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An Adventurer’s Guide to Virgin Islands National Park, St. John, US Virgin Islands

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Established 1956

Discover the pristine beauty and vibrant history of Virgin Islands National Park. Hike lush trails, snorkel crystal-clear waters, and explore ancient ruins on St. John for an unforgettable Caribbean adventure.


Virgin Islands National Park, located on the island of St. John in the US Virgin Islands, is a stunning natural sanctuary that captivates visitors with its turquoise waters, lush landscapes, and vibrant marine life. Spanning approximately 60% of the island, the park covers 7,259 acres of land and an additional 5,650 acres of adjacent marine areas. This extraordinary blend of tropical ecosystems, historical landmarks, and recreational opportunities makes it a must-visit destination for nature enthusiasts and history aficionados alike.

The park’s diverse terrain includes pristine beaches, verdant hills, and dense tropical forests. Its waters are home to thriving coral reefs, seagrass beds, and a rich array of marine species, offering excellent opportunities for snorkeling and diving. On land, visitors can explore miles of hiking trails that wind through historical ruins, native flora, and breathtaking viewpoints. Virgin Islands National Park is not only a refuge for wildlife but also a sanctuary for those seeking both tranquility and adventure. Whether you’re interested in underwater exploration, hiking through lush landscapes, or delving into the island’s rich history, the park promises an unforgettable experience.

Table of Contents:

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Getting to the Virgin Islands

Reaching Virgin Islands National Park on St. John involves a bit of planning, but the journey is part of the adventure. The most common gateway to St. John is via St. Thomas, the neighboring island, which is accessible by air and sea.

By Air: The Cyril E. King Airport (STT) on St. Thomas is the closest major airport, offering flights from various US cities such as Miami, Atlanta, New York, and Charlotte. Once you arrive at Cyril E. King Airport, you will need to make your way to the ferry terminals to continue your journey to St. John.

By Ferry: Ferries are the primary mode of transportation from St. Thomas to St. John. Two main ferry routes operate between the islands: the Red Hook Ferry and the Charlotte Amalie Ferry.

  • Red Hook Ferry: Located on the eastern end of St. Thomas, the Red Hook Ferry is the more frequent option, with departures every hour. The ferry ride takes about 20 minutes to reach Cruz Bay, the main port town on St. John.
  • Charlotte Amalie Ferry: Departing from the downtown area of St. Thomas, this ferry operates less frequently but offers a convenient option for those staying in or near Charlotte Amalie. The journey takes approximately 45 minutes.

By Private Boat: For a more personalized and flexible travel experience, private boat charters are available. These charters can be arranged through various operators and provide direct transport to St. John, often with the added benefit of a scenic tour of the surrounding waters.

By Car: If you plan to bring a vehicle to St. John, you can take the car barge from Red Hook, St. Thomas, to Cruz Bay. Several barge companies operate this route, allowing you to bring your rental car along for easier exploration of the island.

Once on St. John, the park’s entrance is easily accessible from Cruz Bay. From there, you can embark on your adventure, exploring the many wonders Virgin Islands National Park has to offer.

Human History

The human history of Virgin Islands National Park is rich and multifaceted, spanning thousands of years and encompassing a wide range of cultures and civilizations.

Pre-Columbian Era

The first known inhabitants of St. John were the Taíno people, who arrived around 1000 BCE. The Taíno were skilled agriculturalists and seafarers, establishing thriving communities on the island. They cultivated crops such as cassava, sweet potatoes, and maize, and they fished the surrounding waters for a variety of marine life. The Taíno left behind numerous artifacts, including pottery, stone tools, and petroglyphs, many of which can be seen in the park today.

European Colonization

In 1493, Christopher Columbus arrived in the Caribbean on his second voyage to the New World. Although he did not land on St. John, his arrival marked the beginning of European interest in the region. Over the next few centuries, the island changed hands several times, with the Danish West India Company eventually establishing a permanent settlement in 1718. The Danes began cultivating sugar cane, which became the island’s primary export. They built numerous plantations, many of which relied on the labor of enslaved Africans.

Sugar Plantations and Slavery

The sugar plantation era was a dark period in the island’s history. Enslaved Africans were brought to St. John to work on the plantations, enduring brutal conditions and harsh treatment. The Annaberg Plantation, one of the largest and most well-preserved plantations on the island, serves as a poignant reminder of this period. Visitors to Annaberg can explore the ruins of the sugar mill, factory, and slave quarters, gaining insight into the lives of those who lived and worked there.

Emancipation and Post-Plantation Era

In 1848, slavery was abolished in the Danish West Indies, leading to significant social and economic changes on St. John. The plantation economy collapsed, and many formerly enslaved individuals established small farms and communities. The island’s population declined, and much of the land was left to revert to its natural state.

20th Century and the Creation of the Park

In 1917, the United States purchased the Danish West Indies, including St. John, renaming them the US Virgin Islands. In the mid-20th century, philanthropist Laurance Rockefeller played a crucial role in the creation of Virgin Islands National Park. Rockefeller purchased large tracts of land on St. John and donated them to the National Park Service, with the stipulation that they be preserved for public enjoyment and environmental protection. The park was officially established on August 2, 1956.

Today, Virgin Islands National Park preserves the natural beauty and cultural heritage of St. John, providing visitors with an opportunity to explore the island’s diverse ecosystems and learn about its complex history.


Virgin Islands National Park is a biodiversity hotspot, home to a wide array of plant and animal species. The park’s diverse ecosystems include tropical forests, coastal mangroves, seagrass beds, and coral reefs, each supporting unique communities of flora and fauna.

Terrestrial Ecosystems

The park’s terrestrial habitats range from dry coastal scrub to lush, moist forests. Common tree species include the bay rum tree, historically harvested for its fragrant oil, and the turpentine tree, known for its resinous sap. The park also supports a variety of shrubs, vines, and ground cover plants, many of which are endemic to the Virgin Islands.


The park is home to a variety of terrestrial animals, including several species of reptiles, amphibians, and mammals. The island’s reptile population includes the green iguana, the Virgin Islands tree boa, and the red-footed tortoise. Amphibians such as the Puerto Rican coqui and the Cuban tree frog can also be found in the park. Mammals are less diverse, but the park does host populations of bats, mongoose, and deer.

Marine Ecosystems

The park’s marine environments are equally diverse, encompassing coral reefs, seagrass beds, and mangrove forests. Coral reefs are particularly abundant, providing habitat for a wide variety of marine life, including colorful fish, sea turtles, and invertebrates. Notable reef species include the elkhorn coral, brain coral, and the vibrant parrotfish. Seagrass beds, which are important nurseries for juvenile fish and invertebrates, are dominated by species such as turtle grass and manatee grass. Mangrove forests, found in sheltered coastal areas, serve as critical buffers against storm surges and provide habitat for a variety of bird species and juvenile marine life.

Conservation Efforts

The park’s diverse ecosystems are subject to various environmental threats, including climate change, invasive species, and human activity. The National Park Service and various conservation organizations work to protect and restore the park’s natural habitats through a variety of initiatives. These efforts include habitat restoration projects, invasive species management, and public education programs aimed at promoting sustainable tourism practices.


The geology of Virgin Islands National Park is a fascinating study of the forces that have shaped the island of St. John over millions of years. The island’s geological history is characterized by volcanic activity, tectonic movements, and erosion, which have combined to create the diverse landscapes seen today.

Volcanic Origins

St. John and the other Virgin Islands were formed by volcanic activity that began around 100 million years ago. The island’s bedrock consists primarily of volcanic rock, including basalt and andesite, which were created by the cooling and solidification of molten lava. These volcanic rocks are evident in the rugged terrain and steep cliffs that characterize much of the island’s interior.

Tectonic Activity

The Caribbean region is located at the boundary of several tectonic plates, including the North American Plate, the South American Plate, and the Caribbean Plate. The movement of these plates has played a significant role in shaping the island’s geology. Over millions of years, tectonic forces have caused the uplift and deformation of the island’s bedrock, resulting in the formation of mountains, valleys, and fault lines. Evidence of these tectonic processes can be seen in the island’s folded and faulted rock formations.

Erosion and Weathering

Erosion and weathering have also played a crucial role in shaping the landscapes of Virgin Islands National Park. The island’s volcanic rocks are particularly susceptible to weathering, which is the breakdown of rocks by physical, chemical, and biological processes. The tropical climate of St. John, characterized by high temperatures and abundant rainfall, accelerates the weathering process. Over time, weathering and erosion have transformed the island’s rugged volcanic terrain into the more rounded hills and valleys seen today. The action of wind, rain, and waves has also contributed to the formation of the island’s stunning coastal features, including sandy beaches, sea cliffs, and coral reefs.

Coastal and Marine Geology

The coastal and marine geology of Virgin Islands National Park is equally remarkable. The island’s fringing coral reefs, formed by the accumulation of calcium carbonate skeletons of coral polyps, provide critical habitat for a diverse array of marine life. These reefs are dynamic systems that grow and change over time, influenced by factors such as water temperature, sea level, and the availability of nutrients. Additionally, the island’s coastal areas are characterized by the presence of beach rock, a type of limestone formed by the cementation of sand and shell fragments. This beach rock helps to stabilize the shoreline and protect it from erosion.

Best Places to Stay

When visiting Virgin Islands National Park, there are several accommodation options to suit different preferences and budgets, ranging from campgrounds to luxury resorts.

Cinnamon Bay Campground: Cinnamon Bay Campground offers a unique opportunity to stay within the national park. Located near one of the park’s most beautiful beaches, the campground provides a range of accommodations, including tent sites, eco-tents, and cottages. Amenities include a restaurant, a general store, and equipment rentals for snorkeling, kayaking, and other activities. Staying at Cinnamon Bay allows you to immerse yourself in nature and enjoy easy access to the park’s trails and beaches.

Caneel Bay Resort: Caneel Bay Resort, although currently closed due to hurricane damage, is historically one of the most iconic resorts on St. John. Situated on a 170-acre peninsula within the national park, the resort features seven secluded beaches and luxurious accommodations. Guests can enjoy various recreational activities, including snorkeling, sailing, and hiking. Keep an eye on updates regarding the resort’s reopening for a chance to experience its renowned hospitality and stunning location.

The Westin St. John Resort Villas: The Westin St. John Resort Villas is another excellent option for visitors seeking a more upscale experience. Located near Great Cruz Bay, the resort offers a range of accommodations, from studios to multi-bedroom villas. The Westin features numerous amenities, including a large pool, a spa, multiple dining options, and access to various water sports and recreational activities. Its convenient location makes it an ideal base for exploring the national park and the island.

Vacation Rentals

For those who prefer a more private and home-like experience, vacation rentals are plentiful on St. John. Options range from cozy cottages to luxurious villas, many of which offer stunning views of the island and the Caribbean Sea. Vacation rentals can provide more flexibility and privacy, making them an excellent choice for families or groups.

Enjoying the Park

Virgin Islands National Park offers a wealth of activities for outdoor enthusiasts, history buffs, and anyone seeking to experience the natural beauty and cultural heritage of St. John.


The park boasts over 20 miles of hiking trails that traverse a variety of landscapes, from coastal paths to mountainous terrain. Some of the most popular trails include:

  • Reef Bay Trail: This trail descends through a lush forest to the Reef Bay Sugar Mill ruins, passing ancient petroglyphs along the way. Guided hikes are available, providing insights into the island’s history and ecology.
  • Ram Head Trail: Offering stunning coastal views, this trail leads to the southernmost point of the island. The hike is moderately challenging but rewards hikers with panoramic vistas of the Caribbean Sea.
  • Lind Point Trail: This trail connects Cruz Bay to several scenic viewpoints and beaches, including Honeymoon Beach and Salomon Beach. It’s a great option for those looking for a shorter, less strenuous hike.
Snorkeling and Diving

The park’s clear, warm waters and vibrant coral reefs make it a paradise for snorkeling and diving. Some of the best spots include:

  • Trunk Bay: Famous for its underwater snorkeling trail, Trunk Bay is one of the most popular beaches in the park. The trail features underwater plaques identifying various coral and fish species.
  • Hawksnest Bay: Known for its easy access and abundant marine life, Hawksnest Bay is a great spot for both snorkeling and swimming.
  • Waterlemon Cay: Located in Leinster Bay, Waterlemon Cay offers some of the best snorkeling in the park. The waters around the cay are teeming with colorful fish, sea turtles, and rays.
Historical Sites

Exploring the park’s historical sites provides a glimpse into St. John’s rich cultural heritage. Notable sites include:

  • Annaberg Plantation: As one of the largest and best-preserved sugar plantations on the island, Annaberg offers a window into the island’s colonial past. Visitors can explore the ruins and learn about the lives of the enslaved people who worked there.
  • Catherineberg Ruins: This lesser-known site features the remains of a 17th-century sugar plantation, including a windmill and factory buildings. The ruins are set amidst lush vegetation, creating a picturesque and peaceful setting.
  • Petroglyphs: Located along the Reef Bay Trail, the petroglyphs are ancient rock carvings created by the Taíno people. These carvings offer a fascinating insight into the island’s pre-Columbian history.

Virgin Islands National Park is home to some of the most beautiful beaches in the Caribbean. In addition to Trunk Bay and Hawksnest Bay, other notable beaches include:

  • Maho Bay: Known for its calm, shallow waters, Maho Bay is ideal for swimming and snorkeling. It’s also a great spot to see sea turtles grazing on seagrass.
  • Cinnamon Bay: One of the longest beaches in the park, Cinnamon Bay offers excellent opportunities for water sports, such as kayaking and windsurfing.
  • Salt Pond Bay: This secluded beach is perfect for those seeking a quieter experience. The bay is great for snorkeling, and the surrounding area offers several hiking trails.


Virgin Islands National Park on St. John is a treasure trove of natural beauty, cultural heritage, and outdoor adventure. From its pristine beaches and vibrant coral reefs to its lush forests and historical ruins, the park offers something for every type of traveler. Whether you’re hiking through ancient petroglyph sites, snorkeling in crystal-clear waters, or simply relaxing on a sun-drenched beach, Virgin Islands National Park provides an unforgettable experience that showcases the best of the Caribbean.

The park’s commitment to conservation and sustainable tourism ensures that its unique ecosystems and historical sites will be preserved for future generations to enjoy. As you explore the park, you’ll not only create lasting memories but also contribute to the ongoing efforts to protect this remarkable corner of the world. So pack your bags, prepare for adventure, and discover the wonders of Virgin Islands National Park on the enchanting island of St. John.

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