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The Viking Trail, Newfoundland and Labrador

The Route to Newfoundland's World Heritage Sites

An automobile cruising the Viking Trail is really a time machine that takes you to the beginnings of our planet, ancient native burial grounds, and the thousand-year-old Viking settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site. Travel through wooded valleys, over mountains, along a windswept seacoast. This tour can take from two to ten days. Take your time, for time will tug you gently along the Trail, urging side trips to fjords and falls, sand dunes and fields of wildflowers.

The Viking Trail begins at the intersection of Route 1 and Route 430 near Deer Lake. Almost immediately there's an intriguing attraction to visit: the Newfoundland Insectarium in Reidville. Here, all sorts of bugs - both live and mounted - from around the world are on display. The live displays include a butterfly house.

A side trip on Route 422 takes you to the agricultural community of Cormack. Named after the famous Newfoundland explorer William Epps Cormack, the first European to walk across the island's interior, this area was settled in the late 1940s by veterans of World War II. Families with previous farming experience who were willing to relocate were given 50 hectares of land, a six-room bungalow, and money for the construction of a barn, purchase of livestock and equipment, and to buy supplies for the first winter. Today, the descendants of these people, and others who discovered this fertile region, are growing vegetables and some of the sweetest strawberries you'll ever eat.

Beyond Cormack on the unpaved portion of Route 422 you'll find Sir Richard Squires Memorial Provincial Park. The park protects one of the most beautiful parts of the Humber River. Big Falls offers a unique natural attraction. Atlantic salmon have to make their way over this barrier if they are to spawn in the river above. During the summer months, you can see these large fish leap out of the water as they attempt to scale the falls. Often they have to jump again and again and succeed only after hours of futile attempts.

Back on Route 430, drive to Wiltondale, the gateway to Gros Morne National Park. Perhaps the best way to put the park into perspective is to say that it's a UNESCO World Heritage Site. That designation puts it on a par with such natural wonders as Australia's Great Barrier Reef. With its fjords, mountains and spectacular ocean scenery, Gros Morne offers unexcelled opportunities for outdoor activities and sightseeing.

Glacial scraping and erosion formed the breathtaking landscape that makes this a paradise for the outdoors enthusiast and camper. The park, open year round, has hiking trails to meet the skills of the novice as well as those of the experienced long-distance walker. Rock scrambling, sightseeing, boating, swimming, camping and fishing are just some of the recreational activities in which the visitor may participate.

Proceed along Route 430 through Wiltondale where both forks in the road lead to the park.

Gros Morne Tablelands Scenic Drive

Route 431 takes you to Trout River and the Tablelands, while Route 430 continues into the northern section of the park. On Route 431 is Lomond River Campground, one of five campgrounds in Gros Morne National Park. It is situated in the East Arm of Bonne Bay. Anglers will find Atlantic salmon in this scheduled river and large schools of mackerel in the bay itself. The next community, Glenburnie, is named after the Scot who first settled there. Continue on to the coastal settlement of Trout River, which has an excellent sandy beach. The magnificent views on this part of the coast and the startling geology of the nearby Tablelands make this area a must-see part of the park. Trails explore the lunar-like landscape of the Tablelands and the ancient volcanic formations along the Green Gardens Trail.

Trout River Pond is nestled in a valley of stark contrasts. The internationally known geological features make exploration of this unique area a highlight of any vacation. For extra adventure and insight, there is a two-hour boat tour on Trout River Pond and a hiking trail, both of which leave from the day use area. Trout River campground is available for those who would like to extend their stay.

Plan some time for exploring Woody Point, which was once the economic capital of western Newfoundland. Here artists and camera buffs can discover a wealth of interesting subject matter in this picturesque fishing village. It's also where you'll find the Gros Morne National Park Discovery Centre. Opened in 2000, this is where you can get an in-depth understanding of the park's natural history. This is not another interpretation centre, but an integral part of a learning and adventure vacation at this UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Climbing the Mountain

North of Wiltondale Route 430 climbs into the mountains and descends again to the valleys - several times. One of the climbs is over South East Hill, one of the highest points of road elevation in Newfoundland.

Information on the park's exciting natural and human history is available at the Visitor Centre just before you get to Rocky Harbour. The Centre has displays, movies and videos on the park. Be sure to view the slide show for some great spots to visit, and ask about the boat tours that are offered in the area.

During the summer, park interpreters are available to offer suggestions for hikes and walks, and to give lectures and slide shows to acquaint the visitor with the wonders of Gros Morne. Winter activities include cross-country skiing and the exotic sport of ice climbing.

Nearby Norris Point and Neddy Harbour are both named for Neddy Norris, one of the earliest pioneers in this area. And Neddy Norris Nights are evenings of improv comedy staged are various communities by the players of the Gros Morne Theatre Festival.

Near Rocky Harbour you'll find the Gros Morne indoor swimming pool, which is open in the summer, and its adjacent 25-person hot tub. This is the ideal antidote for sore muscles after a day's strenuous hiking. A few kilometres away is the park's largest campground at Berry Hill near Gros Morne Mountain. There are 156 sites and a playground for the kids. Berry Hill is close to several of the park's hiking trails including the James Callaghan Trail that will take you to the peak of Gros Morne Mountain. A challenging day's hike along this trail will reward the climber with an unsurpassed panorama of the park and surrounding coastal communities. Pack a lunch, water and warm clothes for the day and plan plenty of time to linger along the trail and summit. Remember to keep a camera handy! Because of the late snow melt, the trail is usually not open until late June.

If the climb up Gros Morne is a little too strenuous, you can walk one of the many shorter trails in the area, such as Berry Head Pond, Bakers Brook Pond or Lobster Cove Head where there's a lighthouse with a display about the area's history in the light keeper's residence. During the summer, the cove below the lighthouse becomes a stage once a week for the evening campfire.

North of Rocky Harbour, the highway follows the relatively level coastal lowlands, with the mountains off to the east providing spectacular vistas along the way. In the park's northern region on an elevated coastal plain you'll find campgrounds at Green Point, a few kilometres south of the community of Sally's Cove. Nearby is one of the park's most breathtaking and popular sights - the amazing Western Brook Gorge and steep sided Western Brook Pond. Just off Route 430, a hiking trail will take you across the bogs and ridges of the coastal plain. It is an easy hike along a well-groomed trail with boardwalk extensively used to traverse wet areas. At the end of the walk, a two-hour boat tour will take you to the end of Western Brook Pond where the 2,000-foot ravine-like sides rise to a spectacular plateau above this inland fjord. At the fjord's outlet is a large sandy estuary that's great for an easy stroll.

Just north of the outlet is Broom Point. This was a summer fishing residence for many years, and today you can still meet the fishermen who work in the restored cabin and fish store. Not far away is St. Paul's Inlet where harbour seals are a common sight sunning themselves on the rocky shore. This area, accessible only by boat, is also one of the best birding areas on the West Coast.

Continuing on Route 430, be sure to visit the community museum at Cow Head. It is said that Jacques Cartier, the French explorer and navigator, anchored at nearby Cow Cove in 1534. Today's travellers can rediscover the scenic reaches of this part of the coastline. At Shallow Bay you can roam the sandy beaches in search of a prized piece of gnarled driftwood, just one of the treasures from the sea that wash up along this coast. The beach's backshore dunes have been planted with dune grasses to help prevent erosion. Just behind the dunes you can explore the Old Mail Road Trail, where dappled sunlight, the soft chirps of birds and the nearly muffled sound of waves breaking on the other side of the dunes will entice you to linger. The Shallow Bay campground adjoining the trail is an ideal place to take a breather and soak up the scenery before the next leg of the journey.

Just north of the national park and past Parson's Pond is The Arches Provincial Park. This pebble beach features two large arches which have been cut through a bed of dolomite by the action of the sea - when the arches were under water. A subsequent uplift of the land raised them above sea level where they remain as a distinctive geology lesson of the Cambrian and Ordovician periods of prehistory.

The next stretch of coast includes the Portland Creek River, an area made famous by the late Lee Wulff, one of the foremost anglers of his day. This part of the highway takes you through Portland Creek, Daniel's Harbour, Bellburns, River of Ponds, and Hawke's Bay. This area is filled with lakes, rivers and ponds that teem with salmon and trout. Fishermen from all over the world come to try their luck in these waterways. Keep an eye out for the herd of caribou in this area.

River of Ponds Park is on a scheduled salmon river and is one of the province's most delightful camping and picnic sites. It is ideal for a meal stop or an overnight stay. River of Ponds has a number of upstream pools carrying a run of trout that have been known to grow up to 1.5 kilograms (3.3 pounds). River of Ponds is also an excellent base from which to tour the surrounding area.

Next on the highway are Port Saunders and Hawke's Bay and another area particularly attractive to sportsmen. There are many lakes and ponds, and two major salmon rivers - East River and Torrent River. At Hawke's Bay drop into the Tourist Information Centre and join a guided walk across 3 km of boardwalk known as the Hogan Trail. This takes you to the salmon ladder on the Torrent River where, when salmon are migrating upstream to spawn, you can see them jumping up and over waterfalls and "climbing the ladder" to get upstream.

Rolling Back the Centuries

After Hawke's Bay the highway swings around the east end of the bay and then back west to a fork that take you to Port Saunders, Gargamelle and Port au Choix to the aboriginal burial grounds at Port au Choix National Historic Site.

Workers found the site by accident in 1967 while they were excavating a basement for a theatre. They found a mass of bones, tools and weapons. The following year archaeologists discovered three ancient cemeteries and scores of skeletons. By studying the artifacts and human remains, archaeologists have been able to determine the Maritime Archaic People, a group of hunters and gatherers who lived along the eastern seaboard from Maine to Labrador, occupied the site 3,200 to 3,700 years ago.

A new dig just off the main road near the eastern end of the community is uncovering the remains of a Maritime Archaic village, believed to be that of the people whose cemetery was uncovered, and promises greater understanding of their culture.

At another site near Port au Choix, Phillips Gardens, remains of a Dorset community have been discovered. These very distinctive people moved into the area after the disappearance of the Maritime Archaic group and learned to exploit the food-rich marine environment. An interpretation centre located at Port au Choix will tell you more of this fascinating story, as well as that of the Groswater people who also inhabited this part of the coast. Before you leave the area you should visit the beautiful Point Riche lighthouse.

Port au Choix is the best-known archaeological site in this area, but there are actually hundreds of other sites, both prehistoric and dating from early European occupation, along this section of coastline north to Eddies Cove. An ongoing project at Bird Cove has uncovered a variety of both historic and prehistoric sites.

Over thousands of years, one people after another has moved into this area because of its marine resources, mainly fish and marine mammals. Cultural habits and technologies have come and gone, but dependence on the sea remains a fact of life, and a bond that connects half a dozen cultures over more than 50 centuries. The northern part of the Great Northern Peninsula is dotted with dozens of prehistoric and post-contact archaeological sites.

The French Shore

Offshore between Eddies Cove West and Barr'd Harbour is St. John Island. Now deserted, it is the subject of tales of buried treasure. The stories tell of fortunes left behind by the pirates who once harassed Labrador-bound ships along this part of the coast.

Anglers will enjoy this area as it affords some of the best salmon fishing on the island, particularly at Castors River.

Many communities here were once part of the French Shore, so named because France held shore-based fishing rights along Newfoundland's west coast until 1904. This part of the Viking Trail was the centre of celebrations in 2004 as we marked the 500th anniversary of the arrival of the French on these shores. "Castor," which is French for beaver, is just one of many place names that show French influence. In Plum Point, Darby's Island and Brig Bay you'll find many relics of the French occupation. Old buildings, grave sites, tombstones and traditions are all that remain of the former French culture.

At St. Barbe you can take a ferry to southern Labrador. The ferry makes two round trips a day between May and December. Cars cross on a first come, first served basis. For further information, call 866-535-2567, or drop into any Visitor Information Centre along the Viking Trail.

The next community, Anchor Point, is the oldest English settlement on the French Shore, dating from 1750. The local merchant family, the Genges, spent more than a century fending off French attempts to oust them from the area until French fishing rights ended in 1904. When the French had fishing rights here, permanent settlement along the coast was forbidden. The community is one of many areas along this part of the coast to see icebergs, and is a good place to sample local shellfish delicacies.

Nearby is an interesting historic attraction, the Deep Cove Winter Housing Site. Residents of Anchor Point used to move here in winter - between the 1680s and the 1940s - to get away from the torrid winter weather on the coast. Today, this adaptation has been recognized as a site of national historic significance.

In Deadmans Cove, as in many Newfoundland communities, people learned to overcome many obstacles to make their living from the sea. Here they developed an innovative solution to the age-old problem of heavy ice sweeping away the wharves: they dismantled their wharves each fall and rebuilt them the following spring.

Viking Country

Past Nameless Cove and on to Eddies Cove the highway swings east away from the coast and inland across the top of the great Northern Peninsula to Viking country. Turn off Route 430 onto Route 436 and you're headed for L'Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site, where the Vikings established the first European settlement in North America about 1,000 years ago.

The story begins in 986 when Bjarni Herjolfsson, a Viking trader, was blown off course on a voyage from Iceland to Greenland. When he finally made port in Greenland, he reported seeing three new lands to the west, believed to be Newfoundland, southern Labrador and northern Labrador. He and his crew were the first Europeans to see North America.

About 15 years later Leif Eiriksson, son of Eirik the Red who had grown up hearing the story of unexplored lands to the west, decided to search for them. On his voyage, made around the year 1000 A.D., he was accompanied by 35 men and did indeed discover new land. He stayed at Vinland - Land of Meadows, as he named it - for a year, eventually returning to Greenland. His brother Thorvald also came to Vinland and settled in Leif's house, but was killed by natives. This is the first known interaction between the Skraelings, as the Vikings named them, and Europeans. Local legend says French settlers discovered Thorvald's helmet on nearby Quirpon Island in the early seventeenth century, but it was eventually lost. Thorfinn Karlsefni, another Viking, later led an expedition here, and during this period of colonization the first child of European descent, Snorri, was born in the New World.

In 1960, Norwegian historian Helge Ingstad, who had been searching for the Vinland of the Norse sagas for years, visited northern Newfoundland and met L'Anse aux Meadows fisherman George Decker who showed him what residents thought was an ancient aboriginal camp. Helge and his wife, Anne Stine Ingstad, excavated the site and found the remnants of Viking sod huts. Subsequent excavations by the Ingstads and Parks Canada uncovered artifacts that proved conclusively the Vikings had established a settlement in North America five centuries before the voyages of Christopher Columbus, John Cabot and other 15th century explorers.

During the 1920s, Newfoundland author W.A. Munn in his book The Wineland Voyages first suggested the L'Anse aux Meadows area might be the Vinland of the Norse Sagas.

L'Anse aux Meadows was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978. A recreation of sod houses lets the visitor experience life as it must have been, and an Interpretation Centre tells the story of these hearty adventurers who braved the North Atlantic in their small boats. The centre's translation of Norse sagas makes fascinating reading. Standing where the first Europeans set foot in North America is something you have to personally experience to understand the implications that momentous event had, for two continents.

About two kilometres away you'll find Norstead, a recreation of an 11th century Viking port. Constructed in 2000 for the 1000th anniversary of the Viking arrival in Newfoundland, Norstead features a chieftain's hall and other buildings, a Viking boat, and some unusual features, such as a Viking church and an ax-throwing arena. Various children's and education programs are available.

On the return trip, branch off Route 436 onto unpaved Route 437 to Pistolet Bay Provincial Park at the tip of the Great Northern Peninsula. This park offers excellent canoeing in a nearby lake system. The park also has a comfort station with hot showers and coin-operated laundry facilities. The road beyond Raleigh is paved to Cape Onion.