testing your ability (and in some cases, stability!) along rocky paths. The rest of the trail is relatively flat and wider than most paths in the park. Keep your eyes and ears open throughout this hike – waterfalls here are spectacular and prevalent after a good rain. Near the end of the Reef Bay trail, before the beach, is the Reef Bay mill.
Originally constructed in the mid 1800’s, active until 1920 and somewhat restored in 1960, the area around Reef Bay has been occupied by many diverse cultures for similar purposes over the course of its history. Today the Reef Bay Estate (including the original Par Force Estate) is in surprisingly good shape. In 1780 the area was home to a sugar factory and animal mill. In 1862 the sugar factory was converted to steam, resulting in the construction of an engine room. Years later the same mill was used to extract oils from local bay rum trees. Visitors to the Reef Bay ruins will find national park signs noting points of interest.
Follow a spur to the west that intersects the Reef Bay Trail and in less than a half mile you will reach the infamous petroglyphs. It’s a bit of steep climb up a narrow path to get to the fresh water pond and the petroglyphs, but well worth it. Taino Indians carved the rocks as early as 300 AD. A new petroglyph was discovered deep in the park just a few years ago!
From the National Park Visitor Center in Cruz Bay, follow the Lind Point Trail for just one mile and arrive at picture-perfect Salomon Beach, or continue on another half mile to Honeymoon Bay beach. Accessible only by foot or water, beachgoers enjoy white sand, romantic palm trees and calm, clear blue water at both these hidden treasures.
Newly renovated, this wheelchair accessible trail is a nature lover’s heaven, at just a half mile around and a solid wood walkway floating over sand and through mangroves. Several seated overlooks face the pond, where visitors will hear birds singing overhead and swimming in the fertile salt pond, including ducks, egrets and even a flamingo every now and again (on its way to Anegada!)
Just a mile long one-way, the Cinnamon Bay trail is popular going both ways. One of few paths that connect North Shore Road (Rt. 20) to Centerline (Rt. 10), the Cinnamon Bay trail is steep in parts, but surprisingly flat in others. Enjoy the tropical aromas of ferns, bay rum trees and genips, as well as expansive views of St. Thomas and surrounding cays along the way. Cinnamon Bay is also a great place to go camping.
Ram Head (or Ram’s Head) Trail is a healthy 3-mile hike over rough terrain in mostly unshaded areas. The Ram Head trail is unquestionably a sensory experience. Follow a largely unmarked path along round rock shores, up dusty goat trails, over white coral beaches, and through wide open, cactus-riddled plains to the top of a windy, rocky cliff with crashing waves 200 ft. below. Hold on to your hat! And remember to bring plenty of water, and a flashlight, if you’re a full moon hiker. Ram Head makes the ultimate overlook to see the sun set and the full moon rise each month. The entrance to Ram Head Trail is at Salt Pond, a popular National Park beach on the southeast side of St. John Island, accessible from Rt. 107 (off Centerline, Rt. 10, in Coral Bay).
If visiting Salt Pond, take an easy, quarter-mile flat hike over to Drunk Bay. Drunk Bay shore is rocky with rough waves, but also has a surprise awaiting all who visit. It takes only some coral with a little flotsam and jetsam thrown in to make the island’s most creative outlet. Hike the short distance over to Drunk Bay to find out for yourself what everyone is talking about!
If you’ve opted to head out to Salt Pond, one of the national park beaches along the south shore of St. John Island, and you’re looking for a nice surprise, hike the short Drunk Bay spur trail, which starts at the far east end of Salt Pond bay and follows the Salt Pond along the north side for a half mile to Drunk Bay. A flat, and sometimes hot, walk from Salt Pond, Drunk Bay offers visitors who make the trek a fun surprise.
While the rocky, rough shores of Drunk Bay are not conducive to swimming, the famous bay clearly supports, and some say prompts, creative expression. While you may not see them at first, look closely to discover dozens, then hundreds, of coral statues along the rocky beach. Using the various formations of coral along the shoreline, inspired visitors for decades have created a bevy of “coral people” using the stones to create heads, torsos, arms and legs. Partially shredded coconut for hair, sargassum weed for clothes, and crooked pieces of drift wood allow for unlimited artistic opportunities. Add your creative two cents and build your beauty at Drunk Bay.
While Turtle Bay is on the property of the Caneel Bay Resort and accessible from land only by resort guests, it technically lies within the boundaries of the National Park and can be accessed from the water by anyone. From Turtle Bay, access the Turtle Point Trail on the east side on foot and hike the half mile around Hawksnest Point for once in a lifetime photo opportunities. Don’t forget your camera!
Not for the weak or weary, the Johnny Horn hiking trail on St. John island starts at the end of the Leinster Bay trail (at Waterlemon Cay) and continues for two miles up, over and along the south ridge and eventually down the other side to the Moravian church in Coral Bay. Grab a drink and something to eat at Skinny Legs, Indigo Grill, Pickles Deli or Cocoloba Café before starting the trek back. If the return hike was not (or is no longer) on your agenda, hitch a ride or catch the dollar bus from Coral Bay to Cruz Bay on weekdays. The bus is a great option, when it’s running.
Another adventurous trail on the East End of St. John Island can be found at the Brown Bay trail. Access to the south end of the trail at East End Road, about a mile east from the Coral Bay sign corner (a.k.a. the triangle). The opposite end of the Brown Bay trails accessible from the Johnny Horn trail (definitely bring a map, it can be confusing, especially if you’re well winded and a wee delirious from the heart pumping experience thus far.
You won’t find this trail on the national park hiking maps for St. John Island, but L’Esperance is one of the most interesting. Catch the entrance to L’Esperance trail on the south side of Centerline Rd. (Route 10) about a quarter mile past the Virgin Islands National Park sign at Catherineberg. Round trip, the L’Esperance trail is almost six miles, so bring plenty of water and start your hike early in the day to ensure you will return before dark. L’Esperance trail follows the Fish Bay Gut, with at least four different ruins sites not seen by many visitors. The trail veers east about halfway down and crosses over the Mollendal gut along the Sieben Ridge and down to Genti Bay, the greater area of water of which Reef Bay beach lies just to the east. You’ve hiked this far, might as well walk on over to the Reef Bay Sugar Mill ruins, just beyond the forest line at the beach, and down the Reef Bay trail about a mile to the Petroglyphs spur trail.
Almost two miles from Lameshur Bay to Reef Bay, the Lameshur Bay trail offers many points of interests to hikers. Accessible from the end of Rt. 107 (Lameshur Bay road), the trail is wide and wanders through deep forest for the first half mile, then follows a ridge called the White Cliffs for the second half, ending about a mile up from the water at the Reef Bay trail. Hikers will find massive hollow trees still standing, wild deer and mongoose, and dozens of different birds enjoying the day overhead. Hiking along the White Cliffs of Lameshur Bay trail will bring you into bright sun, so remember the sunblock when you pack that extra water.
In 1969, NASA along with the US Navy and the Department of Interior (DOI) launched a study at Lameshur Bay to evaluate what would happen when people live and work underwater. The first structure that was built for this experiment was called Tektite, and the Tektite Trail follows the original quarter mile road used to deliver supplies to the aquanauts. Unmarked and barely visible, the entrance to the Tektite Trail starts at the bottom of the concrete paved road that leads to both Great and Little Lameshur bays.
The first Tektite experiment was a success and a second experiment, deemed Tektite II, was launched later that year that included the world’s first all-female team of scientists to live underwater. Tektite and Tektite II were each built of two cylindrical tubes about 12 feet wide and 18 feet high that sat 50 feet underwater throughout the mission.
Today the structure is gone, but the underlying foundation underwater remains, as does the trail to the entrance. The original base camp is now the Virgin Islands Environmental Resource Station (VIERS), located between Great and Little Lameshur Bays and run by Clean Islands International on behalf of the University of the Virgin Islands. Visit the Tektite Museum at VIERS for some cool artifacts from that crazy time in 1969.
Surprisingly named for a disease called Yaws, Yawzi Point marks the location where natives who were stricken years ago were isolated. Accessible from the Lameshur Bay beach road (between Great Lameshur Bay and Little Lameshur Bay), the Yawzi Point trail is just over a quarter mile and offers hikers a great sampling of local vegetation and breathtaking waterfront overlooks.
Along the Lameshur Bay trail is a spur trail to Europa Bay, about a half mile in. When the Lameshur Bay trail reaches the Reef Bay trail, make a right up the Reef Bay trail just 50 yards to the Petroglyph spur trail, or make a left down the Reef Bay trail about a mile to the Reef Bay Sugar Mill ruins, Reef Bay beach and greater Genti Bay.
Heading down the Bordeaux Mountain trail is a breeze, and puts hikers at Little Lameshur Bay for a refreshing dip in the clear Caribbean Sea. Heading up, you’ll wish you had made other plans!
Bordeaux Mountain trail is accessible at the top of Bordeaux Mountain Road, from an often unmarked trail head, and descends steeply a little more than a mile to the bay below. Head west to the Lameshur Bay trail to get to Reef Bay, or head east down the road to Great Lameshur Bay. Remember, only the latter will have any jeep traffic, so if you’re tired and looking to hitch, don’t head to Reef Bay!
Clearly marked and accessible from North Shore Road (Rt. 20), the Peace Hill Trail offers far more than the obvious. A small parking lot allows for only about eight cars and is rarely full. Follow a wide path straight up from the parking lot to a flat knoll where lies an old sugar mill ruin. Great 300 degree view of the North Shore of St. John and across to the British Virgin Islands, those who only go this far are missing the best part.
From the parking lot on the way up to Peace Hill is an unmarked entrance to a half mile trail that takes you directly to Denis Bay beach. The trail and the west area of Denis Bay are park land, while the land to the east with a residential dwelling is privately owned. The west side of Denis Bay is the most interesting, with large black volcanic rocks, warmed sitting pools, and a small rocky island just off the shoreline with excellent snorkeling all around. Denis Bay also offers interesting sights and sounds. Boats cruise along the North Shore of St. John (Windward Passage and The Narrows) heading through Sir Francis Drake Channel to the British Virgin Islands, which can be seen from Denis Bay beach in the distance. Water crafts range from small motored dinghies to multi-hulled sailing vessels, and there’s never a shortage of things to watch. Visitors to Denis Bay beach are guaranteed an active view and a classic tropical beach environment.