Because some of the best trails are along the beach—or even under water.
Between 2016 and 2019, I’m becoming the youngest person to experience all 400+ U.S. National Park Service sites. Since starting this journey in April 2016, I’ve been to dramatic cliffs on sandy lake shores, arid canyons in prairie states, and even hiked the final five miles of the Appalachian Trail—doing it all while living in my 2014 Ram Promaster cargo van: Vanny McVanface.
However, there are approximately three dozen NPS sites I cannot reach with Vanny. Some are in the continental U.S. but are only accessible via seaplanes or boats, while others are in far-flung territories like American Samoa and Guam. Six of those sites can be found in the American Caribbean: a Historic Site in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and five diverse parks in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Accessing these Caribbean sites has proven to be one of the most difficult and expensive sections of my journey, however, they’ve also proved to be some of the most memorable parks thus far. Warm weather in the dead of winter, Jurassic Park-esque views, and crystal clear waters of every shade of blue, swimming with sea turtles, sting rays, and schools of fish? Sign me up.
These are the top five hikes of the Virgin Islands’ national park and monuments… with a little twist on the traditional trail.
Ram Head Trail in Virgin Islands National Park
Featuring sharp cliffs and crashing waves, Ram Head Trail leads you deep into one of the most far-flung tips of Saint John Island. Cactuses of varying heights and colors, rocky beaches of smoothed out coral, and views of a pristinely undeveloped island are all rewards for this two-hour round trip hike.
Hansen Bay to Hurricane Hole in the Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument
This trail may be one of the least-traveled of any you’ve experienced. Why? Because the Coral Reef National Monument is made up entirely of ocean. To actually visit this site—and the amazing angel fish, dense mangrove forests, and thousands of newborn fish that live there—you need to get in the water. While most travelers won’t have their own boat or kayak to do so, Park Service concessionaire Reef2Peak provides custom kayak tours launching from the nearby Hansen Bay. By embarking on one of these tours, you not only get to experience kayaking in open ocean and shallow bays, but Reef2Peak’s guides provide a history of the often-overlooked East End section of Saint John, including the unique land-sharing history of its residents.
Bonus Tip: Arrive early to the Hansen Bay launch site so you can snorkel in this area known for easy sea turtle spotting.
L’Esperance or Reef Bay Trail in Virgin Islands National Park
While the average traveler can access either of these trails (L’Esperance Trail / Reef Bay Trail) via a $1 public bus that runs from Cruz Bay across the length of Saint John, what made this a top-five trail was experiencing the hike guided by a National Park Service ranger. Via the Friends of Virgin Islands National Park, visitors can travel either trail through the island’s forest to a terminus on Reef Bay. On each hike, a National Park Service Ranger will lead your group to sugar plantation ruins and explain local flora and fauna (such as what not to touch and eat!), all the while sharing interesting tidbits like how to bring a tarantula out of its earthly dwelling.
Without the Ranger’s expertise, this hike would be two or three miles of essentially the same view. However, with their guidance, we learned a lot about the wildlife and the area’s history.
By booking this guided hike, the Friends group not only provides a ride directly to the trailhead, but also a return boat to Cruz Bay once we’d had enough time to swim in Reef Bay. Without a boat, hikers will need to climb two to three miles up the parallel trail and wait for the public bus or a taxi.
Trunk Bay in Virgin Islands National Park
The beach itself was voted one of the Travel Channel’s top 10 Caribbean beaches, but it’s the snorkeling trail that distinguishes Trunk Bay from its beautiful neighbors like Cinnamon or Maho Bays. Marked by three buoys, this triangle shaped trail—complete with underwater markers indicating coral and animal species—guides snorkelers along three types of ocean floor. The rocky coral, flat ocean, and grassy seabed each provide an opportunity to see stingrays and schools of fish.
Buck Island Reef National Monument’s Snorkel Trail
Hands down, my number-one favorite experience in the Caribbean national parks was getting to snorkel along the same coral reef trail President John Fitzgerald Kennedy swam before designating this site in 1961. With brain coral the size of small elephants and baby barracudas appearing at every turn, this was by far the most active and diverse of all the coral reefs in the Virgin Island parks. On three separate occasions, I was able to swim surrounded by schools of fish colored bright blue, dark black, or clear enough to be mistaken as ocean water.
While you can only access Buck Island Reef via boat, there are a handful of licensed Park Service concessionaires who can take you to both the island and the trail. I went with Big Beard’s Adventure Tours, not only because they provided all the snorkel gear needed, but they also hosted a private beach BBQ (complete with local rum punch) after completing the trail.