Virgin Islands National Park, one of two outside of the 50 states, is among national parks to visit in your lifetime.
By Donna B. Ulrich
You can drive to most of America’s national parklands, while some others require an airplane flight. But on our first visit to Virgin Islands National Park, we sailed in.
Located on St. John, in the Caribbean Sea, this treasure of the U.S. park system is a legacy of conservationist Laurance Rockefeller, who donated more than 5,000 acres for it in 1956. Park officials acquired 5,650 undersea acres off the northern and southern coasts in 1962, and today the park covers more than half of St. John’s 19 square miles and nearly all of tiny Hassel Island.
Imagine a luxurious tropical paradise with easy access to beaches—and we own the place! The U.S. purchased St. John and many smaller islands from Denmark during World War I. Virgin Islands is one of just two national parks not located within the 50 United States, the other being the National Park of American Samoa in the South Pacific. Weather in the park averages 79 degrees, and there is very little temperature change between summer and winter.
My husband, Larry, and I spent 11 memorable days exploring Caribbean waters on a 42-foot sailboat before anchoring off the park’s Trunk Bay, consistently voted one of the 10 best beaches in the world. The long strip of white sand, framed by lush tropical plants, stretches invitingly for a quarter of a mile.
Offshore, an underwater snorkeling trail through the Caribbean blue invites the visitor to linger and enjoy dazzling coral formations and fish of colors unfamiliar in our terrestrial world. Signs along the 225-yard underwater path tell snorkelers about the coral and other life forms they may see, including the coral-munching parrot fish, moray eels and trumpet fish. Farther out in the bay you may see green turtles, stingrays and eagle rays.
Serious snorkelers can also explore many other interesting reefs and bays along St. John’s north coast. In fact, coral reefs surround much of the island.
Though you can camp in the park, we hadn’t brought the necessary equipment to do so. There are cottages available for rent, but we chose to rent a bungalow complete with resident anoles—quick-moving lizards that eat bugs.
We quickly discovered on a drive inland that the residents have adopted many British customs, like driving on the left side of the road. We also found that picking up hitchhiking locals, especially elders, was not an option; it was mandatory. From that experience we learned about places to see, most of them within the park. Hiking to abandoned sugar mills, historical Taino petroglyph rock carvings and subtropical rainforests filled our days.
The Annaberg sugar factory ruins date back to the 1780s, when the island was owned by Denmark, sugar cane was king and more than 300 slaves were used to clear the land, build stone structures and toil in the fields. Terraced hillsides are reminders of plantation farming, but tropical plants that were once cleared for raising cane are now reclaiming the slopes and ruins.
Twenty hiking trails offer short and long ventures to moist high-elevation forests, desert terrain, mangrove swamps and beautiful beaches. The island’s highest point and some of the most spectacular views are on Bordeaux Mountain, which rises to 1,277 feet and plunges dramatically to the sea over a distance of just three-quarters of a mile.
There is much to see in the national park, including more than 50 species of tropical birds and some 800 species of plants like bay rum trees and tropical orchids.
But throughout our trek the sea was never far from sight, beckoning to us. A day of sightseeing must be followed by sight-sea-ing along sun-drenched beaches and pristine waters.
Larry and I spent most of our time photographing, but at day’s end, sunsets were watched, local culinary specialties were consumed and warm breezes lulled us to sleep each night.
Photos by Larry Ulrich