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Reef Bay Trail

St. John USVI Trails: Reef Bay Trail

Excerpted from St. John Off The Beaten Track
reef bay trail map
Reef Bay Trail Map

The Reef Bay Trail begins at Centerline Road 4.9 miles east of Cruz Bay. Parking for four or five vehicles is available opposite the trail entrance. The trail runs between Centerline Road and the ruins of the Reef Bay Sugar Factory near the beach at Genti Bay. The well-maintained 2.4-mile trail descends 937 feet from the road to the floor of the Reef Bay Valley. The average hiking time is two hours downhill from Centerline Road to the beach.

Planning the 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. An experienced Park Ranger will act as your guide. In addition to the Reef Bay Trail, the walk will include 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 and is available by reservation only. Contact Friends of Virgin Islands National Park at 340-779-8700.

Those making their own arrangements for this hike need to consider their transportation to the trailhead on Centerline Road and the method of return from the bottom of the trail. The simplest procedure is to leave your vehicle in the parking area across from the trailhead on Centerline Road, walk down the trail, and then walk back up the way you came. No formal arrangements have to be made; you can go whenever you want, with whomever you want.

However, the long, steep, uphill walk back is far more difficult than the descent. This should not be a problem for those in good physical condition who may even enjoy the challenge. Make sure to pace yourself and bring plenty of water. It may also be a good idea to plan a picnic either at the petroglyphs or at the beach near the sugar factory. A cooling swim at Genti or Little Reef Bay is another pleasant way to prepare for the walk up the valley.

When planning your hike make sure you have all of the necessary equipment with you including proper clothing, water, sunblock, insect repellant, Trail Bandit Map and cell phone (Preferably loaded with the St. John Off The Beaten Track App).

It is also possible to exit the Reef Bay Valley without having to go back up the way you came. One good way to do this would be to make a loop using the L’Esperance Road as a route back to Centerline Road.

A second option would be to take the Lameshur Bay Trail to Lameshur Bay and either arrange for transportation back to Reef Bay, or walk to Salt Pond Bay and take the bus back . The Reef Bay to Lameshur route involves backtracking about a mile from the Reef Bay Sugar Factory to reach the trail, then walking 1.5 miles with a rapid 467-foot altitude gain, and subsequent descent in order to reach the road at Lameshur Bay. This is no easier than returning uphill on the Reef Bay Trail, and it is only recommended for those in good physical condition. It will be necessary to pace yourself and to bring plenty of water.

Another alternative is to walk along the Reef Bay coast to the western end of the bay where there is access to a road in Estate Fish Bay. Transportation should be arranged on both sides of this hike, as it is a long way back to the trailhead, and hitchhiking is difficult on the infrequently traveled roads of Fish Bay.

reef bay valley
Reef Bay Valley


Geography of the Reef Bay Valley
Webster's Dictionary defines a valley as “an elongated depression between uplands, hills or mountains, especially one following the course of a stream.” In this sense, the Reef Bay Valley, located on the south side of St. John is a classic example of this geographical formation.

The steep and well-defined mountains that form the Reef Bay Valley are among the highest in St. John and the valley follows the course of two stream beds, locally called guts. The Reef Bay Gut begins at Mamey Mountain and runs down the center of the valley to Reef Bay. Parallel to the Reef Bay Gut on the western side of the valley is the Living Gut, also called the Rustenberg Gut, which begins near Centerline Road and meets the Reef Bay Gut at the lower levels of the valley. A freshwater pool formed by the Living Gut provides the location of the ancient Taino rock carvings called the petroglyphs.

History of the Reef Bay Valley
The first human inhabitants of Reef Bay were hunter-gatherers who arrived in St. John almost 3,000 years ago. These primitive peoples were conquered or replaced by a farming-oriented society who were the biological ancestors of the Tainos, the people who Columbus encountered on his voyage across the Atlantic. The farmers, like the hunter-gatherers, migrated from the South American mainland and up the island chain of the Lesser Antilles arriving in St. John about 2,000 years ago.

When Columbus sailed past St. John in 1493, he reported the island to be uninhabited. The Tainos that lived on St. John may have already fled the island in the wake of Carib raids or they may have gone into hiding at the approach of Columbus' fleet, later to fall victim to the depredations visited upon them by the Spanish colonizers.

In the early sixteenth century, St. John was reported to be re-inhabited by Amerindians fleeing Spanish persecution in St. Croix and Puerto Rico. By 1550, the island appeared to have been totally uninhabited, and it remained that way for about 100 years.

Between 1671 and 1717, St. John was intermittently occupied by small groups of woodcutters, sailors, fisherman and farmers.

St. John was officially colonized and settled by the Danes in 1718. By 1726, all of the land in the Reef Bay Valley had been parceled out to form 12 plantations. At first, these estates were devoted to a variety of agricultural endeavors such as cotton, cocoa, coffee, ground provisions (yams, yucca, sweet potato taro, corn, etc.) and the raising of stock animals as well as to the production of sugarcane.

By the later part of the eighteenth century, the 12 plantations were consolidated into five, and sugar became the dominant crop in the valley. Only Little Reef Bay never switched to sugar growing some cotton but primarily concentrating on ground provisions and animals that were sold to the neighboring plantations.

Although much of the land was cleared for agricultural purposes, a large portion of the valley was left in its natural state. The least disturbed areas of the valley are the western side of the Reef Bay Gut and the mountain spur between White Point and Bordeaux Peak.

By the end of the eighteenth century, when sugar production was at its peak, and the population of the valley was at its greatest (300), about half of Reef Bay Valley was classified as woodland.

In the nineteenth century, agriculture in the Reef Bay Valley began to decline. By 1915, only Par Force and Little Reef Bay in the lower valley were still active, but with only ten acres planted in sugar. Otherwise the plantations were devoted to cattle and other livestock, coconuts, fruit trees, and ground provisions.

Today, most of the Reef Bay Valley, with the exception of some parcels of private property called “inholdings” is the property of the National Park.

The Trail
The Reef Bay Trail begins at the bottom of the stone stairway on the southern side of Centerline Road.

Looking toward Centerline Road from the bottom of the stairs, you can see an old stone wall. This was once the retaining wall for the circular horsemill on the plantation known as Old Works and is all that remains of the old estate, which was demolished during the construction of Centerline Road.

The Defile
Until the end of the in the eighteenth century, people couldn’t travel all the way from east to west on what was then called Konge Vey (King’s Road) and which is now known as Centerline Rd or Route 10. The road was divided in two by a deep gorge at the saddle of the Maho Bay Valley on the north and the Reef Bay Valley on the south. This gorge, called the defile, was so deep, its sides so steep and the bottom so rugged that it was impassable by donkey cart or horseback.

When travelers on horseback or wagon going between the Coral Bay side of St. John and the Cruz Bay side came to the defile, they had two options:

Option 1: There were corrals for horses on both sides of the defile. They could leave their horses in the corral on one side, cross the defile on foot and arrange to take another horse to continue east.

Option 2: They could take the Maria Hope Road down the Maho Bay Valley to the north and continue east on the north shore.

Around the year 1780, the defile was filled in by the owner of the Old Works Estate, Peter Wood, and the two sides of the island were connected by one road for the first time.

Until then the main port and business hub of St. John was Coral Bay. There was where one entered and cleared customs and from where most vessels came to pick up and deliver cargo.

The land bridge over the defile changed the dynamics of St. John as now deliveries from east of the defile could be sent to Cruz Bay overland and as Cruz Bay was so much closer to St. Thomas, it became the favored port and the main town on St. John

When Centerline Road was constructed along the mountain ridge, hundreds of tons of fill were brought in to make the road passable by motor vehicle. In the process, the Old Works Estate and the uppermost section of the Maria Hope Road were completely covered over with the exception of the horsemill wall.

reef bay trail: west indian locust
The saddle to the right
of the high peak is the
beginning of the trail, which
runs alongside the gut

From Centerline Road to Josie Gut
The Reef Bay Trail roughly follows the course of the Reef Bay Gut, which drains the valley and flows downward toward the sea.

The top section of the trail descends steeply through the moist sub-tropical forest of Reef Bay's upper valley shaded by several varieties of large trees including West Indian locust, sandbox, kapok, mammee apple and mango. National Park Service information signs provide valuable information about the natural environment of the valley.

reef bay trail: west indian locust
West Indian Locust


West Indian Locust
The first tree that you will pass, marked by a NPS sign is a West Indian Locust. The sign reads: "West Indian Locust, (Hymenaea courbaril) Bean Family - This tree is found throughout the West indies and parts of Mexico and South America.The durable wood of this handsome tree is used for furniture, shipbuilding, crossties and posts. The tree exudes a useful gum resin.It produces large, dark, red seed pods containing several seeds surrounded by a strong smelling, yellow pulp that gives this tree the local name of "stinking toe tree." The pulp is edible and sweet tasting. The holes you see in the bark is made by the yellow-bellied sapsucker to set a sticky, sap-laden trap for ants.

reef bay trail st john: kapok tree
Kapok Tree

Kapok Tree
A beautiful old kapok tree grows just alongside the trail identified by a National Park Service Information sign. The kapok is known by different names in different parts of the Caribbean. In the B.V.I. it is called the silk cotton tree. Some down islanders call it the jumbie tree. In Mexico, Central and South America it is called the ceiba. The scientific name, Ceiba pentandra, comes from the Taino word for the tree pronounced tsayee-baa.

Because of its great size, its tendency to grow straight, and because the wood is soft and more easily worked using primitive stone tools, the kapok was chosen to make the great canoes used by the Taino to travel from island to island.

The kapok is often associated with the supernatural. In Africa it was said that sleeping on pillows made of kapok cotton will bring good luck, purify and empower your material and spiritual energy and bring good dreams and saintly vibrations. Slaves brought to the Caribbean often slept on mattresses and pillows stuffed with the fluffy silk cotton fiber from the kapok seedpods. Interestingly enough, this custom was often shunned by white planters and plantation overseers who believed that sleeping on kapok pillows brought about nightmares.

reef bay trail: sandbox tree
Sandbox Tree

Sandbox Tree
Another unusual tree found on the edge trail is the sandbox, recognized by its many dark pointed spines and smooth, brown bark. The sharp spines along the trunk have caused it to be called monkey-no-climb. The white prickle, yellow prickle and kapok have also been called monkey-no-climb for the same reason.

Another name for this tree is monkey pistol. The sandbox produces beautiful seed pods that look like wooden tangerines. When the seeds are ripe, the individual segments, which are the separate seeds, burst apart making a sharp cracking sound like a pistol being fired.

The origin of the name sandbox tree comes from the use of the seedpods as a desk accessory during the Victorian era. The ripe pods were collected just before they burst apart and were reinforced with glue to keep them together. People would then place sand in them, which was used to blot ink with.

reef bay trail: josie gut map
Jossie Gut Map

Josie Gut
The ruins of the Josie Gut Sugar Estate can be found about a half mile down the trail. The plantation began operation in the early eighteenth century.

The circular horsemill, supported by an old stone retaining wall, is still in good condition. A small storage room was built into the lower portion of the retaining wall. The remains of the boiling room lie right below the horsemill, just a few yards off the trail.

The name Josie Gut came about after Joseph Vanini beacme the owner of most of the estates in the valley and named the greater estate Vaninburg. He named the gut that ran through one of his holdings Joseph's Gut and the estate itself became known as Jossie Gut

reef bay trail: bricks
Yellow and Red Bricks

Construction Materials
The walls and foundations of the structures found at Josie Gut were constructed using locally obtained stone, brain coral, and imported red and yellow bricks. These bricks, made in England and Germany, can be found in the ruins all over the island. The story of how they ended up in the walls of a Caribbean sugar plantation provides some insight into the culture and morality of the time and place from which they came.

During the plantation days, the traditional trade route to the West Indies was called the triangle trade. The first leg of the triangle trade was from Europe to Africa. The ships carried rum, weapons, and manufactured goods that were offloaded in Africa and traded for slaves.

The second leg of the trade was from Africa to the West Indies in which the holds of the ships were crowded with a human cargo, slave labor for the plantations in the New World.

Sailing vessels need weight, called ballast, toward the lowest sections of the ship to balance the force of the wind on the sails. This is accomplished today by the use of heavy keels or lead weights loaded near the bottom of the hull area.

The simple fact that dead or dying human beings could not be sold motivated the slavers to make certain efforts to keep their property in a sellable condition. In order to further this goal, the Africans captives were moved on deck from time to time to get fresh air and to enable the crew to wash down the accumulated filth below. In short, the human cargo was not suitable as ballast, and some other weighty material needed to be in place in the lowest sections of the hull.

Preferably, the ballast would be easily removable when the ship reached the West Indies in order to make room for the hogsheads of sugar, barrels of rum, bales of cotton, and other tropical products that would fetch a handsome price in Europe. European bricks were often chosen to serve as this ballast material. Not only were they compact and heavy, but they also had value in the West Indies where they could be sold as construction material.

reef bay trail: brain coral
Brain Coral


Brain coral was another important construction material. It was used primarily on arches and as corner stones. Brain coral served this purpose well because when it is first brought from the sea, it is soft and can be cut easily with a saw to the size and shape needed. After the brain coral was shaped it would be placed in the sun to dry where it would become hard and rock-like.



Stone, already plentiful on the surface of the ground, was also uncovered during excavations for terraces, buildings and roads. Mortar was made from a mixture of lime, seashells, water and molasses. The lime was fabricated locally by burning chunks of coral and seashells.

Quicklime - An Essential Material of the Colonial Period (David Knight © 2006

The framework and roofs of the buildings were made of wood. Many of the larger beams were made of the extremely hard and durable Lignum vitae, a tree that was once plentiful on St. John

From Josie Gut to the Sea
After leaving the Josie Gut area, the trail becomes less steep and the environment gradually changes from moist to dry forest, characterized by smaller trees and sparser shrubbery.

reef bay trail: marsh house
Foundation of Miss Marsh's House

About one mile from Centerline Road, now well within the more gently sloped lower valley, the Reef Bay Trail passes by the remains of what was a small house, which was built around1930. This section of the Reef Bay Valley is known as Estate Par Force. The house alongside the trail was once owned by Miss Anna Marsh, who cultivated fruit trees and raised cattle.In those days, permission had to be granted by Miss Marsh in order to continue down the trail to the abandoned sugar mill or to the petroglyphs.

The ruins of the Par Force Estate lie to the northeast of the Marsh House. A spur trail the Par Force Estate House Trail will take you to the ruins. The more adventurous may go into the bush behind the Marsh house and follow the gut north and up. The ruins lie on the east side of the gut.

Petroglyphs Trail intersection
About 0.1 mile past the Anna Marsh house, you will come to the Petroglyph Trail, which will be on your right (heading west).

Lameshur Bay Trail intersection
The next trail intersection will be the Lameshur Bay Trail, which leads to the left (east) while the Reef Bay Trail continues straight. For information on the Lameshur Bay Trail.

The Reef Bay Trail continues
The Reef Bay Trail continues straight (south) on relatively flat terrain and leads to the partially restored Reef Bay sugar factory and the beach at Genti Bay.

Lime Trees
Many citrus trees were planted along this section of the Reef Bay Trail, and some lime trees still remain. Two of these trees are growing right alongside the trail. If you find ripe limes, take a few back with you. They're especially delicious and make excellent limeade.

In her book, Some True Tales and Legends About Caneel Bay, Trunk Bay and a Hundred and One Other Places on St. John, Charlotte Dean Stark remembers collecting fruit in Reef Bay:

'There are cultivated orange trees there (at Estate Reef Bay), and once, to our joy, in 1948 or 1949, there was enough rain to produce a crop of five hundred oranges. They were exceptionally sweet and of fine flavor.”

Land Crabs
As the trail nears the sea it passes through a low-lying marshy area. The holes in the earth are land crab holes. This was once a popular place to gather these island delicacies. Land crabs are now protected within the National Park boundaries and hunting them is forbidden.

William Henry Marsh
In 1855, O.J. Bergeest and Company bought Reef Bay and converted the mill to steam power. At that time, William Henry Marsh was the manager of the plantation. Marsh had come to the West Indies from England along with his brother. They both settled for a time in Antigua. William went to live in Tortola and then moved to St. John. His brother settled in New York.

William Marsh was in charge of setting up the steam engine. In 1864, he bought the entire Reef Bay Estate at public auction. He married a St. Johnian and had ten children. The Marsh family acquired several other estates on St. John, and they are, to this day, important landowners on the island.

st john trails: par force map
Par Force Map

The Turn of the Twentieth Century
Around the turn of the twentieth century, the Par Force or Reef Bay Plantation operation covered almost the entire lower part of the valley.

Sugar was planted just north and east of the factory behind the marshy area. The provision grounds were planted at the northern end of the valley just before it starts to slope steeply upwards. Another provision ground was located next to the greathouse.

Coconut palms and bananas were cultivated in the lower area near the beach. Fruit and citrus trees were planted throughout the lower

valley, but especially near the gut. Cattle and sheep grazed on three sections set aside as grassland.

reef bay sugar mill
Reef Bay Sugar Mill

The Reef Bay Sugar Factory
The Reef Bay Sugar Mill remains in extremely good condition. A visit here may increase your understanding of the sugar making process and help you to imagine what life was like in days gone by.

A good way to start your tour of the factory is to begin at the horsemill. Horses, mules or oxen walked in continuous circles to power the three rollers of the cane crusher in the center of the mill. A slave (or after 1848, a “worker”) on one side of the crusher fed bundles of cane into the rollers, and a worker on the other side would receive them. He, in turn, would send the crushed stalks back through the rollers for further extraction of the cane juice. The cane juice then flowed down the trough to the boiling room. The leftover crushed cane stalks, called bagasse, were dried out and stored.

reef bay trail: boiling bench
Boiling Bench
reef bay trail: sugar boiling pot
Boiling Pot
reef bay trail: weight

One side of the boiling room housed the boiling bench and the row of copper boiling pots where the cane juice would be boiled down into a wet raw sugar called muscavado. The fires were fed from the outside of the building. Bagasse would often be burned to provide heat for the boiling operation. The muscavado would then be dried and packed into 1,000 pound barrels called hogsheads.Sailing vessels bound for Europe would arrive in Genti Bay to pick up the shipments of sugar. To accomplish this, specially constructed boats called dories were used to bring the hogsheads to the larger vessel. The dory would be beached and then turned on its side. The heavy barrels would then be rolled inside. Then the dory would be righted, launched and rowed out to the anchored vessel. Using block and tackle on the boom of the sailboat, the sugar could then be loaded into the cargo area below decks.

Steam Power
After the abolition of slavery in the Danish West Indies, the sugar industry on St. John began to collapse. Most of the sugar plantations on St. John were sold, and their new owners switched to cattle raising or provision farming. The owners of Reef Bay, however, decided to continue the sugar operation. To make the process more economically feasible, they installed a steam engine to power the rollers. This, they felt, would solve the problems associated with the slowness of animal power.

reef bay trail: steam engine
Steam Engine
reef bay trail: rollers
Cane Crusher

At the perimeter of the horsemill, next to one of the factory walls, is the steam powered sugarcane crusher. The steam engine, built in Glasgow, Scotland in 1861 by the W.A. McOnie Co., is located in the room alongside the rollers. This room was constructed especially to house the steam engine after it was put together and installed.

The sugar operation here did not proceed smoothly. The soil on the sugar plantations became depleted of nutrients, and the sugar crops became smaller and smaller. Moreover, the introduction of sugar beets in Europe and in the United States provided great competition and lowered sugar prices. Reef Bay Estate and Estate Adrian, which also converted to steam power, were the last operating sugar mills on the island.

On March 7, 1908, fifteen year old Maunie Dalmida was crushed in the gear assembly next to the rollers. E.W. Marsh, the son of W.H. Marsh, died a year later and left the property to his four children, two of whom stayed on to run the plantation. The sugar operation became even more difficult after the accident because some people believed that the mill was haunted by ghosts. In 1916, St. John was struck by a major hurricane. The factory was closed and the sugar era on St. John finally came to an end.

By 1930, only five people lived in the Reef Bay Valley at Par Force. They tended two acres of provisions and grazed 44 cattle. The estate was then owned by Anna Marsh, the daughter of William Henry Marsh, who sold small amounts of milk, citrus fruits, guavas, mangos and coconuts. Reef Bay remained sparsely occupied until the early 1950s.

In 1955, much of Reef Bay was sold to the Rockefeller’s Jackson Hole Preserve Inc., which transferred the land to the National Park.\

william henry marsh grave
Grave of W.H. Marsh

The Grave of W.H. Marsh
Behind the horsemill, about twenty yards inland from the beach, is the well preserved above ground grave of W.H. Marsh. His two daughters are buried nearby.

reef bay trail: historic bathroom
Historic Bathroom

Historic Bathrooms
An item of somewhat esoteric historical interest is the origin of the bathrooms located near the beach. The former island administrator and Park Ranger, Noble Samuels, took Ladybird Johnson on the Reef Bay Hike in the early 1960s.

Upon reaching the sugar factory at the end of the trail, the former First Lady asked Noble Samuels for the location of the bathrooms. The Park Ranger acknowledged the lack of these facilities and pointed to the bush as a possible alternative.
Ladybird Johnson later donated money for the construction of the bathrooms which are there for your convenience today.