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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The Places Stress Will Follow You

We—hikers, writers, nature lovers, always champion the therapeutic power of nature. I have told people that I hike because it relives stress, and I have spent bad days looking out the window, convinced that if I could go outside and be alone in the woods for just a bit I would be so much happier.

Hiking, or being in nature helps, but it isn’t magic, and it isn’t always a solution.

For every hike that has helped with stress, there is another hike that tested me, made me nervous, and made me doubt myself. There have been hikes where I have scraped up and bruised my legs, hikes where I didn’t bring enough water, hikes where I was sure I was irreparably lost.

There have been hikes when I have hurried up mountains to get the right shot of the sunset, worried I came all this way just to mess it up, and times where after a perfect sunset, I have had to walk back in the dark, and worried about that too.

There have been hikes that I didn’t think I could finish, where my legs hurt and I was winded well before halfway, and left feeling weaker rather than stronger.

I am a worrier, I am anxious, and I get stressed, and tall trees and fresh air don’t always fix that. But sometimes it does, and even the hikes that make me happy to get back in the car and pull off my hiking boots have taught me something.

The time my sister and I did the Dune Climb with no gear taught me that you always need water; the time I wore brand new hiking boots up a mountain in Colorado taught me I am not immune to blisters.

The time I almost got frostbite taught me a lot about poor planning, and the time I hiked to Copperas Falls taught me that not all hikes are fun, and some are definitely not worth repeating or recommending.

So while a hike isn’t medicine, and nature isn’t always an antidote to stress, even the bad hikes can still be adventures.

And sometimes, if you’re very lucky and in the right place at the right time, your hike can be both an adventure, and magic.

Roan Mountain Magic

There are places where the line between what is real and what you’ve imagined is so thin that you are certain you’ve stepped out of a dream. These places have an otherness about them, they are ageless and supernatural, and it feels if you were to stay there long enough, that maybe you might fall through time.

cropped-img_5334-1.jpgThese places are rich, as if plucked from a storybook, but have palpable history. They mean something as much as they are something, and even if you don’t necessarily know the place’s stories and history, you can feel it. We speak about these places with reverence; they are the places that inspire us, that make writers, and artists, that spark movements, places we protect.

In my life time, I have only had the luxury of visiting two of these places.

The 5-mile ridge of Roan Mountain is one of them. I’ve been told that in June, natural rhododendron gardens blanket the mountain tops, but I went in May and it was still stunning.

IMG_5719-1Every step along that beautiful trail is magic, from the initial dive into the pines, through and over the Balds at elevation 6000 feet, all the way out to Grassy Bald, and it’s commanding views of North Carolina.

Just to stand on a trail that runs for over 2000 miles is one thing, but then to walk the line that divides Tennessee and North Carolina is another. More astounding still is to look out over the Appalachians, once taller as the Rockies, maybe taller, and as old as 480 million years, and think how they have been eroded for millions of years by wind and water and ice, scraped down to less than half their size but still are standing. These mountains are ancient, and you are strolling on this resilient beast’s back.

 

The Most Beautiful Place I Have Ever Been

The most beautiful place I have ever been I went without a camera. I had my phone, and I did take pictures, but not in the way I do now. I took pictures with the goal of remembering, telling myself “don’t forget this moment”. Of course, the pictures don’t so much matter, because it wasn’t the image I was telling myself not to forget; it was the feeling.

The whole thing was spontaneous in a way that I am usually not. “You know what we should do Friday?” a classmate asked over dinner the night before. So four of us booked spots on a cheap tour bus, because hey, why not, when in Rome, and we got up early to get on that bus for a three-hour drive.

I suppose the thought at some point crossed my mind that maybe the drive wasn’t worth the place, but this wasn’t any sort of pilgrimage for me. It was not premediated, and I had no expectations. And to some extent I was just as excited about the ride— driving places gives you a respect for the earth like flying never will. You can’t see the landscape in a plane, watch plains change to foothills, and foothills to mountains. There is nothing connecting you to the ground you are traveling over.

But a 6-hour round trip drive from Dublin felt negligible from the cliff tops. Standing a few feet—okay a few yards—from a 700-foot drop, with sheets of wind racing up the rock and blowing you back, everything else in the whole world fell away.

People say that happens when you fall in love, that the whole world falls away. Nothing else matters, in a crowded room you are alone.

I was alone with the Cliffs in that way. The paths were crowded, and the air was full of laughs of strangers, but still it was just me, and the grass, the way the ground vanished and plunged down, down to a rocky coast below. It was me and the call of the puffins nesting below, and looking down rather than up at the birds flying, the way waves looked like ripples but must have been massive. Me and the thin purple line of the Aran Islands in the distance, the faint slopes of Connemara. Me and the adrenaline, and the void that was that dizzying drop to the sea, and a feeling of utter insignificance. The Cliffs did not care who I was, or where I had come from; they simplify persisted, carved out by the wind in the waves.

I remember eventually looking to my friend next to me and saying “I think this is the most beautiful places I have ever seen.”

I used to think that beautiful places are formulaic—color, light, and a striking landscape, preferably with flowers.

That’s not why the Cliffs were the most beautiful place I have ever been. The Cliffs are beautiful because they made me feel something, because they sucked the air out of my lungs, both from thrill and fear. I felt small and insignificant, but at the same time felt it mattered that I was there.

I felt like I belonged on the side of that cliff on that day. Like I was meant to have that wind tear through my hair and tug at my scarf. The birds danced, and the waves crashed and the wind chipped away at the Cliffside as it has year after year, and I was a part of that for just a second.

Wilderness State Park and Winter Shoreline

We left Alden a little before noon on a relatively spontaneous drive north towards the Straits of Mackinaw early this April. Wilderness State Park sits on the tip of the mitten, and is one of the largest undeveloped tracts of land in the Lower Peninsula.

That is part of the draw for me—the undeveloped land. That, and there is very little online about the park, and miles of under-trafficked trails. I’ve got a thing for obscure places, and sights that haven’t graced my computer screen. There is no thrill in seeing a place in person that I have seen over and over on the internet. This isn’t to say that I don’t want to see those well-photographed places— but they don’t give me the rush that exploring does.

For me, this was the draw of Wilderness State Park. There is no iconic place to capture, no roaring waterfall or scenic overlook. There isn’t even an easily accessible lighthouse.

There’s only miles of untouched shoreline, and loop upon loop in the woods, and I wanted to know what that looked like.

We parked at the farthest west parking lot we could find and hiked along the beach from there. The Lake Michigan ice had begun to melt, and small icebergs floated in the clear water. The ice melt this year was much sooner than it had been in the past, and the look of the ice in the sandy waters came as odd to me.

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Ice melt in Lake Michigan in early April

It’s only just this year that I have made a trip out to the Lake in the winter, and the last I saw it, it was frozen enough that we couldn’t see the sand. The sun was out when we went, so the water was clear and inviting; an odd juxtaposition to the chunks of ice.

The coastline in Wilderness State Park reminds me of Maine, or Canada, or some other east coast beach. It’s easy to forget that the lake isn’t the ocean, with its tide pools and bug horizon line, and the outlines of pine trees.

We had walked for maybe a mile when I saw blue ice— blue ice is created high density and compression, and is usually found in glaciers, but sometimes on the Great Lakes.  This particular patch of blue ice looked accessible, piled up on the shore past a small tidal stream. So naturally, I took off my hiking boots and socks and slung them over my shoulder while my friends watched somewhere between skeptically and judgmentally as waded barefoot across the rocky calf-deep melt water.

I should mention that this is normal for me. If ever there is clear, sandy water no matter the temperature I, or at least my feet, will be in it. About a month ago, I did it at Esch Road Beach. It was cold, but worth it.

I quickly jammed my feet back into my hiking boots on the other side of the stream, and hiked out to the blue ice.

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Blue Ice on Lake Michigan

Whether because of the harsh lighting, overhyped expectations, or just lack luster photography, my photos of the blue ice didn’t turn out how I had hoped. I had a good time getting out there, though, and it was pretty in person.

We hiked further west from there, eventually flopping down at a small bay and chatting. It was cold out, but mostly only when the sun went behind the clouds and the wind picked up. While we sat it was sunny and sandy.

After, we only walked a little farther along the beach from there before headed back to the parking lot and driving pack down Wilderness Park Drive. Before we left, we did a loop in the woods on Big Stone Trail out and around Goose Pond.

We walked for a good four hours and didn’t even touch a quarter of the trails and land available to explore in Wilderness State Park, but that’s sort of exciting. There’s more to explore, and I’m sure I’ll head back soon!

The Other Tahquamenon Falls

The cool thing about beautiful places and geology, be it lakes, rivers, mountains, or waterfalls, is if there is one interesting feature, there are probably more nearby. There’s never really just one mountain view, or one beautiful beach, but it’s only the most impressive that makes our bucket list.

The Upper Tahquamenon Falls in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula get a lot of love. Don’t get me wrong, they are impressive— but even when Estee and I visited in early March they were crowded, and after seeing them plastered across every Instagram feed and Pure Michigan advertisement, they felt impersonal and overdone.

hjig-1This isn’t to say that the Upper Falls aren’t worth the visit; the falls feature an impressive 50 foot drop and coffee-colored water. You can stand right at the edge of the falls and let the spray hit your face, which is a cool feeling. In the winter large icicles form at the waterfalls sides.

But the Lower Falls are so much better.

For starters, they aren’t over-photographed. When you walk out to them you don’t really know what to expect. It feels like you are discovering the falls rather than visiting a geotagged location to add a popular photo to your own collection.

Better yet, the falls are a series of five smaller falls, with more area to explore. There is enough of the Tahquamenon River, the Lower Falls, and the surrounding area to get thousands of different angles in a photo, and to actually feel like you know the falls yourself.

The hike out to the Lower Falls is longer. In the summer, it is about a mile round trip to the Falls and back. In winter, the summer lot isn’t open, and it was closer to two miles round trip.

The hike is rewarding. There are small bridges over streams and the path is heavily wooded; by the time we reached the falls we felt like we worked a little for it—more of an adventure than the Upper Falls. There was no one else around for a good portion of our hike, and only one other person on the platform.

Other than the header photo, I didn’t include any photos of the Lower Falls. The first reason for this is it was really too bright when I went to get any good photos. The second is that the Lower Falls are worth discovering for yourself.

Fun Story about the first Upper Falls Photo: Immediately after I took this, a dog came over to visit me and Estee! The Upper Falls might be crowded, but I will brave any crowd to pet a puppy!

Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore: Places to Visit in the Off-Season

The Sleeping Bear Dunes in the summer are busy at best, and crowded at worst. No matter the season, the Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore offers a collection of beautiful beaches, hikes, and overlooks. The biggest perk of the off-season is having the Lakeshore to yourself.

In March 2017, my friend Estee and I took a day trip out to the dunes, starting at Pyramid Point in the north and making our way south toward Esch Road Beach.

pyramindpointwater-1Pyramid Point:

Pyramid Point is a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan and the Manitou Islands. The bluff is steep, and several hundred feet above the water.*

From the top of Pyramid Point the big waves look like wrinkles, and you can see current patterns. Visiting in the off season left us with the entire overlook to ourselves. It was more work to get there than it would have been in the summer, and colder, but you can appreciate a place a lot more when there is no pressure to move on to the next location or get out of someone’s way.

From the trailhead it is between a half and quarter mile hike out to the overlook. When we went it was icy, and a relatively difficult hike just because of a quick elevation gain combined with the ice.

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North Bar Lake:

I added this spot to our itinerary at the last second, and had low expectations. North Bar Lake is popular in the summer— the smaller lake is buffered by dunes from the Lake Michigan waves. Despite the low expectations, North Bar Lake did not disappoint. From the parking lot it was a short hike to the beach, where we wandered around for a while. The beach offered view of bluffs, the bright blue water seen in the header image, and even some small tide pools. The area was empty again, so we had all of North Bar Lake and the Lake Michigan beach to explore.

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Empire Bluff Trail/Overlook:

It is about 1.6 miles out and back to the overlook from the trailhead, and a pretty easy hike. There are a few sets of stairs, and was a lot of slush and ice when went, but nothing that wasn’t manageable.

One of the coolest things about visiting the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in the Spring is the color of the water— it really is that blue. From Empire Bluff we had a birds-eye view of the teals and turquoise.

 

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Esch Road Beach:

This is easily my favorite beach in Michigan. I love the how you can see the slope of Empire Bluff in the distance, and how clear Otter Creek is as it runs into the lake. When we were there, tide pools had formed in some spots on the sand.

As I was taking this picture the tide was coming in—Lake Michigan has a small tide. I backed up as close as I could the mouth of Otter Creek to get both the lake and creek in the shot, and a wave complete soaked my hiking boots. It was about 50 degrees out, and the water might have been colder, but my boots and socks were already wet so I took off my shoes and dipped my feet in the creek anyway. I walked the rest of the way back to the car barefoot in the sand, occasionally dipping my toes in the edge of Lake Michigan.

 

Here are the places that we didn’t get to, but you should!

Sleeping Bear Point Trail:

I’ve never done this trail but I’ve heard good things. It’s a dune loop a little under 3 miles, and takes you Sleeping Bear Point, the place where the Sleeping Bear allegedly sleeps looking out over her cubs.

Dune Climb:

This hike is a 4 miles out and back over large dunes out to Lake Michigan, and is one of the more strenuous hikes Michigan has to offer. The last time I did this hike in full was about three years ago, when my sister and I ran it as cross country training. I remember thinking at about the half way point to the lake— a fourth of the way into the hike— that it was ridiculous that we had gone up and down that many dunes and still couldn’t see the water. It’s a long hike, and you have to be prepared to hike back as far as you have hiked out, but other than that I would recommend it. It’s incredibly rewarding to reach the lake; the water is clear and the bottom dotted with colorful rocks. Just remember to bring water with you.

That being said, if you aren’t up for the hike, the dunes are fun to run down, or sled down in the winter.

Frankfort Light:

The Frankfort Light Lighthouse is located in Frankfort, Michigan. Frankfort is a good rest point in general. It has restaurants and shops, which are less likely to be closed for the season than the ones along the rest of the Lakeshore.

As a side note, the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive does close for the season. It opens tentatively in May.

 

*Some people do walk down to the lake from Pyramid Point, but there are several good reasons you shouldn’t. The first: it is a difficult walk back up— I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to walk up a steep sand hill, but it’s hard. There’s no traction, and for every two steps you take, you slide back one. There’s a good chance you won’t make it back up at all, and “they” will have to send a boat or helicopter to come rescue you. Don’t be that guy. The other good reason to not descend a sheer cliff of sand is that it causes dune erosion. If you’re coming out to appreciate a natural location, it only makes sense that you would try and preserve it for the next person.