Backpacking Newfoundland: Preparing for the Long Range Traverse

This spot in this photo is 90% of the reason my husband and I planned a trip to Gros Morne National Park. The ancient landscape, shaped by grinding glaciers and continents colliding, looked absolutely irresistible to both of us. But this spot, as it turns out, isn't easy to get to, as is the case with most places worth going.

Above the Western Brook Pond Fjord, celebrating finishing the first big climb on the Long Range Traverse. (PC: D. Herscovitch)

To take this photo, visitors either pay for a guided day hike or go on a 3+ day wilderness, trail-less, GPS and map/compass skills required wilderness backpacking trip. We chose the latter, and little did I know it would be on par with the most mentally challenging backpacking trips I've done. 

Preparing to Backpack in the Long Range Mountains

The Northern Traverse (NT) and the Long Range Traverse (LRT) are the two backpacking routes that get hikers to the top of the Western Brook Pond fjord. Both require a permit, and permits are available for a maximum of five groups of four people per day, three on the LRT (12 people) and two on the NT (six people). If you're lucky enough to snag a permit on the dates you need, (we called in February for August and LRT permits were gone, so we reserved the NT), you also have to be present at 2:30pm the day before your depart for a backcountry orientation with Parks Canada.

Heading into the visitor center for our briefing. (PC: D. Herscovitch)

Only three groups, all of us with permits reserved for the NT, attended the backcountry orientation on our scheduled date. That meant no one who booked a permit for the LRT was going to be allowed to start the next day. We took advantage, and requested to switch to the LRT. When our request was granted, I was stoked; the LRT was supposedly less challenging navigation-wise, more scenic, and ends near the iconic Gros Morne Mountain. But the switch added to my apprehension; our trip planning focused on the NT, and switching routes in a trail-less wilderness the day before isn't ideal.

In the orientation, if you're like me, you'll be informed, inspired, and intimidated. You'll learn, if you didn't already know, that the trip you're about to go on is no joke. The terrain is rugged, rocky, muddy, swampy, and unforgiving. A long winter meant Newfoundland's ferocious and unrelenting black fly and mosquito population was thriving. Weather can change in an instant, obscuring your hand in front of your face, forcing you to sit tight until it clears and adding time to your itinerary.

Some of the less than ideal weather we encountered, it was pouring when I took this photo. Luckily, it wasn't foggy.

There are no maintained trails in the Long Range Mountains. This means at least one person in your party needs to be proficient in navigating using using GPS tracks and a map/compass, and know there are plenty of game trails to throw you off course. Parks Canada provides personal locator beacons (PLBs) you must carry in case of an emergency, but if there is an emergency, weather can mean help is a day or more away. You need to be completely self-sufficient, and carry extra food in case you're forced to extend your trip.

When the briefing is over, you pay for your permit. The fees aren't insignificant; when we went, it was $24.50 CAD for the reservation, $83.50 CAD/person for the LRT, and $68.70 CAD/person for the NT. When you pay for your permit, you're required to leave a trip plan, including where you're planning to camp, with the rangers.

Our route plan, which we left with the rangers. Spoiler alert, we didn't stick to it.

I was grateful for planning advice from one of the rangers who'd done the LRT before, given most of our research time had been spent on the NT. She told us whether our itinerary was reasonable or not, where the best campsites were, how bad the bugs were going to be, and which sections of trail would be the most demanding. Then, we were on our own.

Getting to the Trailhead

Though the NT starts and ends in generally the same place, the LRT is a point to point route. We drove our rental car to the end point, the Gros Morne Mountain trailhead parking area, and met a taxi at 8:15 that would drive us to the Western Brook Pond parking area. From there, it was a 3km walk along a gravel path to the BonTours boat terminal and a one hour boat ride to the dining room table sized dock where the NT and LRT officially start.

The dock at the BonTours boat terminal.

There's only one taxi company Parks Canada recommended, and the driver happened to be the co-owner of the hotel we stayed in. (We were lucky to be able to book him the night before; our original NT itinerary didn't require a taxi.) I was quiet on the 30 minute drive to Western Brook Pond, taking in the ocean views, feeling grateful for clear skies, trying not to get too nervous about the days to come, and listening to my husband chat with the driver. I enjoyed listening to his Newfoundland accent; it sounded almost Irish.

He dropped us off in the parking lot, snapped a photo for us, and took off. At this point, our trail officially started, but we wouldn't be walking long right away. We shouldered our packs to start the 3km walk from the lot to the dock and saw a few dozen others along the way. Most were just there for the two hour round trip boat tour and looked at us and our giant packs with curiosity. When we arrived at the terminal, I bought a muffin and contemplated buying a baseball cap, but didn't, a decision I'd come to regret later.

Journeying Across Western Brook Pond

Our journey across the fjord began right on time at 10:00am. As we boarded the vessel that would take us to the end of Western Brook Pond, drop us off, and disappear a few moments later, I was dealing with some serious anxiety.

The classic "before" photo, we're clean, smiling, and we smell normal!

We're experienced backpackers and we've been on multiple multi-day trips all over North America. We took a map and compass class earlier in the summer and my husband was already comfortable with navigation. We had the official GPS tracks loaded on our phones in the Gaia GPS App, and we had an extra day's worth of food. But seeing the 600m (2,000') tall cliffs looming above us as we motored across the pond still made the undertaking feel extremely intimidating.

Regardless of my anxiety, the scenery was spectacular. Western Brook Pond's dramatic rocks walls I couldn't stop staring at were carved by ancient glaciers. As the glaciers receded, the land rebounded, free from the weight of tons of ice, and cut Western Brook Pond off from the sea. The pond itself is 16km (10mi) long and up to 165m (540') deep in spots. We passed the iconic Pissing Mare Falls, saw birds dancing in the wind along the edges of the cliffs, and enjoyed the fact that the weather was absolutely perfect.

Stunning cliffs along the edge of the pond.

I still didn't feel entirely prepared and knew the trail was going to test me in ways other trails I've been on hadn't. But ready or not, before we knew it, the boat barely slowed as it turned and lumbered up to a dock the size of my dining room table. One of the crew members had already told us to ready our packs and checked our backcountry permits (they won't let you get off the boat without one). Then, he motioned for us to disembark. I heard the rumble of the engine as it picked up speed for the return trip, leaving us and two other parties of two hikers on our own.

As I started writing about this trip, it became clear it would be of incredible length if I put the preparations and the trip itself all into one post. So we'll leave this as a "to be continued," and I'll share the trip itself in a later post. If you've done the LRT or the NT, I'd love to hear from you!