Cinnamon Bay & Reef Bay Trail
Virgin Islands National Park, St. John, USVI
The island of St. John, part of the U.S. Virgin Islands, is truly a Caribbean paradise—especially if you are an outdoor enthusiast. The fact that almost the entire island, and most of the surrounding reefs, have been protected and preserved as part of the Virgin Islands National Park, make this an unrivaled destination for not only hikers, but divers and snorkelers as well. St. John has miles of hiking trails and the choices for hikers are endless—after much exploring, we decided to hike from the northern shores of the island to the southern shores via two trails—the Cinnamon Bay Trail and the Reef Bay Trail. We began our hike on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean at Cinnamon Bay Campground, and made our way to the Cinnamon Bay Trail, its trailhead being across the road from the campground—the trail is 1.1 miles long, gaining about 700 feet of elevation before ending at Centerline Road. From this point, you continue east (left) on Centerline Road for 0.9 miles to catch the Reef Bay Trail—the Reef Bay trail is 2.6 miles long and ends on the southern shores of the island, its beaches lapped by the waves of the Caribbean Sea.
If you would like to add some extra mileage to your hike, there is also a side trail that leads to some ancient Taino petroglyphs—the trail is only 0.3 miles long, but it is a great hike in and of itself—don't pass it up.
In order to find the Cinnamon Bay Trail, look for the trail sign along North Shore Road—you will find it located across from the entrance to Cinnamon Bay Campground—approximately 60 feet to the east of the entrance.
Once you begin your hike, the rugged climb through the wet tropical forest will instantly test your stamina—so, you might want to visit the campground's beach before you begin your hike. After all, there is nothing like a dip in the ocean to prepare you for a hot and humid rainforest trek—plus, the view of the mountain from the beach will inspire you to tackle the challenging slopes of America Hill.
The beginning of Cinnamon Bay Trail, which is actually the remains of an old road, is the steepest part of the entire trek—but thankfully, just when you think you can't go any further, you reach a perfect resting spot. Conveniently enough, a nice flat rock is located right at the top of this old Danish road—the rock is just the right size to serve as a makeshift bench, perfect for a quick rest stop. Once you catch your breath and start walking again, you will notice that the trail is not as steep—from here on, the ascent is much shadier and gradual. In fact, at the top of the hill it levels off and then crosses over a streambed, locally called guts, and enters the woods, remaining rather level for a short bit. Along this portion of the trail, you will encounter aromatic bay rum trees, and several types of fruit trees, including mango, genip, guavaberry, guava, and mammee apple—anthuriums, ferns, and wild pineapple also grow along the trail. In addition to the flora, you might encounter some local fauna—arachnaphobes and spider lovers alike, take note—as you make your way through the wet tropical forest, keep watching above you for the webs of golden orb spiders. These spiders are harmless, but walking into one of their webs can be unnerving—sometimes the maneuvers required to avoid their webs resemble the limbo, which makes for amusing hiking.
After a short while the levelness of the trail gives way to more climbing, this time via a series of switchbacks. The climb can be tiring, especially in the intense humidity, but persevere and your reward is an overlook of Cinnamon Bay—from this vantage point, if you are lucky enough for a clear day, you will be able to see the island of St. Thomas. You can also see Cinnamon Cay and Whistling Cay, both of which are excellent places to test out your snorkel gear post hike. In addition to the great views, make sure you locate the guavaberry tree, which grows at the overlook—it will be easy to find as it is home to a huge termite nest. If you take your time and look around you might also see some turpentine trees.
Once you leave the overlook, you will begin to make your way towards Centerline Road. The trail is once again steep, so take your time along this section. When you reach the road, take a left and head east 0.9 miles down the pavement to where you will catch Reef Bay Trail. The Reef Bay Trail is well marked with National Park signs, making navigation relatively easy. Once you locate the park signs, you will descend some stone steps to the trailhead kiosk where you will then begin your hike.
Along the first part of the trail the National Park Service has put up informative signs which identify the native flora and provide history on the area. Reef Bay Trail proper then heads steeply down hill for the next 2.6 miles until it reaches the picturesque Atlantic coastline of Reef Bay. After the steep climbing encountered on the Cinnamon Bay Trail, the downhill grade of Reef Bay is a welcome respite to the legs, but keep in mind that you will have to walk back up the hill on your return journey! If you want to avoid the uphill climb on the way back, simply contact the National Park Service in order to join in on a ranger led hike. The National Park Service offers guided hikes down the Reef Bay Trail—transportation is provided from the National Park Visitors Center in Cruz Bay to the head of the trail and an experienced park ranger will act as your guide. In addition to the Reef Bay Trail, the walk includes a hike down the spur trail to the petroglyphs and a visit to the Reef Bay sugar mill—from the beach near the mill, you will be met by a boat, which will take you back to Cruz Bay, allowing you to avoid the more strenuous walk back up the trail. This popular activity is offered for a modest fee by reservation only. With that said, keep in mind that the walk back up is not all that bad, so don't be afraid to attempt this trail on your own.
The Reef Bay Trail roughly follows the course of the Reef Bay Gut. The top section of the trail descends steeply through the moist sub-tropical forest of Reef Bay's upper valley where there is an abundance of large trees, such as locust, kapok, mammee apple and mango. Near the beginning of the trail, there is an especially fantastic specimen of a kapok tree—its sprawling root system and enormous height make it a great place for group photos. Further down the trail, at about 0.5 miles, you will come to the Josie Gut Plantation Ruins.
The next ruin you encounter is Estate Par Force, located about one mile from Centerline Road, and now well within the more gently sloped lower valley. The ruins are that of a house that was built in the 1930's and owned by Miss Anna Marsh, a woman who cultivated fruit trees and raised cattle. All that is left of the house is the foundation and some tin cans, but as you explore the ruins watch for lime trees, which, when their fruit is ripe, provide a wonderful aroma as you hike.
After you have walked about 1.5 miles from Centerline Road, you will see the spur trail to the petroglyphs—the trail is 0.3 miles one way and is worth the walk. The trail follows the remnants of an old wall for most of the way, and then it ends at a freshwater pool surrounded by large, smooth rocks—look closely at the surface of the rocks and you will see carved drawings and symbols. The ancient carvings, known as The Petroglyphs, peer out above the water's edge—a clear and dark brown pool with fish swimming in the shallow water. There is also a waterfall that often plunges into the pool, but, unfortunately, it wasn't flowing on the day we visited the site. No one knows for sure the meaning of these carvings, although there are several theories on the origin and age of the petroglyphs—however, none of them can be proven due to unreliable scientific methods for dating the carvings.
After you have hypothesized a few guesses as to the meaning and origin of the petroglyphs, you can begin your hike back to the Reef Bay Trail—the last 0.8 miles to Genti Bay Beach are on level ground, making for enjoyable hiking, passing by one more highlight before you hit the beach. The highlight we speak of is the ruins of the Reef Bay Sugar Factory—this old mill has been partially restored in order to provide a good example of a horse and steam powered factory.
While exploring the ruins is educational and rewardingly Indiana Jones in nature, the real reward for this hike is the final destination—Reef Bay, or more precisely Genti Bay, kisses the southern shores of St. John with the sapphire waters of the Caribbean Sea, making it an ideal hiking destination. Therefore, if you find yourself standing on the sandy beach at Reef Bay after a long day's hike, you can be sure that you have attained a goal that few other people have accomplished—sit back, congratulate yourself and your friends, and then bask in the well-deserved tropical sunshine and ocean breeze!
After resting for a picnic and maybe a swim, it will be time to head back the way you came. One word of advice though, if you can hitch a ride on the way back up Centerline Road—do it! It is really safe to hitchhike on the island, and everyone is really friendly—just keep in mind that they drive on the left here, and that you don't use your thumb to get a ride. Instead, simply point with your index finger in the direction that you want to go, and someone will most likely offer you a lift. We managed to get a ride in the back of a pick-up truck, where we had the added bonus of the breeze to cool us off after the hot hike back up the trail to the road. Once on board the truck, we asked the driver to drop us off at the Cinnamon Bay trailhead, which is where we jumped out, thanked our ride, and resumed our hike. The hike back down Cinnamon Bay goes really fast, and before you know it, you are back at the campground. If you are hungry, the Tree Lizard Restaurant at Cinnamon Bay Campground is a great place for a meal.
Hiking Cinnamon Bay and Reef Bay Trails is an unforgettable way to spend a day on St. John—the tropical scenery, scents of the island, and historical ruins combine to make for a hikers paradise. We greatly enjoyed the time we spent hiking, and to this day we love to tell stories about the time we hiked clear across the island of St. John—from the Atlantic Ocean to the Caribbean Sea! So, if you are visiting St John and are looking for an adventure, don't miss an opportunity to explore these trails—we highly recommend the trek. You can find a number of Caribbean packages online for great deals on your airfare and hotel in St. John. So what are you waiting for? Book your island adventure today!