Trails I've Hiked: Reef Bay Trail, Virgin Islands National Park

Tropical forest is slowly erasing 18th century ruins along the Reef Bay Trail in Virgin Islands National Park. Time also is exacting a toll on petroglyphs inscribed on a rock face above a freshwater pool just off the trail. Kurt Repanshek photos.

The steep, downhill tilt that runs for nearly the first half-mile beyond the trailhead of the
Reef Bay Trail definitely catches your attention, mainly because you realize the uphill grunt that awaits your return after you've hiked to the Caribbean Sea not quite 3 miles away.

But those thoughts are easily stowed as you wander through thick forest, one with mango and lime trees as well as tamarind trees, kapok trees, and various palm species that make it easy to remember the tropical environment you're in.

There are no long hikes in Virgin Islands National Park. Indeed, the longest is the Caneel Trail, which runs but 2.4 miles one way. But what they lack in distance they more than make up in history, which is a hallmark of the Reef Bay Trail. In heading down to the sea you pass various plantation ruins dating to the early 1700s, a spur that leads little more than a quarter-mile to petroglyphs dating perhaps to 900 A.D., and one of the best-preserved ruins of a sugar plantation on the island of St. John.

The trail, which follows an old road track the Danish settlers built back in the very early 18th century, is rocky and root-bound in places, but overall a decent path that roams down the gut of the Reef Valley. How the Danes ever negotiated this steep and narrow route is hard to imagine, although in places you can see sturdy rock walls they installed to support the roadbed, and the rock-lined culverts they built to direct water across, not down, the road.

Of course, the setting becomes all the more poignant when you realize that much, if not all, of the construction of the road and the plantation buildings was handled by slave labor. It's a sad bit of human history, though certainly not an isolated one. If there's a testament to their toils, it stands in the ruins that remain today. That so many still stand nearly 400 years after they were raised speaks to the slaves' skills.

Sadly, though, the forest is steadily reclaiming these ruins, erasing not just the physical artifacts but also the visible signs of human bondage, signs that shouldn't be forgotten out of respect for the slaves' plight.

The Josie Gut Plantation, which you come upon perhaps a half-mile into your hike, is in shambles. Those few walls still partially standing are turning into planters, with vegetation growing out of cracks in the mortar as well as atop the walls. Should the National Park Service try to restore these structures is a tough question. But even if you think it should, the staff at Virgin Islands NP lacks the experienced stone masons to do the job, and no doubt also lacks the money to pay for the work.

Just about 1.5 miles from the trailhead you come to a spur trail that runs 0.3 miles to petroglyphs carved into a small rock cliffside that funnels a waterfall during the rainy season. Here a small pool traps the fresh water. No doubt that was what brought pre-Colombian humans, thought to be Taino Indians, to this spot, where they carved figurines into the rock sometime between 900 and 1500 A.D.

The rock carvings are fading quickly. One hiker we passed thought they were so worn by time that the hike to view them was "anti-climatic." But it's a short, well worth it, hike that explains another chapter of St. John.

The final chapter on this hike are the ruins of the Reef Bay Sugar Plantation. The relatively good condition of these buildings stems from the fact that after the slave trade was abolished by the Danes in 1848 the plantation later moved to steam power to grind the cane. Today you can see one of the old boilers as well as the massive gears that drove the grinding operations.

Along the hike you'll spy various fauna. There are deer, iguana (most often seen in trees), and birds such as the Zenaida Dove, peregrine falcons, and the colorful bananaquit, the official bird of the Virgin Islands.

One of the most curious creatures is the soldier crab. These little guys take over abandoned shells for their homes, which they carry everywhere with them. At the Reef Bay Sugar Plantation we found dozens and dozens of them crawling about the grounds.

Some view this hike as a day-long affair, although it can be done in less than four hours if you're a strong hiker. The Park Service also offers a ranger-led hike down to Reef Bay, where a boat will pick you up and ferry you back to Cruz Bay. Check at the visitor center in Cruz Bay for when these outings are offered.