Top 10 Things To Do in Caribbean National Parks
Units #89 – 94 of 413
89 - San Juan National Historic Site 90 - Buck Island Reef National Monument 91 - Christiansted National Historic Site 92 - Salt River Bay National Historical Park & Ecological Preserve 93 - Virgin Islands National Park 94 - Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument
Two things you need to know before reading this blog:
1. I grew up in Nebraska. Also known as that state in the middle of America that nobody knows. Why? Because the “Heartland”-nicknamed state is nowhere near the beach, so the American Caribbean is basically as foreign to me as any other country.
2. I’m terrified of natural water. Like, won’t go in without water shoes or without other people swimming terrified. Even then I still imagine there are sharks everywhere (even if it’s illogical/impossible). So I tend to assume everywhere at least has mutant catfish capable of eating a human (are you in my mind space now?).
OK, now send me to the Caribbean national parks as part of my world record journey to all 413 National Park Service sites.
SOMETHING TOUCHED MY LEG!
But a funny thing happened to me via these six NPS sites…
I overcame my fear of natural waters!
Well, not entirely. I still swam back to the boat menacingly fast once I realized all the other snorkelers left me alone in Buck Island Reef. But through snorkeling I learned to tame my fears a little. Even though I’d flip around every so often--sure that some lurking mammoth fish was on my tails--snorkeling at least gave me the ability to see what was in the waters behind me.
This new way of looking at water (literally!) completely changed the way I interacted with it, and the Caribbean national parks found me becoming the person who had to be reined in by others because I went too far from the shore/boat to explore!
This transformational experience made me fall in love with the Caribbean parks. Not only because it was consistently 75 – 85 degrees Fahrenheit during December, but because they were so unique compared to anything else I’d experienced in America.
And yet, they were part of America. I didn’t need a passport to visit any of these sites, my US dollars were also the local currency, and (perhaps most important for a millennial) my cell phone worked regularly! Meaning I could use my phone’s GPS for directions or update my trip's followers in nearly any part of the islands (see the Sandy Point Facebook Live video below!).
But those are not the true highlights of the Caribbean national parks. There are far greater travel riches to be found, and I put them all here for you. My (drumroll)…
TOP 10 THINGS TO DO IN PUERTO RICO AND U.S. VIRGIN ISLANDS NATIONAL PARKS
10. Tour Christiansted National Historic Site, Salt River Bay National Historical Park & Ecological Preserve, and San Juan National Historic Site – Puerto Rico, Saint Croix and Saint John
I’m starting to consider myself an expert on visiting National Park Service Historic Sites. After 3 months of visiting the North Atlantic Region's 43 national parks (of which 39 were historic sites), I was especially primed to head to the Caribbean for their historic parks.
San Juan National Historic Site
After New England sites--primarily made of wood--turned extra brown by the years, it was a treat to encounter each of the Caribbean sites. Firstly, the Castillo San Cristobal and Castillo San Felipe del Morro in San Juan were stunningly huge compared to the sites in New England. These massive forts that protected the rich ports of Puerto Rico were like a maze of walls, moats, and animals who now make the fort their home.
Arriving to the island of Saint Croix, I was treated to the most beautiful fort I’d encountered on this trip. The yellow and green colors that once were symbolic of the colonial Danes—who owned the islands before the U.S. purchased them in the earlier 1900s—now provides a dramatic contrast to the rich blue harbor that the fort protected.
When taking the tour, make sure to climb in one of the jail cells prisoners of the 1600/1700s were held in.
“In 1493, Christopher Columbus sailed the deep blue sea,” says a sticker at the Salt River Bay National Historical Park & Ecological Preserve, for it was at this site that Christopher Columbus landed on his 2nd trip to the new world.
While he came in search of fresh water, visitors today come for the sea water, most notably to kayak the bioluminescent bay contained within the park’s borders.
Of other particular note is the view. From the Visitor Center perched high on a hill, travelers with good eyes or good glasses can see Saint Thomas and Saint John (the other of the U.S. Virgin Islands) just beyond the horizon.
9. L’Esperance and Reef Bay Hikes – Saint John
Consistently advertised as the #1 attraction on the island of Saint John, these two guided hikes provide the opportunity for a non-Caribbean resident to understand the environment in a way that’d be difficult without the NPS Ranger who guides the route.
That journey starts at the top of Saint John Island and follows one of two trails (L’Esperance or Reef Bay) downhill to Reef Bay. Along the way, the Ranger will take you past sugar cane plantation ruins, explain the commerace and slavery history of the island, and point out the unique flora and fauna surviving on the island (including loads of cacti and a single, solitary Baobab tree—native to Africa).
While any traveler could technically hike these two trails on their own via a $1 public bus that runs from Cruz Bay across the length of Saint John, the benefit to one of these guided hikes (ticketed through the Friends of Virgin Islands National Park) also involves a boat ride back to Cruz Bay. Without this, you’ll have to return up either the same trail, or the parallel one, back to where you’ll wait for a bus or taxi to pass by.
By taking part in this guided hike, not only does the 2-3 mile trail come alive through the Ranger’s explanations, but you’ll also be shown how to pull tarantulas out of their earthly dwellings!
8. Hike Ram Head – Saint John
One of the stories Ranger Alanna (above) told us was about the slave revolt of 1733. Included in that saga is a remote part of the island called Ram Head. It is said that this rough habitat is where escaped slaves found a hideaway, and also where a number of slaves jumped to their death rather than return to slavery (stories range from 30 – 300 slaves).
Today, the hike provides one of the most pristine views of Virgin Islands National Park and the island of Saint John.
To reach this view (below), not only do you have to take the $1 city bus to the end of its line (Salt Pond), but you must then hike beyond Salt Pond Bay, Salt Pond, and across a ridge of rocks, cacti, and cliffs for arguably the windiest point on the island (hold onto your hat!)
The 2-hour roundtrip hike, however, rewards with island views unobstructed by houses or development. This vista, along with views of nearby British Virgin Islands, makes this secluded hike worth every step and nauseous hour on the city bus darting up and down hill.
7. Cramer’s Park and Point Udall – Saint Croix
Though technically not part of a National Park Service site, this gem of a beach was one of my favorite stumble-upons of the whole trip. Plus, if you’re visiting the Caribbean national parks, you really should explore more of the islands.
Rental cars in Puerto Rico are very cheap compared to the continental United States ($20 a day), on Saint Croix they are about double that ($50 a day), and on the island of Saint John they are ridiculous ($80 a day minimum).
While you can get by on Saint John with just taxis and hitchhiking (much to the chagrin of my older sister), Saint Croix deserves your dollars for a car rental. With it, you can experience many of the islands most exquisite beaches (see #2 below) along with popular spots like Point Udall. This “Easternmost Point in the United States” is a solid 20 - 30 minutes east of Christiansted, but nearby is a beach called Cramer’s Park. While technically any/all beaches on Saint Croix are considered public-access, Cramer’s Park is by far the most accessible.
Not only does Cramer's Park come with ample parking, but it also includes bathroom facilities and an outdoor shower to wash sand off your body (a rarity on the island). The fact that the palm trees seem to come straight up to the ocean and the bay provides calm waves that roll over your body rather than break, are all the reasons you need to make this a must-do for your time on Saint Croix.
Bonus attributes of this drive/beach are that it provides lovely views of my new favorite National Monument (see #1).
6. Luquillo Beach – Puerto Rico
Another site that isn’t technically part of the Park System, but less than an hour from the San Juan National Historic Site.
What makes this beach so special is that unlike the beaches in Condado or Old San Juan (heavy hotel/tourist areas where you’ll likely stay if visiting the Historic Site), this beach is calm. Much like Cramer’s Park above, the waves do more rolling than crashing.
The $5 parking fee is worth the inexpensive food, drink, and shower amenties available.
* BONUS TIP * Of the more than 30 foreign countries I’ve been to, I’ve never come across this problem.
However, in San Juan, large bags (like you’d take on a plane) are not allowed on public buses (like the one that runs to/from the airport). So unless you’re just traveling with a backpack (which are allowed), you’ll need either a rental car or taxi from the airport.
Since Ubers aren’t allowed to pick up passengers up at SJU airport—but can take them there if they pick you up at a non-hotel location (at time of publishing this), this means an approx. $20+tip cab ride to your hotel. If your hotel has free or cheap parking, you should opt for a rental car then use it ASAP to get to Luquillo Beach or El Yunque National Forest (only tropical rain forest in the USA). Deliver your luggage to the airport, get out of San Juan, then return the car to the airport and take the $.75 bus back to your hotel. You can then Uber back to the airport (cheaper than taxi) and avoid the tight grip the San Juan Taxi Mafia has on tourists.
* Note, if I end up dead/floating in a river after publishing this, you know where to direct the police! *
La Mina Falls in El Yunque National Forest (go there first then Luquillo to wash off the sweat!)
5. Trunk Bay Snorkel Trail – Saint John
OK, before I go any further, I need to warn you:
DO NOT SWIM IN CRUZ BAY
Though this is the beachside site of the glamorous looking Grande Bay Resort, a local warned me that after living on a boat in Cruz Bay (where many boats dock) and regularly dipping into its waters, she developed a staph infection. The Saint John doctor cited the probable cause as the dirty waters of the city’s main commerical bay.
Now, just a $7 taxi ride or 10-minute hitchhike from Cruz Bay is the stunningly gorgeous (and clean!) Trunk Bay. It’s so clean, in fact, that it houses one of the Virgin Island National Park's underwater snorkel trails.
Marked by three buoys, this triangle shaped trail (complete with underground markers indicating coral and animal species) guides snorkelers along three types of ocean floor. The rocky coral, flat ocean, and grassy seabed each provide an opportunity to see different aquatic species like sting rays and schools of fish.
Apart from the trail, this postcard-worthy beach provides amenities like a bar, sandwich shack (simple sandwiches $13-$20), and bathrooms with both outdoor and private showers. These amenities, however, do come with a $5 entry fee to access the beach, and is the only beach in the Virgin Island parks to charge entry.
* BONUS TIP * If going to the Caribbean, you should MOST DEFINITELY take snorkel gear with you. If renting, it will be $10-$20 a day, and if buying, will run $60-$80 minimum (even at the Kmart on Saint Croix Island). However! If you purchase one ahead of time, you can snorkel to your heart’s content. I snorkeled every chance I had, meaning the $30 of this Seavenger Snorkel Set I bought will be well worth your money.
4. Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument – Saint John
This may be one of the least visited National Park Service sites in existence.
Though the combined annual visitor tally for Saint John’s two parks is around 800,000, a good chunk of those are just cruise ship visitors there for the day, and even long-stay visitors likely won’t make it to the East End where the Coral Reef National Monument is accessible.
And accessibility is the other key to this site. Why?
Because it’s all under water.
However, that under water scenery was some of the most fascinating of my trip.
Most notably, the Coral Reef National Monument houses massive amounts of mangrove trees that leech into the water. These trees slowly build new ground through their collection of earthen debris and also provide a habitat for baby fish.
Upon entering the water, literally thousands of baby fish zipped back and forth, parting for my GoPro jeering toward them then resuming their path as I retreated.
Along with the baby fish, the Monument provides numerous fish unseen by my eyes in other parts of the Virgin Islands. This includes Queen Angel Fish that looked like they glowed inwardly from neon LED lights.
Unless you brought your own boat and/or kayak, you need to use one of two NPS concessionaries to take you into the Monument’s waters. Reef2Peak not only led an informational kayak ride into the snorkel areas, but provided a rich oral history of the unique East End while we kayaked on open seawater to Hurricane Hole.
3. Maho Bay Sea Turtles – Saint John
Did you see that picture I used at the top of this post to entice you to read? Here it is again in case you forgot.
This Microsoft-screensaver worthy view comes from Maho Bay on the north side of Virgin Islands National Park.
Further away than Trunk Bay or Cinnamon Bay, this bay is known by tourists and locals alike for one thing: Sea Turtles.
This traveler who was once obsessed with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles came to experience these crime-fighting, pizza-eating wonders, and Maho Bay did not disappoint (well, except for the pizza and ninja skills).
Amongst the large patches of sea grass that provide a marine buffet, I saw a sea turtle.
But more than just Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael or Donatello, I saw other animals.
No, not Splinter or April, but sting rays and fish ranging in color from turquoise to translucent.
* BONUS TIP * – Because the Virgin Islands are so expensive (expect to pay 3 times what you’d pay for food in the Lower 48 states), locals said the Inn at Tamarind Court is one of the most affordable lodging options for staying in Saint John’s base town of Cruz Bay (and is where I stayed). From Cruz Bay you can access the $1 public bus, taxis to all beaches (like Maho Bay), or any of Saint John’s hitchhiker-friendly major roads.
2. Sandy Point – Saint Croix
Have you seen the movie Shawshank Redemption? Remember how the character Andy (SPOILER ALERT) says he’d go to this mythical beautiful beach in Mexico if he ever got out? Well at the end of the movie (SPOLER ALERT), he escapes and ends up at that beautiful beach “in Mexico.”
Except it’s not in Mexico. It’s actually the southwestern tip, the “Sandy Point” as this video shows, of Saint Croix Island.
But this pristine, and I mean pristine…check out my Facebook Live video here…beach is not open 24/7. In fact, unless there’s a cruise ship docked at Fredericksted that day, it’s only open from 10am – 4pm on Saturdays and Sundays.
Huge shout out to the local Cruzan who told me this at 12 noon on the Sunday of my visit, because this beach was the largest swath of clear water and pure sand (with no rocks or shells) of any place I experienced in the Caribbean.
1. Snorkeling Buck Island Reef National Monument – Saint Croix
Remember at the beginning of this post when I mentioned being terrified of the water?
Wanna know what exposure therapy got me over that first big bump?
Buck Island Reef National Monument.
As this video shows, it’s not only a stunningly beautiful coral reef, but it’s also laced in history and ecological prestige.
The National Monument was designated in 1961 after President Kennedy visited.
But beyond celeb politician endorsements, the Monument also serves as a nesting ground for sea turtles. Whom without there’d be no Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
To access this Monument, just like the Coral Reef National Monument on Saint John, you need a boat. Fortunately, there are NPS concessionaries who can take you there if you don’t have one! I went with Big Beard’s Adventure Tours not only because they provided all the snorkel gear needed, but also a private beach barbeque (complete with local “Rum Punch”) after completing the trail.
For the parks traveler who falls in love with the Monument as much as I did, the Tamarind Reef Resort provides an entire hotel of rooms with back-porch views of the island: perfect for breathtaking sunrise or sunset views during the rest of your stay.
Don’t forget buying your snorkel gear ahead of time! $30 now will save you $50-$100 in the Caribbean. This is the best value I found/