The start of the Tektite Trail is a mere break in the brush – there’s no trailhead marker, no parking lot and not a hiker in sight – so, in spite of its breathtaking views from peaks and precipices on the south side of St. John, USVI, no one seems to know about it.
This day we’ve come armed simply with a recommendation from a man known as the Trail Bandit. His New Hampshire driver’s license identifies him as Bob Garrison, but here he’s known for blazing new trails and clearing old ones that take advantage of the variety of terrain, vegetation and views.
The Tektite Trail, a favorite of his, was once a road for delivering goods to the U.S. Navy, NASA and the U.S. Department of the Interior’s 1969 Tektite Project, in which aquanauts lived and worked in a habitat 50 feet underwater for as many as 58 days at a time. When funding dried up, the capsules were shipped to Pennsylvania, and scrub brush reclaimed the route – until Garrison happened upon it. Knowing that, as he says, “you can’t so much as pluck a blade of grass without a permit,” Garrison started working in secret, machete in hand. As this vigilante ranger gained momentum, he realized how inaccurate the National Park Service map was and drew his own.
The trail starts on a hilltop, so only five minutes in, we reach the first amazing vista – a clearing where ruins overlook the neighboring Salt Pond Bay. From there, the trail descends into overgrown organ pipe cactuses, their upright arms draped in air plants and flowering vines. Bananaquits twitter overhead, and lizards rustle across dry leaves, but other than that, silence pervades. We are too busy watching for land crabs and mongooses to notice the Cabritte Horn Point turnoff until it’s too late, so we have to double back through grasses thick with Turk’s-head cactuses, which offer us their pink, pepper-shaped fruit for a mid-hike snack.
Here on this spur trail, the green curtain of vegetation parts often to reveal the glittering Caribbean Sea on both sides, and we find ourselves stopped dead every few yards, admiring from yet another vantage point. Ahead, we come upon a sheer-walled crevice with an opening no more than a few feet wide. Through this slit, a white froth of crashing waves scatters over the black rocks below.
Within minutes, we reach the trail’s finale – a cliff overlooking a field of jagged outcrops. Grootpan Bay glistens to the left and Great Lameshur Bay to the right, and we hope something – a dolphin or perhaps a fluke – will rise from beneath the glassy surface. When a school of baitfish flicks from the water, we watch for a few moments but never see the chaser. A peregrine falcon circles overhead as we make our way back.
The trail ends at Great Lameshur Bay, where we pull our snorkel gear from our bags. We ease into the perfect water and, in short order, spot an eagle ray making slow, loping circles beneath us. A green sea turtle crouches unmoving on a small patch of sand, waiting for us to fin away before it eases to the surface to breathe, and a nurse shark rests half hidden, its fat tail poking from the rocks a dead giveaway. This crossroads for marine life, lush with sponges and corals, could hold our attention for hours, but since the sun is already near the horizon, we’ll be racing daylight back to the trailhead.
Dusk finds me at Maho Bay Camps, and before I even check in, I dig into a dinner of shrimp-and-corn cakes and cilantro-spiked potato salad. Sated, I retire to my screened-in cottage, falling asleep to the chirps of tree frogs.
In the morning, we head to Johnny Horn Trail, an uphill walk to another little-seen treasure. Although the Leinster Point summit offers an almost 360-degree view that includes Soper’s Hole, on Tortola, it’s the ruins halfway up the knoll that would make the Trail Bandit proud. Thanks to Virgin Islands National Park superintendent Mark Hardgrove, a volunteer army of nature lovers is following in Garrison’s boot steps, maintaining the trails he forged and revealing new discoveries. Most recently, they cut back the vines of the jungle to expose Danish sugar-plantation ruins from the 1700s. With recruiting ads posted at all the major trailheads, their ranks will only grow, ensuring the Trail Bandit’s legacy