Advice for Hiking the WNT in Dominica

Here are a few tips to help you plan a trip on the Waitukubuli National Trail (WNT). I'll assume you don't need any more convincing, but if you stumbled upon this page before reading my account of the WNT, check out Rainforest Vertical. The narrative might convince you that the WNT is beautiful, unique, cultural, and frequently challenging. Or, the narrative will convince you that I'm insane. Either way, I promise that the WNT is a wonderful experience and all-in-all should be considered one of the hiking gems of the western hemisphere.

Colored Boats

A storm clears over a black sand beach covered with otherworldly red seaweed. Dominica.

Entirely Debatable Trail Segment Stats

  1. Hardest segment? It’s 9. Forget what they say about 8 which is longer and more vertical but much less irrational. Segment 9 is insane, up and down and up and down, exhausting, slippery, and fabulous. 3B is a definite contender. Segments 7-13 are generally more remote and/or harder than Segments 1-6.
  2. Easiest segment? Hmm, very subjective, but probably Segment 10. It’s a short, pleasant, and infrequently used road. Generally speaking, Segments 1- 6 are the easier and more civilized segments with many small villages and nearby tourist attractions. Segment 14 is easy as well.
    Pennville view

    The view from Pennville, Segment 12. Ahhhh…

  3. Prettiest segment? Impossible to say. In a general sense, I prefer the northern half of the island. It’s more remote and less visited. I loved Segment 12 for its sweeping views and 3B for the surreal Valley of Desolation. The jungle vegetation deep in Segment 9 was glorious.
  4. Least pretty segment? The beginning of Segment 5 is not particularly interesting, but the latter half is much nicer. The first mile of 11 is also “meh.”
  5. Favorite segments? Segments 9, 12 and 3B. In a more general sense, all of Segments 8-14 combined.
  6. Least favorite segment(s)? Segment 5 because the cobblestones are dangerously slick in the rain. See note below. Also, the first half of Segment 3 was a little too civilized for my taste. Just my opinion mind you…
  7. Most rewarding segments? 8, 9, 12, and 3B are the most satisfying imho. Loved them.
  8. Hidden segments? Don't ignore the many possible side hikes such as Freshwater Lake, Chemin Letang, Trois Pitons, Wavine Cyrique, Spanny Falls, Sari Sari and on and on and on. Some of these trails are right next to the WNT. Others require a bit more effort to reach (hitchhike or bus). All are beautiful and worthwhile. Most will require an extra day to do them justice.
Boiling Lake Trail

The gorgeous moss-covered trail on the way down to Titou Gorge, Segment 3B.

Zen garden

Zen garden, near the Central Forest Reserve.

General WNT Advice

  1. Eric

    Eric's signature.

    No guide is necessary if you are comfortable in the wilderness. The trails are well-marked in most places, with only a few notable hiccups in the blue and yellow blazes. At the time of writing, Segment 11 and 3B are the most poorly marked, but Eric is doing his best to repaint the entire island (you’ll see what I mean), and these sections may be freshly tagged by the time you arrive. That said, a guide ($$$) will show you the most scenic places to camp and will take away a lot of the uncertainty (aka adventure).
  2. Start with 8? Consider being a rebel and starting your hike from the airport with Segment 8. When you are done with Segments 8-14, catch the bus to Scotts Head. You can then pick up Segments 1-7 the next day and finish your trip at the airport. Very convenient!

    Advantages: (a) Your trip starts and ends at the airport in a very natural way. (b) You’ll be fresh for the hardest segments of the trip. (c) If you plan to camp, you can pre-package your food before the trip so that you can hike the more remote Segments 8-11 without having to bail into a town to find supplies. Backpacking-style food is hard to buy on the island, and by the second half of the trip you’ll be lugging six grapefruits, three meat pies, and a giant loaf of bread, which is super yummy but wildly impractical on Segments 8 and 9. (d) Buses from Portsmouth to Scotts Head are easy to find, frequent, and cheap, so connecting Segment 14 to Segment 1 is simple.

    Jims Pack

    Jim's pack on the trail. Can't see the trail? Well, that's Segment 8 for you.

    Disadvantages: (a) OMG, starting with 8 is uphill into insane heat and humidity with no chance to catch your breath after landing at the airport. (b) You might never find the trailhead. (c) If you ask a taxi driver to find the trailhead, he will rip you off and take you to the end of the runway. (d) It is a crazy introduction to the island, and you will have no sense of what is coming other than jungle. A taxi or bus to Scotts Head is a gentler start with a built-in tour of the terrain and the towns. (e) It will confuse everyone when you are on Section 5 and say “I’m almost done!” (f) If you are not wilderness savvy and self-sufficient, starting with the most remote section is a very bad idea. If you have ever been called clueless, this is a very bad idea. If you cannot read a map, this is a bad idea.

    A few details: (a) If you start with 8, then I recommend a big grocery restock in Portsmouth or Picard at the end of Segment 14. The latter has an IGA that caters to the medical school and US-style tastes. (b) Catch a bus from downtown Portsmouth to Roseau, followed by another bus to Scotts Head and Segment 1. During the day, the buses depart irregularly but frequently, and you won’t have to wait long. The total cost for the buses should be around EC$14 or US$5. A taxi ride to do the same trip will cost you about US$75+. (c) Camping options in Scotts Head are limited, but try the very windy isthmus, or consider splurging on a room and a shower.

  3. Start with 7? Alternatively, start with Segment 7. It’s a lot easier to find than the trailhead for Segment 8. Head south out of Marigot (the airport town), and look for the sign shortly before the Pagua River and the Hatton Garden Junction next to Mama J’s food stand. Taxi drivers may not know where Segment 7 begins, but they will know how to get to Hatton Garden and to Mama J’s. Walk back towards Marigot from Mama J’s, cross the river, and keep going about 10 minutes until you see the Segment 7 sign.

    But first, order takeout from Mama J's and don't forget to say hi to her very entertaining and fiesty young daughter who says “What do you mean you want to order a second meal to go? I don't understand what you want. You don't understand what you want. Do you want to eat or hike? What do you want?” And then ask Mama J's son to do magic tricks. These kinds of interactions are priceless and worth every penny of your takeout “roti”, a chicken bone special put through a blender and stuffed into a flour wrap. Mmmm, chicken bone shards.

    Where was I? Oh right. Unfortunately, if you start Segment 7 on the same day that you arrive at the airport, you will have a hard time reaching a good camping spot by nightfall. So your best bet is at the Williams Orchard about three miles into the trail and a little past the radio towers. There's no camping, but the orchard offers an inexpensive shelter for WNT hikers. It looks like this would need to be arranged in advance. Try http://www.williamsorcharddominica.com.

  4. Combining and dividing segments. The segments are guidelines, not rules. Combine and divide as you see fit. You absolutely do not have to start and stop the day at the beginning or end of a segment, and frankly, you could miss some really cool spots if you do (beach hideout camps, waterfall camps, deep jungle camps, etc.). A few ideas are
    1. Consider combining the very short Segment 10 with either of Segments 9 or 11.
    2. Consider combining Segment 13 with all or part of Segment 14. We found a really nice little camping spot just off of a cobblestone beach on Segment 14. I'm glad we didn't rush through.
    3. Consider combining Segments 1 and 2. Segment 1 is really short. On the other hand, if you like Scotts Head, what’s the rush? Make it a loop by going down to Soufriere, and spend another pleasant afternoon snorkeling. This is a busy part of the island, and you can easily get a ride back up to the beginning of 2.
      Landslide

      The top of an immense landslide on Segment 1. The trail has since re-opened although you may see signs that indicate otherwise.

    4. If you like challenges, consider adding an extra day to do Segment 3B via Boiling Lake. If you camp part way and get up early, then you can have the lake and Valley of Desolation to yourself until mid-morning. That’s a nice treat.
    5. Consider extra nights at Wotten Waven, Scotts Head, and Pont Casse to see the attractions. The busier tourist sites have a steady stream of tourists (Trafalgar Falls, Titou Gorge, Boiling Lake, sometimes Freshwater Lake), but they are very nice nonetheless. From Scotts Head it should be easy to arrange trips to Virginia Falls and Sari Sari. If you camp an extra night near Pont Casse (it’s not a town, just a confluence of roads), you can visit the somewhat smaller and lesser-known Spanny Falls, Jacko Falls, and Soltoun Falls in a waterfallicious day, but you will need to hike, hitch, or catch a bus to each one.
    6. If you are pressed for time, and don’t plan to finish the whole trail, then skip the first half of Segment 5. It is a nasty slippery cobblestone path with only one or two good views. I know it’s a historic trade and slave route, but I think a few minutes on the ankle-twisting slime-covered rocks is sufficient to get the general idea. Instead, take a bus from Pont Casse to Emerald Pool and pick up Segment 5 from there.

      Editorial note: I really hope the WNT folks will consider creating an “alternate 5B” trail (similar to the alternative 3B) that passes by Spanny and Jacko Falls (and maybe even Soltoun Falls) before wandering across to Emerald Pool. The addition of these gorgeous waterfalls would make Segment “5B” a “waterfall spectacular” and the most popular section of the entire WNT. And it would skip most of the evil cobbles. Just a thought.

  5. Trail reputations. The reputations of 3B, 8, and 9 as long and hard are well-deserved. Segment 6 has a reputation as a long hot hike, but it’s overrated and no longer or hotter than most sections. Segment 6 is only going to feel long if you don’t do 3B, 8, 9, 11, or 12 which are all much, much (much) more tiring.
    truck overtaken by jungle

    Don't stand still for too long.

  6. Money. Convert your money to a bunch of small EC (Eastern Caribbean) dollars before arriving on the island. It’s a huge pain to get to a bank that can convert your cash, and most places outside the tourist traps will not take a credit card. We saw places with credit card scanners that still refused to take credit cards (e.g. Courtesy Car Rental), presumably because cash is untraceable and therefore untaxed. A fistful of small $US will also come in handy. Plan on about US$250 per week if you are hiking and camping. Lodging on the island is ridiculously expensive for what you get (the island’s second biggest rip-off after taxis), so plan on much more if you don’t want to camp in the rain—say $80/night per room. Remember to tuck away US$23 to pay the mandatory exit tax when you leave the island (but double check that tax—it could change).
  7. Food. You can buy chips, soft drinks, beer and water at small snackettes and bars in the villages. True grocery stores are rare but make an appearance in Marigot (marginal), Picard (very good), and Roseau.

    During my first visit to the island, roadside stands were ubiquitous and were a great way to get fruit, sugar cane snacks, eggs, and veggies. On my second visit they had all disappeared except in Portsmouth. We asked why, but nobody knew. Our theory is that either the incessant road construction has driven them out of business or the government has clamped down on the tax-free sales. Here’s hoping they come back. But even if they don’t, we found it very easy to buy food from random farmers tending their small plots along the WNT; in fact, those interactions were quite fun. If you see a farmer and you are hungry, offer to buy food (bananas, grapefruit, oranges, mangoes, papaya, pineapple, cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, peas, you name it). You’ll get great fresh produce and keep the local economy humming and happy.

    There is a snack bar at the Syndicate Trail (beginning of Segment 11), but in multiple visits I’ve never seen it open. At the WNT headquarters building (beginning of Segment 5), there are food vendor booths, but I doubt any of them are still in business. On the other hand, the meals available at Emerald Pool are surprisingly good, and you can count on them being open because they serve the cruise ship crowds that arrive in giant flocks that will make you want to run away screaming, but I digress. We also picked up a lot of Johnny Cakes and potato-lentil pies in small shacks hidden in the offbeat alleys of Laudat, Morne Prosper (try the one near the school!), etc. It is deliciously decadent to backpack with a pie.

  8. Water. It’s plentiful, but I still managed to dehydrate. There’s no good source on Segment 1. Most small villages have at least one water tap that they’ll call a standpipe—call it a tap or spigot and they won’t have any idea what you mean. The more remote sections have plenty of rivers. Each time I crossed one, I’d guzzle a quart and refill. Don’t pass them up. The rivers marked on the maps are not always there.

    I can’t recommend drinking water that’s downstream from a village (septic), and I’d be careful about water in the middle of farms. Sadly, some larger “estates” still use too many pesticides and the chemicals run off into the water, a well-known problem. The large Syndicate Estate on Segment 10 is a major bummer when you see and smell how much herbicide they have sprayed to beat back the jungle. Their land looks utterly nuked. Fortunately, fair trade practices and government regulations have been a tremendous help in pesticide reduction. End of sermon.

    Avoid water in standing barrels. The subsistence farmers fill these barrels with rain, but the standing water is a source of Dengue and other baddies.

Cobblestone beach

Just above the cobblestone beach in the trees is one of those wonderful hideaway spots for camping.

  1. Camping along the trail works great. We always found a spot. Segments 1, 3, and 7 had the fewest options because most of the terrain is private farmland or too steep or both.
  2. Pavilion camping. The WNT has some fantastic little octagonal pavilions along the trail. About half of these have picnic tables cemented in place, but the other half have tables that can be temporarily moved out from under the shelter to create a nice flat and protected camping spot with room for one tent. It’s obvious that plenty of people have done this, particularly in the more remote sections. The best pavilions have stellar views in quiet corners of the rainforest, though most are in populous areas too near the road for good sleeping. There are particularly awesome pavilions at the beginning of 9, one-third of the way into 12, and near the summit of Morne Nichols (3B). We didn’t use any of those, and we rarely found pavilions when we wanted them. Still, it’s an option.
  3. Paperwork. Fill out your WNT paperwork before leaving and send it in by email. It will save you a meaningless and time consuming trip to the WNT Headquarters. Be sure to buy a trail pass. Gruff government officials will check for your pass at the major tourist sites like Emerald Pool, Trafalgar, etc. Courtesy Car Rental sells passes at the airport.
Colored Boats

Colored boats at Scotts Head.

Snorkeling

Michelle snorkeling at Scotts Head.

Camping Gear Recommendations

Go light. Some of the WNT is vertical, and a 40 pound pack is too much. Aim for 20 pounds. Seriously. Try to reduce your gear until it is carry-on only. If you can’t fit it in the overhead compartment of your flight, then you probably don’t want to lug it around the island on your back. There is nowhere to stow excess luggage at the small airport.

For the WNT, I carried 10 pounds of camping and personal gear, 10 pounds of food (for 5 days at a stretch), and 16 pounds of camera gear. The latter was my concession to both my profession and to my happiness, but Jim was baffled and amazed that I heaved, hove, and hauled all that glass the entire length of the trail. Jim, being much wiser, was happy with a 5 oz pocket camera.

  1. Water purifier. Try iodine tablets for their foolproof simplicity and light weight. But don’t skimp. Calculate what you need then multiply by two. Twenty minutes into the jungle heat, you’ll be glad for the extra. You can repack multiple iodine bottles into a single container to shave weight. Yeah, get obsessed about trimming weight. Trim those pounds every way that you can.
  2. Lightweight rain jacket and rain pants. Duh. Rainforest. Also doubles as warmth so you don’t have to bring long pants or long-sleeve shirts.
    church ruins

    Mission being reclaimed by the jungle on Segment 6.

  3. Small umbrella. Laugh if you want, but Jim is a convert and you will be too. Hiking with a small and lightweight umbrella is much more pleasant than putting on a suffocating-hot rain jacket in a 100% humidity jungle. Don’t even try to pretend that your Gore-Tex isn’t stuffy hot. Save the rain jacket for when you are sitting still or need protection from the wind. If you have an umbrella, your rain gear can be extra lightweight.
  4. Uber-light pack. There are nice 55 liter packs that are just over 2 pounds.
  5. Pack cover for rain.
  6. Uber-light and small tent. Don’t bring a behemoth – you won’t find space for it in the jungle vegetation. There are single person tents (generally mislabeled as “two-person tents”) that are well under 2 pounds.
  7. Silk travel sheet, lightest weight. Forget the sleeping bag. Don’t be ludicrous. At all but the highest elevations, you will probably overheat even with a sheet. Before you panic, don’t forget that a tent adds lots of warmth too.
    persecuted

    Oh my, that would be different, but perhaps effective! (Read closely. Get it?) “No Trespassing” signs are uncommon, and most people are super friendly.

  8. Trail maps in a clear waterproof bag. The non-topographic maps on the WNT website are sufficient. A topographic map would be nice if you can get your hands on one.
  9. Small water-proof stuff sack for hanging food from a tree at night. Hanging helps protect your food from agouti (think large rat-squirrel hybrid) and voracious ants. Jim brought a spare shoelace that helped hang the bag.
  10. Food. If you are serious about saving weight, count calories to get maximum density in the lightest and smallest package. Don’t bother with cooking dehydrated foods. They can be lighter, but then you’ll need to carry a stove and fuel, and buying anything other than gasoline or a 20lb propane tank will be impossible. And the entire island can run out of gasoline for weeks—I’ve seen it happen! Besides, you won’t miss hot food in the jungle heat.
  11. Water bottle or two. A single bottle is lighter, but makes it difficult to stay hydrated on the remote stretches. I bought sodas and bottled water along the way in small villages and then saved the containers for refilling as needed; that’s not possible if you start with Segment 8.
  12. Clothes. I brought three sets of “shirts, shorts, underwear and socks”. One set was for the airplanes in and out of the country. The other two were for hiking, and I swapped them half-way through the trek. Use quick drying materials, even for the underwear. You can wash as you go. Everyone bathes and washes clothes in a local stream. Try it.
  13. Light and breathable hiking boots with good ankle support.
  14. Toilet paper.
  15. Sunscreen. A small 2 oz tube should do it. Raaaainforest. Persistent clouds.
  16. Blue pool

    An abstract study of blue mineral pool and heated waterfall that spills from the bubbling and steaming volcanic Valley of Desolation. I wasn't up for trying hot water in the tropical heat, but this would be a colorful and surreal place to soak and relax.

  17. Small insect repellant split between everyone in a small group. I never used ours, but I did get bitten, and some of the bites scarred and hung around for months.
  18. Contact lenses, storage case, and a small 2 oz bottle of solution. Contacts are preferable to glasses imho, but I brought glasses as a backup. Rain and dripping sweat always scum up my glasses. If you are trying to shave weight, sunglasses in a rainforest are not a necessity (imho), and you’ll only miss them a few times on sunny days along the coast.
  19. Camera. Not exactly essential, but you’ll be happy it’s there. Bring a spare battery too. Jim didn’t and was very bummed.
  20. Sleeping pad. Optional but nice when your tent is crammed over a bunch of jungle roots. Consider an extra-light half-sized pad, and then use your empty pack to cushion your feet. Some inflatable half-pads are only 8 oz and roll up so small that they fit in a pocket.
  21. Medication for traveler’s diarrhea. Shit happens.
  22. Toiletries. Keep it light. Saw your toothbrush in half. I’m not joking.
  23. Headlamp.
  24. A pen to share among the group. It's optional, but you’ll need it to fill out the paperwork as you enter and exit the country. Dominica officials do not always have a pen that you can borrow, and all the other travelers will be trying to borrow yours.
  25. Passport (and visa if you need one). Also bring proof of a yellow fever vaccination if you are coming from a country with yellow fever. Double check this stuff because the rules can change.
  26. Required trail pass. Grumpy government officials will check at popular sites like Emerald Pool, Freshwater Lake, Trafalgar, etc., and these officials will turn to all smiles when they discover that you already paid for the pass. But why try to beat the system anyways? It’s a spectacular trail and the US$40 fee is a trivial price for maintaining this island gem. Save the complaints about money for the taxi drivers and lodging.
Emerald Pool

Emerald Pool.

Random Thoughts More Or Less Related to the WNT

  • Whatever you do, avoid getting or arranging a taxi from the airport. I've been to Dominica twice, and I've been ripped-off by taxis at the airport twice. If you want a ride from the airport, walk out to the road just past the entrance gate, and flag down a road-rage minivan while shouting out your destination. Shout “Roseau” (pronounced Rose-O) to head south or “Portsmouth” to head north. It’s a guaranteed adventure and about US$150 cheaper. Your wait for a bus shouldn’t be much longer than a half hour and will probably be much less.
  • Don’t over plan your trip. Other than mini-van road rage, life in Dominica is relaxed and beautiful. We didn’t arrange any lodging in advance, and that gave us the flexibility to take side hikes, sleep where we pleased, combine segments, break apart segments, sip beer with locals, turn around and go back for some more of those awesome johnny cakes, and spend an entirely unexpected evening listening to Bob Marley covers. That’s my kind of fun. It’s also a little scary. You can end up sleeping under picnic tables.
  • Exit paperwork at the airport happens in this order: (a) get your boarding pass, (b) pay your exit tax, (c) go through security with the filled out form that they gave you when you entered the country (don't lose that tiny slip of paper). The lines can be long and it sucks to get the order wrong.
    village

    Colorful homes in Scotts Head, one of the wealthier towns on the island. Some places even have glass windows. But if you look closely, many are just painted (or unpainted) tin shacks squeezed between the luckier residents.

  • If camping isn’t your thing, you can pre-arrange lodging and pay big bucks to get shuttled to and from trailheads. Cornel seems like a nice guy and he runs a one man Taxi and Tour Service (1-767-276-6236) when he’s not tending his family farm plot in the hills or chopping down bananas for us with a machete. But we didn’t use him (other than for bananas), so it’s not an actual endorsement. Cell coverage is good over most of the island (better than in Colorado), so you could also make friends with a random taxi driver after you arrive. They’ll pick you up from wherever you dial-in at the end of the day. It’s gonna’ cost you.

    See the WNT website for suggested lodging. After five weeks and two trips to the island, my favorites are Zen Gardens (rustic charm in a peaceful setting), Sea Breeze Inn (good food, clean rooms, nice walking along the coast), and My Fathers Place (aging rooms, but a great beach and easy access to the airport). Keep in mind that my needs are simple, and I'm not a fan of resorts. Sadly, lodging is not cheap, so I’ve mostly camped.

  • It’s a safe island, imho. Touts and taxi drivers are the biggest annoyances; the primary trouble sites are the airport, Roseau at the cruise ship docks, downtown Portsmouth, and along the beach at Scotts Head. A polite and cheerful “No thanks!” generally clears the air, and then each of these places can be enjoyed trouble free. You are unlikely to encounter bling-laden teenagers with machetes. You will however encounter machetes. Relax, that’s normal.
  • Plan a couple of extra days for general third-world insanity and rain delays. Dominica is unlikely to function on your schedule. If you don’t need those spare days for the WNT, then spend them snorkeling at Scotts Head, hanging on a beach, or visiting some of the gorgeous waterfalls that aren’t along the trail. (Sari Sari is really nice.)
  • Plan on buckets of rain. I’ve been there in the driest month of the year (February) and been absolutely dumped on for weeks. If you can’t take it anymore, the local advice is to escape to the other side of the island. If it’s raining on one side, they claim it’s dry on the other. I’m dubious.
  • The WNT is not crowded. We hiked the entire trail in April, and we saw a grand total of (wait for it…) one other WNT hiker. One. And he wasn’t even hiking the whole thing, just a few segments. When I was in Dominica in February, I sampled a few segments and saw even fewer WNT hikers (zero). You will however see plenty of local subsistence farmers, villagers, and tourists at the big attractions. If you do the Boiling Lake Segment 3B, you'll see day-trippers getting an early start from Titou Gorge.
  • Parts of the WNT are difficult, but hardly impossible or impassible. You’ll do just fine as long as you are fit and prepared for slick, wet, humid, and steep. Very steep.
Wavine Cyrique Falls

The black sand dreamscape of Wavine Cyrique in the rain.

Middleham Falls

Middleham Falls.

 

 

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