May 23, 2004 – When Frank McConnell donated 25-acres of prime land overlooking Magens Bay to The Nature Conservancy a quarter-of-a-century ago, he did so in the hope that residents and tourists alike would someday be able to enjoy an unspoiled, green habitat.
That hope became reality Saturday when 65 residents and visitors braved showers to hike one and a half miles through McConnell's former property – the top of the trail is off Megens Bay Road at Canaan and winds its way down to Magens Bay Beach – during the official opening of the Megens Bay Discovery Trail.
"It's a special day,'' said McConnell, who donated the land in memory of his mother, Virginia, for whom the trail is dedicated. "She loved nature and she loved St. Thomas.''
Some eco-tour operators and local hikers had a step up prior to today's official opening, having paid a small fee to the Conservancy to access the trail.
"That's what makes this day all the more special,'' said Loring Schwarz, the Conservancy's interim director for the Virgin Islands and Eastern Caribbean regions. "While it has already been used to the delight of others, today marks the first day that the trail is open free of charge to everyone.'' The Conservancy accepts donations.
The trail is part of a 319-acre landmass – the Magens Bay Watershed Preserve – managed jointly by the Conservancy, Magens Bay Authority and Virgin Islands government. Over the years the entities began acquiring land for the preserve through donations, like that of McConnell, and purchases. In fact, recent government acquisitions marked the first time in local history that civic dollars were used to buy land for the sole purpose of conservation.
"Preserving the watershed protects vital habitats and eliminates the threat of residential and commercial development which, over time, can damage the coral reefs and marine habitat in Magens Bay,'' said Schwarz. "With the growing interest in eco-tourism, the protection of such natural assets becomes even more critical to the future of the island's tourism industry.''
The 90-minute hike, hosted by arborist Ellen Higgins, Schwarz, the Conservancy's protected area specialist Stephanie Wear, and associate director of the Caribbean, Carmen Mullins, featured information about native and migrant birds, plants, animals, marine species and historical ruins located within the preserve.
"This is a great trail,'' said hiker Mario Francis, program director of the Junior Gardener and Ecology Academy. "The more people who experience this, the more environmentally conscious they will become which ultimately benefits all of us . . . and what an outdoor classroom for kids!''
St. Thomas teacher and hiker, Yvonne Freeman agreed, "There's lots to see and kids will love it,'' said Freeman, a computer literacy teacher at Joseph Gomez Elementary School. "While we expect adults to gain a better understanding of the environment through the creation of this trail, kids, on the other hand who learn to appreciate what's here will fight to keep it.''
Today's grand opening brings to seven the number of hiking trails located on St. Thomas compared to about 35 trails on St. Croix and 20 trails over 22 miles in the V. I. National Park in St. John, according to Sonia Maynard-John, St. Croix Hiking Association president. And, while St. Thomas does not have a formal hiking association Maynard-John says the addition of the Megens Bay trail, coupled with the growth of eco-tourism, could lead to the formation of a St. Thomas chapter.
"There are many wonderful, active hikers on St. Thomas,'' said Maynard-John in a telephone interview. "The new trail will certainly help to educate residents and tourists about our history and sensitive environmental issues, and it could very well lead to the creation of a St. Thomas hiking association which would only help to educate the public further.''
The Conservancy's Schwarz said the trail still needs some "fine-tuning,'' from adding signs to improving some walking paths. And, she said, the Conservancy would be calling on local volunteers to help create a guided tour schedule. For now, interested volunteers and residents/visitors seeking a guided tour are asked to contact the Conservancy, 773-5575.
The preserve protects 25 percent of the Magens Bay watershed and just two percent of the entire island, according to figures released by The Conservancy.
"That means there's still a long way to go,'' said McConnell. "But the Conservancy has done a great job picking up enough property and spreading the word so that this area, and its green space, can be protected and enjoyed for years to come.''
If You Go . . . Hiking Tips
With the opening of the Virgin Islands latest hiking trail, the 1.5-mile Magens Bay Discovery Trail on St. Thomas May 22, residents and visitors can now enjoy some 62 walking trails throughout the territory while exploring nature and our storied past. St. Croix has some 35 trails while Virgin Islands National Park, in St. John, features approximately 20 trails over a 22-mile area. The Megens Bay addition brings to seven the number of trails on St. Thomas.
So now with such an abundance of choices, the Source asked two local veterans how best to prepare for a hike. Here's what you should know before heading out to the trails, according to Virgin Islands National Park guide Pat Dinisio and St. Croix Hiking Association president Sonia Maynard-John.
Don't be in such a hurry . . . start slow and gradually increase your pace.
If hiking with kids, let the slowest person set the pace.
Remember, the purpose of any hike is to have fun and to appreciate the great outdoors.
Take turns leading your group.
Hike in groups as much as possible, on marked trails.
Leave your itinerary with a friend who is not joining you.
As is the case throughout the islands, wear sunscreen, sunglasses and a hat/visor.
Before the hike, develop an emergency plan and make sure everyone has a role to play in the case of a medical emergency. Give kids a whistle with instructions to "stop and blow" if they become lost. Bring a first-aid kit tailored to your outing.
It's always best to maintain a steady pace. Take frequent rests.
Don't overindulge, but drink water before, during and after your hike.
If you're planning a long hike, make sure you pack the carbs – carbohydrates – in the form of energy bars, granola, candy, and fruit.
Wear comfortable sneakers/shoes, and leave your sandals/flipflops at home.
Use common sense.
For more information about the new Megens Bay trail, please contact the The Conservancy, 773-5575, or visit their Web site, hiking. For more on hiking tips or to receive additional information about Virgin Islands National Park, call 776-6201. For more on hiking tips or to receive additional information about the St. Croix Hiking Association, call 778-2076.
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