Despite the heavy rains, the Reef Bay Trail for the most part remained in fairly good condition, at least up to the Petroglyph and Lameshur Bay intersections.
The use of strategically placed stone culverts to deflect the water to the side of the trail and thus preventing the erosion that would be caused if the water just was allowed to run down the trail, did their jobs well.
This is not to say that you didn’t have to cross some rapidly running guts that were flowing over the trail.
It was definitely worth the effort as the Petroglyph waterfall was spectacular!
It was so good that I decided to brave the steep, muddy, slippery path that leads to the top of the falls and to the bottom of another waterfall that appeared to be about twice the height of the Petroglyph Falls.
Video of waterfall located just above the Petroglyph Falls
Chocolate Hole, St. John US Virgin Islands (USVI)
Notwithstanding the Flash Flood Warning and the high probability of rain, my weather forecast system of looking out at the sky served me well and yesterday’s hike was rain free.
Last night however, it rained like crazy with thunder and lightning and high winds. So far this morning so good, but it sure looks like rain. Unless it looks better later on today, I’ll probably cancel my planned visit to Jost Van Dyke.
Being that I’m in the process of another book reprint for St. John Off The Beaten Track, I’ve been revisiting the island’s trails to check for changes since the last printing. I’ve also been concerned about trail conditions after the winds of Hurricane Earl and the flooding from Hurricane Otto. Following are reports from last week’s St. John trail hikes.
Francis Bay Trail The Francis Bay Trail remains in good condition with the exception that part of the new boardwalk constructed for handicap access is now under water. This is undoubtedly due to the unusual amount of rain we’ve experienced lately and will correct itself in the coming months.
Maria Hope Road The Maria Hope Trail is still in good condition even though there been no improvements or maintenance done on the trail by National Park contractors. The one good overlook has filled in with vegetation and although still providing views they’re not quite as outstanding as before.
Guinea Grass (photo by Yelena Rogers)
Like the Maria Hope Road, the Tektite Trail remains in good condition despite lack of maintenance. The sections of trail passing trough fields of guinea grass are beginning to become overgrown and may be difficult to follow in the future if the trail does not continue to be well used by hikers.
The L’Esperance Trail is also in good condition as are the L’Esperance and Seiban ruins cleared by volunteers last year. These estates, however are beginning to show signs of being reclaimed by bush if a campaign of maintenance by either contractors or volunteers is not initiated.
It appears that the Virgin Islands National Park is doing some work on the Cinnamon Bay Self Guiding Trail. Concrete pathways are in the process of being installed, making access easier and safer and wheelchair friendly.
bay rum tree lined trail
Flowing gut along the Cinnamon Bay Self Guiding Trail
Sunset from the overlook on north face of Caneel Hill
Viewing Tower at Caneel hill Summit
I usually don’t like the way photos come out on days when the Sahara dust makes the sky gray instead of blue and obscures the contrast between the white clouds and the background sky. Nonetheless, I brought my camera with me on a late afternoon hike up the Caneel Hill Trail.
With all the rain we’ve had lately, St. John is as green as can be, but walking on the trail, I was still amazed at how much the bush had grown. The Guinea grass, in particular, had sprouted up to a height of more than three feet almost obscuring the trail in some areas; very lush and very beautiful.
Sunset from the overlook on the North Face of the Caneel Hill Trail
I arrived at the summit of Caneel Hill in less than a half an hour and shot some photos from the viewing tower, none of which amounted to anything worth saving. Returning down the trail, I stopped at the overlook a hundred yards or so down from the hilltop, where there’s a wooden bench and a north view comparable, if not even better, to the view from the tower, especially now that the overlook was cleared thanks to Jeff Cabot and his volunteer trail crew.
From this new angle I could get a clear shot of the horizon and as the sun sank lower I could see that even the Sahara dust was working in my favor, filling the late afternoon St. John sky some beautiful shades of red, yellow and orange.
When I returned home, I was happy to find some pretty nice sunset shots worthy of being shared with those who didn’t happen to be at the north face overlook just shy of the summit of Caneel Hill on the Caribbean island of St. John in the United States Virgin Islands, at sunset which included every single human being on the planet Earth … except for me.
Late in the afternoon yesterday, I took a walk on the Lind Point Trail. It looked like a good day for sunset photos and it was. It has been raining lately so all the trees and plants were green and lush. I walked down to the beach at Salomon and over to the Lind Point Battery Overlook and was able to get some pretty nice photos.
The bad news was the mosquitoes. They were fierce. The day before I battled them at Maho Bay after a late afternoon swim and they were bad, but this was something else. A friendly couple came while I was photographing and offered me some mosquito repellent, which I gladly accepted, but I was afraid to put my camera down for fear that the mosquito dem would carry it off.
Tell us a little about yourself.
I was self employed for about 30 years with an electronics design and small scale manufacturing business here in Henniker, NH. About 10 years ago I got sick of filling out government forms and paying taxes for the privilege of hiring people, so after finishing the last contract, I closed the doors, and retired. People didn’t believe me, so I had the work phone disconnected. It took a while, but they finally have forgotten about me and I am retired. If I had the money, I would have retired when I was 20, but I didn’t.
How is it that you originally decided to come to St. John and make a trail map?
I first went to St. John in 1965 because my parents had gone there and liked the place. On my first few visits I did the usual tourist stuff, and, the snorkeling was superb. After a few visits, I started to venture out on more of the hiking trails. The map that the NPS gives out has never been worth much and for a new visitor to use it to find his or her way around, it is almost useless. Also, over the years, trails were not maintained and the NPS solution was to erase them from their map when they became overgrown. GPS technology had become available at reasonable prices and armed with a hand held GPS receiver, it was possible to accurately map the roads and trails. How hard can it be to make a map? Well, when I started, it was harder than it is now, and I didn’t know anything so I made the process more difficult than it had to be. My initial map was made in 2004 and was pretty good for a first effort. I had 9000 of them printed. The trail map bug had gotten me. I published an improved edition of the St. John hiking map in 2006. In 2008 I designed a version of the map for the Park Service, that shows only the approved hiking trails and that map is sold at the Park Visitor’s Center in Cruz Bay. I am almost finished with what will probably be the final edition of my St. John hiking map. I will include not only the approved hiking trails but will also show a lot of old Danish roads and trails that are not maintained or approved, but are great fun to explore. I hope other hikers will continue helping to keep the trails open.
What was the condition of the trails and the park when you first arrived?
When I first came to St. John, the trails were in pretty good shape. Over the years, the trails were neglected and many got so overgrown that you couldn’t even find them any more. In 1978, I went down the L’Esperance Road with a couple of friends. It was hard going, and early in the hike, one of my friends said “What we need here is a machete”. About 200 feet further along the trail, there was a machete lying on the ground. It was even fairly sharp. With this newly acquired weapon, we were able to make it all the way to Reef Bay. The catch-n-keep had torn our skin and clothes, but we made it. Some years later, I once again tried to follow the L’Esperance Road. It was impassable, and in places it had disappeared. I bought a machete and started to clear a path on the road. Of course, there was no way I could complete the task in one trip, so every time I returned to St. John, I cleared some more. Over the years, I finally had a path all the way to Reef Bay that people could walk. At some point, someone came in with a tractor, and removed the huge fallen trees that I couldn’t cut and widened out the first 2/3 of the trail. I don’t know who did that work, but I thank them. Gradually, trail clearing became sort of an obsession and I located and cleared many old trails and roads.
What contact have you had with with park officials and local hikers?
The Park officials became aware of my work when I published my first map. The chief ranger at that time was enraged, and called me at home and screamed “YOU CAN’T JUST MAKE A MAP!” I tried to explain that the first amendment to the US Constitution has a few words to say about the freedom of the press. I met with members of the Park staff at a public meeting and discussed what I wanted to do, and they essentially said no. The meeting was attended by a reporter who published a story about what was discussed. My first contact with local hikers was on a hike down what has become the Maria Hope Trail. The trail was badly overgrown and as we approached the lower end, the brush was so thick we couldn’t get through. They said that at this point, they scrambled down the hill to the gut to reach the road. They were armed with rose bush clippers and I had my machete. I suggested that if I went first, we could get through. I hacked and they dragged brush away. The first decent of the Maria Hope trail in recent times had been done. A number of the hikers were amazed at how well a sharp machete works and became converts. I have had many great hikes with the local hiking groups. I have noticed that there are some who want to keep their trails and discoveries a secret and I have left a few trails off the map at their request. These were trails in remote areas where I didn’t think many would want to go anyway. No map ever shows everything.
Were they cooperative?
The Park service has, in general, done it’s best to stop my work. I spent a lot of time trying to get the old roads and trails back on the NPS map, declared legal trails again and hopefully, maintained. There was one ranger in particular, who, if he responded at all, would have a long list of “what MIGHT be required” for a particular trail officially recognized. It “MIGHT” be required to have an archeologist and a rare plant expert sent down from the States to survey the proposed trail. There was no money available for that. The local staff experts were way too busy to be able to look at new trail or ruins. After several years of fighting for these trails, my learning more about NPS rules, and a change of leadership at VINP, some progress was made. First, a temporary superintendent put a stop to all the “MIGHT BE REQUIRED” conditions, and the present superintendent has made huge strides in getting VINP back in shape. Now a number of the old trails have been officially reopened.
What trails have you worked on?
I started, as I mentioned above with the L’Esperance road. After that came the Tektite trail, the Cabritte Horn spur, the Europa Point trail, the Tamarind Tree trail, the Water Catchment trail, the connector from the Water Catchment to the Caneel trail, the Great Sieben trail, the trail down to Par Force ruins from the Reef Bay Great House area and the trail up to America Hill. All of these are now officially recognized by the Park Service. There have been many other trails that I and others have worked on enough to get through but these aren’t cleared to any standard, and are not at this time recognized by the Park Service.
Which currently unofficial trails would you most likely want to see adopted by the park and why?
I would like to see the southern extension of the Maria Hope trail be cleared and officially reopened. It is a beautiful road and passes the ruins of the Paqureau and Hope Estates. This would require making a short section of new trail to connect with the top of the Reef Bay Trail, as the original trail bed has been destroyed by the building of Centerline road. This would make the Reef Bay Hike a loop hike. I would like to see the trails out to Turner Point reopened as it is beautiful out there and the eastern part of VINP is currently mostly unused as are no cleared trails or official access. The area out by Camelberg Peak is a beautiful forest with old roads and is currently little visited. A cleared trail there would make a nice loop hike with the L’Esperance road. Mary Point has old trails, beautiful views, but is currently badly overgrown with catch-n-keep and painful to visit.
How do you find old roads?
Many of the old roads that I have found are shown on the Oxholm 1800 map of St. John. I have also used aerial photographs taken back in 1954. I built a 3D viewer that was very helpful in finding old roads on these photos. Many times, if you just hike through the woods you will come across parts of old roads. Sometimes they quickly disappear and other times, they can be followed a long way. Unfortunately, many of the best of the old roads have been destroyed by modern road building.
Do you make new trails?
No. There are roads and trails going everywhere on St. John. The old roads were designed and built by people who knew what they were doing. St. John is so steep that most of the old roads are built up on the down hill side, with stone walls. These roads have existed for 200 years or more. If a new trail were to be built, similar construction methods would be needed. This would be more work and expense than would be worthwhile. There are plenty of existing, well built, roads and trails out there. They just need clearing and maintenance.
Have you donated any money for trail improvements?
Yes. One of the arguments for not opening any new trails, expressed by the Park Service, was that there is no money available to maintain the trails. I started a Trail Maintenance Fund that is available for that purpose. The VINP is in charge of the fund. Hopefully, those of you who like to hike the trails, but don’t have time to do trail work, will contact the VINP superintendent and donate some money to help hire others to do the work. I gave the artwork for the trail map to the Park Service. $1.00 from the sale of every map they sell goes to the trail maintenance fund.
Tell us about the new map work in progress?
The map I am working on will probably be my last one for St. John. I will include most of the old roads and trails I know about. Some are great and others don’t amount to much. They are there and people who like to explore may enjoy them. I will put the location of all the trails on my web site as .GPX tracks. Those who are interested can load any track onto their GPS receiver and accurately follow the path. My web site also has the St. John map available to upload to your GPS as an accurate base map, showing all the trails, etc. I will put a list of some of the trail head waypoints on the web site.
How can people obtain your maps?
My maps are available at a number of stores on St. John. The Park approved version of my map is for sale at the Visitor’s Center. I also sell my maps and mail them to people. The cost for the printed maps is listed on my web site. www.trailbandit.org The web site has all the maps available for free download and there is other information there too. I will be updating the web site soon.
It has been sad to watch VINP decay over the years. Many who work for the Park seem to think that their employment is some sort of a welfare program. It is too bad that there are so many employees who can get away with doing as little as possible. It would be far better to hire contractors do the work because a contractor does a specific job and gets paid when it is completed. Park employees have been getting paid but in many cases, they haven’t done much work. Many on the staff are content with the way things have always been. I have been pleased and encouraged by the changes that Mark Hardgrove has made and the improvement in the condition of the Park since he came. Hopefully the next superintendent will keep up the good work.
If you look on the east side of the steep hill going down to Hawksnest Bay you should see an old stone stairway. This was once the entrance to a house that at one time belonged to Laurance Rockefeller. The house eventually became the property of the Virgin Islands National Park and was demolished. Nothing remains.
Today if you climb the staircase you’ll notice a trail leading through the bromiliads that takes you to the ruins of a stone structure that is said to have once belonged to Peter Duurloo, born on the island of Statia in 1675 and died on St. John 1746. I have also seen his name spelled Durloo and Durloe. The three islands, Henley Cay, Ramgoat Cay and Rata Cay are collectively known as the Durloe Cays and were undoubtedly named after him
Peter Durloo was one of the original planters who took possession of parcels of land on St. John when the Danes laid claim to the island in 1716. Durloo took up what is now some prime real estate, Cinnamon Bay and Caneel Bay, which he named for the bay rum trees (Caneel in Dutch) that were so plentiful there.
Charlotte Dean Stark, who wrote Some True Tales and Legends about Caneel Bay Trunk Bay and a Hundred and One Other Places on St. John, had this to say about Mr. Durloo:
“He was a colored man from one of the more southerly islands, probably Satia, where the Dutch were struggling to keep their foothold. It seems likely that most of the Dutch planters in St. Thomas were the colored sons of Hollanders who had been brought up by their fathers to learn the business, whatever it might be. Not many women went out with the original explorers who seized islands in the chain to the south of us.”
The site has been cleared by Jeff Chabot and his volunteers, but is unlikely to stay that way. So if you’re interested in a little history and don’t mind the uphill walk from the Hawksnest parking lot, you may want to pay a visit while the visiting is good.
The St. John Explorers Club met at the entrance to the Fish Bay Gut. There had been some light rain so the rocks were slippery. Because of this the going was slow as extra care had to be taken with just about every step.
Advice to anyone attempting this hike: do it on a sunny day.
The gut environment is simply beautiful. What more can I say?
explorers begin the hike
Robin swings over freshwater pool
fallen tree across the gut
handholds and footholds
In order to avoid a particularly difficult section of the Fish Bay Gut, when we arrived at the junction of the Fish Bay and Battery Guts, we headed up the Battery Gut for a while and then bush whacked overland back to the Fish Bay Gut. We did something similar further up the Fish Bay Gut above the big pool, heading up into the bush and coming back down after we passed the pool and the steep rocks.
Not easy, very challenging, but exiting and fun.
Near the top of the gut we found a trail that took us to the Seiban ruins and then it was down the Great Seiben to Fish Bay and back to our vehicles.
Buried on a hilltop overlooking Leinster Bay and an overview of his vast property holdings on St. John, is the grave of Irishman, James Murphy, a wealthy merchant and slave trader who died on St. John in 1809. The trail to Mr. Murphy’s grace heads off to the south just about 50 feet east of the trail to the Great House of his estate.
Grave of James Murphy
View from James Murphy's grave
One of two graves located just before Murphy's grave
Just before you reach Murphy’s grave there are two more graves, one intact and another which appears to have been broken into.
Jeff Chabot and his crew of volunteers keep on with their good work making hiking on St. John so much more enjoyable. Now, thanks to them we have two new highlights on the Johnny Horn Trail, an overlook to the west and another one with views into Sopers Hole, Tortola and east.