Virgin Islands National Park is one of those places that have to be seen to be believed. It may sound cliché since it's in the Caribbean (nearly everything's beautiful in the Caribbean), but there are not many places that can offer up so much natural beauty, along with a fascinating history lesson at the same time.
Every overlook had us wondering if we were dreaming.
Virgin Islands National Park
Virgin Islands National Park occupies almost the entire island of St. John, so it is easy to find. It's also fairly large with lots of hilly terrain, so renting a car is your best bet for getting around. Plus, you'll be better able to see everything this park has to offer. If you aren't planning on renting a vehicle, you'll still enjoy the park, but you will be limited as to what you can visit on foot.
Once we arrived on the island, we stopped by the visitor center located right at the front of the park. It's very near the ferry docks when you arrive at St. John. After getting our passport cancellation stamps and grabbing a map, we set off.
Tip: If you want to leave your vehicle, be sure to get a parking permit inside before you get going.
What to see and do in Virgin Islands National Park
Take a hike and cool off at the beach
Directly across from the Visitor Center are trails to Lido Point and also to Honeymoon Beach and the gorgeous Caneel Bay Resort. We started here and hiked down to the beach which is a little over a mile. Be sure you have good shoes and no flip flops because the trails are rocky and a stubbed toe would definitely ruin your day.
The trails wind around the hillside along the beach, and every now and again you'll catch a glimpse of the beautiful turquoise water.
The hike is hot and humid, so pack water and know your limitations! Remember, you're essentially hiking through a rain forest during wet season if you're visiting the US Virgin Islands during the summer months.
As a reward for making it to the end of this trail, you'll find a concession stand that sells gelato, drinks, and frozen candy bars - just the thing! While you're here, take in the views, go swimming, or take a kayak out on the water for a spin. It's up to you and what your schedule allows. There are rentals available here for all kinds of activities, including snorkeling, so take advantage if you can.
Know a 4th grader? Be sure to sign up for Every Kid in a Park. It's a free program that encourages 4th graders and their families to get out and explore America's amazing park system, and this pass gets the entire family free admission. How cool is that!?! Learn about Every Kid in a Park here. Where will your pass take your family?
Discover St. John's history at one of the sugar plantations
After hiking back to our car, we were off to see the old ruins of the Annaberg sugar plantation.
St. John has a long history of producing sugar, and its history and ruins are pretty fascinating. Be sure to make some time for exploring some of these sites. It is part of what makes this park unique, and the kids loved wandering through all the different rooms and looking out the old windows. There are several sites around the island to choose from, so go wherever is convenient for you.
Annaberg was recommended by a volunteer at the visitor center, and it was fantastic. It sits on the northeast side of the island near the coast, and the views are amazing. The drive across the island was pretty spectacular in and of itself, but once you're there, the old buildings and epic views will captivate you. We were all really glad we made time to visit the site.
For detailed maps of the area and a good history lesson, check out this page on the VINP site.
Look for some local wildlife
Virgin Islands National Park has that laid back Caribbean vibe like other islands here, and that's reason enough to visit, but the views are simply breathtaking. With not much development, there's nothing to impede the views, and because the wildlife is protected, there are plenty of things to see around the island like wild deer, friendly donkeys, hermit crabs, and lots of different birds to spot. We even made a few new friends. Too cool!
It was one of the best park experiences we've had this year, and despite the oppressive humidity, it was totally worth the trip. Definitely add this park to your list, as it is so unique and fun for families.
Like National Parks? Visit our page on America's National Parks for some other great vacation ideas for your family!
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Getting to Virgin Islands National Park
Here is a map of St. John Island, and as you can see, the park covers almost the entire island.
The easiest way to get here from the U.S. mainland is by plane to St. Thomas (STT). From there, take a taxi (or your own rental car) to the Red Hook Ferry Docks on the east end of the St. Thomas(~$10) and then catch a ferry to St. John. From there, you can enter the park on foot (~10 minute walk) or rent a car.
We actually stayed on St. Thomas, rented a car at the airport, and then just brought it with us on the ferry. You can take the car barge for $50 R/T plus a $3 fee and it worked out great! Either way, we recommend a vehicle - especially with kids - because it will make your visit so much easier.
Ferry Information for St. Thomas/St. John
Food is available around St. John at various restaurants and cafes. Inside the park, visit Caneel Bay Resort or the snack stands at a few of the beaches. You could also pack your own cooler for a picnic if you'd like.
Where to stay during your visit to Virgin Islands National Park
Where to stay on St. John USVI
St. John has several hotels, resorts, and condos available for families. If you want to be close to the park, this is a great option. For a smaller, boutique hotel, look into the St. John Inn (check here for prices). For a larger, more luxury experience, you may want to look at the Westin St. John Resort and Villas (check here for prices).
It's one of the few St. John USVI resorts that's actually inside the park. They have top-notch restaurants, complimentary water sports and activities, a teen center, and plenty of fresh gelato! Although we didn't stay here, we stopped by to cool down with some gelato and to have a look around. It's a gorgeous resort that would be great for families and would certainly be considered as one of the best Caribbean resorts for kids.
Where to stay on St. Thomas USVI
If your visit to Virgin Islands National Park includes more than just the park, you may want to use St. Thomas as your home base like we did. This worked well for us since there were things on St. Thomas that we wanted to do, like visit Magens Bay and do some shopping. Getting around is easy by car (drive on the left!) or taxi, and there are plenty of hotels and resorts around the island to choose from.
We were looking to stay towards the eastern side of the island closer to the ferry docks, so we stayed at the Marriott Frenchman's Reef Resort (check here for the latest prices). It's a large resort with some nice pools and their own slice of beach which we loved. The kids really enjoyed being greeted by the local iguanas each morning on our way to breakfast!
No matter where you stay, you probably won't be more than 15-20 minutes away from where you want to go.
All of our parks are special, but...
Virgin Islands National Park is unique because it's small and feels intimate in a way that many of the other parks that we've visited aren't. As you walk around and explore, it feels as if you've just uncovered a secret that the locals have known about forever and now you're part of the club. The serenity and beauty of this park make your heart ache a little knowing that you can't stay forever. It's just amazing.
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