Hiking in the barren desert of Newfoundland’s Tablelands
Located in Gros Morne National Park, The Tablelands in Newfoundland are actually a section of the Appalachian Mountains that was once molded by glacial ice into a flat-topped plateau now called the Long Range Mountains. It is a unique geological landscape often compared to that of the planet Mars.
After hiking to Baker’s Brook Falls in the morning, Bob and I donned dry gear then set off again from Rocky Harbour. Driving around East Arm to Bonne Bay took us to the eastern edge of The Tablelands. The large mountainous area of The Tablelands stretches between Woody Point and Trout River.
In stark contrast to the surrounding green hills, lush forests and blue ocean, The Tablelands resemble a barren desert.
Gros Morne National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Sight, and The Tablelands play an important part in the significance of the area. It is here that scientists finally were able to confirm the theory of plate tectonics as relate to the movement of the Earth’s mantle.
We soon understood why geologists, scientists, and rock hounds from around the world come to this area. It is the only place on Earth where it is possible to walk on a section of the Earth’s mantle.
Billions of years ago, this area of the province once lay beneath the ancient Iapetus Ocean between 2 super-continents, one on either side of the ocean. When the tectonic plates moved causing the 2 super-continents to collide, the area that became Newfoundland was pushed up from the ocean floor, and the Iapetus Ocean disappeared.
Eons later, the Earth’s tectonic plates moved again. The super-continent that is now Europe and Africa separated from North America leaving the area of Newfoundland as a high and dry pinnacle. The Atlantic Ocean filled the gap between the 2 super-continents. Gros Morne Park and The Tablelands in particular include remnants of the super-continent as well as the ancient seabed.
Starting out on our hike, it was easy going on the Tablelands Trail where it follows the Old Mill Road Trail. That old roadbed offers up a crushed gravel surface and occasional boardwalks across streams formed from meltwater.
Lush vegetation borders the Tablelands Trail where it skirts the base of the mountains. We could hardly wait to explore this rocky spread and to see and hold rocks pushed up from the bowels of the Earth 500 million years ago.
The Tablelands are home to the rockiest mountains in western Newfoundland. The ancient rock is Peridotite, a type of rock that is high in iron. This accounts for the rusty colour of the rocks and soil in The Tablelands.
Some of the boulders had a beautiful, crusty surface in shades of blue and green. This serpentine veneer is the result of calcium being extracted from the rock by the forces of heat, water and oxygen.
There is one main trail at The Tablelands, but visitors are free to roam wherever they like…to the top of the surrounding mountains or among the endless collection of rocks.
Snow remains in the upper reaches of the Long Range Mountains during most of the summer months, and at The Tablelands, the runoff feeds a number of small streams and rapids. When Bob and I espied a large patch of snow near the top of Winter House Brook Canyon, we decided to try hiking to it.
It wasn’t long before we had to cross Winter House Brook.
And even closer to the source, though the elevation gain was only about 235 metres, we came to a spot where Winter House Brook plunged over a small precipice forming a rapids. It goes without saying that there was a slight transformation of the surrounding area because of the available water.
Peridotite rocks lack the usual nutrients required to sustain plant life, so The Tablelands present a very inhospitable habitat in which plants struggle to grow. Much like flora in the Arctic, the plants have developed several adaptations that allow them to thrive.
Wildflowers like Moss Campion grow a 6-foot long taproot in order to reach water, whereas Serpentine Sandwort grows well in the toxic soil since it needs heavy metals to survive.
Life-giving water in and near the streams supports certain types of moss and Sea Thrift,
and Bob and I did find small pockets of Pearly Everlasting that defied the lack of soil. This perennial wildflower will bloom late in summer.
Bob and I pushed on. We had now gone long over the suggested one-hour time frame to cover this 4-kilometre hike. Not another soul crossed our paths, and we reveled in the quiet, austere beauty of the locale.
I was so excited to come across the provincial wildflower of Newfoundland, the Purple Pitcher Plant. I would not have thought it possible for this species of plant to eke out an existence amid such dry conditions since I think of this plant as one familiar to bogs.
But there it was in all its proud glory blooming a month ahead of schedule. This carnivorous species has a slight advantage over other plants that require nutrients from the soil since it relies on insects for its nutritional needs.
A short while later, Bob and I found ourselves at The Lookout in Winter House Brook Canyon. This beautiful alpine glacial valley is u-shaped.
To our backs, a ring of peaks encircled us, while in front a glimpse of distant headlands and the ocean could be seen.
Bob and I pressed on for another half hour trying to achieve our goal. As we hiked further up the canyon, the distance to the snow-covered gully seemed no closer. With views of the ocean behind us, it was hard to believe that we were treading on the ancient sea floor…
and witness to preserved ocean avalanches from eons ago. When the terrain became too risky to traverse, we changed course and made back towards the parking lot. The boulders and rocks were teetering under every step, we were tired, and the possibility of a twisted ankle or worse had us deciding to put an end to our mission.
Back at the comfort and safety of one of the boardwalks, Bob and I paid close attention to the alpine plants growing alongside.
A gorgeous specimen of Yellow Lady’s Slippers poked up through the green ground cover and shouted “look at me!” Although dwarfed by the constant exposure to sustained winds,
the acidic soil and moist conditions allowed the plant to take hold. Normally this species of orchid would grow to a height of about 2-3 feet, but it was a mere 8 inches high.
And so after 2.5 hours, we found ourselves back near the start of the Tablelands Trail where another couple was just setting off to explore. The hour was late leaving them little time to really appreciate this vast geological landscape, but Bob and I maximized our experience. The Tablelands are something unique for nowhere else can you find the oldest rocks in the World.