The Virgin Islands National Park celebrates its 60th birthday this year. In 1956, Laurance Rockefeller had the foresight to donate 7,259 acres of St. John land to the US government under the condition that the lands be protected from future development. Due to Rockefeller’s passion for wilderness conservation, 60% of St. John remains pristine. The park also includes 5,650 acres of adjacent submerged lands and most of Hassel Island near Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas.
Out of the dozens of trails in the Virgin Islands National Park, the Reef Bay Trail is arguably the favorite, or at least the most hiked. This backcountry trail starts at a 900 foot elevation, zigzags past some of the oldest trees on the island, and ends at the chain of Reef Bay beaches. Danish sugar plantation ruins, stone walls from cattle grazing, and ancient rock carvings called petroglyphs left behind by the pre-Colombian Taino can be found along the way.
Virgin Islands Junior Rangers
A line of children wind down the steep Reef Bay trail, a park ranger in the lead, smiling parents ladened like sherpas follow behind. Misty drizzle and rays of sunlight filter through the canopy of brilliant green leaves overhead. A five year old breaks from the pack, running after something he sees in the jungle. (Real or imagined, we don’t know.) He trips and tumbles end over end into the mud. The boy gets up, brushes off hands and knees, and rejoins his friends laughing. He’s not the only one with dirt-smeared clothes. All the kids are covered in muck from digging, exploring, and just being kids.
Welcome to The Little Explorers Club, an impromptu scout troupe that meets for hikes, swims, and other nature activities on St. John. Ages range from babes-in-arms to pre-teens. The rules are few – have fun being the primary one.
The group, founded by Carolyn Roust of Magic Tree Studios, evolved out of St. John’s homeschool collective, so optional academic activities are part of each outing – nature journaling, storytelling, and natural history lessons. On the Reef Bay hike, the kids became Junior Rangers – a program organized by the National Park Service.
For parents, this is no chore. The weekly gathering is something to look forward to. Adults scout alongside their children scaling waterfalls, catching waves, and getting dirty. We gain something unexpected from playing in nature – a glimpse of the world through a child’s eyes.
Reclaiming Your Wonder
Enjoying sundowners on the deck of a sailboat or stimulating conversation at a poolside party are pleasures of the adult world. However, you must abandon sophistication when kneeling in the woods to experience the furry, sweet, and slightly nauseating flavor of Old Man Stinking Toe. Unless you’re chatting with an anthropologist, no one at a cocktail party will tell you that Stinking Toe (also called Locust seedpod) was a staple food of the Taino Indians. These simple treats are reserved for those who can enjoy childlike activities.
No kids are required to access this state of mind, only willingness and purity of heart. To get in touch with childhood simplicity, take a moment to relax, close your eyes, and recall the deep body memory of what it felt like to explore as a kid. Can you see the colors, feel the heat of the sun and the cool of the shadows? Can you remember how it felt to play – easy friendships, not a care for the past or future?
To take your inner child into nature, forget fancy snacks and cocktails – pack a peanut butter and jelly sandwich! Hike the magnificent Reef Bay Trail where you can silence the chatter of your thoughts, be present, and for god’s sake, don’t take it too seriously. This is not a workshop or class. Just play like no one is looking. Run in the mud, splash in the waves, count birds in the treetops, let the bats in the rafters of the ruins make you shriek, or collect seashells.
You can find enlightenment in a puddle on a New York city street, but the Virgin Islands National Park makes childlike wonder effortless. The natural beauty and tropical weather lets you see the world with new eyes. Something many of us need these days.
Hike The Reef Bay Trail
From the Reef Bay trailhead to the beach is about three miles one way. Plan on three hours to the valley floor, and four hours to return up to the top. If you prefer to enjoy a relaxed 40 minute boat ride on the Sadie Sea from the beach to town instead of the steep climb out, book a guided tour at the National Parks Visitors Center
Tags:Junior Rangers, Little Explorers, Reef Bay
About the Author
Catherine Turner spends her time sailing in the Caribbean, blogging from her MacBook Pro on the beach, and sipping coconut water from the nuts that plop into the sand next to her. Before tuning in and dropping out Catherine was a nightclub owner and a resort showgirl. A lifetime ago, she spent a decade chained to a desk as a computer programmer/data analyst. She loves to write, paint, snuggle, and to practice yoga. If she doesn’t answer her phone, she is probably in the middle of the ocean somewhere. Leave a message.