I first set my eyes and feet upon Newfoundland in 2017 on an expedition cruise around the island. What I saw made me promise to return — and bring my husband next time — to explore its interior. Six years later, I planted my feet again on Newfoundland soil — this time, stepping out of our car at Port Aux Basques, after driving off the Maritime Atlantic ferry from Sydney, Nova Scotia.
With a nickname like “The Rock”, Newfoundland makes you imagine a land of towering cliffs, bare mountain tops, and craggy shorelines. It is all that, and it’s a hiker’s haven. Having experienced my first hikes in the province in 2017, I knew that there would be a lot more in store. Our goal for the next two weeks was to tackle as many hikes as possible while driving eastward across the province towards St. John’s, its capital city whose harbour leads to the Atlantic Ocean.
Greeting us immediately as we drove north from the ferry terminal were the Long Range Mountains. Originally part of the Appalachians, these impressive mountains — along with what is now Newfoundland island — settled in its present location after half a billion years of continental drift. Now they run along the West Coast, providing steady companionship as we head toward our first stop.
Western Newfoundland: A Coastal Introduction
Corner Brook made a terrific overnight stay and the gateway to our first hikes. Located right in town is the Corner Brook Stream Trail Network, which has four different hikes that traverse through a gorge, wetlands, and parks. We chose the short Three Bear Mountain loop, which has nice viewpoints of the city. After that warm-up, we drove west towards the Bay of Islands. Our destination was Bottle Cove, near the end of Route 450. A beautiful crescent beach with a boardwalk led the way to a series of short trails along the craggy shoreline, with epic views of waterfalls and the crashing waves below. I said to myself: This is Newfoundland! Feeling energetic, we decided to tackle the Southhead Lighthouse trail, which, after a few gentle ups and downs through the forest, took us to a hillside facing a steep ascent. We decided to go for it to see what was at the top. The bugs were relentless, but when we got past them we emerged to see beautiful views of the wild coastline, and although we did not make it to the lighthouse, we descended back, feeling accomplished for our first day. My reward that night: a lobster dinner in Lark Harbour, where I got to choose my prize right out of the cage that the chef hauled out of the water that day.
Gros Morne National Park: Rocks of Ages
Next up — the mighty Gros Morne National Park, which celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2023. With more than 100 kilometres (62 miles) of trails, Gros Morne is Newfoundland’s pride and joy. What I loved was the variety of trails for all fitness levels. There are 18 trails within the park, ranging from an easy 250-metre (820-foot) loop to the gruelling 17-km (10.5-mile) Gros Morne Mountain trail with an elevation gain of 1,000 metres (3,280 feet). Whether your goal is to get some fresh air or get a great workout on nature’s Stairmaster, Gros Morne has it all.
The park’s Discovery Centre at Woody Point is a required first stop. Not only is it a place to purchase your park admission, it has excellent displays on the geology and ecology of the area, and park rangers are on hand to give suggestions on hikes and other activities. Directly behind the Discovery Centre is the start of the 5.3-km (3.3-mile) Lookout Trail loop, with amazing views of the Tablelands, Bonne Bay, and beyond. The elevation gain is around 400 metres (1,312 feet), which ranges from gentle slopes to steeper sections, but the path is well maintained. Pack a lunch and enjoy your reward at the top.
For an easier walk — and a must-do in the park — go for the 4-km (2.49-mile) roundtrip Tablelands trail a few minutes’ drive from the Discovery Centre. It’s one of the very few places on the planet where you can see and walk on the earth’s mantle, which normally lies kilometres under the ground. Guided hikes are hosted by park rangers who provide fascinating facts and figures about the rocks and geology, which date as far back as half a billion years. You’re allowed to venture beyond the trail to explore farther on your own, which we did for an additional couple of hours. You chart your own course here, and there’s a lot of walking over rocks and uneven terrain, so steady footing is a must, but you’ll have the whole place to yourself to admire and ponder the barren landscape.
On the north side of the park, we did smaller walks at Lobster Cove Head and Cow Head (the latter is a community outside of park boundaries) to see more of the island’s famed rugged shoreline and ancient rocks. We took the Western Brook Pond boat cruise, another must-do here for spectacular views of those glacier-carved Long Range Mountains. (It requires a 3-km, or 1.9-mile, walk to reach the pier, but it’s easy and flat.) We didn’t tackle the hike to the top of the fjord, though. That’s the iconic sight overlooking the flat-topped mountains you see in every Newfoundland tourism promo material. That guided 12-km (7.5-mile) hike with a 450-metre (1,476-foot) elevation gain is advertised to take 10-12 hours, at a hefty price of $325 per person.
Central Newfoundland: Exploits Valley and Iceberg Alley
Moving eastward inland, we passed through the Exploits Valley, following the namesake river through Grand Falls/Windsor and Bishop Falls. Salmon fishing, white-water rafting, and backcountry tours are popular activities in the area. At Gander, we turned north and eventually joined Route 340 towards Twillingate. Nicknamed Iceberg Alley, the star attractions are the mammoth icebergs that accumulate offshore. The route ends at the Twillingate Lighthouse, where hiking trails — part of the Rockcut Twillingate Trails System — radiate in both directions along the coast. We decided to try the 9.5-km (5.9-mile) Cuckhold’s Point Trail, going as far as a lunch stop before turning around. The trail is very steep in certain sections, but the views were spectacular, with plenty of icebergs visible. We then decided to check out the 6.5-km (4-mile) Lower Head Trail, but opted for a shorter section by driving to a parking lot near the halfway mark. The trail was flat and overlooked the coastline, where we spotted numerous seabirds and marine life. The drive to Twillingate meanders through scenic waterways dotted with islands, but sadly, the majority of the route is littered with potholes — for long stretches in several areas — and was not fun to drive.
Our final stop before leaving the Central Newfoundland region was Terra Nova National Park, home to 12 hiking trails ranging from an easy 500-metre (1,640-foot) loop to a multi-day, 35-km (21.8-mile) odyssey. Short on time, we chose the 1.5-km (0.9-mile) Mill Cove Lookout Trail, which gave the most bang out of the least effort. Climbing onto the top of a barren rock, we were greeted with spectacular views of Mill Cove and the lush green forest below.
Eastern Newfoundland: Legendary Coastlines
I guess one of the reasons the Eastern region of Newfoundland is called “legendary” is because of Giovanni Caboto — better known as John Cabot —, who landed on the territory in 1497 during his first expedition to North America. Wanting to see what made the Italian explorer utter “O buono vista!” when he arrived, we made the aptly named Bonavista Peninsula our outing for the day. At Port Rexton, we started with the 5.3-km (3.3-mile) Skerwink Trail, the most written-about hike in the region. The views are indeed stunning, which, coupled with the high ratings in guidebooks and websites, also makes it the busiest route we have seen. The parking area was overflowing, and we encountered no less than 100 people along the way, a huge contrast to other trails where we were often the only ones around.
On a tip from the Legendary Coasts tourism representative, we continued north to Spillars Cove, where we found the best hike of our entire trip. For an outing that requires minimum effort in return for maximum views, the Klondike Trail takes the prize. The trail connects Spillars Cove to Elliston to the south, but as soon as we arrived at the water’s edge after a short walk from the car, we found ourselves standing atop a flat sandstone outcrop, with sheer cliffs dropping to the roaring ocean hundreds of feet below. We immediately decided to forego the trail and just explore our immediate surroundings. Due to its position on a major fault zone, the sculpted cliffs and rocks here have been carved by geological upheaval and endless pounding waves. We could clearly see why the area was declared a UNESCO Global Geosite, and our only lament was that we hadn’t given the hike more time.
Avalon Peninsula: A Walk through Time and History
Our visit to the final region of Newfoundland began with a hike at Chance Cove in Trinity Bay. The 3.7-km (2.3-mile) loop included a beach walk and an ascent to a small peninsula with several lookouts and red benches that invite hikers to “take a spell”.
St. John’s was our final home base for three days, where we hiked the trails along Cape Spear Lighthouse National Historic Site and Signal Hill National Historic Site. Part of Parks Canada’s network of national parks and monuments, the trails range from easy to strenuous, and both sites are significant in their own ways. Cape Spear holds the title of Canada’s easternmost point, and Signal Hill tells a storied past of our country’s contribution to wireless communication and military history.
The east coast of the Avalon Peninsula is also home to the 336-km (209-mile) East Coast Trail, which alone is a separate hiking adventure altogether. But good news for less intrepid hikers: There are multiple sections of variable lengths that one could tackle. For that reason, we drove north from St. John’s to Pouch Cove to attempt the Biscan Cove Trail. The 7-km (4.3-mile) trail leads to the Cape St. Francis lighthouse at the northernmost tip of the Avalon Peninsula, but our plan was to only go as far as we had energy. Turned out the section was less travelled, and after a couple of kilometres, the trail blended in with the vegetation and rocks, so we called it a day, sat down, and admired the stunning sea views.
As we headed out to our ferry in Argentia to return to the mainland, we gave ourselves time for one last walk at the Castle Hill National Historic Site in nearby Placentia. Originally settled by Basque fishermen in the mid-17th century, the area was fought over several times by the British and the French, who both wanted the hilly site and the protected harbour as a strategic military stronghold. Trails from the visitor’s centre lead to the fortification remains and great views of the village below. It was a pleasant way to end our cross-island road trip.
As the ferry departed from Argentia on our voyage back to Sydney, we enjoyed our last Newfoundland sunset on deck, and we both agreed that, after logging nearly 70 kilometres (43.5 miles) on our feet across the province, we had barely scratched the surface. But we are blessed to live in the Maritimes, close enough to hear Newfoundland’s beckoning call. Without a doubt, we’ll be back soon to discover more supreme hiking adventures on The Rock.
MORE ABOUT VISITING NEWFOUNDLAND
Here are some expert travel tips to keep in mind as you plan your trip:
- Newfoundland receives a lot of tourists during spring, summer, and fall. Advance reservations for ferry, car rental, accommodations, and tours (such as the Western Book Pond cruise) are a must.
- The coastal areas can be wet and cool even at the height of summer. Pack windproof and waterproof gear and dress in layers. Include a scarf, hat, and gloves for travel in early and late season.
- Wear sturdy boots with sufficient ankle support for all hikes, bring insect repellent and sunscreen.
- For travel and road-trip ideas, visit Tourism Newfoundland and Labrador’s website. You can also order a hard copy of the “Traveller’s Guide” and road map mailed to your home.