Like fellow lovers of landscape photography, I’ve spent many a season roaming the crown jewels of our National Park System. Starting in the 1970s in Yosemite and Death Valley, then Grand Canyon and Utah’s Grand Circle, I’ve photographed my way through Rocky Mountain, Grand Teton, Yellowstone, Glacier, Mount Rainier and Alaska’s mind-blowing parks—Denali, Lake Clark, Glacier Bay, Kenai Fiords and Wrangell-St. Elias.
Later, I shot Hawai‘i Volcanoes and Haleakalá, and truly believed that in exploring and shooting 40 of the 59 national parks, I had seen all possible landscape types, from alpine tundra to deserts and even island volcanoes. Tropical beaches never crossed my mind. Being a Westerner, I have a built-in bias for big skies and spacious parks, where one can hike a few miles and easily find true solitude.
So imagine my surprise when I discovered that we have a gem of a national park in the Caribbean U.S. Virgin Islands. I’ve always been a Pacific Rim explorer, and thought the Caribbean was an overbuilt, overrun array of islands, pretty enough, but unworthy of any serious landscape photographer. Then I did a bit of research, and decided that this park might be the missing jewel in my national park visual narrative. I simply had to go see for myself what was possible. This is what I found.
About a two-hour flight from Miami are the three islands that comprise the U.S. Virgin Islands—St. Croix, St. Thomas and St. John. To my eye, St. John is the most richly endowed with scenic beauty, and, indeed, 60% of this smallest island is national park, since 1956. In that year, the Rockefeller clan donated 5,000 acres to form the nascent park, which preserved many of the coves, canyons, ridges and beaches from development. Approximately 5,500 people call this island home, so this isn’t wilderness, but there’s superlative tropical beauty to be discovered on St. John and fine images to be made. You just have to pick your moments wisely and compose tightly.
I flew into St. Thomas and caught a ride over to Red Hook Ferry Terminal for a 20-minute cruise across the four miles of calm waters that separate these islands in the sun. This was at twilight, with a full moon rising above the backbone of St. John, which I took as a promising omen of good light in the five days I had to explore the park. Most people ride this ferry into the town of Cruz Bay, which has a surprising number of wonderful restaurants and a variety of lodging. The weather forecast was for mostly fair weather with scattered showers, typical of late autumn in the Caribbean, so I turned in early and planned my first morning shoot.
One of the signature locations is world-famous Trunk Bay, named for the leatherback sea turtles that once were abundant, and were thought by the colonial Danes to resemble a leather trunk. Knowing that beach lovers would be arriving by 9 a.m., I left at 5:30 a.m. to drive about 15 minutes to the beach parking lot, under a cobalt sky showing only the brightest stars, as the full moon still hung high in the west. Shooting from predawn into the hour after sunrise is the only time you’re likely to have these beaches to yourself, as I did on my first day in the park.
While a passing shower drenched the beach, I took cover under some coconut palms, with my photo backpack protected by a pullover shell. Five minutes later the squall moved off west, and I set up my tripod at water’s edge, doing longish exposures to blur the lapping waves. Complete peace and quiet reigned, and then the rising sun behind my back created an arcing rainbow in a trailing cloud, under the setting moon, over aqua waters that simply have to be seen to be appreciated. It was a visual cocktail that thrilled my eyes and filled my soul, and greeting the dawn became a pattern for the trip.
Throughout the American West I’ve long chased the grand landscape, but here the grand seascape became my Holy Grail. The cleanest, wildest beaches are mainly on the north and eastern shores, with names like Hawksnest Bay, Honeymoon Bay, Salt Pond Bay, Haulover Bay and Leinster Bay. Good paved roads access these beaches, and walks are short so you can bring heavy gear quite easily. I shot with the Pentax 645Z and K-3, and seven lenses from very wide to fairly long, for overviews and seabirds.
There are 20 distinct hiking trails in the park, from 0.5 to roughly 3 miles in length, so I spent my middays hiking them, and scouting for graphic sites on which to concentrate my early and late photo ops. One of the best-known trails leads downhill from Centerline Road to Reef Bay, past poetic ruins of a sugar plantation to a slender beach and a cliff-lined cove. Midway, a spur trail leads to a rocky pool with fading petroglyphs from the Taíno people, nearly obliterated by contact with the Spanish.
You can park at the top and hike down, but the return hike is somewhat steep, and you’ll need two water bottles, at least. Several days each week, the Reef Bay hike is led by an NPS interpretive ranger, and from the beach you’re met by a boat to take the group back to Cruz Bay. The cost is $30, and it’s a great ride back to town, the pace leisurely enough to allow photography along the way, plus you don’t have to hike back uphill in the hot Caribbean sun. A true bargain, but you’ll need a reservation to join up.
Very early one clear morning, I drove out to the far east side of the island, through the sleepy town of Coral Bay, and walked a trail in magenta predawn light to the deserted beach at Drunk Bay. (I so love these island names, as each promises a story.) Before reaching the beach, I was mesmerized by streamers of light over Salt Pond, precursors of sunrise and a gorgeous day ahead. I shot 10- to 30-second exposures of waves pounding the shore and puffy clouds streaming overhead, made possible with a variable neutral-density filter. To my delight, I discovered beach art, figures designed from white coral chunks, very striking against the dark bedrock—whimsically fun, and reflective of the island persona, to be sure.
After breakfast in Coral Bay, I stopped again on the North Shore Road, this time at Cinnamon Bay, to soak up some pirate and sugar history at the NPS-restored plantation Great House. Now an education center, this 1680s thick-walled building has survived scores of hurricanes and offers a hypnotic view of the bay. Even better is the Cinnamon Bay Campground, which offers cottages, tents with bedding and bare-site camping for those who bring it all with them. This isn’t inexpensive, but is less costly than the hotels in Cruz Bay, and you’re just 30 seconds from the azure sea and cushiony coral sands.
Still searching for angles and avoiding the afternoon crowds, I stumbled onto a path off North Shore Road leading toward a lonely beach. I arrived just in time to catch the setting sun backlighting a palm tree, with a tire swing hanging over the shallow water. It was so hard to forego swinging from that palm, and thereby give up shooting this achingly lovely scene, but shoot it I did, and next time I’ll know to get to Oppenheimer Beach a bit earlier and swing over the warm sea. Yes, it’s named after Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb, and a more peaceful place would be difficult to conjure. Yet another name with an evocative history in our own Caribbean paradise.
Nearing the end of my far-too-quick stay, I found an impossibly perfect natural composition, with every desirable idyllic element, on the north shore at Maho Bay. Twin palms framed a stage set of crystal-clear water over white sand, with a clean background of blue sky over a solitary island. While waiting for passing clouds to coalesce and spice up the sky, I spied a tree with limbs hanging low over the surf line, bearing fruit the size of grapes. Most were green, but some berries were ripe red and I almost tried one. Later, I was told they were sea grapes, quite tasty and a favorite of the slaves who had been brought in to work the sugar fields. They did make a lovely image, though, and I wondered what manner of tree thrives by salt water, yet makes sweet fruit? The sea grape tree can.
Alas, those evocative clouds never appeared, and sunset came and went without a tropical burst of color, so I stayed past twilight and shot the stars over Maho Bay, until drifting clouds blotted out the constellations. The following dawn was my last photo op before flying to the mainland, so I rose early and returned to Trunk Bay for a final beach shoot. As sunrise sunbeams soared to the horizon, a Caribbean kiss goodbye from America’s most exotic and seductive national park, in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Kerrick James has long roamed the American West and Pacific Rim, seeking tales of adventure and images of sublime nature, but says this Caribbean idyll expanded his understanding of beauty, taunting him to return for another taste of salt air and rum. Visit kerrickjames.com.
|When To Go
The best season to visit Virgin Islands National Park is generally April to June, when weather is milder and somewhat drier. Peak season is reputed to be December to March, but I was advised to avoid December to January, which locals warn is very “buggy.” Shoulder season is roughly September to November. I brought and used mosquito repellent fairly often. Taxis are available in Cruz Bay and can take you anywhere, but you may wish to rent a car to be able to make those early and late shoots. For more information, visit the Virgin Islands National Park website at nps.gov/viis and U.S. Virgin Islands Tourism at visitusvi.com.