Tag Archives: snorkeling

Buck Island Reef National Monument

Overview

Located 1.5 miles north of the large Caribbean island of St. Croix is Buck Island, which covers only 176 acres of the 19,015 acres designated as Buck Island Reef National Monument.  Arguably the best coral reef in the entire National Park Service (NPS) system is the barrier reef around the island’s northern and eastern shore, which includes large examples of elkhorn coral with its beautiful yellow branches.  Private boats can get a permit to visit the island, but most tourists reserve trips with an NPS-authorized concessionaire that provides the gear for guided snorkeling and scuba diving experiences.

Highlights

Snorkeling, Underwater Trail, West Beach, Observation Point

Must-Do Activity

Snorkeling on the eastern end of the island is the highlight of a day trip to Buck Island.  The water offshore from St. Croix is cooler, even though your boat will moor in a lagoon, so consider wearing a wet suit.  There is an Underwater Trail with interpretive signs at one location along the coral reef.  Watch for a variety of parrotfish, angelfish, filefish, and sharks (lemon and nurse).  Sea turtles (green, hawksbill, loggerhead, and leatherback) are more common the west side of the island.

Best Trail

A steep, sandy trail climbs from Diedrichs Point and forms a loop when you walk West Beach, the designated anchorage area.  The 45-minute trek has a must-do spur to Observation Point for the best views, otherwise you will not be able to see through the thick vegetation of thorny trees interspersed with organ pipe cactus.  Stay on the trail and be careful not to touch poisonous manchineel trees or Christmas bush (related to poison-ivy).

Instagram-worthy Photo

Bring an underwater camera for great photo opportunities.  We followed a spotted eagle ray and a large school of blue tangs around the reef.  We also saw a nurse shark, lemon shark, and dozens of barracudas.

Peak Season

Anytime except hurricane season

Hours

Buck Island is only open during daylight hours

https://www.nps.gov/buis/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

None, except for concessionaire boat trip

Road Conditions

There are no roads on the island, so a boat tour through an NPS-authorized concessionaire is necessary to access it.  There is a large parking lot (fee) near the Christiansted marina and floatplane airport.  Note: you drive on the left side of the road in the U.S. Virgin Islands, but in standard American left-side driver seat vehicles.

Camping

Buck Island is closed between sunset and sunrise, with no overnight mooring allowed.  On St. Croix, there is no official NPS campground at Salt River Bay National Historical Park and Ecological Preserve, but people camp along the coast there and at many beachside locations around the entire island.

Related Sites

Christiansted National Historic Site (U.S. Virgin Islands)

Salt River Bay National Historical Park and Ecological Preserve (U.S. Virgin Islands)

Virgin Islands National Park (U.S. Virgin Islands)

Explore More – What type of domesticated animals were let loose on Buck Island in the 1700s (permanently altering the vegetation)?

Virgin Islands National Park

Overview

More than half the island of St. John is part of Virgin Islands National Park, a Caribbean paradise known for its white sand beaches and crystal waters.  The National Park also includes 95% of Hassel Island, which was once a peninsula connected to St. Thomas.  The region is still recovering after Hurricanes Irma and Maria did extensive damage in 2017, but did not seem to affect the sugar mill ruins that have been standing since the 1720s.

Highlights

Trunk Bay, Maho Bay, Annaberg Sugar Mill, Petroglyph Trail, Saltpond Bay

Must-Do Activity

Snorkeling is the number one reason to visit St. John, which is surrounded by coral reefs.  The Underwater Trail in popular Trunk Bay is a good place to start, but our favorite spot to snorkel was from the beautiful beach at Saltpond Bay where we saw sea turtles, reef squids, and countless other species.  From the beach a trail leads 1.8 miles roundtrip to the 200-foot high cliffs at Ram Head.

Best Trail

Reef Bay Trail starts near the island’s high point at 900 feet in elevation, then descends 1.5 miles to the split for Petroglyph Trail where the rocks around a seasonal waterfall have several Taino carvings.  Reef Bay Trail continues another mile to the ruins of a sugar mill where ranger-led hikes (fee) are met by a boat.

Instagram-worthy Photo

A small, paved pulloff at the top of a hill on North Shore Road looks east towards the white sand beaches of Trunk Bay, an image used in almost every promotional publication for St. John. 

Peak Season

Winter

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/viis/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

None, except when lifeguards are on duty at Trunk Bay.

Road Conditions

Two narrow, winding, paved routes (North Shore and Centerline Roads) leave from Cruz Bay where the ferries arrive.  Several dirt roads require four-wheel-drive, including Catherineberg Road.  Note: you drive on the left side of the road in the U.S. Virgin Islands, but in standard American left-side driver seat vehicles.

Camping

None on the island of St. John until the NPS reopens Cinnamon Bay Campground, which closed following the 2017 hurricanes.

We created this design to celebrate Virgin Islands National Park and it is available on a variety of products at Cafe Press and Amazon.

Explore More – How long did the violent slave revolt in 1733 last before French troops arrived on St. John to return slaves to the sugarcane plantations?

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Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument

Overview

Established in 2001, Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument covers 12,708 acres of ocean around Virgin Islands National Park on St. John.  The National Monument consists of four separate areas in the Sir Francis Drake Channel and Caribbean Sea.  Its primary access point is in Coral Bay where it touches the island’s shoreline and kayaks can be launched from the road at Borck Creek, Princess Bay, and Haulover Bay.  

Highlights

Borck Creek, Princess Bay, Haulover Bay

Must-Do Activity

We rented a tandem kayak from Crabby’s in Coral Harbor and paddled east into Hurricane Hole to access the monument.  We found the snorkeling to be best around Borck Creek.  Guided kayaking and snorkeling trips can be arranged with concessionaires on the island.

Best Trail

None

Instagram-worthy Photo

In 2017, Hurricanes Irma and Maria killed a large portion of the red mangroves surrounding the bays within the monument.  However, even the dead roots provide structure for coral and fish.  The best way to see this is to snorkel in the shallow water, but be careful not to touch a mangrove jellyfish which can trigger a group response when the first one stings.

Peak Season

Winter

Hours

These are the hours for the Virgin Islands National Park visitor center on St. John:

https://www.nps.gov/viis/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

None

Road Conditions

No roads in this completely underwater monument, but watch for potholes and oncoming truck traffic if you drive to Princess Bay on Centerline Road from the ferry terminal in Cruz Bay.  Note: you drive on the left side of the road in the U.S. Virgin Islands, but in standard American left-side driver seat vehicles.

Camping

There are overnight moorings (no anchors allowed) for boats in Water Creek and other bays around St. John.  There are currently no campgrounds open on the island.

Explore More – Why do barracudas often follow snorkelers and divers?

Dry Tortugas National Park

Overview

Only accessible by boat or floatplane, Dry Tortugas National Park is a remote paradise 70 miles west of Key West and home to a diverse array of birds and sea life.  Fort Jefferson was built on Garden Key starting in 1846 and was never completed before it was abandoned in 1874.  Today birders come from all over to see the rookery of 100,000 sooty terns on Bush Key, and also get the joy of watching the acrobatic dives of brown pelicans, double-crested cormorants, and magnificent frigatebirds with their seven-foot wingspan.

Echo was bringing the CHAOS to Dry Tortugas National Park.

Highlights

Fort Jefferson, snorkeling, birding, overnight camping

Must-Do Activity

Turquoise blue water is home to amazing coral reefs right offshore from Garden Key, with some coral and sea fans growing on Fort Jefferson’s brick moat wall and old dock pylons.  Snorkeling among the historic debris feels like exploring an ancient shipwreck.  The daily ferry ship provides free snorkeling gear for day-trippers.

Best Trail

Walk the sea wall that circles Fort Jefferson for great views and a chance to see the endangered American crocodile that sometimes resides in the moat.

Instagram-worthy Photo

Walking the archways of Fort Jefferson in the rays of the rising sun or watching a sunset from atop its ramparts is a great reason to spend the night here.

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Peak Season

Weather permitting, the Yankee Freedom ferry boat runs daily all year, but you may want to be cautious during hurricane season.

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/drto/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

A park entrance fee is collected by the Yankee Freedom ferry service when you purchase your tickets, but is refundable at check-in if you have an America The Beautiful Pass.  A nominal camping fee is charged to stay on Garden Key.

Road Conditions

A parking deck (fee) is located right near the docks and check-in for the Yankee Freedom ferry boat.

Camping

Primitive camping is allowed on Garden Key for a small fee.  Campers must bring all of their own water and the only way to cook is with charcoal since fires and stoves are prohibited.

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Scott walking on the moat

The lighthouse with Majestic Frigatebirds

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A view of the ferry boat from atop Fort Jefferson.
Yankee Freedom ferry boat docked outside Fort Jefferson.
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When snorkeling only ten feet from shore, this stingray swam right past us.
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Explore More – Why were the islands of the Tortugas labeled “Dry” on early maps?

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