Ram Head And Salt Pond Bay

Hikers are a collegial bunch, and when they encounter other hikers in a new place they like to swap information about their hikes. On our hike to Saloman Beach we ran into a friendly couple from Nashville who raved about the Salt Pond Bay and Ram Head trail, so we had to try it on our last full day in St. John. It definitely ended our trip on a high note — literally.

The trail is found at the far southwestern tip of the island. It’s about as far away from Cruz Bay by car as you can get, but the drive is worth it. You begin by walking past the beach at Salt Pond Bay, which looks out onto the Caribbean and offers the calmest waters we found on the island. The beach is beautiful, placid, and secluded, and a treat for snorkeling and swimming after the hike.

As you walk down the beach, be sure to veer a few yards off the trail to the east and visit the Salt Pond that gives the Bay its name. You won’t find that beautiful blue Caribbean water here — or swimmers either, for that matter. The saline content of the pond is so high that the water is gold in color, and you can smell the salt. It’s a bizarre setting that would be an ideal location for a scene from a Star Trek episode.

The trail then starts to move up the finger of rock the forms the Ram Head Peninsula. To the west there’s a black pebble-strewn beach, shown in the first photo above, where each gentle wave causes a noticeable rock on rock clatter and people have positioned white rocks against the black stones of the beach to leave messages for hikers to come. To the east, where you can see the British Virgin Islands in the distance, the surf is crashing into sheer rock cliffs. It’s a total contrast to the gentle currents seen to the west.

As you move uphill, you’ll notice two things. First, you’re not seeing the tropical foliage that you’ve seen on every other hikes on the island. Instead, you’re in a treeless desert, with cactus and other desert plant life. And second, the wind is a force that scours the ground and leaves you walking on barren territory. There are lots of dramatic views, but don’t get too close, or you’ll risk losing your balance in a surprise gust. And be sure to take off your hat, or the wind will do it for you.

At the top of Ram Head you’re hundreds of feet above the water, on a rocky crag jutting our into the sea, with surf crashing far below, the wind whistling past, the sun glistening on the water, and a commanding view in all directions. It’s unnerving to be so exposed, but the views are irresistible, and you can’t help picking your way through the stunted cactus to a spot closer to the edge where the view might be just a little bit better.

At the very tip of Ram Head, on a tiny outcropping of rock, you can go no farther. You’re looking due south and that’s St. Croix on the horizon, dozens of miles away. The view is dramatic and mesmerizing, but after a few minutes of slack-jawed wonderment you realized you’re being buffeted by windy blasts just a few feet from a sheer plunge into rocks far below, holding your hat in a death grip, and you decide it’s time to carefully pick your way back down the peninsula to sea level. A swim in the calm and warm blue waters of Salt Pond Bay sounds awfully good right about now.

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Hilltopping

Over the weekend we set out on the Margaret Hill trail in a bid to scale the two tallest peaks in the western part of the island: Caneel Hill and Margaret Hill. Neither is particularly tall by the standards of, say, the Rockies or even the Appalachians. According to our excellent topographical map, available from the National Park Service for only $4.00, Caneel Hill is slightly less than 800 feet above sea level, and Margaret Hill is not quite 100 feet taller. But they certainly feel taller than that, as you scramble dead uphill from the trailhead on the northshore road, and they offer commanding views to the north and west.

To the north, pictured above, you see Whistling Cay to the left and, to the right and in the distance, you see the islands of the British Virgin Islands — or, to use the lingo of the locals, the BVI. Somewhere out there in the water the international boundary lurks, but the locals don’t seem to pay too much attention to it, especially if they are heading to the party beaches of Jost Van Dyke, which offers a kind of continuous spring break atmosphere.

From the lookout point rock atop Margaret Hill, show below, you get a bird’s eye view of the town of Cruz Bay and, off to the right, the island of St. Thomas, which is a part of the USVI. At night, the cruise ships, all lit up like floating Christmas trees steamy by St. John just to the left, south of the island, in a glittering single file parade. Who’d have thought there were so many cruise ships?

The path down Margaret Hill leads to the Caneel Bay resort, still closed in the wake of Hurricane Irma, which pulverized the island some 18 months ago. Watch your step, because the footing on the way down can be treacherous — but the chance to be a hilltopper is worth it.

Redefining “Strenuous”

The hiking trails on St. John are rated by degree of difficulty. There are three ratings: easy, “moderate,” and “strenuous.” Most of the trails are rated strenuous, and we haven’t encountered an “easy” trail yet. I think all “easy” trails may involve boardwalks and be wheelchair accessible.

What distinguishes “moderate” and “strenuous ” is more elusive. The trail shown above is rated strenuous, and the trail pictured below is moderate. So far as I can tell, they both have more than their fair share of rocks, tree roots, and constant inclines. Perhaps moderate trail don’t exceed 45-degree inclines and only have so many rocks and roots per square foot.

“Strenuous”? Well, sometimes you won’t even see a recognizable trail, be prepared to huff and puff on the unending upward switchbacks, and on the way down bring a little mountain goat with you.

On The Rooty Route To Barred Island

There are many good hiking trails on Deer Isle.  One of the nicest ones, maintained by the Nature Conservancy, is the trail that runs past Goose Cove to the Barred Island Preserve.  It’s called Barred Island — I think — because when the tide is in Barred Island is an island, but when the tide is out a land bridge forms that allows you to get out on the island without getting your feet wet.  You can see the spit of land that leads out to Barred Island in the photo above..

 

 

 

There’s just one problem:  the trail out to Barred Island, which runs through a dense forest, is just about the rootiest trail you’re ever likely to encounter.  That isn’t an issue for normal folks.  In fact, so many prior hikers have taken this route that the exposed roots are worn smooth by the tread of countless prior visitors.  But if you’re a foot-dragging stumblebum like me, it means you’ve got to carefully watch where you are planting every size 12 shoe, to make sure that you’re not going to turn an ankle or do a face plant on the next root system.

 

 

If you pause for a moment before you make the next careful step on the rooty route, though, you’ll realize that you’re in some of the nicest forest you’re likely to see.  And . . . it’s so quiet!  There’s not a sound to be heard, and if you’re walking on a day where there’s a gentle breeze, as was the case during our hike, not even insects will bother you.  There’s so much pine straw on the ground that, except when you’re walking on the roots themselves, it’s like you’re walking on a plush natural carpet.

As you approach the water, after a hike of about a mile, you begin to sense the salty ocean smell mingling with the overwhelming scent of pine.  Finally you emerge onto a scenic overlook that allows you to see out onto the water and the islands that are far away. It’s a breathtaking view. 

Once you get out to the Barred Island and the bay, you’ll encounter a fabulous waterfront scene.  To the right, across a gritty, pebble-strewn beach, is Barred Island, and to the left are more of those colossal Maine granite boulders, many of them algae covered because they fall into an intertidal zone. And beyond that lies the sailboat-studded vista of the bay.

On the way back, be sure to take the shoreline loop and the short detour to Prayer Rock.  The path leads us up to a flat granite outcropping that is far above the cove and the bay, which can be seen through the ever-present pine trees.  You’re not the first one to visit the promontory, of course — some thoughtful soul has built stone benches that are dedicated to some other people who loved this area and the beautiful view the Prayer Rock offers.

 

Alas — it’s time to return, back over the rooty path to where you began.  Watch your step, and be sure to hand that walking stick that you found to the next traveler who wants to enjoy the hike to Barred Island.

Climbing Mt. Cadillac 

Yesterday we ventured over to Acadia National Park to hike up Mount Cadillac — the towering peak situated right on the coastline that is the first place in America struck by the rays of the rising sun.  It’s a popular destination that offers staggering views of the jagged Maine coast.  Most people drive up to the top — but heck, anybody can do that.  Hiking up is more fun and a bit of a challenge, besides.


We chose the south ridge trail, which begins along a road and, for the first mile of so, takes you through a dense, almost primeval forest.  At that point you emerge above the tree line and are exposed to the first of the sweeping vistas that this hike affords — with views that just get better and better as you gain altitude.  You follow blue trailblazing signs painted on trees and then on the granite of the mountain itself, as well as rock cairns that also mark the way.


The trail takes you along the granite spine of the mountain, shown in the first picture above, and you actually feel like you are moving from knob to knob on the gigantic backbone of a huge, hunched-over creature.  Eventually you are treated to a commanding view in all directions and can see dozens of miles to faraway peaks in the Appalachian chain.  You also pass a beautiful pond that is covered with velvety, impossibly green shoots, shown toward the middle of the photo below, and you wonder:  “what is that doing way up here?”


It’s not a difficult climb, but it’s a rewarding one nevertheless.  When you reach the top, having clambered up the last few rock faces, you can stare slack jawed in any direction.  The rocks at the top are covered with people, and no wonder — the scenery is spectacular.  It’s one of those spots that simply can’t be captured in a photograph.  But I’ll always remember it.

Sobering Sign


Montana is bear country, with a hardy population of grizzlies and black bears roaming through the wilderness.  Signs at trail heads remind you of the risk that you might encounter a bear.  The risk was made manifest a few days before we arrived, when an experienced outdoorsman on a mountain bike literally ran headlong into a grizzly after turning a corner on a trail and was fatally mauled.

We don’t want to mess with bears, so we’ve stayed on the popular trails, tried to make a lot of noise to warn the bears away, and kept our eyes open.  So far, we’ve had two bear sightings, but no direct interaction — fortunately.

On The Trail To Avalanche Lake


The trail to Avalanche Lake is the most popular hike in Glacier National Park.  Measuring between 5 and 6 miles round trip, without significant elevation changes or rough trails, it’s well suited to hiking novices like us.  The parking lot at the trailhead is always jammed, but we lucked out and drove in just as some other hikers were leaving.


The trail begins at the Going-To-The-Sun Road.  The first section of the trail is a loop that is built with cedar planking and is so flat it is wheelchair accessible.  It winds through towering pines, cedars,  hemlocks, and cottonwoods.  At the bridge over the roaring falls of Avalanche Creek, pictured above, the trail to the lake veers off the planking and takes you up onto a well-worn, well-marked dirt path into the virgin forest.


Shortly after we left the plank trail we encountered a young buck circling a huge boulder, on the prowl for forage, close enough that we could almost reach out and touch it.  It moved quietly through the woods, vanishing as silently as it appeared, without paying much attention to the hikers who stopped to admire it.


As we moved along the path toward Avalanche Lake, we felt like we were in one of those “Discover the Forest” public service commercials.  Although we didn’t get into a staring contest with a deer or marvel at a frog, we did gape at the size of the trees and, especially, the colors.  Artists could only dream of their palettes having the rich variety of shades of green on display on the Avalanche Lake trail.


Ultimately the trail emerges at Avalanche Lake, a pure, cold lake created by the melting glaciers high up in the surrounding mountains.  The first look at the lake is framed by countless huge logs pushed to one end of the lake by the water.  If you then follow the trail around to the right, you emerge onto a huge and spectacular natural amphitheater created by the lake and framed by by the towering peaks.


The water is crystal clear and the air is cool.  It’s a quiet place, with only the rustle of the wind moving through the trees behind you and the whisper of the multiple waterfalls tumbling down the mountainside in the far distance.  We sat for a while on a log bench, taking in the immense natural splendor, and I tried to fix the scene in my memory as best I could.


The hike back seemed shorter than the hike out, as is so often the case.  We walked over rocks and exposed tree roots that had been turned bright and glossy by the feet of innumerable other hikers who had gone before.  We were very glad we had joined them in taking the trek to Avalanche Lake.