Exploring 5 UNESCO Sites in Newfoundland and Labrador

The awe-inspiring rugged landscapes of Newfoundland and Labrador are breathtakingly impressive. From walking on the Earth’s mantle to retracing Viking footsteps and diving into the cultural history of The Rock, the province’s four UNESCO World Heritage Sites and one Geopark highlight astonishing and significant human, geological and cultural history.

UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Newfoundland and Labrador

The Tablelands: Gros Morne National Park

There are few places on earth where you can touch the Earth’s mantle, and The Tablelands in Gros Morne National Park in Western Newfoundland and Labrador is one of them. The land here was 485 million years in the making, formed deep in the mantle of the Earth. The rock was pushed upward as ancient continents collided, building the Appalachian Mountain chain and creating the Pangea supercontinent.

Today, visitors can walk and hike on the surreal and barren orange landscape, where only the toughest plants can survive in the rust-coloured peridotite rock that’s been eroded over centuries by the elements.

Claudia Laroye

In summer, Parks Canada staff run guided interpretive walks in this striking landscape. You can also solo-trek the four-kilometre out-and-back Tablelands Trail, following an old roadbed along the base of the mountain. This trail ends in the glacially carved Winter House Brook Canyon. For a shorter walk, take the Serpentine Loop, where you’ll see hardy plants like sandwort and the delicate carnivorous pitcher plant (the official provincial flower) along a winding path.

L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site

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The importance of this former Viking settlement garnered Canada’s first UNESCO heritage designation for this significant historical and archaeological site at the windswept tip of Newfoundland’s Great Northern Peninsula.

As the Sagas of the Greenlanders tell, the only authenticated Norse site in North America was established around the year 1,000 by Leif Eriksson, son of Erik the Red. Vinland, as it was then known, provided the first real evidence that these northern European adventurers had reached the new world, long before Columbus.

At the reconstructed Viking Encampment and in the excavated remains of wood-framed, peat-turf buildings like those found in Norse Greenland and Iceland, Parks Canada’s interpretive guides illustrate in vivid detail how the Vikings lived and worked in this remote place.

Mistaken Point Ecological Reserve

On the southeastern tip of the Avalon Peninsula, the Mistaken Point Ecological Reserve includes a narrow, 17-kilometre-long strip of rugged coastal cliffs that dates back 565 million years.

The Reserve is home to the oldest known collection of complex marine life fossils in the world. More than 10,000 fossils from a prehistoric ocean floor of Earth’s Ediacaran period illustrate the beginning of macroscopic diverse life on Earth.

Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism

While public hikes and trailways are available year-round, visitors who want to see the fossil site up close and stand on rocks that once made up the deep ocean floor must be accompanied by a registered guide.

Red Bay National Historic Site

Established in the 16th-century by Basque whalers and mariners in a protected harbour in the narrow Strait of Belle Isle between Labrador and the northern tip of Newfoundland, Red Bay is an archaeological site that provides the earliest, most complete and best-preserved testimony of the European whaling tradition in North America.

For 70 years, “Gran Baya,” as it was called by those that sailed here every summer, was a base for coastal hunting and rendering of whale fat, providing a major source of the whale oil that illuminated the streetlamps and homes of Europe.

Today, Red Bay is a stop along the Labrador Coastal Drive, and home to the remains of wharves, whale bones, chalupas (whaling boats) and an interpretation centre near the beach.

Discovery Geopark

Located on the upper half of the Bonavista Peninsula on the eastern coast of the island, Discovery Geopark is a microcosm of the province’s geological past—a collection of 10 geologically significant sites with some of the best-preserved fossils in the world. Dating back over half a billion years, they showcase the enduring impact of geological transformation, glaciation and climate change on the landscape.

Visitors can wander on a large network of hiking trails leading to various geosites, from the Tickle Cove Sea Arch and “The Chimney” sea stack in Spillars Cove to beaches, cliffs and fossil sites in search of Haootia, one of the world’s oldest complex animal fossils discovered in 2008.

Spillar's Cove Destination Canada
Destination Canada

The Discovery Geopark is as much about human as it is geological history. The tiny fishing settlement of Elliston, the “Root Cellar Capital of the World,” with 133 documented root cellar structures influenced by the area’s natural landscape and soil composition, also contributed to the park’s UNESCO status.