Long Range Traverse
Gros Morne National Park
Distance: 23 miles (35 km)
Time: 4-5 days
Physical Challenge: 12345
Psychological Challenge: 12345
Staging: Deer Lake, Newfoundland
Newfoundland’s Long Range Traverse is a unique 35-kilometer backcountry route of growing reputation among wilderness cognoscenti. The storied traverse follows the ridgelines and valleys of Newfoundland’s highest peaks where they rise abruptly 2,500 feet above the island’s west coast along the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The landscape here in Gros Morne Naitonal Park is as dramatic as it is remote, carved by glaciers from massive, uplifted blocks of granite that form the plateau. Land-locked fjord-like bodies of water, locally called “ponds,” dominate the views seaward toward the Gulf.
Only in quirky, sparsely populated Newfoundland would features this dramatic be called ponds, but this place is full of understatement, and surprises. A full five time zones from my home in Seattle, the island is actually closer to London than it is to the West Coast of North America. Canada’s most out-there province is rapidly gaining worldwide traction as the place to come for wilderness outings, (For the record: Newfoundland is an island, Newfoundland and Labrador together make a province.)
Newfoundland has been drawing adventurous types from both Europe and North America in increasing numbers, winter and summer, and one big reason is the Long Range Traverse. This wilderness route through the mountains in Gros Morne National Park requires a water taxi to begin, and excellent map-and-compass skills to complete. Beware, there is no trail here, so your backcountry navigation needs to be sharp. In fact, the park wardens here make you take along a locator beacon, what they call a “caribou collar,” before they’ll even give you a hiking permit. The idea is that if you get lost, they can find you with the transmitter much more quickly than searching through the vast expanse of mountains that follows the spine of the Great Northern Peninsula.
You know you’re in for something special as soon as the boat drops you off at the head of Western Brook Pond to begin five-day Long Range Traverse. A steep gorge leads up from the pond in a complicated, over-gown bushwhack, with waterfalls casting spray that settles on your outerwear like rain. When you finally get out of the weeds, that first view back down to the majestic inland fjord, cut off from the sea eons ago by a huge glacial moraine, beggars description. The long, narrow body of water is defined by thousand-foot high rock walls, capped the day I was there by a low layer of cloud that emphasized its wild mood. Long, wispy waterfalls pour off high cliffs of exfoliated granite in a way that evokes memories of Yosemite Valley.
The top of the gorge offers the first look at what you’re in for: a verdant landscape of mountain meadows, rolling peaks and shimmering lakes stretching out as far as one can see. It is a striking, and slightly sobering expanse of wilderness, and one can’t help but note that everything sort of looks alike. Navigating up the gorge is a piece of cake compared to what comes next: a cross-country venture through rugged terrain with few reliable landmarks but a lot of the dense alpine vegetation Newfoundlanders call “tuckamor,” better known to me as alpine krumholz. The stuff is so thick it’s impossible to force a route through it, so you have to go around it, and that complicates navigation big time.
Welcome to hiking in the Long Range Mountains. The next four to five days is an engaging combination of map reading, compass bearings, dead reckoning and GPS observations. There’s no time for daydreaming on this jaunt. But the biggest surprise is the sheer scale of this backcountry. My partner and I would carefully navigate from lake to peak to ridge, only to finally peer over and see that the lake we thought would be right there was instead way over there. When in the Long Range Mountains, the wildlife—including moose and caribou in abundance—rivals the terrain for wonder, and makes this perhaps the premier wilderness jaunt in eastern Canada.
The upside of that vast scale and authentic challenge is that it keeps the crowds down: my party and I had this amazing route nearly to ourselves the whole way. And this is a hike that never lets up. Near the final days, beyond Green Island Pond, the geography squeezed us between a series of high ridges and the drop off above Ten Mile Pond, giving us the perfect perspective on the fjord-like lake. This was a vantage point my partner, a native Newfoundlander, had always wanted to see, even as a kid, so I was glad to be there with when he finally got that view. “What an amazing route,” was all he could say, shaking his head, as we gazed at the pond and the Gulf of St. Lawrence beyond. We had been saying that to each other the whole way. It’s easy to see why Gros Morne National Park has been a UNESCO World Heritage site for more than two decades.
Logistics & Strategy
The Long Range Traverse in Newfoundland’s Gros Morne National Park is probably best staged from the city of Corner Brook, Newfoundland, served by the nearby airport in the smaller town of Deer Lake, Newfoundland. Deer Lake is the gateway to both the Great Northern Peninsula and Gros Morne National Park, but the larger city of Corner Brook, less than an hour away, offers more in the way of accommodations, restaurants, guide services and other essentials. Corner Brook and Deer Lake are almost a full day’s drive from St. John’s, capitol city of the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, so it’s way better to fly directly to Deer Lake, which is surprisingly easy to do. Good connections abound from Toronto and Montreal, or from Boston and Newark, and even other cities in the Northeastern United States.
Corner Brook is actually farther away from Gros Morne National Park than Deer Lake, but its array of services makes it the logical starting point. However, if you arrive at the airport at Deer Lake with everything you need, and are not meeting an operator or guide service, an argument can be made for another strategy: pick up your rental car, and make the one hour drive directly to the hamlet of Rocky Harbour, which is in Gros Morne National Park, and stage your hike from there (or from one of the car campgrounds in Gros Morne National Park). No matter whether your stage in Corner Brook or Rocky Harbour, make sure you have hotel reservations in advance, particularly during the summer months. And be sure to reserve your hiking permit in advance
You’ll need to pick up the hiking permit at Gros Morne National Park Visitors Center, 45 minutes from the airport at Deer Lake. Once there, you will be instructed to watch a video about hiking the Long Range Traverse, which warns of bad weather and the difficulties of navigation. The chief concern is bad visibility. Since you’re navigating without the aid of a trail, cloud and white-out can force your party to hunker down until the weather improves enough to see where you are going. The visitors center is also where you can buy a map, and trace the correct route (off a master map) on a light table purpose built for that task. Finally, you pick up your “caribou collar” (a sort of locator beacon in the form of a VHF telemetry unit or radio-locator beacon), which is mandatory, along with your permit.
An experienced hiking party would have little trouble doing the Long Range Traverse on its own, but logistics make the option of going with a local guide service easier. Trailhead transportation is definitely an issue, and it’s one factor in your decision whether to do the hike on your own or go with an outfitter or guide service. Whatever you chose, you will need to get a ride to, or leave one vehicle at, the Gros Morne Trailhead (which is the end of the route and also serves as the trailhead for those climbing Gros Morne mountain, probably the most popular hike in the park), and then somehow get up to the trailhead for Western Brook Pond, approximately 30 minutes drive farther north. Guide services can help arrange transportation, and permits, and food, and fuel, all of which makes arriving from afar quicker and easier than trying to do it all yourself.
Since this was my first visit to Newfoundland, local expertise was needed. I asked Ed English of Linkum Tours in Corner Brook to help me organize the logistics for my traverse of the Long Range Mountains. He picked me up from the airport in Deer Lake, handled my accommodations on arrival in Corner Brook (and Rocky Harbour), took care of the permits and trailhead transportation, and set me up with Keith Payne, an educator and wilderness guide who grew up along this coast, who proved immensely informative. As a journalist, I know there is no substitute for local knowledge. I could have done it all on my own, but it might have added a day or two to my trip, as well as extra expense (to rent a car, for instance) and a few headaches.
On the day you begin, leave one car at the Gros Morne Trailhead, where the Long Range Traverse ends, and arrange transportation to the trailhead for Western Brook Pond farther north, where the traverse begins. A long gravel and boardwalk trail leads to the dock area for the water taxis/sightseeing vessels that make the run up Western Brook Pond. The boat will be full of people, but only a handful will disembark with hiking gear at the stop at the head of the pond, about two hours from the dock. The tourists look on with exclamations of wonder as the bold backpackers leave the safety of the boat and disembark for the wilderness.
From the landing place, hikers head up the steep gorge at the head of Western Brook Pond,. You’d think navigating up the gorge would be dead easy, but it’s not. There are lots of dead ends, lots of ways to expend energy getting nowhere or backtracking. Eventually, everybody finds the way, gaining the crest of the ridge at the top of the gorge. That’s when the first views of this expansive wilderness come, and when the hiker realizes the navigational challenges that lie ahead. The landscape of green ridges (even in August), lakes and peaks stretch to the horizon. It is beautiful, but it all kind of looks alike. Which way to go? It’s time to get out the map, the compass and the GPS device, and don’t even think about doing this route without all three.
Most guided parties take five days (six for those parties that hike the shoreline trail of Western Brook Pond instead of taking the water taxi) to do the traverse, and I my opinion that is pretty good timing, if perhaps a day longer than necessary. But, pressed for time, and being in a small, fit party, Keith and I did the whole thing in three days, two nights on the trail. I don’t necessarily recommend that, but in can be done. The point is: This is not a place to hurry through. Four days is probably the best.
The route is often described as a 35 km route, or about 23 miles. But that’s measured as the crow flies, and the actual distance walked will be much longer, the result of detours mandated by terrain and the thick patches of tuckamore. A typical party, guided or otherwise, usually follows this five day, four night itinerary: leave the head of Western Brook Pond in late morning and camp at Little Island Pond; hike the next day to Marks Pond; hike the next day to Hardings Pond; hike the next day to Green Island Pond; then hike out to the Gros Morne Trailhead.
But that itinerary can be shortened. Keith and I wanted to shave several days off the usual travel time, so we hiked the first day all the way from the boat to Marks Pond. On arrival there, I was amazed to find a lakeside camp site of pristine quality, in glorious solitude. This was exactly the sort of wilderness experience I had hoped to find here in Newfoundland, and it’s a reason to come here. For our final camp we hiked beyond Green Island Pond, passing a small herd of caribou, who paid us no mind at all, and made camp on an open alpine plateau within sight of Gros Morne mountain. The mountain for which the park is named misses being the highest peak on the island of Newfoundland by eight meters, but it is an impressive sight nonetheless. Once again, we camped in solitude, if you don’t count the family of ptarmigans running around, seemingly unconcerned with us.
Given the variations possible, this, clearly, is a route that can be done at one’s own pace. Take two nights or four, just be careful when navigating around the thick alpine vegetation. The tuckamore is cut through with clear trails, called caribou leads, created by the constant passage of the animals, and they are tempting. But they can lead you astray. Our only misstep came beyond Hardings Pond, in rugged terrain called the Middle Barrens, where we cleverly thought we’d go around a peak on a caribou lead instead of over it. This technique had served us well a few times before but it was a mistake here. By the time we realized we had been lured off the route, we had to undertake a brutal bushwhack to get back on course. After that, we made sure to stay closer to the little black line drawn on our map.
We thankfully avoided the infamous fog and bad visibility that is a standard feature of this hike. It’s serious business. In a cloud, there’s no recourse but to stay put until the weather clears. It’s just not prudent to try to travel in a wilderness like this when you can’t see where you are going. But we did get a taste of the world famous wildlife of the region on our last day. After dropping down into Ferry Gulch on our final day, we were be met by the biggest bull moose Keith had ever seen, and that’s saying something. I was fascinated, but Keith showed wise caution, and we made a big detour around the huge beast to join the popular trail coming off the summit of Gros Morne.
The last day, we hiked out via the trail coming off Gros Morne mountain down to the truck we had stashed at the trailhead parking lot several days before. From there, it’s an hour’s drive back to Corner Brook. Since we were not completely sure when we would be hiking out, I had arranged to stay in Rocky Harbour for a night before getting a lift back to Corner Brook. Keith and I made the 20 minute drive from the trailhead into Rocky Harbour. There, we enjoyed a big breakfast of the local specialty, fish cakes, and I settled in to a local inn for a long shower and a day of catching up on notes before heading back to Corner Brook the next day.
Perched right on the edge of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, right in the path of major weather systems, it is the fog, storm and white out that poses the greatest risk to hikers on the Long Range Traverse. Since every hiker must find his own way by map, compass and GPS device, it’s just not prudent to travel when you can’t see where you are going. So take extra food, and take beefy camping gear and outer wear to prepare for this potential danger. Large animals, such as moose and caribou, can present a danger as well, but that can be mitigated by paying attention to your surroundings and avoiding the wildlife when they pose a threat. Finally, navigation is the third danger, because you won’t end up at the end of the traverse if you don’t stay on course. Most people do fine, although almost everyone makes a few mistakes that result in backtracking or bushwhacking. One thing is for certain: you’ll be a better wilderness navigator when you get back than when you left.
Given the likelihood of bad weather, the Long Range Traverse must be considered an alpine route, even though it’s highest point is under 3,000 feet. For that reason, summer is the time to come here, but it’s a longer season than other alpine areas. Mid May to mid September is considered prime time, but most hikers come in July or August. The advantage of off season travel is fewer bugs, the downside is the greater potential for bad weather.
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