Article | Newfoundland and Labrador

Gros Morne National Park: Where the Earth Tells Its Story

Geology shines on the island of Newfoundland! Admire spectacular landscapes and witness earth’s history for yourself when you visit Gros Morne National Park and UNESCO World Heritage Site. Learn about the park’s must-see spots and the story of the banjo-playing geologist who helped bring it to life.
Western Brook Pond Gros Morne Newfoundland mountains sky water

© Dennis Minty

Western Brook Pond, Gros Morne National Park, Newfoundland

A Legendary Geologist

Hank Williams’ twinkling eyes, strong laugh lines, and broad smile told of a life well-lived and endeared him to all he met. He was the legendary, banjo-playing geologist who had a significant role in the establishment of Gros Morne as a national park.

When Hank was a young rockhound, the notion of continental drift was gathering momentum with geologists and geophysicists. It suggested that the outer layers of the earth’s crust were moving, ever so slowly, and that some seabeds were expanding while others were contracting. Tuzo Wilson, an early advocate for the idea, was Hank’s Ph.D. supervisor at the University of Toronto.

Hank Williams geologist

© Dennis Minty

Hank Williams, 2010

Hank’s field studies of the Appalachian Mountains, for which he was dubbed “one of the premier field mappers in the history of geology,” helped prove that continents collided with each other, and that mountain chains were thrust upwards as a result.

With a love of traditional music, Hank popularized the idea of plate tectonics and the evolution of mountain belts by likening it to the squeeze box of an accordion—alternately pulled apart then squeezed together. He christened it the Harry Hibbs Effect after the well-known Newfoundland accordion player.

The Tablelands

Strong proof of plate tectonics is found in Gros Morne, where Hank did much of his field work. It is perhaps best illustrated at the Tablelands, the most important geological feature of Gros Morne National Park and the basis for its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Panorama Tablelands Gros Morne National Park UNESCO World Heritage Site Newfoundland

© Dennis Minty

The Tablelands, Gros Morne National Park and UNESCO World Heritage Site

The Tablelands story goes like this: more than a billion years ago, eastern North America collided with another continent, creating a supercontinent and forming the Appalachian Mountains and the Long Range Mountains of Newfoundland (an extension of the Appalachians) along its collision line.

Then, about 570 million years ago, the supercontinent broke apart and the gap between the massive chunks of the earth’s crust was filled by the Iapetus Ocean. Later still, the Iapetus closed again, causing part of the earth’s mantle to be thrust upwards to form the Tablelands—one of only a few places on the planet where the upper mantle can be studied at the earth’s surface.

Finally, the continents broke apart again, leaving the earth as we now know it, with the Atlantic Ocean roughly where the Iapetus used to be.

Panorama Tablelands and Winterhouse Brook across Bonne Bay Gros Morne Newfoundland

© Dennis Minty

Looking south across Bonne Bay, the bronze-coloured Tablelands loom large above the greener coastal fringe.

You don’t have to be a geologist to know that there is something special going on here.

Rich in iron and other metals, the Tablelands are made of rock known as peridotite and the bronze colour is essentially rust. An untrained eye might even liken it to the surface of Mars. Because it is an inhospitable environment for plants, vegetation is scant compared to that on that on the lower continental rock.

Local resident Shirley Montague put the Tablelands story into a beautiful song called “Bronze Plateau.”

Winterhouse brook Tablelands Gros Morne National Park Newfoundland

© Dennis Minty

Winterhouse Brook, Gros Morne National Park

Gros Morne Mountain

At 806 metres, Gros Morne, a chunk of the Long Range Mountains that dominates the north side of Bonne Bay, is the second highest peak on the island of Newfoundland. Its name means “big, isolated hill” but morne also suggests the lonely, gloomy character of the bald, rounded mountain that rakes the bottom of the clouds. At its peak, it feels like a misplaced Arctic tundra landscape, occupied by Arctic hare, rock ptarmigan, and caribou.

Gros Morne Mountain Newfoundland

© Dennis Minty

Park guides warn that the weather at the base of Gros Morne Mountain can be quite different from that at the summit, so hikers should be prepared.

Green Point

Although today the land that comprises Gros Morne National Park is at a latitude of forty-nine degrees North, it wasn’t always there. As the continents have shifted about, the land that is now part of the park was once much closer to the equator. We know this because the rock strata at Green Point show evidence of once being at the bottom of a shallow tropical sea.

Green Point rock strata geology Gros Morne Newfoundland

© Dennis Minty

Green Point's rock strata are richly embedded with all kinds of shellfish, which, when cemented together, have formed extensive limestones beds.

As you walk along the high-water mark, you pass over layer upon layer of rock that were once horizontal, but are now vertical, like the pages of closed book resting on its spine. Each pace represents about 60,000 years of sedimentation, first limestone and then shale at intervals.

Green Point geology Gros Morne National Park Newfoundland

© Dennis Minty

The complete walking route along Green Point tells fifteen million years of earth’s history.

At the beginning of Green Point’s “book” towards the north end of the sequence is the boundary line between the Cambrian and Ordovician periods. This point is internationally agreed to be a Global Boundary Stratotype, meaning that if you want to study this period of the earth’s history, this is the place to be!

Western Brook Pond and Trout River Pond

Western Brook Pond in the north of the park and Trout River Pond in the south were once fjords open to the sea, but now they are long, deep freshwater ponds. (They would be called lakes in other parts of the country.)

Western Brook Pond Gros Morne Newfoundland

© Dennis Minty

Western Brook Pond, Gros Morne National Park

Immense glaciers once covered this land, pressing the earth’s crust down into the more elastic mantle. After they melted, their weight was released from the land, allowing the mantle and crust above it to spring upwards (ever so slowly) in a process called isostatic rebound. In this rebounding, the coastal land rose, cutting the fjords off from the sea and allowing them to fill with freshwater.

Western Brook Pond lush mountains Gros Morne Newfoundland

© Dennis Minty

The cliffs enclosing Western Brook Pond reach upwards for more than six hundred metres.

I once flew in a helicopter across the high plateau known as the Big Level, when suddenly the earth fell away as we crossed over the cliff’s edge and the spectacular, royal blue pond stretched out so very far below. My stomach did a flip.

Pissing Mare Falls Western Brook Pond Gros Morne National Park Newfoundland

© Dennis Minty

Pissing Mare Falls, Gros Morne National Park

Pissing Mare Falls (where else could you find a name like that but in Newfoundland?), one of the highest waterfalls in eastern North America, tumbles over this edge and much of it turns to mist before reaching the water level so far below.

Panorama Trout River Pond mountains lake Gros Morne Newfoundland

© Dennis Minty

Trout River Pond stretches inland for sixteen kilometres.

Trout River Pond skirts the Tablelands, so while the south side is boreal green, much of the north side of the pond shows as barren, bronze-coloured rock.

Panorama Trout River Pond fall colours Gros Morne National Park Newfoundland

© Dennis Minty

When you stand at the lookout on the western end of the pond and look to the east, it is easy to imagine the scale of the glaciers that carved this valley.

Green Gardens Trail

Just north of the Park’s southern boundary is the Green Gardens Trail, so named because of the lush coastal meadows where the folk of Trout River would take their livestock for summer grazing.

The trail starts high on serpentine barrens near the Tablelands, descends through boreal forest, and finally reaches the dramatic, volcanic coast with sea stacks, cliffs, cobble beaches, and wildflower meadows.

Green Garden Trail tuckamore tree cliffs Gros Morne Newfoundland

© Dennis Minty

Green Gardens Trail, Gros Morne National Park

Woody Point

The pretty little town of Woody Point on the south side of Bonne Bay is an enclave excluded from the park, as are many other towns encompassed by the park’s boundary. The floating dock serves as a great spot for our Zodiac landings, where it is a short walk to the heritage shops along the waterfront that offer many non-geological diversions.

Zodiac landing at Woody Point dock

© Dennis Minty

Woody Point, Newfoundland

The town’s settlement began around 1800. A hundred years later, it was a bustling community and the unofficial capital of the area with a bank, postal service, commerce, and a busy international port.

Woody Point town yellow house man with wheelbarrow Newfoundland

© Dennis Minty

Woody Point, Newfoundland

Then in 1922, with the town at its peak, fire struck and destroyed nearly sixty buildings. After that, Woody Point never recovered its commercial prowess.

Town of Woody Point and Tablelands Gros Morne Newfoundland

© Dennis Minty

These days, the town serves as the hub for the south side of Bonne Bay and is the home of the annual Writers at Woody Point festival, which draws prominent authors from far and wide.

Trout River

The road stops at Trout River, a gorgeous community at the park’s southern boundary. Most of the town sits just above sea level along a broad, sunset-facing beach.

Town of Trout River Newfoundland

© Dennis Minty

Every home in the town of Trout River is within earshot of the rhythmic and constant landwash.

It was here in 2014 that two blue whales washed up dead on shore. Mark Engstrom, senior curator and deputy director of collections and research of the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), led a crew with strong stomachs and determination to dismantle the skeleton of one of them and ship the pieces of the world’s most famous dead whale to Ontario for further processing.

In 2017, the skeleton was finished and put on display at the ROM. Then in 2021, the twenty-five metre skeleton was shipped back to Newfoundland for reassembly in the main hall of Memorial University’s new core science building.

Trout River boardwalk Newfoundland

© Dennis Minty

Trout River, Newfoundland

Above the town is a high, flat terrace that was the beachfront thousands of years ago, before the land rose due to isostatic rebound. If you sit on the edge of the upper terrace and dangle your feet, they would once have been in the ocean!

You can stroll along the beachfront boardwalk, then climb the steps at the end onto the high, sheep-grazed terrace and wander out to the coast to see its impressive volcanic cliffs and sea stacks.

Hiking at Trout River Newfoundland

© Dennis Minty

Trout River, Newfoundland and nearby Gros Morne National Park offer excellent hiking opportunities.

A Newfoundland Jewel

Gros Morne National Park is defined by its geology, with so many different facades that your head will spin. Aside from being a scenic jewel, it has a rich cultural history; great service facilities; delightful forests, wetlands, and barrens with an array of botanical wonders; and fantastic wildlife including whales, moose, caribou, bald eagles, Arctic hare, and more.

Western Brook Pond mist green hills Gros Morne Newfoundland

© Dennis Minty

Western Brook Pond, Gros Morne National Park

When you join Adventure Canada on a Newfoundland Circumnavigation, you will get a good taste of this breathtaking place. Just make sure you tip your hat to the spirit of Hank Williams, that banjo-playing geologist who first helped put it on the map.

About the Author

Dennis Minty

Dennis Minty

Photographer, Wildlife Biologist

Dennis has been working with Adventure Canada since 2002. Dennis’s path—from his small island roots in Twillingate, Newfoundland to his current career as a photographer and eco-tour leader—has taken him through more than three decades of local and international work.

For him, nature and photography are inseparable. Dennis immerses himself in nature through photography and seeks to inspire in the viewer a deeper connection with the natural world. Dennis has authored nine books on subjects such as environmental science, his home province of Newfoundland and Labrador, and his photography.

To see more of Dennis' work, visit his website.