Grand Cayman’s Mastic Reserve protects a 840-acre portion of the largest contiguous section of old growth dry forest left on the island and can be explored via the 2.3-mile (one-way) out-and-back Mastic Trail. The southern trailhead is the traditional starting point for hikers. National Trust facilities here include a parking area, interpretive signage with information on wildlife, and a composting toilet.
A short distance from the trailhead the path enters a wetland forest. The lowest-lying area of the wetland is traversed by an extensive boardwalk under a shady canopy of Black Mangroves. This is followed by a section of seasonally flooded forest, a mix of towering tropical hardwoods such as Bitter Plum and Mahogany trees, and magnificent Royal Palms. The trail continues through an abandoned Mango orchard, followed by a raised rocky area known as the Fissure Zone, which features deep linear fractures in the bedrock.
After passing through another section of low-lying forest dominated by Royal Palms and Mahoganies, the trail rises onto jagged, karstic limestone, with no significant soil. This is the start of the ancient Old Growth Forest. The combination of remoteness and lack of soil have protected the forest from significant human disturbance. The trail gradually climbs and, as the elevation increases, so does the height of the tree canopy. Near the halfway point of the trail, hikers traditionally take a rest break beneath a towering Yellow Mastic Tree.
The trail continues through the ancient forest until reaching the northern edge of the rugged karstic platform, where a sharp drop represents an ancient shoreline, created approximately 125,000 years ago during the last major interglacial warming, when sea levels around the world were 20 feet above present day levels. From this point the trail continues north through an area that was historically cleared for agriculture as the ground is comparatively level, and there are significant pockets of soil. The land has however been abandoned for many years and is now covered in secondary forest. As the trail approaches the northern end it passes through several “grass pieces”, tracts of land where Guinea Grass was grown as fodder until a few decades ago. The trail then meanders through overgrown pastureland, before emerging at the northern trailhead next to a small produce farm.
Keep in mind that the trail is not a loop, so back-tracking is required unless a vehicle is arranged at each end. Most of the trail is fairly level, but some areas are quite rugged, with numerous trip hazards. Sections of the southern portions can be muddy or flooded following heavy rains. Strong shoes, adequate drinking water and bug spray are all recommended.
All thirteen woodland birds that are unique to Grand Cayman can be found here. Of these, the Cuban Parrot, Vitelline Warbler, Cuban Bullfinch, and Thick-billed Vireo are also restricted-range species.
Non-endemic forest birds that are commonly seen include the White-crowned Pigeon, White-winged Dove, Common Ground Dove, Zenaida Dove, Yellow-faced Grassquit, Northern Mockingbird, Yellow Warbler, La Sagra’s Flycatcher, and Smooth-billed Ani.
Between early autumn and late spring, the Mastic Trail is also a great location to spot migratory birds. Warbler species that frequently over-winter here include the Ovenbird, Common Yellowthroat, Northern Parula, Black and White Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Northern Waterthrush, and American Redstart.
Other migratory forest birds recorded along the trail include Grey Catbird, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, and we now know that the more secretive Swainson’s Warbler overwinters here as well.
The southern trailhead is about a 25-minute drive from the capital city of George Town, while the northern trailhead is approximately 10 minutes further along. The trail is best accessed by rental car as taxis are expensive. The local buses provide infrequent service that pass approximately ½ mile from each trailhead. Using the bus does have the advantage of allowing an end-to-end hike without the need for backtracking.
Accessing the Mastic Trail from any location on the island is less than an hour’s drive, but the most convenient tourist accommodations are in the surrounding districts of North Side (Old Man Bay, Rum Point), East End (Morritt’s Tortuga, Wyndham Reef), and Bodden Town (Turtle Nest Inn).
There are two professional bird guides offering tours on Grand Cayman: Stuart Mailer of Bird-Cayman and Geddes Hislop of Silver Thatch Tours.
Guests are also welcome to walk the trail without a guide, but are advised to familiarize themselves with dangerous plants that may be encountered. Further information is provided on the signage at the southern trailhead, in a guide booklet available from the National Trust offices in George Town, and also usually available at the nearby Botanic Park gift shop.