Arguably one of them most beautiful parks in the national park system, and the one most likely to be confused with paradise, is Virgin Islands National Park. Located west of Puerto Rico on the border of the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea, the park contains subtropical forests, mountains, white sand beaches, coral reefs, magnificent sea life, over 20 miles of trails through the dense forests, and many ruins and other historical sites of great archaeological.
The park actually comprises portions of two islands. Most of the park lies on the island of St. John, where its 19.4 square acres accounts for nearly two thirds of the land on the island. Small portions of Virgin Islands National Park are also found on the larger neighboring island of St. Thomas. The park incudes 10 miles of shoreline. Although certainly one of the most beautiful, Virgin Islands is one of the nation's smallest national parks.
The island was initially colonized by people from South America. By the second century AD the area was occupied by the Arawak tribe. Evidence of Arawak settlements have been found on the north and northwest sides of the island. The Arawaks lived contentedly in the islands until the 1300's when they were supplanted (and exterminated) by the fierce Caribs (meaning "cannibals:) who were in possession of the islands at the time of the arrival of the white man.
In 1493 Christopher Columbus discovered the Virgin Islands for Europeans. Later, in 1595, Sir Francis Drake sailed between the islands of Tortola and St. John via the channel which now bears his name. By 1672 there was a permanent Danish settlement on the island of St.John, and in 1717 the first planters arrived on the island. The forests of the island were subsequently cleared for the cultivation of sugar cane and cotton. By mid-century there were 88 plantations on the island. Based heavily on the labor of slaves, these businesses ran profitably until the mid-1800's. During the height of the sugar plantations the island of St. John supported about 2000 individuals.
The island has always suffered more than its share of upheavals. In 1733 there was drought, plague, a hurricane, and a slave insurrecttion. In 1854-56 there was a cholera epidemic, and in 1867 it was devastated by a hurricane. Most recently, in the fall of 1996 the island was again hit by one of the periodic hurricanes which must be expected in the area.
The importation of slaves was halted in 1802 but existing slaves and their progeny were still used on plantations. However, following unrest and slave revolt, the slaves were finally given their fredom in 1848. By this time, however, the profitability of the agricultural enterprises had diminished significantly, and by 1900 the plantations had been largely abandoned and the ownership of the land redistributed. In 1917 the United States purchased what became the U.S. Virgin Islands for 25 million dollars to prevent Germany from obtaining a strategic advantage in the Caribbean.
Inhabitants were supported in a variety of ways, including the production of bay oil and tourism during the eartly part of the twentieth century. The beauty of the island spurred interest in the 1930's by the National Park Service in possibly creating a national park, but the lack of developmental pressures was felt to reduce the necessity of such an action. However, in subsequent decades the pace of development increased and the beauty of the island was at greater risk. In the 1950's, Laurence J. Rockefeller, through the auspices of the Jackson Hole Foundation, began to acquire land with an eye toward creation of a national park. Rockefeller eventually donated 5000 acres for creation of the national park.
The bill creating Virgin Islands National Park as the U.S.'s 29th national park was signed on August 2, 1956, by President Dwight D. Eisenhower.The original park contained the lands on St. John and .15 acres on St. Thomas as an administrative site. In 1962 5,650 offshore acres were added to the park and in 1978 an additional 135 acres on Hassel Island off the island of St. Thomas near the city of Charlotte Amlie were also added.
The most magnificent jewels of the national park are the beautiful beaches and bays found along the north shore of St. John. These areas feature warm, clear water, beaches composed of fine, white sand, and coral reefs close to the shore where they may be easily examined by snorkelers. A number of these beaches may be found in this area.
Caneel Bay The most westerly of the north shore bays is Caneel Bay, known for the Caneel Bay resort, first built in the 1930's and later owned by the Rockefeller family. In the early days the area was one of the first sugar plantations on St. John. The resort itself was first built in 1936 by the Danish East Indian Company. The bay, some of the area's seven beaches, and a section of the elegant resort which currently exists on the site can be seen in the picture below.
When the sun shines and the weather is clear the colors of the water are quiter beautfiul, ranging from dark blue to a luminescent turquoise. A close-up of the resort area, with islands in the background, can be seen below.
Hawksnest Bay The next bay to the east is Hawksnest Bay.This is a popular area for swimming in snorkeling because it is close to the town of Cruz Bay and has a number of reefs in the very shallow water near the shore. Like other beaches, this beach may change shape significantly after a big storm.
The dark sections in the water are generally due to the presence of reefs relatively close to the surface. These reefs not only provide outstanding habitat for fish and other marine animals but are also responsible for replenishing the white sand beaches and protecting them from the action of the waves. The reefs at Hawksnest Bay are present in quite shallow water and are located close to the beach, making the beach an ideal location for the beginning snorkeler.
Trunk Bay Moving east the visitor will come to Trunk Bay, one of St. John's most well known and beautiful beaches. It is sometimes considered the "showpiece" beach of the park. It's also one of the larger beaches, over a quarter mile long. The picture below shows the beach looking in an easterly direction.
A lightly different view of Trunk Bay is shown below. Whistling Cay is visible off the shoreline. The beach at Trunk Bay has been acclaimed as one of the world's top ten beaches. It was acquired from the Bouton family and added to the National Park in 1959.
An unusual feature of Trunk Bay is its "underwater nature trail." Most of the surface of the trail can be seen below. The small white specks to the left of the island are buoys which mark the course of the 150 meter long, triangular trail. The snorkeler can swim on the surface of the trial, looking down 10 or 20 feet to the bottom, seeing several kinds of coral, and wildly colored fish as they swim in the bay.
Cinnamon Bay The next beach over is Cinnamon Bay. Here the road comes within a few feet of the beach and the water. The bay features a campground and provides interesting snorkeling around Cinnamon Cay, visible on the left side of the picture. The waters off St. John are amazingly clear, a result of the small amount of runoff from the island itself. This beach receives particularly large swells during the storm season.
Maho Bay A larger inlet can be found in Maho Bay.
This bay provides an excellent, protected location for mooring sailing ships as they cruise around the island. It's particularly calm, as can be seen below, as it is protected by offshore islands and and the sizeable bultk of land which is known as Mary Point.
It's also the beach which is closest to the North Shore Road, which passes just behind the beach shown below.
Francis Bay Another beautiful bay is Francis Bay, a little less accessible than some of the other bays and therefore freer of visitors. This area is known for its population of green turtles. Francis Bay, and Leinster Bay (shown below) are particularly good sites for mooring sailing vessels.
Although the area can be a little difficult to reach across a rutted and precarious dirt road, this area features a campground, restaurant, and store (which is shown below).
Leinster Bay lies across a headland from Francis Bay. In the picture below the island of Tortola (of the Bristish Virgin Islands) can be seen in the background. The north coast of the island (and the east) are somtimes pounded by surf during the stormier winter season.
Mary's Creek is really a bay or inlet. It is quite shallow and is a favorite spot for bone fishing. Off Mary's Creek the reef extends some 100 yards. The shot below looks in a northwesterly direction from the Annaberg sugar plantation and mill.
It is quite easy to reach most of the beaches on the north shore because one of the island's two main highways--Highway 20, also known as the North Shore Road--runs along the coast, providing a number of spectacular views. That's a shot of the road below as it rounds a bluff above Hawksnest Bay. Most of the roads on the island are extremely narrow and twisting, and the island speed limit is 20 mph. For Americans from the mainland an additional obstacle is the custom of driving on the left hand side of the road. Jeeps and other 4-wheel drive vehicles are the most typical and practical means of transportation.
The major city on St. John is Cruz Bay located on the western tip of the island. This town contains the Virgin Islands National Park Visitor Center and the main arrival points for most visitors to the island and the park. The picture below, looking southeast, shows the harbor and the town from the Lind Point Trail in the park.
Although it's the largest town on the island Cruz Bay is still quite small. The picture below shows the center of the town in front of the docks. The red roofed bandstand is the site where the park was originally dedicated and land for the park transferred from Laurence Rockefeller to the federal government.
Here's a view of the harbor from the town center. The dock which brings most visitors to the island is just out of the picture on the left. The forested peninsula in the background in the center of the picture is the westernmost section of the park.
Another view of Cruz Bay from the bluffs above town is shown below. The body of water in the center of the photograph is the Pillsbury Sound which divides separates St John from the island of St. Thomas, in the background, and connects the Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Ocean.
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- All photographs © Pat Holleran, Shannon Image Technologies, 1995-6
- Commercial use of the images contained in this document without express written consent is strictly prohibited.