Mistaken Point UNESCO World Heritage Site

See some of the Earth’s oldest fossils at Mistaken Point

Even when the fog’s so thick you can’t see five feet ahead of you, Newfoundland is beautiful.

Until a few days ago, I haven’t had time to “rediscover” the island. One of the reasons I was so excited about coming back was to reconnect with Newfoundland’s wild terrain while temperatures are still agreeable. I missed the ocean; you can’t find that craggy coastline in Berlin.

My arrival home coincided with UNESCO World Heritage designating the Mistaken Point Ecological Reserve as one of their newest sites. There are now 18 in Canada — four in Newfoundland and Labrador (Mistaken Point, Gros Morne National Park, L’Anse aux Meadows, and the Red Bay Basque Whaling Station).

It’s a pretty big deal, because it’s the only UNESCO site on the island’s east coast. It’s also a good way to draw in more tourists, and according to the guide I chatted with at the site, the telephone started ringing almost as soon as the UNESCO announcement was made.

So here was my opportunity to reconnect with Newfoundland.

Cool things to note about Mistaken Point:

  • It’s home to the oldest known evidence of Earth’s first multicellular life forms, with 565-million-year-old Ediacaran fossils preserved in an ancient sea floor. You can literally SEE the ripples of the waves on the sea floor.
  • These lifeforms all lived in the far depths of the ocean, where light could not reach. They were soft-bodied lifeforms, without skeletons, but their tissue matter was preserved in volcanic ash.
  • Some of the species have only been found in Newfoundland.

The name Mistaken Point was given to the area because of its unfortunate tendency to cause shipwrecks. Waves beat the shoreline relentlessly, pouring over rocks, slamming into the cliffs. Hundreds of thousands of years of erosion, and the area is continuously changing. Nobody can predict what will happen to the fossils over the next hundreds of years. That’s why today’s research is so important.

The trail to Mistaken Point

The site itself is unique looking — thin sheets of exposed rock piled on top of one another, due to enormous pressure and heat moving the Earth’s plates around. The sheets have piled upon each other diagonally, and at one point, even curve over one another. It’s like you can see where they “melted.” (I’m not a geologist, FYI.)

It’s impossible to tour the site without a guide. Don’t even think about it; it’s both illegal and disrespectful. You can call the interpretative centre in Portugal Cove South to reserve a spot, although I imagine this will be easier to do soon (perhaps an online reservation — sometimes Newfoundland takes awhile to catch up).

I met my guides at the interpretation centre and watched a short film about the site before me and a dozen other visitors piled into our vehicles and drove out to the start of the trail leading to Mistaken Point. It’s a rocky, unpaved path that might be a little difficult for some vehicles, but overall you’ll make it just fine. It’s about a 20-minute drive.

The trail to Mistaken Point is a leisurely 45-minute hike; almost anyone can do it. My group consisted of several screaming children, a solo elderly woman travelling around Newfoundland alone for three months, and walkers of all shapes and sizes. We set out across the eastern hyper-oceanic barrens (or just “barrens,” in Newfoundland), through a wide-open flog with the fog completely obscuring our view of the Atlantic. Only the faint scent of brine and the monotonous crashing waves told us there was an ocean nearby.

Mistaken Point tour guide

To be fair, the trail isn’t all that thrilling. Or at least for a native Newfoundlander it isn’t.On good days, you might spot a moose, or a caribou, or even a mink. The guides know their stuff — they’re typical park ranger-like heroes who can immediately distinguish 20 different types of trees and a hundred more species of berries. Every now and then, Julie (a guide) would point to a spot in the moss and declare something special about it. “Look, an underripe bakeapple!” And there I was, thinking it was a raspberry.

The guides continued to point out things of interest. My favourite, as always, is the stubborn tuckamore — forest growth (balsam fir, usually) completely stunted by the wind. One of the guides pointed to a short, squat balsam fir and explained how the fir had grown outwards instead of upwards. Now it’s just a big ‘ol fat fir, somehow surviving the brutal winter squalls sweeping across the barrens every year. (I liken these firs to Newfoundlanders.)

We picked our way across a small stream, up over a grassy hill, and finally we rounded the corner to find ourselves at the mysterious fossil site. We were all given special booties to wear on our feet to protect the rock surface.

“I was about to say I wanna take a picture of all these booties,” joked one woman. “But then I thought it’d be inappropriate.”

Groups have to remain small, so the guides split us up and handed out laminated fossil guides and magnifying glasses. But first, Julie pointed out a bunch of fossils to get us started. The “spindles” are the most easily identifiable, and although their imprints look like spines, they’re actually more plant-like. Their grooves are deep and distinct, and easy to find.

Fossils at Mistaken Point

Julie then pointed out several more fossils, including a “cabbage-like” imprint.

I admit, I really sucked at this treasure hunt. Where others saw cabbages, I saw lumpy rocks.

Still, you have to appreciate the significance of the place. You’re walking on 565-million-year-old sea floor. You’re lightly touching some of the oldest remains on Earth. Evidence for Darwin’s theory that the early Cambrian period did contain life.

And then there’s the backdrop. The entire rock lies flat against the cliff, making it incredibly easy to walk across. The fog doesn’t matter — you can see the dramatic coastline being pummelled by waves, and the greys and whites just add to the atmosphere of the place. It’s spooky and mysterious and all kinds of thrilling.

I safely scrambled up and down the surface, magnifying glass in hand, pretending to know what I was looking at and trying to identify the images on my laminated sheet.

“Ah yes, an Ivesia,” I muttered.

“That’s just a rock,” someone would suggest helpfully.

Looking for fossils at Mistaken Point

There are over 6,000 fossils onsite. And according to one of my guides, they’re still discovering new things. Some don’t even have scientific names yet.

“I’ve been here for six years,” she said. “And it never gets old.”


Mistaken Point Ecological Reserve and UNESCO World Heritage site

Tel: (709) 438-1011

Portugal Cove South

  • August 01 2016

    I would not have guessed that Canada has any UNESCO World Heritage sites let alone EIGHTEEN! Nothing against Canada… Thanks for enlightening me! Cute booties.
    Amiee recently posted…My Cortina Trail 2016 Race Report

    • August 02 2016

      Hahaha, yes! I think most people assume that UNESCO sites are heritage/history only, but the designation includes geology as well. Are there many in the USA?

    • August 06 2016

      can you give me directions to get there. tks

      • August 11 2016

        Hi Clementine,

        Leaving St. John’s, take the NL-10 S all the way to Portugal Cove South. You’ll find the interpretation centre right there on the main road!

  • August 01 2016

    Wow how gorgeous does this place look? Newfoundland is the only province I haven’t been to in Canada (fellow Canadian here!) but all of your posts make me want to go more and more!
    Brooklyn @JustBeingBrooklyn recently posted…The Storm Crow Alehouse

    • August 02 2016

      I highly recommend you pop over for a visit! It’s lovely here.

  • August 02 2016
    Pike M

    It’s embarrassing to say, I’ve just fallen in love. I want to move to this place. My partner would have a few things to say about that…

    • August 02 2016

      Come on back!

  • August 02 2016

    I visited Mistaken Point a couple of years ago and we weren’t allowed to walk on the surfaces that have the fossils; they were trying to protect it from vandalism to help them get UNESCO status. Glad that you can get up close now!
    Elizabeth recently posted…StreetFest Saturday

    • August 02 2016

      Yes! All you have to do is walk on the ash!

  • August 03 2016

    Awesome! I’m usually in Newfoundland every 2-3 years to see family so now I have another thing to see. I’ve had a quest for a while to see every UNESCO site on Earth but since I’m only at 100 and they keeping adding them, I’m starting to think it’s impossible. :)

    • August 05 2016

      Hahaha, but that certainly keeps things exciting at least!

  • August 08 2016

    Oooh such a mystical name… Mistaken Point. Love your province and hope to revisit soon!

    • August 11 2016

      Right?! Glad you love it here!

  • December 01 2017

    Mistaken Point is fantastic.Good article. Don’t forget Gros Morne Nat Park…another UNESCO place! I live in Woody Point. Come visit us too.

    • December 03 2017

      Love that side of the island!

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