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Virgin Islands National Park

Virgin Islands National Park, copyright QT Luong,

Featured Photographer

QT Luong's picture

I celebrate the splendor and variety of the natural and human heritage with my photography. For the past twenty-five years, I have been privileged to travel, trek, and climb in some of the most remote and beautiful corners of the earth. Laying down in a colorful meadow dense with wildflowers, clinging precariously to a vertical icy mountain face, listening to the silence of desert sand dunes or to the calls of a bustling floating market might seem like very different experiences, however, I feel that they share the same life-affirming benefits.

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Beaches sparkling white and palm-lined. Warm Caribbean waters tinted turquoise and flecked with darting blue tangs, schools of yellow sergeant majors, and luminescent green parrot fish. Coral reefs swaying in the currents with their fans and given depth and texture by brain, staghorn, and elkhorn corals. These make this national park a tropical paradise.

It is one with a rich, at times dark, history with chapters that delve into slavery and pirating, a history whose stories reside in the ruins of sugarcane plantations that once covered the island of St. John, in bays and coves that were visited by pirates, in rock faces into which petroglyphs were hammered by ancient cultures. These are vignettes from the past that, when threaded together, help tell the story of European domination of paradise, of lost cultures and their beliefs, of a landscape that might have been found in Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island.

Today the island with its national park is a fount of relaxation and rejuvenation, with more than a little fun mixed in. While nearby St. Thomas might be the cruise capital of the U.S. Virgin Islands, St. John is where you head to flee most of the throngs of tourists.

Though it covers only about 7,000 acres on St. John, an island that itself covers only about 20 square miles, the national park seems to go on and on, no doubt in part because of the lack of roads. Cruz Bay is the "big city" on the island, and where your ferry ride from St. Thomas ends. It's a small town with narrow streets crowded with tourists and locals and their rigs. It's also where you'll find park headquarters with its maps, guidebooks, and other tools for orienting yourself, and some great restaurants.

At the park's visitor center in Cruz Bay you can orient yourself through natural and cultural resources exhibits, including some on coral reefs and the fishes that inhabit them. Here, too, you can pick up field guides and other interpretive materials.

Beyond Cruz Bay, the park with its sparkling beaches and densely forested mountainsides awaits.

Traveler's Choice for: Snorkeling, swimming, sea kayaking, beaches, archaeology.

Snorkeling Virgin Islands National Park

Learn to snorkel. It's not hard, and it's the best way to explore the treasures that lie below the surface.

With snorkel, mask, and fins in hand you'll be able to slip into another dimension, one that us air-breathers don't spend a lot of time in. You can spend a lot, or a comparative little (in the $100-range), for this gear, or you can rent the gear for about a third that much for a week. How much you spend on a purchase, or whether you should rent, should be measured against how likely you are to get wet again after leaving the park.


Lodging at Virgin Islands National Park

There are no lodges within the national park. As a result, most visitors either stay at a resort or rent a house.  Maho Bay, though, does have a privately run mix of tent cottages and condo-like units.


The privately operated lodging operation at Maho Bay consists of "tent cottages" and condo-type units. There's also a restaurant here, a store where you can stock up on those beach items you might have forgotten, a beach cafe, and a watersports shop.


Traveler's Checklist For Virgin Islands National Park

Ahhh, the sun-kissed Caribbean. Is there a better place for a mid-winter's getaway than a place with sugar-sand beaches lined by palms and washed by warm turquoise waters that provide habitat for sea turtles the size of trunks, colorful fishes like blue tang and parrotfish, and menacing barracudaIf you don't think so, then Virgin Islands National Park is your destination. Here's Traveler's Checklist to negotiate a visit to St. John and the park.


Park History: Virgin Islands National Park

To explore modern-day history of the park, it's worth turning the calendar back to the 1950s when a Rockefeller -- not John D. Rockefeller Jr., but rather Laurence Spelman Rockefeller -- took a decided liking to the island of St. John.

Not only did he help launch the Caneel Bay Resort, which remains to this day just east of Cruz Bay, but his efforts also provided much of the land that made Virgin Islands National Park a reality. Both the park and the resort opened on the same day in 1956.


The Beaches Of Virgin Islands National Park

A wealth of beaches makes Virgin Islands National Park an incredible destination for water lovers. Any of those beaches within the national park can quickly become a favorite to head to day after day after day during your visit, guaranteed to provide warm waters teeming with marine-life, soft, sugar-sand beaches lined by palms perfect for napping. And yet, beach hopping is encouraged, if only to explore what this park offers.


Hiking in Virgin Islands National Park

You won't go on terribly long hikes at Virgin Islands National Park, but there are some interesting options for when you want a day away from the beaches. One of the few trails of any significant length is Reef Bay, and though it's only about 3 miles long, it's not to be looked down upon (unless you're hiking down it).


Hikes Featured on the Traveler

Reef Bay Trail


National Parks Traveler's Essential Park Guide