Enjoy the Beautiful Waters of Virgin Islands National Park
Where's the Best Snorkeling?Over 40% of Virgin Islands National Park is underwater. Mangrove shorelines, seagrass beds, fringing and patch reefs offer an ample and diverse array of snorkeling opportunities. However, defining the "best" is highly subjective, based on factors such as individual snorkeling/swimming abilities, water and wind conditions and the marine life particular to a given site. This guide describes a variety of potential snorkeling areas so that you can determine what's best for your own interests and expertise. It highlights areas easily accessed by road or trail and is not intended to be a comprehensive guide to all St. John snorkeling spots.
The park map on our brochure highlights areas with good snorkeling in pink. You can pick up a copy at our visitor center or at the kiosk just outside, next to the playground.
Please Use Reef Safe Sunscreen! Please remember to look at ingredient lists to make sure reef-damaging substances (such as oxybenzone, octocrylene, octinoxate, butylparaben, and 4-methylbenzylidine camphor, all of which have been shown to cause coral bleaching even at low levels) aren't included. There are no regulations that govern what sunscreen producers can print on their bottles, so just because the label might include the words "reef safe", your sunscreen may still include these harmful substances.
Beaches Within Virgin Islands National Park
Salomon/Honeymoon Bay, two white-sand beaches, can be accessed by a short hike from the Virgin Islands National Park sign off North Shore Road, Caneel Bay or by boat. A narrow reef follows the shoreline east of Honeymoon to Caneel Bay. In the clear water off the rocky point in between the two beaches, you will find several species of coral (brain, lettuce leaf, elkhorn, mustard hill, and pillar corals). Many colonies of finger coral can be found on the fringing reef west of Salomon. These reef areas provide shelter for a wide variety of colorful fish and other marine creatures.
Hawksnest Bay offers three fingers of coral reefs that jut out directly from the shoreline. It is not advisable to snorkel directly over the reef but rather stick to the perimeter of the reefs.The shallow water directly above the reef is dangerous for snorkelers, especially when sea conditions are less than ideal. The Elkhorn corals that dominate these reefs are a federally protected species and are extremely fragile. Snorkeling around the fingers you will see many juvenile fish and other reef creatures in and among the branches of the Elkhorn corals.
Trunk Bay is the most famous beach in Virgin Islands National Park, often listed among the most beautiful beaches in the world. Trunk Bay is the only beach on St. John with an amenity fee, which is $5 per entrant. These amenities include showers, foot rinses, food and beverage concessions, snorkel rentals, and more. Trunk Bay is also home to the Underwater Snorkel Trial, a great place for beginners and anyone who wants to learn about marine life by reading the plaques along the trail. The trail follows the west side of Trunk Bay Cay for about 300 feet before making a U-turn back to the beach. The coral and fish are well represented here. The reef continues beyond to the cay's northern tip, however, the farther out you go, the rougher the water tends to be.
Cinnamon Bay is the longest beach on St. John, offering ample space for visitors to spread out. The small cay in the middle of the bay offer shelter to fish, crabs and other invertebrates and perhaps a lobster or two. Snappers and other fish often inhabit the nooks and crannies of the cay's steep slopes and deeper waters on the east, north and west sides. A few small pillar coral colonies adorn the northwest corner. The shallow sandy areas on the south side of the cay provide safe resting spots before returning to the beach. The remains of the Danish Warehouse at the end of the sidewalk to the beach or the oldest colonial ruins on St. John.
Maho Bay is the place to go for sea turtles. The seagrass beds in the middle stretches of this shallow bay provide habitat for the green sea turtles that are seen more frequently in the early morning or late afternoon. There's coral and fish along the western (left if facing water) waters of this long beach, they are more abundant the closer you get to the point between Maho and Cinnamon. To the north east, the rocks and reef supports abundant fish populations, including angel fish. If you are lucky you may see octopus in the coral crevices. Both Maho and Francis Bay can get stirred up reducing visibility when there is a north swell but in general are less affected by winter swells than elsewhere on the North Shore.
Francis Bay is ideal for beginners, with its calm waters stretching from the west end of the beach all the way to Little Maho Beach. You will find schools of juvenile fish and small coral heads. Francis is usually a good place to view sea turtles, pelicans and large predator fish chasing schools of smaller fish "fry." Along the northwest shoreline to the tip of Mary Point you will find gorgonians, tube sponges and patches of colonial anemones in about 10 feet of water. Beyond the point at the beginning of Fungi Passage, scattered hard corals appear in deeper water. Located behind the beach, the Francis Bay Boardwalk offers some of the best birding opportunities in the park!
Leinster Bay and Waterlemon Cay are accessed by the Leinster Bay Trail. A 10-minute walk from Annaberg Parking lot brings you to a narrow stretch of sand where entry is gained to a shallow reef of coral heads sitting on a sandy bottom that is habitat for all kinds of fish and other creatures. Swim a little farther out to find a steep drop off, where Blue Chromis, sea turtles and gorgonians are seen. A 10-minutes hike farther down the trail brings you to the main beach of Leinster Bay. From here snorkel over the seagrass bed or hug the eastern shore to snorkel out to the Cay but beware of the long-spine urchins and rocks as you enter the water. You will find a variety of fish, corals and gorgonians and more encircling the cay. A strong current runs on the Tortola (north) side of the cay so it is best if you stay on the southern side. Remember stand only in sand!
Brown Bay is accessible by trail or boat, (no anchoring though). For a longer hike take the trail from Leinster Bay heading east along North Shore, continue past the Johnny Horn Trail intersection. For a shorter hike take the Brown Bay Trail off East End Road. After your hike you will enjoy a swim in this remote Bay. It has a narrow beach with very little slope and the water here is shallow, in the middle of the bay is an extensive shallow seagrass bed, home to conch and other invertebrates. To the east there are gorgonians and to the west, towards Leinster Bay, at the fringing reef you may find the rare staghorn corals, waving and plenty of fish.
Salt Pond Bay is about a ½ mile hike in from the parking area but worth the trip. It offers a long white sand beach and snorkeling along the rocky shorelines. Green sea turtles and southern stingrays inhabit the seagrass beds below the mooring field. Behind the southeastern shoreline, there is a trail to the actual salt pond.
Depending on the time of year, you may find sea salt forming on the edges of the pond. It is another good spot for bird viewing. Should you be interested in a longer hike, the Ram Head trail offers extensive views and is well worth the effort.
Great and Little Lameshur bays are located about five miles from Coral Bay. Four-wheel drive is recommended, because the access road is rocky. If you are renting a car, check with your rental company before driving on the access road, as many car rentals prohibit driving on this road. There are two beaches: the first is rocky Great Lameshur, and the second is sandy Little Lameshur. Both offer good snorkeling, especially at the tip of Yawzi point, the spit of land that separates the two bays. You will find numerous fish and other creatures hidden in the rocky coral shorelines.
North and South Haulover bays are unique as there two bays: one bay on the north shore and one on the south. Both are pebble beaches with little sand. There is some parking along the road. For the south side, just walk across the street. The rocky shoreline transitions into boulders and coral as you head out either side of the bay. You will find a wide variety of fish and other creatures in these areas.
To reach the north shore follow the short trail on the north side of the road.
Last updated: June 6, 2022