As I painfully scaled back up the nearly vertical rust-colored rock and mud wall, tears started forming in my eyes. My legs felt like lead blocks and with every step up I was on the brink of collapsing. However, the tears weren’t from the physical discomfort I was feeling. They were coming from the realization that I was the person slowing the group down. As I inhaled a deep breath and slowly exhaled, a voice in my head reminded me “You still have two hours left in this hike. Suck. It. Up.” So that’s exactly what I did.
Boiling Lake, Dominica. Sounds dangerous doesn’t it? Well, it is. You can boil an egg in it as it reaches 180 to 197 degrees Fahrenheit and the temperature can’t even be measured in the middle so who really knows how hot it is. If you fell into it you would likely end up with third degree burns and a long hospital stay if you survived. And the danger doesn’t even include the hike to and from the lake, which isn’t totally dangerous but hard as hell.
As I started to gather research about the hike, I had flashbacks to our first major hike in Hawaii. Feelings of awe, excitement, fear and exhaustion flooded back to me. Everything that I found online and in books about the hike translated to: This is a fucking tough hike. Probably one of the hardest hikes you will ever complete.
We decided to tackle the beast on one of the first days we were in Dominica and arranged a guided hike through Cocoa Cottages, the magical bed and breakfast we stayed at for half our time in Dominica. Jeffery was our guide and two other couples from the cottages were going as well. I had never been on a group hike with ‘strangers’ before, so at the onset of the journey I was a little concerned about how it was going to go. But, going with a group of unfamiliar people worked out really well. We chatted about random things and our plans for Dominica. One of the couples, from the Netherlands, kept the mood very lively and fun, cracking jokes with everyone, creating a much welcome distraction from our arduous hike.
The eight-mile round-trip hike starts in the lush rainforest at about 1,600ft near Titou Gorge, made famous by Pirate’s of the Caribbean – Dead Man’s Chest. Then further up the trail, landscape changes from rainforest to low laying brush to nearly barren surroundings at Boiling Lake. Cold and hot springs snake along the route.
For being in the middle of a tropical rainforest, I was a bit surprised that much of the trail consists of a well-maintained path covered in steps made of repurposed fern logs and stepping stones. Which was very handy because we were moving quickly and much of the beginning portion required moving from log step to log step to avoid the saturated mud. Some sections were a bit more tricky, forcing you to scale down and up steep paths with only roots and rocks providing foot holds.
An hour after we started, we came upon Trois Pitons River. It’s about 20 feet across with rocks to traverse the crystal clear water. During the dry season (when we were there) it’s only a foot or so deep at the crossing. Our guide, Jeffery advised us to finish the water in our bottles and fill them up with the cool water of river. The next source of potable water wouldn’t be available for another hour or so. While we were filling up our bottles and resting, Jeffery mentioned that he’ll sometimes have to tell people to turn around at this point if they are already complaining about the difficulty because it was about to become much more challenging.
Over the next hour or so, the elevation gains became more severe and the vegetation began to change. The cover of the rainforest was disappearing as the plants became shorter and the wide forest floor gave way to a narrow path along the ridge of a mountain. We kept going up, hardly ever down. It felt like we had been climbing forever. I was drenched in sweat and my legs were on fire.
We reached 2,950 ft, the highest point of the hike, which is a natural platform with a 360 degree view of the Nature Island. We could see Roseau and the Caribbean in the west, valleys and mountains in all other directions. This is a popular resting spot for hikers, as we ran into two other groups of hikers here.
We scrambled down from the view point and got a glimpse of our next stop – The Valley of Desolation. Along the way to the valley we stopped at Jeffery’s natural spring fountain, a banana leaf placed strategically in a rock to siphon fresh water into water bottles. Not all water is created equal. Dominica has the best water I have ever had, straight from the source and no chemicals.
We followed the cool and hot springs down to The Valley of Desolation and all I could think about is how we would have to climb back up the slippery and steep pathways. My legs were already shaky and we were not even halfway through the hike. As we started to criss-cross the springs by hopping from rock to rock my camera bag was becoming more of a liability – it only added to my difficulty to balance on small footholds.
As we got closer to the valley, the vegetation thinned out, the sulphur smell intensified, and the pathways leading downward grew more rugged and less discernible from their surroundings. The final descent into the valley is difficult, if not impossible, to indentify by someone unfamiliar with the terrain. We scrambled down a steep wall of rocks which meant I basically sat on my butt the whole way down. I was longing for my trail running shoes, if not for the enhanced ability to feel the terrain then for the lack of weight they added to my feet.
Upon first glance, the Valley of Desolation is, well, desolate. Jeffery doled out a warning, “Follow where I go or you could break through the ground and land in boiling mud and you will have to be airlifted out.” This hike really isn’t meant to be done on your own unless you are a super seasoned hiker. I can’t imagine doing this without a guide.
Jeffery started pointing out amazing things in the valley. Water and earth were mixing together and boiling up from the ground. Grey mini geysers and steam vents peppered the landscape along with little patches of grass. We were surrounded by varying shades of rust, orange and brown. The more I looked around, it became less desolate and more beautiful.
The hike from the valley to Boiling Lake was short. Finally, we were a little more than halfway done (the way back is quicker because you are descending most of the time).
The Boiling Lake is small, much smaller than I thought it was going to be. Despite the size, it is either the largest or second largest boiling lake in the world, depending on who you talk to. It’s covered in a veil of steam, but when the wind is just right the steam lifts and the geyser in the middle is revealed.
As we ate our lunch and took in the lakes unique beauty, I realized my legs were spent. I really had no idea how I would be able to make it back. Injury was more likely to occur now and that worried me. I am a generally fit person, but I didn’t prepare well for this hike. In addition to my body wearing down, I was also mentally wearing out and we still had the return trip to complete. That didn’t matter now. We were in the middle of the hike, and it was time for us to head back.
We made it out of The Valley of Desolation when my legs really started to give up. The group was well ahead of me, save for Ryan who was sticking by me. The more I thought about being the slowest person the more upset I became, and I almost started to cry like a big baby. I was so disappointed with myself and my poor performance. I am so grateful for the group we hiked with. No one in the group made me feel bad about being so slow. Everyone was actually very understanding and supportive.
The rest of the hike back followed the same path we took in, and once we hit the portions that were downhill, I was able to keep up much more easily than climbing up. We made it back to the trailhead after 2.5 hours. There we took a nice dip in the cool waters of Titou Gorge, enjoyed an ice cold Kubuli and enjoyed each other’s conversation.
Have you ever been to Dominica and done the Boiling Lake? What was your experience like? Let us know in the comments!