The hike to Boiling Lake — part of the Adventure
There's a grown-over trail that goes to Boiling Lake from the town just outside Jungle Bay. Only the old-time locals know about it. They don't like to talk about it much because it's a trail like the old-timers used to hike—slippery and rocky, where you need a machete to cut through the overgrowth, cliffs are scaled using vines, and a scramble on all fours is often required. It's certainly not a trail for the REI crowd. So they keep quiet about it, lest some adventurous fool beg to try it or brave it alone.
Therefore, despite Boiling Lake being only a few miles from where we stayed at Jungle Bay, we had to loop around, through Roseau, to the main trailhead out of the town of Laudat. The drive took more than ninety minutes, some of it due to delays caused by road construction near Laudat; the jungle relentlessly attacks the roads clinging to the hillsides throughout Dominica.
The trail out of Laudat would be a much easier hike to the lake than that mysterious trail near Jungle Bay. Fifteen years ago the government employed the locals to cut 7,000 steps into the trail; not needing ropes during the hike makes the lake much more tourist friendly. Our guide from Jungle Bay was Brother, a lean man in his 60s who holds the record for the fastest time to the lake and back—less than 2 hours. We planned on needing 4 hours for our trip; sometimes it can last more than 8 hours. Even if you needed more time, though, it wouldn't be a problem—there are no carnivorous or poisonous animals on Dominica, and the air stays warm if you need to spend the night in the jungle.
The trail started out easy enough, but after Titou Gorge it began a slow climb. This was just a warm-up for what awaited. After ascending a few hundred feet, we descended rapidly, bounced along boulders to cross a river, then reascended on our way to Morne Nicholls.
Stunning vistas to both sides of the island materialized during our ascent to Morne Nicholls. We hiked along a ridge with jungle valleys below us on each side. The town of Roseau, Dominica's capital, nestled the coast five miles to our west. To our east, steam rose intermittently through the jungle canopy, bellowed from a dragon deep in the earth. That was our destination.
After a short break with fresh pineapple (carried by Brother and cut with a machete, of course), we began our steep descent into the Valley of Desolation. A tiny stream ran down the steps, coating the wood and mud with slime. Brother warned us to be careful, and to take the steps one at a time, sideways. I quickly tired of the sidestepping and decided to quicken my pace by stepping down as if these were normal steps. Whoomp! Two steps later on was on my butt. Fortunately I only skidded down three steps before stopping; it would have been highly embarrassing if I had ridden my ass past the others in front of me.
The bottom of the steps opened to a bleak area where mud pots bubbled and hissed with sulfurous steam. Brother warned us to stay on the trail; the ground in areas could be only a mineralized crust over a boiling thermal pool—not something you want to fall into when you're hours away from the nearest hospital. Brother led us to one of the cooler mud pots, scooped some mud and applied it to his and our faces. A rite of passage, and good for the skin, too!
This was not the Valley of Desolation, however. We trekked across this tiny brown scar and into the green jungle beyond. More climbing. And another descent. We approached a stream of warm white water and washed off our mud faces. Brother pointed to the small waterfall on our left; we would soak there on our return from the lake. We crossed the stream and continued. More up. Then we finally broke through the jungle.
The Valley of Desolation stretched before us. A steep curving descent brought us to the valley floor where more mud pots bubbled and hissed. Warm white water carved a stream through the valley. We followed it for a short while, then turned off to scramble up some boulders. At the top of the boulder field lay a plateau with the caldera of Boiling Lake.
At first we could see nothing. A curtain of steam greeted us on the plateau. Then the breeze came, a breath from the lake, and the steam wisped away, as though planned by a showman to reveal the great Boiling Lake in all its glory. We had arrived! And I have the photos to prove it.
Boiling Lake did not disappoint. It was larger than I expected. I was also incorrect in believing that I'd only see it burp up a few large bubbles of gas. Indeed, this lake was in a roiling boil! From our vantage a couple hundred feet above its surface, the entire lake would pulse in and out of view as the steam accumulated in the bowl and then blew off. Beyond the lake lay more mountainous jungle; in a few spots I thought I spied what might have been a trail, winding toward the town by Jungle Bay.
Below is a map of our hike. The magenta track marks only the final half of the trail, where my GPS picked up a signal. The gray capillary that flows southeast from Boiling Lake and the Valley of Desolation is the White River, which descends gloriously at Victoria Falls and continues its journey toward Jungle Bay. Old-timers tell me that trails often follow rivers. Of course, it's the parts that don't that you have to worry about.
Satellite map of our hike to Boiling Lake, 12 March 2009