Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Virgin Islands National Park

Virgin Islands National Park is comprised of 7,259 acres of terrestrial habitat on St. John and 5,650 acres of adjacent submerged lands, providing protection and preservation for tropical and migrating birds, fish, corals, and other marine life, as well as some 800 species of plants. The park also protects 122 acres (90%) of Hassel Island.

The park dates to about 60 years ago when Laurence Rockefeller, son of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., began acquiring land on this 20-square mile island including most of the sandy beaches of the North Shore. Laurence followed in his father's footsteps in conservation efforts as he was also instrumental in enlarging Wyoming's Grand Teton National Park as well as parks in California, Maine, and Hawaii.

In 1956, Congress passed the bill creating Virgin Islands National Park and an additional 5,000 acres were added in 1962. Hassel Island was added in 1978. Before leaving office in 2001, President Bill Clinton signed an act protecting a large area of submerged land off the island’s East End, thus creating the Coral Reef National Monument.

There are seven species of corals found in the Caribbean that are listed under the Endangered Species Act as threatened. Corals are critical to the health of the marine ecosystems and provide protection for coastal communities as well as habitats for a multitude of other species. Threats to corals include ocean warming, ocean acidification, dredging, coastal development, pollution, disease, reef fishing, damage from boats and anchors, marine debris, and aquatic invasive species.

There are no airports on St. John so you must fly to St. Thomas and travel by car or taxi to Redhook at the west end of St. Thomas. From there you can take a car barge or the people ferry to St. John.

Virgin Islands National Park contains examples of most western tropical Atlantic terrestrial, coastal, and marine ecosystems. These include various types of subtropical dry to moist forest, salt ponds, beaches, mangroves, seagrass beds, coral reefs, and algal plains. Terrestrial topography is quite dramatic with average slopes being 30 percent. The highest mountain peak plunges sharply to the sea over a distance of three quarters of a mile.

World famous Trunk Bay beach was named as one of the top 10 beaches in the world. Its underwater snorkel trail is an excellent place for beginners or anyone wanting to learn about marine life. Plaques along the trail describe the various species of fish and provide information about the coral reefs. Below is a Gliding green turtle.

Virgin Islands National Park’s hills, valleys, and beaches are breath-taking. However, within its 7,000 plus acres on the island of St. John is the complex history of civilizations - both free and enslaved - dating back more than a thousand years, all of whom utilized the land and the sea for survival.

Significant prehistoric sites are present on almost every beach and in every bay within the park. These archeological sites date from as early as 840 BC to the arrival of Columbus. There are early nomadic hunter-gatherer Archaic Period sites, followed by early chiefdom villages, then complex ceremonial sites, and all have their own burial grounds. These sites have given us a greater understanding of this Caribbean region’s pre-history as well as the religious and social development of the Taino culture that greeted Columbus.

These sites have also dramatically increased our understanding of the ancient rock art that is found throughout the Caribbean islands, such as when it was carved, why they were carved in specific areas such as at Reef Bay, their purpose, any religious meaning, and how they reflect cultural development.

After Columbus’ arrival, the Virgin Islands' became one of the first melting pots made up of many cultures from around the world. European powers competed for strategic and economic control and brought enslaved workers from Africa.

Historic landscapes and architectural remains of hundreds of structures from plantation estates are found throughout the park. Ruins include windmills, animal mills, factories, great houses, terrace walls, and warehouses. In addition to plantations, there are at least two thousand house sites that had been occupied by the enslaved workers, and also their graveyards. Below is the sugar mill at Annaberg Plantation.

Hiking is one of the most popular activities so Virgin Islands National Park provides a wide variety of hiking experiences and more than 20 trails to choose from. Some offer accessible boardwalks that meander through historic ruins or take you to a bird viewing deck on lovely salt ponds.

For the adventurous, Reef Bay Trail is the most difficult and is considered a backcountry trail as it is extremely steep and rocky. The elevation of the trail drops from about 900 feet at the trailhead to sea level in two miles, and of course the return trip is all uphill. If you attempt this trail be sure to bring bug spray, lots of water, and wear sturdy shoes.

Lind Point trails are a good choice for those only here for a day or so. They begin at the Visitor Center and wrap around the Lind Point to Honeymoon or Salomon Beach.

There are three species of lizards found on St. John. The iguana, which is not a true lizard, is vegetarian and is often found in trees. When threatened, they escape by dropping to the ground or into water. They can fall 40-50 feet to a hard surface without injuring themselves.

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