Backpacking Newfoundland: the Long Range Traverse

When my husband and I saw photos of Gros Morne National Park, we knew we had to make a trip there. It's a UNESCO World Heritage Site, home to some absolutely incredible landscapes, and also home to what would turn out to be one of the hardest, if not the hardest, backpacking route I've ever done.

Hiking toward the cliffs we'd climb up from Western Brook Pond. (PC: D. Herscovitch)

I wrote an entire piece dedicated to how we planned for and arrived at the start of the Long Range Traverse (LRT), so won't do it again here. Instead, here's the official start to finish trip report!

Day 1: Western Brook Pond to Mark's Pond (10km, 2,084' Elevation Gain*)

Depending on who you ask, the start to the LRT could be considered the Western Brook Pond parking lot. From there, we walked 3km to the BonTours boat terminal and boarded a boat that would take us to the end of the pond, the true and official start to the LRT. Two other parties planned a different backcountry route, the Northern Traverse (NT), and we shared the boat with them and a hundred or so tourists taking the full boat tour. We definitely got some odd looks when we disembarked. "Wait, they're just leaving you here?!"

As soon as we stepped off the boat and started hiking, the other two parties doing the NT left us behind quickly. I'm normally not phased by getting passed on the trail, but I had immediate thoughts of how hard it was going to be to manage our itinerary if they were hiking that much faster than we were. That thought process made no sense, they weren't even doing the same route we were. But alas...

A completely dry stream bed on the way up to the top of the cliffs. It's not a trail, don't be fooled!

The first kilometer of hiking was relatively flat and on what looked like a beaten path through forest.  After crossing a meadow stuffed with tall grasses and dotted with moose tracks, we started up a steeper, rockier section, criss-crossing a completely dry creek bed. We could make out footprints every once in a while, but only as often as patches of dirt or sand appeared. We knew the goal was to get out of the gorge, and as long as we kept going up, we'd likely be okay. 

Our first major landmark for the day was a tall waterfall, marking a section we were told was navigationally tricky, and it was. We turned right at the base, clambering over boulders with our 60 and 75L packs on. At this point, we'd both pulled our phones out and opened our Gaia GPS apps to check and see if we were still on track, and we weren't. We backtracked until we got back on route, and kept going up. These little mistakes, though never really getting us lost, would add up over the course of the three day trek.

Looking back down toward Western Brook Pond. Not a bad reward for a long uphill climb!

After finding the route again, the hiking got steep. I found myself using my hands, stopping often to look up and choose a line to climb, and swatting bugs that seemed to be increasing in number. I wore pants and long sleeves to avoid being bitten, but the 75-80 degree temperatures meant I was also starting to sweat. We periodically saw glimpses of the top of the gorge, and looking behind me, I could just make out the boat that dropped us off cruising back to the end of the pond. 

The closer we got to the top, the steeper the trail got. After two hours of hiking, we made it to a wide open section of bare rock. I turned around, and saw the view we'd seen in photos so many times. It was breathtaking, and despite how hard the climb up with a full pack had been, I was so grateful to have the chance to see it. The weather was, albeit warmer than we'd both have liked, absolutely perfect.

Switchbacking my way up the exposed slab. It was the last of our steep uphill for the day. (PC: D. Herscovitch)

After a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, (they're so good, but they always taste so much better during a hard day of hiking), we continued on, climbing up an exposed flat slab until we found the top of the gorge. We'd gone from thick forest to wide open rolling terrain dotted with patches of tuckamore, giant boulders, sprawling meadows, and exposed, smooth patches of rock. From here, it was 2.5km to our next landmark and the first established campsite we'd encounter - Little Island Pond.

We took one last look down the fjord, glanced at our GPS, turned, and started along a beaten path. The path kept us on the track, skirting a hill to our right and a large, unnamed pond to our left. At the edge of the pond, we encountered what would be the first of many late season snow patches. The sun had warmed the snow, making it easy to kick steps as we walked, preventing falls. And at this point, we'd both put our bug hats on; the black flies were out in force.

A little stream emptying into Little Island Pond. 

We made it to Little Island Pond from the top of the gorge in about two hours, and though I could see we stayed on the GPS track, it eased my mind to hit the campsite. So far, so good with the navigation. Continuing to keep the ponds to our left, we kept following a beaten path until we heard water. It had been a while since we'd checked the GPS, and it turned out the beaten path had led us astray. We had to backtrack, find the route again, and take the lesson learned - not all beaten paths get you where you want to go in the Long Range Mountains; check the GPS often.

As we got closer to Mark's Pond, a large white bird (we think it was a tern) perched atop a tree started screeching at us, likely due to our proximity to its nest. At some point, the bird left its perch, took to air, and started dive bombing us. It got close enough on a few passes to make me flinch and cover my head with my hands. Even as we walked away from where it had been sitting, it kept screeching; we'd hear the thing for the next few hours at Mark's Pond.

The last little bit of hiking on the first day. The little muddy spots to my husband's left and right were deceivingly deep.

Arriving at the pond about six hours after we disembarked at the dock, we were slightly shocked to a family of four already there. We chatted as we set up camp, swatting an increasingly significant swarm of black flies and mosquitoes. As it turned out, they were in the middle of an NT-LRT combination route. They'd done the NT in reverse and spent the previous night at the top of the Western Brook Pond gorge, arriving at Mark's Pond on their fourth day of hiking.

The idea of doing both trails in one trip blew my mind, but what blew my mind more was the fact that they said the bugs were worse on the NT. I could barely lift the bug hat away from my mouth to take a bite of dinner without black flies finding their way to the exposed skin on my face. When we were ready to turn in for the night, I unzipped the tent, dove in, zipped it shut, and squished all the flies that made it in with me. When I was convinced I'd gotten them all, my husband unzipped the other door, dove in, zipped it shut, and we commenced squishing more flies. I remember thinking there's absolutely no chance I'm getting up to go to the toilet in the middle of the night.

Our campsite, shared with a family of four, at Mark's Pond, taken from near the "bathroom."

*Take a look at our route here, based on the Parks Canada GPS track file. My husband's GPS watch clocked us at closer to 14km for the day. Oops!

Day 2: Mark's Pond to Upper Green Island Pond (12.4km, 1,531' Elevation Gain*)

The morning started with a light drizzle, and pre-trip forecasts indicated we'd deal with less than preferable weather on our second day. Our original four day, three night itinerary went out the window, which is part of why we decided to camp at Mark's Pond the first night instead of Little Island Pond as we'd originally planned.

Our "shoes off" crossing and me dressed head to toe in rain gear. The water was cold! (PC: D.Herscovitch)

The drizzle stopped and we took advantage, packing up as fast as we could and readying our rain gear. I thought about how glad we didn't have to pack up in the rain and carry wet gear to our next campsite as I swatted black flies and tried to down my coffee without swallowing any of them. Our first obstacle of the day was one we knew was coming - a "shoes off" stream crossing. I kicked myself for not bringing trekking poles to help with balance, but we both made it across without falling in.

About 1 km into the day, we started climbing up a small ridge, being careful to stay to the right of a large valley the family we'd met the night before told us was a tempting, but incorrect route. It was hard not to want to follow the game paths, but it seemed moose made more trails up on the plateau than people did. A GPS waypoint to aim for kept us on track as we headed toward Hardings Pond. We found deep mud patches that looked like solid ground until we stepped on them, more late season snow patches, and boggy, squishy, wet ground.

The ranger cabin and outhouse. The Hardings Pond campsite is far off in the left of the frame.

As we crested a hill, I spotted a small green cabin in the distance at the edge of Hardings Pond. Then, it began to rain. We made a beeline down the hill toward the cabin to investigate and though it was locked, a small outhouse nearby was unlocked. We dropped our packs briefly, had a snack, made sure our pack covers were keeping our things dry, and pressed on. As we wound around the edge of the pond, we came to the third established site on the LRT, passing tent pads surrounded by mud.

From this point on, it would prove to be an extremely challenging day.  The constant rain, black flies that somehow weren't chased away by the constant rain, steps in mud so deep it went over the tops of my boots, and climbs up two more steep hills wore me down. We made a few more navigation errors, adding elevation gain and distance to our already long day. During a break at the top of the last big climb, I allowed myself a tear or two of frustration and exhaustion as I ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich under my bug hat.

A packs-off break in the rain, looking back at where we'd come from. (PC: D. Herscovitch)

Route finding on this day was particularly challenging given the lack of obvious landmarks, like big ponds and hills. Seven hours after leaving camp, we could almost see Upper Green Island Pond, our campsite for the night, and got so excited to descend to it that we got off track again. At this point, the navigational errors didn't phase me; how I reacted to the fact that we had to hike further because we screwed up mattered, and if I took it in stride, everything felt easier.

Prior to our departure, the ranger let us know that there were two sets of tent pads at Upper Green Island Pond. One set sits right by the pond, sheltered, and they're best if it's windy.  A second set sits across a stream and up a hill at the end of the pond, and they're exposed to the wind, but wind can help keep the bugs away. Given what we'd dealt with the night before and during the day, we passed the lower tent pads, crossed the stream, and headed up the hill to look for the upper pads along with promised refuge from the bugs.

Lower Green Island Pond is in the center of this photo and our target, Upper Green Island Pond just above it was our target. This was our last major navigation mistake for the day. We turned around right about here and found the route. But it totally looks like we're on a trail, doesn't it? (PC: D. Herscovitch)

As we reached the pads, we had the place to ourselves (for the time being), and the rain stopped. Despite hundreds of insects finding the surface of my completely covered body as soon as I stopped moving, I was grateful to be able to set up camp without rain. We also found the "bathroom," a large green plastic rectangle with a ledge cut into it, and a toilet seat covering a large hole. (Parks Canada maintains these at all of the campsites, along with food lockers. We couldn't find the food locker at Upper Green Island, but did at Mark's Pond.) Despite the fact that it wasn't private at all, it was so nice having a "toilet" at camp. It meant I didn't have to pack out toilet paper.

After the tent was set up and we'd sufficiently unpacked, my husband told me to get in, offering to take care of all of the chores and dinner making. I was emotionally spent, and readily accepted the offer, setting up the inside of the tent and chowing down when dinner was ready. As we ate, a group of three we'd seen earlier in the day arrived and chose one of the other two available pads. They'd started the LRT the day before we did.

Our campsite at Upper Green Island Pond. One of the prettiest campsites I've ever stayed at.

There wasn't enough wind to keep the bugs away, but there was enough to send clouds and fog dancing through the small valley below us and up over the hills around us. In anticipation of rain overnight, we battened down the hatches and settled in, discussing our plan for the next day.

*Take a look at our route here, based on the Parks Canada GPS track file. We also got off course a bunch on this day, likely adding at least 2km and 500' elevation gain to the route.

Day 3: Upper Green Island Pond to Gros Morne Mountain Parking Area (11.2km, 539' Elevation Gain*)

It rained on and off through the night, but the weather looked perfect when we woke up. We took our time getting going, hoping the sun would dry some of our wet things. It didn't, and the humid air during the night meant our boots hadn't dried at all. Mine were still soaked and smelled a particular way after having wet feet in them the entire previous day. I wasn't looking forward to starting the day with wet feet, and taped up my heels to try and prevent blisters.

Making our way toward Bakeapple Pond on the third and final day. (PC: D. Herscovitch)

The sky was gorgeous as we packed up and set out. We decided to hike the rest of the LRT that day, knowing the good weather wouldn't last. In an effort to make up for my poor attitude and lack of help navigating the previous day, I went first and picked our route. We only had 4.5ish km of trail-less terrain to traverse before meeting up with a maintained trail down Gros Morne Mountain, and the idea of a maintained trail was somehow unbelievably exciting. It would also be the last 4.5km of wilderness; the Gros Morne Mountain trail is popular, and we knew we'd run into day hikers there. This part was less exciting.

Keeping Upper Green Island Pond and another large pond on our left, we walked toward Bakeapple Pond. The ranger told us to leave time to stop here; the views would be incredible. And she was right.

The view down to Ten Mile Pond and two happy hikers. 

The view of Ten Mile Pond rivaled that of Western Brook Pond, and as we stared down into the fjord, I decided it was prettier because we'd worked harder to earn it. We caught up to the three people we'd shared camp with the night before, took photos of each other, and kept hiking. 

After walking between two ponds and up a small hill, we took a break, checked the GPS again, and made sure we knew what to look for next. We could see Gros Morne Mountain in the near distance and itty bitty teeny tiny people on top of it. I'd read the descent to Ferry Gulch from where we stopped was extremely steep, and the GPS track rerouted hikers off of an older route for safety reasons. We needed to avoid any navigational mistakes at all costs.

The little trail sign pointing us toward the re-routed descent off the LRT.

When we came to the waypoint on the GPS track indicating we needed to start heading down, we saw a small sign. It was the second sign we'd seen on the entire route, the first being right off the dock in Western Book Pond. As we picked our way hand over hand, occasionally turning to face in toward the hill for better footing, I couldn't believe how gnarly the route was. 

It took us 40 minutes to go one kilometer down, and when I saw Ferry Gulch, I was ecstatic. It started to drizzle, and as we dropped down into the valley, I could see the maintained trail coming off the top of Gros Morne Mountain as well as a group of four hikers descending it.

Descending toward Ferry Gulch. The last LRT campsite is at the other end of the pond.

We talked about climbing up that trail and tagging the top of the mountain as part of our LRT journey, but decided against it. Our itinerary changed so many times on this trip, but I learned flexibility was important. We could've climbed the mountain, or spent the night at Ferry Gulch, But we were too tired for the mountain, and a group of hikers we ran into as the LRT joined the Gros Morne Mountain trail warned us of impending thunderstorms.

Being stuck on top of a completely exposed, bald mountain top during a thunderstorm didn't sound fun, nor did getting stuck in a thunderstorm overnight when we could be warm and dry. With 7km to go, we tried to pick up the pace. Scree fields, rocky muddy sections, and large boulders didn't much allow for that, and it didn't take long before the skies opened up again.

Smiling through a downpour. We didn't even bother with rain gear this time. (PC: D. Herscovitch)

The scree fields and low enclosed forests made this one of my least favorite parts of the route, and it felt like the longest 7km we'd done the entire trip. The rain stopped long enough for us to get decent views of the valley, which the ranger told us would be reminiscent of Jurassic Park. She was right again. The further down we got, the more people we saw, half of whom asked us if we'd just climbed the mountain and why we had so much stuff with us.

The last few kilometers had us on and off boardwalks, down steep stairs, and finally, across a beautiful bridge to the parking lot. We arrived at the car we'd left in the parking lot three days before at 2:45pm. I was ecstatic and couldn't wait to get my dirty, stinky boots off. I'd also worn socks with my Teva sandals on the first night at Mark's Pond, and as it turns out, mosquitoes could bite through them. Bug bites on my toes added insult to injury.

Looking down the valley toward the ocean, about 5km from the end.

*Take a look at our route here, based on the Parks Canada GPS track file. This is likely accurate; we didn't get off course at all, and the last 7km follows a maintained trail.

Our three day route put us off the trail a day early, and as we sat on the tailgate of our rental car peeling off wet, stinky clothes, we chatted about what to do with this extra day. I called the number for the beautiful cottage we rented for the following day, and being able to check in a day ahead of our reservation made the decision for us. 

We finished changing, packed up the car, and drove to the visitor center to drop off our loaner PLB, making a quick stop at Java Jack's for coffee (turns out, good coffee is hard to find in the park). I didn't expect a celebration when we arrived, turned in the beacon a day early, and told the rangers we'd survived. But it sure felt like we needed one. And we had our own in the form of Crooked Feeder beer and pizza before driving to Trout River. Then, we continued the celebration with a giant fish dinner at Seaside Restaurant when we arrived.

Enjoying a spectactular sunset in Trout River the day after our trip. (PC: D. Herscovitch)

Man, what an adventure this was. I spend half of the entire extra day we had in bed, sleeping in and recovering. Despite how challenging the terrain was, I didn't think it was that physically hard. But my body thought otherwise; I was absolutely spent and emotionally exhausted. To be fair, the advertised 35km distance seemed extremely conservative; we estimated doing closer to 50km when all was said and done. The most productive thing we did that extra day was a load of laundry, deciding packing our foul smelling clothing for the plane ride home in a few days, or smelling them for any longer, wasn't an option.

I read multiple trip reports before we left and after we got back, and all of them had an air of misery about them, mixed with a helping of amazement and amusement at the landscape and the conditions. Others who wrote trip reports had similar weather, made similar navigation mistakes, and all finished wanting to make a return trip someday. But not right away.

When all was said and done, I told my husband, "if you asked me in the parking lot at the end of the trail if I'd do it again, it would be a hard no. If you asked me in a week or two when the bug bites have healed, my gear is dry, and I look at the photos, there's a solid chance I'd say yes." And now, three weeks later, I know I would. But I'd do a few things differently.

Taking a break to stretch my back out and collect my thoughts in the middle of the second day. (PC: D. Herscovitch)

I'd get more comfortable with map and compass navigation, despite the GPS track and the Gaia App functioning perfectly on our trip. My husband was comfortable navigating without GPS and I wasn't; I'm never at ease when only one of us knows something important that both of us really should know, in case something happens. Parks Canada used to require passing a map and compass test as part of the mandatory orientation, but they don't anymore. If there was a test, I'd like to think I'd have passed, but I'm not sure. 

I'd bring a better attitude, knowing what I know now about how being anxious and nervous impacts my ability to enjoy where I am, and really be present. I'd know that my feet would be wet despite my best efforts, and only bring wool socks because they're comfortable even when they're soggy. I'd know how fast the weather can change, and be grateful for every last bit of sun. I'd be stoked to finish at all, given how many groups we'd heard hadn't finished or needed rescuing during the orientation. Apparently, no one had finished the NT in 2019 yet; one group turned around and another had to be airlifted out due to injury.

I'd also bring trekking poles to occasionally take the load off my legs, a baseball cap to keep the bug hat further from my face, and more Crunchie bars because boy are they yummy. If you've done the trail, want to do the trail, or just find something in here you'd like to ask about, I'd love to hear from you in the comments!