Located in the south central part of Dominica, this 17,000-acre park of primordial rainforest contains most of the truly spectacular hikes. You won't see any large mammals, but Dominica does boast a wide range of insects, birds, crustaceans, and a few reptiles. There are four species of snake, all non-poisonous.
A characteristic here, as on most islands, is the absence of birdcalls in heavy forested areas at upper elevations. Although 54 species of birds nest on the island, the only one you're likely to hear on a steep climb is the Siffleur Montagne, a mountain bird heard only in Dominica and whose song has a striking clarity and sweetness. Dominica is also home for two endangered parrots, the Sisserou (Amazona imperialis) and the Jacquot (Amazona arausiaca). You're much more likely to see the Antillean Crested hummingbird and the Purple Throated hummingbird.
At sunset or when it rains, the littletree frogs (two centimeters long) known as the Gounouge are responsible for the chorus of piping sounds. A remarkable example of adaptation to its environment, these are born as perfect frogs without an aquatic, tadpole stage. They don't have the luxury of a prolonged adolescence in still, safe water: because the rivers are so swift, the streams contain little food and the water flow is highly seasonal. To survive, the Gounouge must be born "standing up and talking back."
The Crapaud, or "mountain chicken," is a bulky, solid frog hunted for food and occasionally offered on hotel menus during its season. Mountain chickens, which grow up to 20 centimeters, have been seriously depleted through over-hunting. They are considered a great delicacy.
The Valley of Desolation & Boiling Lake
Because this hike is so awesome, I am taking the liberty of describing it in detail. As the Caribbean's best hike, it deserves such recognition. . . and respect.
Our guide Henry Shillingford likes to describe the hike in three different phases. The first hour is deceptively easy, starting with a moderate 25-minute ascent, then some ups and downs until you reach the Breakfast River. The river was named by travelers crossing the island, who would stop here for their morning meal break. Phase II is a 45-minute walk up the side of Morne Nichols, a steep and sometimes very slippery climb. Phase III is the descent into the Valley of Desolation, which takes only five to ten minutes to cross, then another 30 minutes to the Boiling Lake.
Most of us find the walk to Breakfast River a fairly easy one. Morne Nichols, however, is a deceptive trickster. In many places it seems as if we are about to reach the summit, but it always turns out to be just another bend in the path. There are always many, many more yards to climb.
About halfway up the mountain we are enveloped in cloud and the valley on our left is completely covered in mist. The scene is like a Chinese painting showing a shadow world with only the outlines of trees and shrubs depicted in different shades of gray. Actually, we're passing through montane forest and one of the best stands of Wezinye Montany, the only native conifer of Dominica. Nearer the top, we enter the fantastically shaped elfin woodland, trees stunted by strong winds whose branches and trunks are nearly encased in mosses and lichens.
When we finally reach the 3,000-foot summit of Morne Nichols, Henry turns and asks if it has "gotten hellish yet." This is the half-way point, and while the mountain climb has been strenuous and constant, it isn't as bad as I expected. He smiles; I try very hard to decipher that smile. Is the worst behind us, or yet to come?
It is extremely windy at the top of Morne Nichols. The gusts literally are strong enough to push you off balance, precisely what happened several years earlier to a woman crossing a narrow path at the topshe either mis-stepped or the wind shoved her off the mountain. The fall killed her, the trail's one known fatality. I find this amazing. I'd have expected more heart attacks.
A long series of steps lead down from the summit, but they are placed so far apart it is impossible to simply walk down them. They are actually terraces, and were placed to keep the trail from washing away, not to aid hikers. That's why they're set so far apart. We pass a shelter near the summit. It starts raining five minutes later.
Now comes the hard part: a slow, very tricky descent into the Valley of Desolation on a slippery mountain-goat trail of rock and mud. It's very easy to mis-step here. Chivalry emerges as the men help the women (their shorter legs are the problem) reach some of the small stepping stones that jut out of the mountain. In some places it's easier to slide down on your rear or turn and step down, like descending a ladder.
This takes a half-hour of tedious work. Descending, we get our first evidence of volcanic activity. We can see steam rising around a bend in a distant valley: at last, the Valley of Desolation.
First we have to work our way down a small waterflow, too small to be called a stream or creek. The rocks are a rusty red and the water is cold. We inch our way down a steep mini-waterfall next to a rock wall. At least it's a chance to wash off some of the mud.
Up until this point, we have followed an obvious path. Now, entering the Valley of Desolation, the path disappears. The valley floor is bare of vegetation, craggy, and uneven. The earth is coated in minerals and colors of red, silver, and black. Some rocks are also covered with yellow sulfur crystal. Brightly colored hot springs are scattered over the valley floor, their blue, white, black, and orange colors the results of minerals deposited by the water.
The Valley of Desolation, located on the flanks of Morne Watt, stretches about a quarter-mile across: at the edge we can see several big steam vents, hear water bubbling, and spot a few mud pots here and there. A small stream contains water that is oil-black in color, spilling over the rocks to create a white foam, an incredible contrast. The water here is quite warm.
We follow Henry closely. The main danger here is stepping through a thin crust of earth hiding a hot fumarole.
When first discovered in 1870, the region was thickly forested. Now only a dense mat of mosses and lichens grow, interspersed with yellow- and white-flowered "thyme sauvage" and grasses able to survive the harsh sulfur fumes. It is these fumes which are credited with wiping out the forest.
A volcanic eruption of ash in 1880, originating either from the Boiling Lake or this valley may have been responsible for the increase in the size of the fumarole area. Scientists predict the Valley of Desolation will remain an active fumarole region for decades to come.
Surprisingly, wildlife does exist: lizards, stoneflies, mayflies, ants, and of course the planet's hardiest survivor, the ubiquitous, indestructible cockroach.
At the far end is a huge steam vent that Henry invites us "to come stand in for your complexion." After crossing the valley diagonally through the middle, we are back in thick forest, where we walk for another 20 minutes before coming out at a stream where the rocks are coated white with sulfur. Henry draws an arrow for those lagging behind taking photos. Someone else draws a petroglyph of a smiling face on one of the stones; we all avoid stepping on the rock to keep from defacing the finger painting.
More climbing, as we cut diagonally across another valley, then start scrambling over large boulders. This is some of the hardest climbing of all. We all want to stop and restto eat and recharge. Not the slightest sign of the Boiling Lake. How much longer can this go on? Can we go on? And why did I assume the Valley of Desolation would be above the Boiling Lake, not below it?
We turn a corner and there it is: a big bowl of white milk virtually obscured by the thick steam. We wait for the winds to shift and push enough of it away to catch a momentary glimpse of the part that bubbles and churns, a relatively small surface area of only 20 to 30 yards. Ironically, Boiling Lake is Dominica's smallest lake.
The Boiling Lake is believed to be a flooded fumarole, a crack through which gases escape from the molten lava below. The natural basin of the lake collects the rainfall from the surrounding hills, which then seeps through the porous lake bottom, where it is trapped and heated by the hot lava.
Tests conducted in 1875 found the water temperature at the lake edge to be between 180 and 197 degrees fahrenheit; the water temperature at the center, where the lake actually boils, could not be measured. The depth was recorded at more than 195 feet.
The Boiling Lake changes over time. After 1875, the water level decreased and a geyser developed at the center which spewed water and mud 60 feet. A photograph from 1895 shows a dry Boiling Lake, with a prominent pumice cone from the geyser in the middle.
Today, no one knows how deep the lake is. The cauldron sides are a mixture of pumice, clay, and small stones. The water is usually described as a grayish-blue, but I still think it looks more like milk.
However, the water color is not a topic of conversation in my hiking group. We are too busy eating fresh pineapple and sandwiches, resting, and (with a good deal of dread) thinking about the walk out. We're all pretty tired.
Going back is even more difficult than coming in. As we reach the mountain that we came down rear-first, it begins to rain. The mountain turns into a mass of slick clay; but even worse are the giant steps that lead back to the summit of Morne Nichols. Coming down was a snap compared to the climb up them. Scaling this stone ladder really stretches the leg muscles.
In one hour, we are back at the summit. Thank God! We rest briefly, wondering what the other side of the mountain will be like, now that it's rained. The answer is obvious: slick, slippery, and muddy. Anyone who managed to stay clean until now quickly undergoes radical changes. So does our attitudes. Where we had walked diligently around any muddy spots on the way in, we are now so tired and the ground is so sloppy it doesn't make any difference anymore. We are muddy, and getting muddier.
One hiker abandons the path and tries walking the narrow ridge above it to see if she can make better time that way. She slips, and instead of falling to her left and plummeting down the mountain she ends up straddling the ridge. She catches her breath and rejoins us in the trench-like trail.
We wash off when we get to Breakfast River and quickly drain some water bottles that we left here to chill.
We take a look at another amazing Dominican phenomenon, the Titou Gorge, which we'd ignored earlier in our anticipation. The sides of this narrow, very deep gorge undulate, indicating it was not cut by the river which now washes through it. Instead, as the molten lava that formed it was cooling, it split and pulled apart, like a drying mud puddle splits and cracks.
It is three days before my legs stop hurting and I am able to assimilate everything I have seen and heard. Everyone on the hike reports a similar condition. It is hard to believe that in season, some local guides make the walk two or three times a week.
Would I ever do it again? You bet.
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Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication