From the lofty heights of Tortola's Sage Mountain, the highest point in all the Virgin Islands, breathtaking panoramas of sun, sea and sky appear suddenly, like visions in a vivid Technicolor dream.
I saw this panorama while hiking with a friend late last winter on a cool, drizzly day. Even before we reached the park gate, our heads were turned by a sudden image of tropical perfection: a spiky hedge of papaya trees underlining the brilliant greens and blues surrounding Jost Van Dyke; Sandy Cay's beach glowing in the foreground as if lit by some underwater force, Little Jost to the right, and Great Tobago far in the distance. Minutes later, on the same path, there was another: Great Thatch, Little Thatch and St. John in the neighboring US Virgin Islands, with the more developed St. Thomas stretching off to the horizon. Through mist left by early morning rain, the view was a little disorienting, as if someone had planted a rear projection screen just beyond the trees.
But there is no magic; no surreptitious technology, either. This is the simple reality of Sage Mountain National Park: 92 acres, most of them above 1,000 feet, surrounding a peak at 1,716 feet. From here, the stunning views stretch out in every direction: north to the Caribbean Sea, west toward Puerto Rico, south across the Sir Francis Drake Channel. No matter which way you look, the islands seem to drift silently toward the horizon; their brilliant beaches cradling emerald facets against turquoise sea.
With these two stunning images instantly imprinted in our minds, the few puddles and slippery spots along the gravel access trail couldn't dampen our quest for more visual treasure. The sun struggled through the clouds and ultimately disappeared behind the forest canopy, but we pressed on.
Inside the park gate, we set off on the network of trails. For both serious hikers and casual visitors, the park offers original densely forested pockets, reforested former sugar and cotton plantations, and the possibility of rare and endangered plant species, all in cool, quiet solitude. On our two-hour hike, we encountered more birds overhead than human visitors along the trail. The cooing of the Turtle Dove, Tortola's official bird, made for a moody atmosphere, killi-killis (American kestrels) hovered, and pearl-eyed thrashers screeched by looking for lunch among the papayas and mangos.
The morning showers had come as no surprise; the park is often referred to as "The Rainforest" and its central trail is also known as "The Rainforest Trail." Experts say Sage Mountain's less than 100 inches of annual rainfall disqualify it for true rainforest status, but Oxford's more general definition, "a luxuriant, dense forest found in tropical areas with consistently heavy rainfall" describes the environment perfectly.
The plentiful rainfall on Sage Mountain is a happy accident on this semi-tropical island whose climate varies from dry to wet. The humid air of the trade winds hits Tortola's mountain ridge and drops its moisture on a sheltered pocket just northwest of Mount Sage, letting such forest species as bullet wood thrive here, when they would be more at home in the true rain forest of Puerto Rico.
The Central Trail
The Central Trail took us first through a previously cultivated area containing remnants of old stone terrace walls that held sugar cane and cotton plants in place during Tortola's plantation era. Today, stands of West Indian mahogany, native to the Greater Antilles, and white cedar, BVI's national tree, are the result of more than 40 years of reforestation and some natural regeneration.
The Henry Adams Loop
Two-thirds of the way along this path, the Henry Adams Loop Tail takes visitors off to the right, to "the steps," a long wooden staircase leading down a rocky gut, or ravine, overgrown with damp vines and moss. Given the atmosphere, it was no surprise to find the steps a bit slippery, but the rope handrail took us down to the best-preserved part of the forest.
One of the first markers we encountered introduced us to a stand of giant bulletwood trees, some recorded to heights of 100 feet and girths of four feet. Similar in appearance to mahogany, bulletwood was once prized by shipbuilders for its straight, monumental trunks and resistance to decay and termites.
Where the loop trail reconnected to the main trail, another stunning view opened up before us, this time more to the south, over the Sir Francis Drake Channel and beyond. In a rustic shelter, a sunburst dial identifies the islands: Dead Chest, part of the Blackbeard legend; Peter Island, recently named among a list of the Top 20 islands in the world; Norman Island, said to have inspired Robert Louis Stevenson to write Treasure Island; and the tiny, uninhabited Pelican and Flannagan islands, with St. John leading the parade.
Across the trail from the lookout, a pitch apply tree reminded us that, quiet as it was, many hikers had preceded us, signing their names on its leaves to make it "the autograph tree." Years ago, people scratched messages on the leathery leaves of these trees and, as the name implies, used its fruit to caulk boats.
All along this trail stood dozens of enormous elephant ear vines - their leaves so large you could wrap a small child in one - some on the ground, others in trees high overhead. This spectacular breed of philodendron takes root on the ground, then seeks the sun by climbing an obliging tree, and ultimately abandons the soil entirely.
The central trail leads west down the ridge that anchors the park, with access to the north and south trails on either side for wider exploration. The three trails converge at the far end at an enormous banyan or wild fig tree, its countless aerial roots dropping to the ground to form a mammoth, multiple tree-trunk sculpture.
The Mahogany Forest
The mahogany forest trail offers a second, slightly more challenging option in exploring the park, a mossy stone path veering off to the left from the access trail. After taking visitors past a mahogany plantation established more than 20 years ago and signs identifying white cedar and stinking fish tree, the trail forks into three. To the right, hikers will find a little challenge: the 10-minute steady climb to the mountain summit. To the left, unfortunately, the lookout is too overgrown to deliver a promised view across the Sir Francis Drake Channel to the outlying islands from Virgin Gorda to St. John. The center path, marked 'Slippery trail' on the map, takes hikers outside the park boundaries and back to the car park area.
Sage Mount National Park, the British Virgin Islands' first national park, is administered by the BVI National Parks Trust. The park was created in 1964 through the help of American financier, philanthropist and conservationist, Laurance Rockefeller. He acquired and donated the land for the park to the British Virgin Islands government to protect what remained of Tortola's original forests.