Reef Bay Trail St. John Hiking Guide

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by Kristin Young | Updated On: January 28, 2021 | Hike

The Reef Bay Trail on St John, USVI is a beautiful hike in the Virgin Islands National Park. St. John is the smallest of the three major US Virgin Islands, and the National Park covers more than half of the island giving it a very remote and eco friendly feel. The trail is a slightly over 4 mile strenuous out and back trek that opens up to the ocean at the half-way point.

It is well worth the effort though. Along the trail you will find huge trees that are some of the oldest on the island, petroglyphs dating back thousands of years, and and even ruins of an old sugar mill. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to see a small waterfall near the petroglyphs, but it’s usually only flowing after a rain. To see the waterfall and petroglyphs, you’ll need to take the very short branch off petroglyph trail that will lead right to the pools.

  • Difficulty: An intermediate to moderately difficult trek, Reef Bay Trail is downhill all the way to the beach and completely uphill the way back.
  • Distance: Just over 2 miles ONE way(about 4.5 miles total).
  • Cost: The activity cost is Zero. You might have to invest some money into buying trek supplies such as mosquito repellent, hats, water bottles and snacks, other hiking essentials if applicable.
  • Hours: The hike takes 2-4 hours on an average. It will take longer depending on your physical ability, time spent looking at petroglyphs and ruins, taking rest breaks etc.
  • Tour or DIY: Can easily be a DIY hike. No special documents, permissions, planning are required but if you want a tour, the National Park Service leads 1 guided tour per week that includes a boat ride back(so return uphill hike).
  • Best time to go: The morning hours are the best so that you can beat the afternoon heat and humidity.

GETTING TO ST. JOHN REEF BAY TRAIL

To get to the starting point of the St. John reef bay trail you’ll first need to get to St. John. You can fly or cruise to another nearby island, but the only way to get to St. John is by ferry or boat. Read more about exactly how to get to St. John here. There are three ways to get to the reef bay hike, St. John, by rental car(Get a Jeep! You’ll need it!), by taxi(make sure to have a phone number to get a ride back), or by National Park Service guided tour.

The entrance to the trail is only marked with a small sign, so know where you are going and be on the look out for mile marker 5 and the Reef Bay Trail sign. If you arrive later in the morning, the other cars parked along the road will signal where to look.

cars parked along the road at the entrance to the reef bay trail on St. John

Be aware, parking in extremely limited at the entrance to the trail and all spaces are usually full by 10am or earlier.


REEF BAY TRAIL HIKE

Reef Bay Trail sign at entrance
Reef Bay Trail map from NPS displayed at trailhead

The hike is scenic and amazing. Along the length of the trail there are many things to see, the most important being the petroglyphs dating from Pre-Columbian era and made by the Taino over 1000 years ago. The ruins are of historical importance and the one of the most popular things to see on this trek. They peak out from just above the waterline at one of the reflecting pools at the end of the petroglyph trail as seen on the picture of the Reef Bay Trail map sign above. Splashing a small amount of water over them well help the petroglyphs to really show themselves.

Walking alongside the oldest trees on the island, you can spot the ruins of an old sugar mill, stone walls and enclosures for grazing and many other structures. The park boasts of St. John waterfalls too along the trail, but they are prominent in the rainy season whereas only like a trickle in the dry season.

stairs leading down from road to Reef Bay Trail on St. John, USVI

Along the way, you can see a lot of flora and fauna. The most notable are the abundant Hermit Crabs!

reef bay trail through the vegetation

The St. John reef bay trail ends at the beach. The incline is obvious – you start around 900 feet above sea level and end at the ocean, so the hike is all downhill while going out and totally uphill while coming back. The terrain is somewhat varied along the trail with the steepest and most difficult part while coming back is the last bit so keep some ammo saved for the last.

people standing on the beach at the end of the reef bay trail on St. John, USVI

Petroglyph Trail & Waterfalls

Reef Bay Trail petroglyphs are really the highlight of this hike. They are located around a reflecting pool, at the base of a waterfall, a little off the main trail. You can take the small, but well marked waterfall and petroglyph trail that branches off the main trail for about a quarter of a mile. These symbols are totems called “Zemis”, used by the natives.

petroglyphs in the rock just above a pool of water

The waterfall itself is a beautiful with water cascading down a large 40 foot cliff. However, the volume of the water depends on whether it has rained in the last couple of days. If it has not, it might just be a sparse trickle.

Plantation Ruins

sugar mill plantation ruins on the reef bay trail

The trail has a sugar plantation and sugar mill ruins site. In fact, the trail itself is originally a donkey path on which the goods for the sugar industry were transported. The equipment is still there in the mill and the grounds can be explored just before you reach the turn around point at the ocean. You can also spend a while taking a dip in the ocean before heading back up the hill. The beach is a bit rocky, but it’s one of the most secluded spots on St. John with rarely another person around.


WHERE TO STAY NEAR REEF BAY TRAIL

If you want to stay on one of the amazing beaches of St. John, it will be a bit difficult. One of the best parts about St. John is that the beaches aren’t built up with large hotels and resorts. But, that also means that the ability to stay on a beach is VERY limited. We have found two amazing Airbnb St. John properties that are the PERFECT places to stay!

Gibney Beach Cottage

Gibney Cottage from the water  on the cover of Coastal Living
Photo Courtesy of Airbnb

While relaxing on Hawksnest beach I spied this little cottage and made it my mission to find it. In our opinion, it’s truly THE BEST place to stay on the island. And, it was featured on the cover of Coastal Living Magazine.

Check availability HERE. And make sure to book early because it’s in high demand!!


Peter Bay Villa

Villa with pool overlooking Peter Bay in St. John
Photo Courtesy of Airbnb

This large villa sits on the cliffs overlooking Peter Bay on the north side of the island. But, it has a short trail to follow down to an amazing beach. It’s large enough to host a few couples, so it works well for group get togethers.

Check availability here.


The trail lies in the borders of the Virgin Islands National Park so there are no hotels with immediate access, but there are a couple of great hotel options in the neighborhood like or favorites Estate Lindholm our the Westin St. John.

Estate Lindholm

Westin St. John


ST. JOHN REEF BAY TRAIL TIPS & SAFETY

It is a safe trek and you will not need a lot to be fine on the hike.

  • Coat yourself with mosquito repellent before you start.
  • Wear proper, closed-toe shoes as the walk is not very smooth. Avoid flip flops.
  • There are informative signs along the trek, keep an eye out.
  • The Reef Bay trail St. John trek is difficult, to be honest but also quite doable- we even took our children.
  • The descent from the starting point is quite steep, which can be difficult if you have bad knees.
  • The hike is mostly shady, with direct sun only in patches. But still, wear your sunscreen.

If you don’t want to do the entire out and get back (which is strenuous) join one of the park tours. The park arranges for a boat pickup at the beach that will return you to Cruz Bay, and avoiding the all uphill return hike. Or, you can also take a private charter to the Reef Bay trail turnaround, swim to the land and then trek as long as you like. Most of the most interesting things to see are near the turn around point anyway so if you’re looking for an easy option to see the trail, this is the route we recommend.

The St. John reef bay trail is a must for anyone who loves exploring tropical rainforests. We absolutely recommend that you add it to your itinerary when visiting the Virgin Island National Park. The beaches are amazing, but the hike will add a little something fun and adventurous to your Virgin Islands trip. With several options from moderate to strenuous, this hike can be tailored to fit just about anyone’s fitness level.

Looking for more information on traveling to the Virgin Islands?? Make sure to check out our Virgin Islands Page HERE with all of our posts covering the area!

Hi!  We’re Kristin & Andrew, lovers of everything tropical.  We spend as much time as possible searching for the best beaches, snorkeling, hiking, and fun in the sun!