The rocks across the pool looked ordinary at first glance. But as soon as my eyes had adjusted to the radiating Caribbean sunshine, I could see the carved drawings on their surface. My gaze rested on a face composed of round eyes and jutting ears. We were standing in front of ancient rock carvings, or petroglyphs, made by the pre-Columbian Taino people and their ancestors dating back to 900-1500 AD.
History doesn’t always reside inside the four walls of a museum. In St. John, it lives and breathes outdoors, in such sacred sites of indigenous people, in the crumbling walls of plantation estates and sugar mills. Waiting for those ready to lace up their boots and pay a visit.
The beaches of St. John might be the main draw that brought you to the smallest of the US Virgin Islands. But if you can set aside that painkiller cocktail and peel yourself away from the ethereal sands, just for a little while, you’ll discover a whole new side of St. John.
About two-thirds of the island is a national park teeming with more than twenty trails of varying skill levels and sceneries. What’s more, many of these trails start or end at the beach so you’re never too far away from a dip in that seductive aqua and turquoise water.
Below are 7 epic hikes to get you started on the trails of St. John. From ancient petroglyphs to historic ruins these trails will add a new dimension to your Caribbean vacation.
1. Peace Hill Trail
Distance: 0.2 miles out and back
The Peace Hill Trail is one of the easiest 0.2-mile hikes with incredible vistas and a dash of history. As you make your way from the parking lot, stay to the left at the fork to arrive at the Peace Hill ruins.
The pearly sands of Oppenheimer and Hawksnest beaches stretch to your left while Trunk Bay is visible in its full splendor to your right. You can see St. Thomas in the distance as well as other cays scattered among the bright blue waters.
The ruin at the top of the hill was a windmill constructed in the late 1700s as part of the nearby Dennis Bay Plantation. The windmill’s windows and doors create a great frame for photographs as a lone tree in the center of the hill provides the perfect foreground anchor.
2. Dennis Bay Trail
Distance: 0.4 miles out and back
Dennis Bay Trail is a great short hike that can be combined with the Peace Hill Trail above and a chill day at the beach. Take the right instead of left where the trail forks into two and follow the path down to the ocean. This 0.4 miles out and back trail takes you downhill through the tropical forest until you can hear the music of the waves to your right before you can see them. There are several exposed tree roots in the path which can make it slippery especially after the rains so be careful with your footing, especially on the way down.
Eventually, the path opens up to a sandy beach with gorgeous rocks on the left. The sand here is more granular though so keep walking to your right to find a more comfortable spot to spread out your towels or beach chairs.
This is a perfect off-the-beaten-path beach in St. John that few venture to, so you’ll find yourself alone or in limited company. There was ample space to spread out during our visit with just a couple of groups. But we realized we had a tiny neighbor – a sand crab laboriously burrowing its way on the beach, and we moved away to give it some elbow room.
Just as Oppenheimer, there is some private property near the beach so be mindful of the signs and avoid the marked areas. The water here can get very choppy depending on the weather, as it did on our day here since this bay is relatively unprotected. The floor is also much rockier than other North Shore beaches but it is still a great beach for lounging and privacy.
3. Cinnamon Bay Loop Trail
Distance: 0.5 miles
An easy and highly informative half-mile hike that can be conveniently clubbed with a day at the beach is Cinnamon Bay Loop Trail. It starts right across the road from Cinnamon Bay Beach.
The trail weaves through one of the most prosperous sugarcane operations established in the early 1700s and gradually ascends up the forested hill behind the ruins. The first 0.09 miles is accessible via a wooden and concrete boardwalk. This boardwalk traverses the sugar factory ruins and is wide enough for people with strollers and wheelchairs.
You can meander through the remains of a boiler room, chimney, and Estate House to get a glimpse of life and culture on the plantation. This is a great introductory trail to learn about St. John’s native plants like Tyre Palm, Bay Rum Tree, and Calabash Trees with their informational placards.
4. Lind Point Trail
Distance: 2.3 miles out and back
The easiest trail to reach from Cruz Bay to explore hiking on St. John is the Lind Point Trail. The trailhead is right up the steps behind the US Virgin Islands National Park Visitor Center. This 2.3 miles out and back trail is a great way to get to the secluded Soloman Beach and the all-inclusive beach experience at Honeymoon.
The path forks off to the Upper and Lower Lind Point sections at about 0.2 miles. There are a couple of spots along the Lower Lind Point where the treeline parts to give you a peek into the blue waters, green cays, and perhaps even a passing cruise ship. The Upper Lind Point is slightly longer but has a spur that leads you to an overlook with a bench offering views of Cruz Bay.
The two sections eventually meet and first lead to Salomon Beach if you take the left turn. Since Saloman is only accessible by hiking, you will likely have the entire beach to yourself. Keep in mind that you cannot walk directly from Salomon to Honeymoon along the shore. You will need to retrace your steps back up the Salomon trail and continue straight to arrive at Honeymoon Beach.
This trail is an easy alternative instead of the taxi fare followed by the 5$ per person, one-way golf cart ride from Caneel Resort that gets you to Honeymoon Beach.
5. America Hill via Cinnamon Bay Trail
Distance: 1.2 miles out and back
If you’re looking to sweat out some more before hitting the beach, a great moderate hike with unique views, verdant greenery, and colorful ruins is the America Hill via Cinnamon Bay Trail. This 1.2-mile hike starts across the road from Cinnamon Bay Beach and is just a few steps further from the boardwalk of Cinnamon Bay Loop.
The initial steep incline might look intimidating but it is a wide path with decent footing in sturdy shoes. Things get easier once you’re past this steep section. Keep going on Cinnamon Bay Trail for 0.2 miles until you hit a fork and take the left up to the America Hill ruins, passing native Tyre Palms in the ubiquitous greenery of the tropics.
Turn around when you first emerge from the trail at the top of the hill for an expansive view of St. John and beyond. You will see the forested green hills of the island spotted with houses alongside a partial view of the water and cays leading up all the way to St. Thomas.
You are greeted by a scene that looks like a post-apocalyptic movie to the left. Untamed vegetation sprouts from every corner enveloping the coral-pink crumbling building that was once a plantation Great House. While you cannot walk inside the ruins, you can walk on a path around this structure sprinkled with matching pink flowers. It is surreal to witness nature laying its claim once again on the brick-and-mortar world.
There is a viewpoint further along on the left side of the structure where you can look down at the bright green and blue waters of Maho and Francis Bay dressed in a necklace of pearly white boats and mooring buoys. The lush green peaks of the British Virgin Islands rise in the distance. This is a perfect spot for lunch or a snack before making your way back to the beach.
6. Maria Hope Trail
Distance: 1.6 miles out and back (or 0.8 miles one way in conjunction with Reef Bay Trail to arrive at Maho Bay)
The Maria Hope Trail is a good mid-level hike that can be combined with a beach day at Maho Bay. Coming from Cruz Bay, the trailhead is to your right on North Shore Road just a few steps before you hit the Maho Taxi stand. It is mostly shaded and offers perfect rainforest vibes. There is no large overlook per se but multiple spots offer a good view of the bay.
This trail is also a very useful one-way downhill extension that can be combined with the Reef Bay hike to get to Maho. It can be a challenge to find a taxi on the way back from the Reef Bay trailhead on Centerline Road unless you’ve made arrangements with a driver beforehand. An alternative is to descend the Maria Hope trail which starts on the opposite side of the road and runs for around 0.8 miles to Maho Bay.
The entrance to this trail on Centerline Road is very steep with loose and awkwardly angled rocks as shown in the picture below. If you are doing the roundtrip hike, you can skip this last bit. If you’re doing the one-way hike from Centerline Road, then there’s no way around this section. Once you’ve safely crossed it, you will have an easier time with the descent in the forest with some beautiful lookouts over Maho and Francis Bay along the way.
7. Petroglyphs and Reef Bay Trail
Distance: ~5 miles out and back
Difficulty: Moderately strenuous
A quintessential hike that encapsulates the best of all that St. John has to offer is the popular Reef Bay Trail. This trail is about 2.5 miles one way and first goes downhill towards the bay from an elevation of over 800 feet. It begins at the steps of the well-marked trailhead at about mile marker 5 on Centerline Road.
The vegetation that you will encounter on this trail is of great significance. A lot of trees were cleared on St. John during the plantation days which means that most of the island’s vegetation is second or third-growth. However, this steep region was never fully cleared, thereby giving today’s hikers a sense of the island’s original moist subtropical forest. Along the way, you’ll get the opportunity to see and learn about plants like Anthuriums and large Wild Pinneaple as well as trees like Bay Rum, Kapok (Silk Cotton), Genip, and Mango.
You will also pass the remains of Par Force, a workers’ village which was inhabited until the 1940s.
There is a very worthwhile and short detour of 0.22 miles to the right at about the 1.5-mile mark leading to the petroglyphs. These ancient rock art carvings of mysterious faces located at the base of the valley’s highest waterfall were made around 900-1500 AD by the pre-Columbian Taino people and their ancestors. There is also a spring-fed pool beneath the rocks that reflects the carvings – capturing the duality of living and spiritual worlds in Taino culture.
After witnessing this ancient, sacred site, you can rejoin the Reef Bay Trail and continue downhill until you arrive at the ruins of the last operating sugar mill on the island. The alltrails route is incorrect and tells you to turn right as you near the bay. The right turn includes some steep ascent and descent but takes you to a different beach at Genti Bay. Keep walking straight to reach the Reef Bay Sugar Mill ruins followed by Reef Bay Beach.
The crumbling walls tell the stories of two different eras, how the profitable sugar industry thrived and died twice. First, there were the plantation days with the brutal reality of enslaved labor. The second period was post-1861 after Denmark abolished slavery and the new owners attempted using the steam engine.
The boiling and curing house describe the sugar-making process. Workers toiled in sweltering heat and transformed the cane juice to sugar by boiling and tempering the juice then cooling and crystalizing for the final product. The boiling room is followed by the room housing the steam engine from Glasgow from 1861 and further uphill are the remains of the old horse mill. There is also a rum still at the site with details of the rum distillation process.
Beyond the ruins lies the Reef Bay Beach, a perfect stop before making the challenging journey back up the mountain. There are a couple of vault toilets so you can change or freshen up before the swim.
The only ways to access this beach are the hike or a dinghy. The National Park Service also ran a ranger-led guided hike here with a boat return to Cruz Bay but it is currently suspended. You can check on the NPS website for updates if it has resumed by the time of your visit.
That concludes my roundup of 7 epic hiking trails on St. John. Once you get started, I’m sure you’ll be excited to explore these and many more incredible trails like Ram Head and Johnny Horn. Don’t forget to check out this curated list of the best restaurants in St. John for post-hike refueling!
Here is detailed information about the ferry from St. Thomas to St. John, food costs on the island, travel restrictions, and other Frequently Asked Questions to make this Caribbean dream a reality.
I’d love to hear if you’re planning to hike on St. John and which trails are on your radar! If you’ve already been to the island, please share your favorite trails in the comments below.
Never thought St John would be a hiking destination as well!
Yes, I was pleasantly surprised too on seeing so many hiking options when researching St. John.