“It is the fairest island eyes have beheld; mountainous and the land seems to touch the sky.”(Christopher Columbus, 1494)
Shrouded almost perpetually by mists that give Jamaica’s highest mountains their bluish color, the Blue Mountain range sprawls across the eastern portion of the island for a length of 28 miles (40 km) and an average width of about 12 miles (20 km). They rise steeply in an area so compact that it is possible to drive from the coastal plains to an elevation of over 7,000 feet (2000 m) in less than an hour. When Columbus discovered Jamaica in 1494, the mountains were heavily forested. Early Spanish settlers established their hatos or cattle ranches at the foot of the Blue Mountains on the southern coast at Liguanea, the Yallahs Valley and around the Morant Bay area. However, their numbers were few and it was after the island was captured by the English that the lower slopes were cleared for farming and the forests were harvested to meet the great demand in England for Jamaican hardwoods. Today, economic and population pressures have pushed the forest line to around 2,000 ft (610 m) on the northern slopes and almost 5000 feet (1500 m) on the southern slopes.
The 194,000-acre (80,000-ha) Blue Mountain and John Crow Mountain National Park was established in 1992 to preserve some of the remaining forests and to protect the island’s largest watershed. The park comprises about 6% of Jamaica’s total landmass. These diverse mountain forests have more than 800 species of endemic plants, the world’s second largest butterfly, Papilo homerus, 200 species of resident and migrant birds and is one of the largest migratory bird habitats in the Caribbean. There are also more than 500 species of flowering plants of which almost one half are native to Jamaica. Of these, the most interesting is perhaps the Jamaican bamboo, Chusquea abietifolia, that flowers only once every 33 years. The next flowering will take place in 2017.
The town of Newcastle, located 2 miles (3 km) below Holywell, is the common trailhead for several well-known hikes.
Newcastle has an interesting history. The British established it in 1841 because troops manning the lowland forts were dying of yellow fever in alarming numbers. The buttercups that grew in great numbers following the rains were blamed for exuding some sort of effluvium that caused the deadly sickness.
The troops were stationed high in the forest at Newcastle so they would be far enough away from the buttercup fields to be affected. It was much later before someone made the connection between yellow fever and the hearty, thriving mosquito population that–along with the buttercups—also mushroomed with the rains. Black slaves were much less susceptible to yellow fever than their British owners. Slaves named the buttercups after the white people (or “backras”), calling them “kill-backras.” The saying also developed that “If backra wants to live long, he must ask nayga leave” because it appeared the less sickly Negroes knew the secret to good health and long life.
Almost all of the area’s hikes, such as the Fern Walk Trail, start at the Old Stables Inn.