I recently spent a week at Gros Morne National Park, for my second visit to the Writers at Woody Point Festival. I’ve attended 10+ festivals this summer, but this is still my favourite. I’ve never been to an event that breaks down the barriers between audience and artist in such an effortless manner. Where else can I sit beside Will Ferguson, nervous as a schoolgirl, and then tap him on a shoulder for a book signing? We talked about his new book, 419, and how it made me want to go to Africa. I said “Tanzania.” But I pronounced it like you would “Tasmania.”
A friend asked me to write up a Gros Morne guide. This was my fourth trip in a few years, and it’s my happy place. My soul is filled. My heart is happy. And I’m thinking about retreating here next month for some writing downtime and hiking love.
Here’s a comprehensive guide to the park, but keep in mind I haven’t nearly been everywhere and there’s still 32893892 trails to uncover and a million more secrets hidden beneath the surface.
Gros Morne is a national park but it ain’t easy like the other national parks. There’s no public transit system, it’s huge as hell, and if you’re looking for late night dining options you’re unlikely to find them.
Don’t take these as negatives. You’re visiting a landscape shaped by billions of years of tectonic plate mayhem and geological miracles (oxymoron?)…it’s amazing you aren’t bumping shoulders with thousands of other tourists like you do in other national parks. In fact, it’s what I love the most about the park: the people who live there are REAL. They’re just like the folks I grew up with in the bay. Real Newfoundland, real experiences.
BUT if you’re without a rental car in the park, you’re severely limited. There are more options during the summer, at least, but plot your accommodations wisely.
Most of the communities are scattered along Bonne Bay or the Gulf of St. Lawrence. On one side you have Norris Point and Rocky Harbour, and on the other you have Woody Point, and Trout River beyond.
Now, here’s the thing: although you can clearly see Woody Point from Norris Point, it takes a FULL HOUR to drive around Bonne Bay to get there. It’s a bitch, but the route is scenic. In the summer, BonTours operates a water taxi to and from Norris Point and Woody Point, which only takes about 20 minutes. When festivals are taking place, the festival coordinators will often run the ferry later (until 12 AM). But make note of the taxi times, because they can be sporadic and distanced.
I got stranded in Woody Point on Saturday night because I missed the taxi. Thanks to Twitter and that lovely community spirit, I managed to find a couch to crash on pretty easily.
This is just the tip of the iceberg.
Gros Morne Mountain
My first time in the park, I hiked Gros Morne Mountain. (Translation: “The Great Somber.” How friggen poetic is that?) She’s that rocky beast you see from every vantage point in the park, because she sticks out like a sore thumb.
The full loop up the mountain and down again is about 16 kilometres. That may not SOUND like a lot, but it is a bitch of a hike, let me tell you. It takes two hours of hiking through the gulch to reach the base of the mountain. From there, it’s a steady climb up…and up…and up.
The thing about the mountain is that it doesn’t LOOK intimidating from a distance. But it’s made almost entirely of loose rock, and you have to scramble over them to summit. And all the rocks have tumbled into plateaus, meaning at least five times up the mountain you’ll think, “Finally, I’m at the summit!” only to realize you’re nowhere near the top.
BUT then you make it, and you stop for sandwiches and tea, and you find that deep fjord that plunges into Ten Mile Pond and you realize it was worth every pain in your ass.
The Tablelands are probably the coolest part of the park. They’re startling to come across as you’re driving to Trout River and you find yourself upon a desert-like landscape completely void of vegetation, across the street from dense boreal forest.
It’s made of ultramafic rock (peridotite), and the heavy metals make it impossible for plants to grow. This is one of the few places in the world where you can walk on the earth’s mantle, and it’s the only place in the world where you can see such a large example of it. The rock was forced up to the surface millions of years ago during a plate collision.
The Tablelands trail loops through the mountains and is a fairly relaxed, easy hike (four kilometres). If you’re a geology nerd like me, pick up an Explora Navigation Device from the Discovery Centre, and hit the trail. You’ll learn lots. It’s fun.
NEW in the park this year: the Hike to the Top of the Bottom of the World (coolest hike name or WHAT?!). This is a guided trek organized by Parks Canada that takes you off-trail, onto the loose rock that leads to the top of the Tablelands. I didn’t have time to do the full-day experience (it’s an intense hike, much like Gros Morne with its unassuming slope), but I did get a 2-hour sampler. My guide, Cedric, was the kind of enthusiastic soul who liked talking to rocks and demonstrating plate tectonics with a rubber globe.
He led myself and two others partway up the rocky incline while I tried to keep from blowing off the mountain. I’m pretty sure-footed, and still found this difficult.
At our turnaround point, Cedric poured me a cup of Labrador tea sweetened with maple syrup, handed me some homemade beef jerky, and plied me with Screech chocolates. I sipped my tea while watching the clouds cast quick-moving shadows across the mountains in entertaining light play. I cannot wait to do this hike again.
Lunar landscape, Arctic tundra, boreal forest, beaches. Nine kilometres, four environments.
Actually, I should clarify. Green Gardens consists of two trails – one short, and one long. The short trail (Long Pond Trailhead to the coast and back) is 9 kilometres return, but it IS challenging in places. The long trail involves the Long Pond or Wallace Brook Trailheads, looping back to return. It’s 14.5 kilometres return from Long Pond, and 16 kilometres return from Wallace Brook.
The Green Gardens hike starts on the Tablelands and leads you into an alien world of rusty rocks contrasted against boreal forest and balsam fir. You eventually move into marshland, and then out onto a meadowe landscape along the ocean. There’s a long, deserted beach framed with tuckamore, and you’re treated to some sea stack fun. Explore a little deeper along the beach, and there’s an epic waterfall. Also: a cliff-face shaped by bubbles from volcanic activity millions of years ago.
Highlight: rotting moose carcasses at the base of the cliffs. Okay, so that’s not really a highlight, but I guess moose get lost in the dark and fall off the cliffs. They’re dumb like that.
The Lomond River Trail
I didn’t get to do this whole thing, but what I saw made me want to crawl around in the grass and weep with joy. We came here with a crowd of folks for a reading in the woods (Writers at Woody Point), and people of all ages participated. Easy hike, just six kilometres one way, through forest and fen which lead to Lomond River.
Green Point Coastal Trail
Another easier stroll along the Gulf, about 6 kilometres return, with some rocky places that may make footing difficult. I recommend hiking boots at all time, people. Because I didn’t wear them, and I’m an idiot. The hike starts along a brook that flows out into the Gulf, with the mountains surrounding Bonne Bay in the distance. Then the trail takes you along the water’s edge. We found some good photo opportunities with abandoned lobster pots and broken down lean-tos. We’re in Newfoundland; what’d you expect?
Keep you eyes out for the tuckamore tunnels. Tuckamore is the name given to the white spruce and balsam fir trees that have been stooped and buffeted by the wind. They form hollows and tunnelled forests where you can literally crawl around in a weird hobbit world. We saw a lot of fox poop on the trail, so we figure that’s where they like to hang out. Take note.
BONUS: Stop at the Lobster Cove Head Lighthouse along the way. It was built in 1897 and it’s goddamned beautiful.
The Long Range Traverse
This is my dream hike, and I haven’t done it yet, but I have my fingers crossed for next month. It’s a gruelling multi-day hike along the Long Range Mountains, but it’s the kind of trail that requires map and compass skills. You take the boat to the end of Western Brook Pond Fjord (my favourite attraction in the park) and then start your ascent up the mountains.
If you’re not the type to do it alone, or your friends suck, Gros Morne Adventures will take you there. Hopefully they’ll be taking me there in a few weeks. To prepare, I was told to hike Signal Hill in St. John’s with 40 lbs of water on my back. If nobody’s ever told you, the Signal Hill hike has a couple hundred steps on steep incline. It was nice knowin’ ya, readers.
Also new to the park: Clem’s Trekking Adventures will lead you up to the rim of the Mountains and back again the same day, or you can opt for a single overnight trip.
Another option to hike around the area: the Snug Harbour Hike, along the same route it takes to get to Western Brook Pond Fjord. You’ll have to traverse a river or two, so be prepared.
For when you no longer want to be standing.
Take a tour on Trout River Pond with Ocean Quest Adventures
I’ve worked with Ocean Quest a few times now and always dig the experience. I initially signed up for their kayaking trip, but high winds meant we had to take out the Zodiac instead. It was actually a pretty positive thing, because we got deeper into the pond.
The pond is deep enough to sit a 40-storey building, and it was carved out by glaciers. It’s also one of the world’s most perfect examples of continental drift: on one side you’ll see the barren red landscape of the Tablelands, and on the other side is the green vegetation of the gabbro rock. Since the gabbro actually sits atop the earth’s mantle, the Tablelands on the left would have been MUCH higher before the whole silly plates thing happened.
You’ll also find an extremely rare example of the Mohorovicic Discontinuity here (the boundary between the earth’s crust and the mantle). If that doesn’t turn you on, nothing will.
Cruise Western Brook Pond Fjord
Like I said, this is my favourite attraction in the park. The fjord is a part of the Long Range Mountains, and also the most northern part of the Appalachian Mountains. Glaciers carved out the area thousands of years ago, leaving behind hanging valleys, serrated billion-year-old cliffs, and freshwater so pure that its low ion content won’t even conduct electricity. When the depressed land bounded back from the glacier, the pond was cut off from the ocean. Ancient whale bones have been found here. Keep on the lookout for waterfalls, as well: one is named Pissing Mare Falls, at 1150 feet high.
Note: it’s about a 6-kilometre hike (easy) from the parking lot to the boat launch. Give yourself lots of time.
Sea Kayaking in Bonne Bay
I took this little excursion this past week with Gros Morne Adventures out onto Bonne Bay. I was supposed to paddle with some friends that morning, but skipped the 7 AM rise in favour of sleep. When I realized how glorious it was outside, I regretted it and popped by the office in the afternoon.
You can paddle single or double, and the guides take you out and around several different communities in Bonne Bay while dipping into coves and beaches. We saw minks and bald eagles along the way, and learned some local folklore while we were at it. We paddled pretty far in two hours and by the time I got back, my legs were singing. It felt fantastic.
Things that don’t require motion
I should probably mention all the cultural highlights of the park as well, like making crafts at Broom Point or the weekly summer kitchen party with Anchors Aweigh, featuring Newfoundland trad. I have little experiences with these things, but I’m told they’re delightful.
If you’re planning a trip in August, I highly recommend Writers at Woody Point because it will cause your inspirational cup to runneth over. Trails, Tales, and Tunes is another one.
I haven’t eaten a great deal of places around Gros Morne, because I’m poor. There, I said it.
But there have certainly been some highlights over the past couple of years.
Java Jacks in Rocky Harbour: My favourite café, ever. Affordable food, great coffee, unbelievably good service. I love the fish cakes. Buy the fish cakes.
Justin Thyme in Norris Point: I only ate here recently, on my last visit. From the outside this place looks like a casual coffee stop, but the inside is modern and tinged with red. The menu changes daily and is displayed on a large chalkboard. I swear I saw “frog legs” up there, but it was erased before I could order. Never mind, I had the most wonderful mussels here, soaked in cream pesto with a balsamic reduction drizzle. Even when the mussels were gone I literally dipped my shell into the sauce to lap it up. The seniors at the next table stared in horror. YOLO.
Kayak Café, Norris Point: Also the launch point for kayaking with Gros Morne Adventures, I grabbed a tuna curry sandwich here on my way out last week. Only $6.50, and delicious.
Sugar Hill Inn in Norris Point: This is one of the more upscale dining options in the park. I was treated to a three-course meal here: scallops, steak, and bakeapple crème brulee. Bakeapple. Seriously. That’s a first. Chef Vince takes things seriously out here, and I overheard a conversation with him and another journalist about how he handpicks the chanterelle mushrooms used in our pasta.
Neddie’s Harbour Inn, Neddie’s Harbour: My foodie friend visited here recently and said the food was spectacular. I never made it out there, because (SURPRISE!) I have no car.
Cat Stop, Norris Point: Wasn’t a huge fan of this place, but their $7 chowder was good. Most other menu items were your standard pub fare, like hotdogs, soup, and Caesar salads.
Earle’s, Rocky Harbour: My first trip out here, my friends and I had some pretty terrific pizza after hiking Gros Morne Mountain. We earned it.
Well, that’s the longest blog entry I’ve ever written. Did I miss anything?