By next spring, visitors to the V.I. National Park will have a new, easily walkable route to the popular Honeymoon and Salomon Beaches.
Thanks to a $995,000 grant from the Federal Highway Alternative Transportation Fund, VINP officials have begun the process of creating an even surfaced, easily traversed trail from the VINP visitors’ center in Cruz Bay to the nearby beaches west of Caneel Bay.
VINP recently launched the first phase of the project, pre-design and environmental assessment, to study how best to improve the trails, explained VINP Superintendent Mark Hardgrove.
“The trail will be about three-quarters of a mile and we hope to have construction started next fall,” said Hardgrove. “We’re in the pre-design and compliance phase right now and we’ll look at all the alternatives and will select a preferred alternative with the least amount of resource impact and best visitor access. Then we’ll put that out there for public comment and see what the public thinks.”
Starting at the wooden staircase constructed by volunteers last year led by Jeff Chabot — dubbed the stairway to heaven by VINP officials — project manager Deborah Rhen, along with the VINP’s Safety Committee, is looking at improving the trail leading around the stairway and up a slight grade to lead to the beaches, explained Hardgrove.
“Using the stairway to heaven as an origination point, we’re looking at improving a route around the stairs for people who can’t manage the steps,” said Hardgrove. “The trail will be probably about eight feet wide with a surface treatment that will be very safe and green. We’re trying to use recycled tires from the island of St. John to mat down and use as ground cover.”
“We’re not real sure of the process right now, but we’re looking at using the tires as one of the surface treatments we’d like to explore,” he said.
While maintaining tree canopy on the historic trail, VINP officials plan to remove the large rocks and boulders in order to make the path easier to traverse, Hardgrove explained.
“We’ll be upgrading the walkable surface which at this point varies between three and six feet wide with lots of large rocks and boulders,” he said. “The trail is hard to maintain right now because of those rocks and the grasses grow up to shoulder height in the summer months. We’ll eliminate about 90 percent of the maintenance needed on the trail and make the trail a lot safer to use.”
A few new foot bridges will be installed in order to maintain the natural gut flow in the area, Hardgrove added.
The VINP’s Safety Committee is comprised of Rafe Boulon, Lloyd Morris, Keith Macneir, Paul Thomas, Mike Anderson and Christy Mcmanus. The group, along with Rhen, who is overseeing the project, is looking to maintain as much of the local environmental resources while improving safety and access.
“This will hugely improve visitor safety,” said Hardgrove. “People will be able to use the trail to exercise on a predictable surface and people who couldn’t handle the stairs and grades of the existing trail will be able to walk to the beaches.”
The project is also expected to reduce the amount of vehicle traffic in VINP, which welcomes more than 1 million visitors a year.
“This will give visitors an alternative to get off the busy access road,” said Hardgrove. “Visitors from St. Thomas will be able to walk off the ferry and walk to Honeymoon and Salomon Beaches, eliminating the need to rent a car.”
VINP officials are also looking to make the trail adhere to Americans with Disabilities Act standards as much as possible, according to the superintendent.
“Right now we’re looking at the trail grades along the shortest route and trying to meet ADA requirements to the extent possible,” said Hardgrove.
The VINP Safety Committee is also looking at connecting the gravel road by the old seaplane ramp to the upgraded trail in order to attract boaters, according to the VINP Superintendent.
“We’ll look at connecting the trail to the seaplane ramp road so you can dinghy into the seaplane ramp and walk to Honeymoon beach,” he said. “We think that will be attractive to visiting boaters.”
The entire project is expected set the park back less than $1 million, Hardgrove added.
“Our calculations are leading us to believe that the project will be less than $1 million and probably more in the $990,000 range,” said Hardgrove.
Once the planning team decides on several alternatives, VINP will host public meetings in both St. John and St. Thomas and meet with Caneel Bay Resort officials, according to Hardgrove.
“We’ll have a meeting in Cruz Bay and a meeting on St. Thomas so the public can comment on the alternatives,” said the VINP Superintendent. “One of the other folks that we’ll work with on this will be Caneel Bay Resort because they have an interest in this and they’d love to see the access improved.”
Once the public comment phase is complete, VINP will come up with a final design and issue RFPs.
“We’re looking at a design build or some form of that so the contractor will have enough criteria in pre-design to just be left with the technical stuff to show locations and determine width,” said Hardgrove.
VINP will also use the new trail as an educational tool for visitors, Hardgrove added.
“We’re looking at putting interpretive way signs along the trail to educate the public about the fort and other areas,” he said. “They’ll also help folks understand how much farther the beaches are and how difficult the terrain is ahead. We’re really excited about this project; it’s certainly good news.”