Hiking Newfoundland: the Tablelands Off-Trail Loop in Gros Morne National Park

Imagine you've spent the first few days of a trip to an island off the coast of mainland Canada day hiking to a beautiful cascade and backpacking a wet, muddy wilderness route dotted with ponds and giant boulders. Then, as you're on your way to your next destination, the road abruptly turns a corner and begins winding through a landscape that looks more like Mars than the forested terrain directly behind you.

Our first walk on the Tablelands, the day before this hike. (PC: D. Herscovitch)

I felt like I'd been transported to another world when I saw the Tablelands, just one more glimpse into Gros Morne National Park's extraordinarily complex geology. The terrain looked so completely different than anything else we'd seen, more like the Grand Canyon than coastal Newfoundland. We'd planned a stop there as part of our week-long trip to the park, and despite still licking my wounds from the Long Range Traverse, I couldn't wait to get out and see the Tablelands up close. After all, scientists proved the theory of plate tectonics there.

Ways to Explore the Tablelands

When it comes to getting to know this incredible landscape on foot, there are plenty of choices. If you're looking for a short, informative walk, rangers lead two hour guided day hikes from here June-September. You can walk the same wide path on your own, making the 4km round trip to a wooden deck at the edge of Winter House Brook. There are two longer routes in the Trout River Pond area, giving you a chance to see a glacier carved valley surrounded by cliffs and camp in a primitive campsite. Or, you can do what we did, and decide to go "off trail."

On part of the maintained 2km path to Winter House Brook. (PC: D. Herscovitch)

Though both the Trout River Pond and Overfalls trails sounded appealing, we both had a case of the I-wonder-what's-up-theres after driving past the towering orange-red cliffs along route 431 on our way to Trout River. We drove to the Discovery Centre to grab a map, and after at chat with the staff, we learned there's an established off-trail route with GPS coordinates we could use to navigate. Though I was ready to be done with off-trail navigation after the Long Range Traverse, the idea of getting up on top of the Tablelands was too good to pass up.

Hiking the Winter House Brook to "the Bowl" Loop (13.4km/8.3mi, 1,872'/570m Elevation Gain)

The entire loop on our labeled map consisted of four separate sections. Hikers can choose 3km, 5km, or 10km out-and-back hikes, or complete the 12km advertised loop, going up Winter House Brook and back down "the Bowl." I'll always choose a loop over an out-and-back trail, so we packed enough for a 5-6 hour day, parked here, and headed out around 8:30am.

Leaving the boardwalk and maintained trail behind. 

The first 2km of the route cover the well-established, well maintained, relatively flat and wide Tablelands Trail to Winter House Brook. We were among the first few cars in the parking lot, which shocked me after seeing it overflowing as we drove by the day before. I felt a light breeze as we walked side by side, enjoying the clear blue skies; fortunately, the weather would be absolutely perfect all day. I was also happy to feel comfortable with a t-shirt on for the first bit for the beginning of the hike; previous days, there wasn't a chance I'd leave any skin exposed for fear of hundreds of bugs finding every inch.

As we passed the last section of boardwalk on the Tablelands Trail, we stepped on to rock, keeping the brook to our left. The entire rest of the route would involve contending with rocks of all different shapes and sizes; making getting into a hiking rhythm challenging. The route climbed steadily up Winter House Brook Canyon for the first 4km, crossing the brook multiple times and giving us a real taste of Tablelands terrain.

Looking back down the canyon, human for scale. (PC: D.  Herscovitch)

The Tablelands were once thought to be remnants of molten rock rising from the depths of the earth, but Geologist Robert Stevens made a discovery an hour's drive away near Lobster Cove that proved otherwise. He found rocks that were much older than other rocks in the area, and they'd eroded from the Tablelands. This discovery led to the understanding that the Tablelands are the remains of the mantle below an ancient ocean, pushed upwards during the collision of Africa, Europe, and North America. 

As we continued up toward the base of the steepest section, crossing Winter House Brook, we spied a handful of unusual rocks in a sea of already unusual rocks. Some large boulders had what looked like pinkish, purplish, blackish mini mountains sticking out of them while others had traces of white and green in them.

Some of the crazy rock formations we saw.

The Tablelands rock, peridotite, is low in calcium, high in magnesium, and contains toxic amounts of heavy metals. Most of the rock itself is brownish reddish due to the presence of iron. This combination makes it tough for plant life; one thing we didn't see much of in this other worldly landscape was anything growing.

The trail got steeper over the last 500m before the top of the canyon, and as we climbed, we spotted a few of what looked like cairns on the route. We weren't sure if they'd been put there with the intent of marking the trail, so we didn't follow them, instead glancing down at our Gaia GPS App occasionally to make sure we were on course. We knew we were headed for some sort of pond hidden above us, and before we knew it, we were there.

It really did look like another planet up there. See if you can spot me in the photo! (PC: D. Herscovitch)

When we sat down for a quick lunch, dozens of mosquitoes started to appear. We couldn't figure out how there were so many in all the way up there in a landscape like that, but I wasted no time putting long sleeves on and grabbing my bug hat. There would be a breeze the rest of the way, but the trail dropped down into small depressions as it traversed the almost barren land, blocking the wind and giving the bugs opportunity to attack.

Walking up on top of the Tablelands made the climb absolutely worth it. It was rock formation after rock formation as far as the eye could see, punctuated by patches of green where plants had found enough of what they needed to grow. Small streams wound around large boulders, and late season snow gave us a hint as to what kept them full of water.

There was indeed some green up there! (PC: D. Herscovitch)

The goal was to stay on route as much as possible to avoid finding ourselves too close to the canyon's cliffs, or wandering too far across the top of the plateau. We also needed to make sure we didn't miss the right turn to head down; it's not marked, and not all walls of the canyon are safe to descend.

As was the case with the trail up, getting into a hiking rhythm was impossible due to the terrain, but the views were spectacular. We spotted patches of grass, purple pitcher plants, and red alpine catchfly (I think) among the endless sea of rocks, appreciating the occasional breeze that kept the bugs at bay. As we headed toward the Bowl,  which we couldn't see yet, we kept our eyes open for a marked lookout spot on the map. I had to laugh at the idea of a specific place to see gorgeous views in a place like that; gorgeous views were everywhere we looked.

We came up the canyon right near the small snowpatch to the left.

We found the lookout three hours into our day, pausing to take photos and take in the view. I could see clear across the south arm of Bonne Bay to Gros Morne Mountain, where we'd been two short days prior while on the Long Range Traverse. I could make out the town of Bonne Bay, where the Discovery Centre would be if I could see it, and long, winding route 431, connecting Trout River to the rest of the park. The lush, green landscape visible across the road sat in start contrast to where we were.

At this point, the route started to descend, but we weren't able to move any faster. Rocks shifted under our feet as we walked, and which ones to step on became quite important. Half an hour past the lookout, we bumped into a couple that had come up the way we planned to go down. They reported a steep, but manageable climb, and gave us some hints as to where to look for the official route down.

Half an hour past the official "viewpoint" marked on the map. Gros Morne Mountain is visible in the left corner.

At this point, we had about 6km of trail left to descend, and it would take us about 90 minutes. I kept my GPS app open so we didn't miss the turn down; it looked like there were multiple safe ways to get down, but experience taught me to use the recommended one, just in case there's a good reason not to use the others. (You know, cliffs, steep drop offs, etc.)

We picked our way down the canyon toward Wallace Brook, keeping an eye on the GPS. At this point, we didn't really need it; we could see the parking lot, and had been able to for most of the descent. By the time our unmarked route hit the maintained Tablelands Trail, we were both very much no longer interested in walking down scree, and very happy to be able to walk without looking down.

The last little bit of scree descending. The straight line path crossing Wallace Brook in the foreground is the Tablelands Trail.

It was a beautiful, long day, and it was such an incredible experience to hike in a place like that. The entire trip took us just over five hours, including breaks. Take a look at our entire route here.

Things to Know Before You Go

I'd definitely recommend this as an option if you're in the park and want to explore a bit more than just seeing the Tablelands from the bottom of the canyon. But make sure you have sturdy shoes, plenty of water, a map and compass or GPS, and clear weather. Everything looks the same up there, and I could easily see getting turned around if you don't have great visibility. The Discovery Centre map also has all the shorter options listed if the whole loop isn't for you. And start on the earlier side; we were told to expect a 6-8h hike, and the parking lot fills up quickly on nice days.

Have you done this hike? Heard of the Tablelands? Sound off in the comments!