Virgin Islands National Park: Beaches, Snorkeling, Hiking and Wildlife

The Virgin Islands National Park has some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, incredible snorkeling, hiking, varied wildlife, and an important history. In 2017, hurricanes Irma and Maria hit St. John island and took a toll on the infrastructure and economy. The island and park are still rebuilding, but St. John and the Virgin Islands National Park are still beautiful and absolutely worth visiting.

(Full photo slideshow at bottom of post)

Map of the Virgin Islands National Park here

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Cinnamon Bay, Virgin Islands National Park

Cinnamon Beach

One of the most stunning beaches in the Virgin Islands National Park is Cinnamon Beach, with white sand, bright water, and slopes of islands in the distance.

Follow the North Shore Road past Trunk Bay and arrive at Cinnamon Bay and Beach. The Cinnamon Bay Factory Ruins can be reached by a wheelchair accessible boardwalk. Cinnamon Bay itself has clear blue waters and great snorkeling.

St. John History Note: Cinnamon Bay was once the site of a Tiano settlement*, as shown by archeological excavations. The Tiano people are indigenous to the Caribbean and St. John Island. When the Danes colonized the island, they reported it to be uninhabited. The Tiano people were established on St. John for a long period of time, but seem to have either left the island, been driven off, or wiped out. You can read more about the Tiano people and their history here.

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Maho Bay

Snorkeling at Maho Bay

Maho Bay, just a little farther up the North Shore Road than Cinnamon Beach, offers protected and beginner snorkeling. It’s also a great spot to swim with sea turtles and sting rays. Just remember not to touch or chase turtles or rays!

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Annaberg

Annaberg Sugar Plantation

When the Danes colonized the US Virgin Islands, they established sugar plantations and brought hundreds of people over from Africa to work as slaves. The Annaberg Sugar Plantation serves as a reminder of uglier history of the island. The plantation overlooks the Sir Fancis Drake Channel, dividing the US Virgin Islands from the British Virgin Islands. The British Virgin Islands abolished slavery before the then Danish Virgin Islands, so slaves would often flee to Tortola across the channel. Some would use a canoe, some brave souls would swim, and sometimes people in Tortola would coordinate and organize a boat to take people away from St. John and to the British Virgin Islands. *

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Salt Pond Bay

Snorkeling Salt Pond Bay

The Southeast point of St. John Island is more arid and desert-like than the jungle that lines the North Shore, but is every bit as interesting. Salt Pond Bay is a beautiful sheltered beach and a good snorkel spot, about a quarter mile from the parking lot. Follow any one of the small trails from the beach and you’ll reach the Salt Pond, a salt pond with thousands of tiny crabs. In dryer months, the salt crystalizes at the ponds edge.

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Salt Pond Bay side of Ram’s Head

Ram’s Head Hike

The hike out to Ram’s Head, or the southernmost point on the island, is about three miles, moderate to strenuous, and gorgeous. If you walk to the end of Salt Pond Bay Beach, you’ll find a trail that begins to lead South. Follow that trial until you get to a rocky beach, where the trail will seem to disappear. The trail resumes at the end of the beach.

The hike ends at Rams Head, where to the East you can feel the full force of the Atlantic and the Easterly Trade Winds. To the West a protected bay and calm turquoise water. It’s a strange juxtaposition, and really can help you understand the power and variety of the ocean, and how remarkable it is that an island can hold so much life in the middle of the ocean, a blue desert.

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Atlantic side of Ram’s Head, and what I mean when I say “blue desert”

Waterlemon Cay

Waterlemon Cay has beautiful hiking, great snorkeling, and is the best place to see some Virgin Islands National Park wildlife. The trailhead begins at the Annaberg Sugar Plantation parking lot, and it is about a mile to the first bay. Here, we saw nurse sharks swimming in the shallows, and sea urchins. The Johnny Horn Trail begins on this beach, so if you’d rather hike than swim you can go check out the two different ruins at the top. Farther down this beach, it will look like the beach ends and turns to large rocks. If you scramble over these rocks, you will reach a smaller, rocky beach which makes a good launch spot for Waterlemon Cay. (Yes, that’s Waterlemon, not Watermelon). It isn’t a far snorkel out to the Cay, but it’s important to note that there can be a really strong current between mainland and the Cay, so it’s definitely not a good trip for everyone. I preferred to hike rather than think about being dragged out to sea and becoming fish food.

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Hunk of rock on right is Waterlemon Cay

Trunk Bay Snorkel Trail

Trunk Bay is the most popular beach in the park, and most of the cruise ship passengers stop here. Still, popular things are popular for a reason, so I would recommend a trip out in the early morning or late afternoon, before or after the crowds. At Trunk Bay you can rent snorkel equipment if you don’t have your own, and hit the Virgin Islands National Park’s underwater snorkel trail to learn more about reef systems!

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Trunk Bay

*Historical Information from St. John Off the Beaten Track: A Photographically Illustrated Guide to St. John, US Virgin Islands, Gerald Singer (Purchase here)

Where to Next?

Sea Kayak the caves of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore

Explore Kentucky’s Red River Gorge

Visit Michigan’s Sleeping Bear Dunes

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Adventure Guide: Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

A ghost town in the off season, tropical hotspot in the summer, Sleeping Bear is mostly just home to me in all seasons. I ran down the dunes with my sister as a kid, and swam in the Platte River, and then out into the Lake. I have been there so many times I’ve lost count, and some of my favorite memories and places are in this park, and I hope I can help you find some favorite places too!

I’ve broken up this guide by length of stay as well as included an “adventure rating” so that you can accurately gauge what kind of adventure you are signing up for. The key for the “adventure rating” is at the bottom of this post.

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Sunset at Overlook Nine

Weekend at the Sleeping Bear Dunes

Adventure:

  • Empire Bluffs Trail: Around 2 miles round trip, this trail takes you to the top of Empire Bluff overlooking Lake Michigan. Located near the town of Empire, MI. This is my favorite hike in the park. Be sure to not hike down to the Lake—hiking down bluffs like this causes dune erosion, damaging an already delicate ecosystem.**
  • Pierce Stocking Scenic DriveIn the summer and early fall you can experience the Lakeshore by car as well as foot!
  • Hit the beach: The Sleeping Bear Dunes are recognized for some of the world’s best beaches! With white sand and clear water, you couldn’t ask for more. Start at North Bar Lake, where younger kids can stay in the warmer water of North Bar, and move out to the big lake when ready. Empire Beach, Sleeping Bear Point, and the Platte River all offer great alternates. Rip currents area the real deal on the big lakes, so keep an eye out on windy days.
  • Hike the Dune Climb: The Dune Climb is a four mile round trip hike over hot dunes to Lake Michigan, where you can take a dip and hike back. Bring water, and shoes—it gets a little rocky as you get closer to the beach. You’re hiking through sand, up and down over dunes, which is very different than hiking over solid ground. It’s easy to get lost and it’s a harder workout than you might expect.
  • Sunset at Overlook Nine: Hike a short quarter mile from the overlook nine parking lot along the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive to a bluff 400 feet above Lake Michigan and the Manitou Passage. Learn about the Legend of Sleeping Bear and watch the sunk sink over the horizon line. Be sure to not hike down to the Lake—hiking down bluffs like this causes dune erosion, damaging an already delicate ecosystem.**

 Eat:

Stay:

  • Frankfort is a good place to base camp. Near both Lake Michigan and Crystal Lake, there are hotels, inns, and rental options.
  • Daisy Farm Campground is open April through November, near the Dune Climb and scenic drive.
  • Platte River Campground is open year round, with both RV and tent sites. Backpacking site also available.
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Late Fall at North Bar Lake overlook

Three to Four Days on the Lake

 Adventure:

  • Surf Lake Michigan: Visit Sleeping Bear Surf and Kayak to take a surf beginner surf lessons, or rent surf boards, paddle boards, or kayaks. A friend and I took a surf lesson there last August and it was a blast. The people are friendly, patient, and great teachers.
  • Hike Alligator Hill: Intermediate. As many as nine miles of trails are available, but I like to head out to the Island and Big Glenn lookouts, about four miles round trip.
  • Hike Pyramid Point: Beginner. About a three-mile loop in total, but the overlook of Lake Michigan is only a little over a half mile from the trailhead. Be sure to not hike down to the Lake—hiking down bluffs like this causes dune erosion, damaging an already delicate ecosystem.**
  • Visit Fishtown: North of the Sleeping Bear Dunes region is Historic Fishtown, where you can shop in small shanties, get the best smoked fish south of the bridge, and appreciate Northern Michigan’s maritime history. The ferry to North and South Manitou Islands leaves from Leland!
  • Star Gaze at the Dunes: Attend one of the National Lakeshore’s night sky programs to learn about the stars and see the milky way in the summer!

Eat:

Stay:

  • Leelaunau State Park Campground is a bit of a drive from the Sleeping Bear Dunes Region, but is less crowded in the peak summer months. Campsites are close to Lake Michigan, and the park is near Northport.
  • Traverse City also a drive from the Sleeping Bear Dunes, but gives you access to the Grand Traverse Bay and the shopping/food scene of a bigger town.
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Empire Bluffs Trail

Week in the Lakeshore:

 Adventure:

  • Backpack the Manitous: Intermediate. North and South Manitou both offer backpacking loops, lighthouses, ghost towns, and wilderness.
  • Kayak/Tube the Platte River: Beginner. On a sunny day, rent a tube and tube down the crystal clear and sandy Platte into Lake Michigan.
  • Hike Clay Cliffs Natural Area: A lesser known loop with a Lake Michigan overlook and June wildflowers, this 1.5 mile trail is a great way to escape the crowds of the National Park.
  • Bike the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail: Intermediate. While only sections of the trail are complete currently, the Heritage Trail allows bikers to access various attractions in the Sleeping Bear Dunes area without a car.
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Snow in the Lakeshore

Sleeping Bear Dunes in the Winter:

Winter sees a drop off in visitors to the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore as people either flee South or hibernate. What that really means is more Lakeshore for you!

  • Snowshoe the Scenic Drive: The whole scenic drive is about 12 miles, but it’s about a four-mile snowshoe out to Overlook Nine. Dress warm, and wear wool not cotton. Cotton doesn’t stay warn when wet.
  • Sled the dunes: Permitted at the Dune Climb when snow covered. It’s a long hike up, but a super fun ride down!
  • Snowshoe Empire Bluffs Trail
  • Cross Country Ski Alligator Hill
  • Freeze to Death: The best winter activity in the National Lake shore is probably to get frostbite or hypothermia. #PureMichigan
  • Platte River Campground is open year round, with both RV and tent sites. Backpacking site also available.

Notes:

*None of these are affiliate links; all are honest opinions based on my experiences in the area.

**Dune erosion: every time a person decides to walk down the dunes they take sand down to the waterline with them. In the summer, several hundred people do this a day. The result is the dunes get worn down, dune grass can’t grow to stabilize the sand, and wildflowers won’t take hold. It hurts the ecosystem you are there to appreciate.

***I don’t recommend taking out personal kayaks or kayaking without a guide on the Great Lakes. If you are not an experienced sea kayaker, then you need a guide. Experienced kayaker and sea kayaker are not the same thing. If you do not have a sea kayak, you should not be on Lake Michigan. There are absolutely some days when you can get away with it, especially in the summer, but that doesn’t mean it is safe always. People die every year doing this. I don’t want that to be you. More questions? Click here.

ADVENTURE RATINGS KEY:

No Rating: Assumes no level of physical ability.

Beginner: Perfect for families with younger children, or people looking for a nice starting point before launching into more physically exerting adventures. This rating still assumes a baseline level of physical fitness such as the ability to walk at least three miles, but otherwise assumes beginner level of outdoor experience.

Intermediate: Perfect for people who like spending time outside, and are excited about the idea of immersing selves in nature. Assumes some experience hiking, paddling, camping, or a flexible and positive attitude. Assumes no shoulder injuries and ability to lift at least 50 pounds.

Advanced: Perfect for people who have experience with outdoor recreation, and are prepared to tackle more strenuous hikes and adventures.

Where to next?