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Another view of St. John's from the North Head Trail of Signal Hill

Puffins, Hiking, Live Music, and Getting Screeched: Things to do in St. John’s Newfoundland (Part 1 of 2)

What to do during your visit to St. John’s, Newfoundland

I recently visited St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada (June 13 – 17, 2022) to attend a celebration of life for my aunt who passed away in the winter of 2021. Given that winter is not the most appealing time to visit Newfoundland, my cousins decided to have the celebration on what would have been her birthday on June 15th. It turned out to be a nice celebration and a great trip. Here are some highlights to consider if you’re heading out to Newfoundland, which I highly recommend!

City of St. John’s

With a population just under 115,000 people, St. John’s is easy to navigate and has a laid back vibe. We booked an AirBnb on Queens Road, within easy walking distance of downtown and St. John’s Harbour. Yes, they do the “harbour” thing in Newfoundland, rather than “harbor”, so I’ll roll with it.

The first thing we noticed while walking along the neighborhood streets was how much St. John’s reminded us of San Francisco in terms of the colorful houses, hilly streets, and not so warm summer temperatures. Mark Twain is attributed with saying, “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” Well, apparently, Mark Twain never made it up to St. John’s, Newfoundland. The average summer high and low temperatures in San Francisco are:

  • June 71° / 55°
  • July 72° / 57°
  • August 72° / 57°

As for St. John’s, the average summer temperatures are:

  • June 60° / 43°
  • July 68° / 52°
  • August 68° / 54

We won’t even discuss winter temperatures. That’s not a fair fight.

Streets of St. John's, Newfoundland resemble a mini San Francisco.
Streets of St. John’s, Newfoundland resemble a mini San Francisco.

The pier at St. John's, Newfoundland
The pier at St. John’s, Newfoundland

Hiking Signal Hill

One of the first things we did in St. John’s was join our cousins and their kids for a hike up Signal Hill. Signal Hill National Historic Site is the most famous landmark in St. John’s. It’s that hill with a building on top of it that you’ll see in many photos of the city. The building is called Cabot Tower, and its position on top of a hill that overlooks the only entrance to St. John’s Harbour made it an integral part of the city’s defense system from the 17th century to the Second World War. Signal Hill is also where Guglielmo Marconi received the world’s first transatlantic wireless signal in 1901. More importantly, at least to us during our visit, Signal Hill is also a great place to hike.

You’ll find a variety of hiking options at Signal Hill, where you’ll be rewarded with great views of the city and surrounding area. Our crew hiked from the visitor center to Cabot Tower at the top of Signal Hill. After checking out the tower, we hiked along the North Head Trail down to The Battery neighborhood of St. John’s and then climbed back up to the visitor center. I particularly recommend North Head Trail, if you are ok with some narrow trails next to some steep drop-offs. Even though it was a bit cold and cloudy, it was a great hike. 

Starting point for the hike up Signal Hill
Starting point for the hike up Signal Hill

Cousin and nephews look like they are posing for an album cover at Cabot Tower
My cousin Suanne and nephews look like they are posing for an album cover at Cabot Tower

Cannon at Cabot Tower
Cannon at Cabot Tower

Newfoundland dog named Chief greeted us at the top of Signal Hill
Newfoundland dog named Chief greeted us at the top of Signal Hill – my cousin Suanne is a dog nut like me

Hiking down Signal Hill
Hiking down Signal Hill

 

One of the trails at Signal Hill
One of several trails at Signal Hill

View of Cabot Tower from the trail
View of Cabot Tower from the trail

North Head Trail of Signal Hill
North Head Trail of Signal Hill

VIew of St. John's from the Trail
VIew of St. John’s from North Head Trail of Signal Hill

Another view of St. John's from the North Head Trail of Signal Hill
Another view of St. John’s from North Head Trail of Signal Hill

Whale and Puffin Tour at Bay Bulls and Witless Bay Ecological Reserve

A thirty-minute drive from St. Johns, Bay Bulls is a small fishing town of 1,500 people that serves as the starting point for boat tours to see the whales and birds of the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve. There are a variety of tour companies that offer boat tours from Bay Bulls. We decided to go with Gatherall’s Puffin and Whale Watch Cruise, which I’d highly recommend … and not just because there’s a large puffin to take a photo with.

Puffin Photo Opportunity at Gatherall's
Nerdy Puffin Photo Opportunity at Gatherall’s … as if I had to write that name with all that advertising in the background

The cruise lasts about 90 minutes and takes you through the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve, home to over 2 million seabirds, over 500,000 Atlantic Puffins, and one of Newfoundland’s best whale watching sites.

The first part of our tour focused on whales and the second part focused on birds. Three whale species can be spotted in the area: minke, humpback, and fin whales. We saw about seven humpback whales during our trip.

Whale spotting in the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve
Humpback whales in the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve

We also had the rare opportunity to spot the only person in Newfoundland wearing shorts … my cousin Jim.

Easy to spot my cousin Jim ... the only person in Newfoundland wearing shorts
Easy to spot my cousin Jim, the only person in Newfoundland wearing shorts

As for birds, we saw many thousands of puffins and common murres, as well as some razorbill auks, herring gulls, great black-backed gulls, black-legged kittiwakes, and a bald eagle.

Residence of the local biologist, look up at your peril
Residence of the local biologist at the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve. Look up at your peril.

Puffins were described by our guides as “piss-poor flyers – basically potatoes with wings.” But that makes them all the more likeable. The sight of thousands of puffins and other birds was impressive and certainly worth the trip.

Puffins at the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve
Puffins at the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve

And a few more of the birds at the Ecological Reserve
And a few more of the birds at the Ecological Reserve

The tour guides provided interesting information and stories about the wildlife and history of the area. They also sang a few songs and had some good quips such as: “Newfoundland has two seasons: winter and construction”; and “In England, they drive on the left side of the road. In Newfoundland they drive on what’s left of the road.”

Cape Spear

Another easy and worthwhile day trip from St. John’s is to check out Cape Spear, the easternmost point of North America. Geography nerds may argue with that claim since Greenland is part of North America from a physical geography perspective. However, from a political and cultural perspective, Greenland is part of Europe … Denmark to be more specific. Debate aside, it’s only a 20-minute drive from downtown St. John’s and it’s worth seeing.

On Cape Spear, you’ll find the Cape Spear Lighthouse, the oldest surviving lighthouse in Newfoundland (constructed in 1836). You can also tour the Canadian-manned gun battery from World War II that was installed to defend the entrance to St. John’s harbour.

Trail to the Lighthouse of Cape Spear
Trail to the Lighthouse of Cape Spear

Cape Spear, Newfoundland
Cape Spear Lighthouse, Newfoundland

Cape Spear, Newfoundland
Cape Spear, Newfoundland

World War II Gun Battery of Cape Spear
World War II Gun Battery of Cape Spear

Eastern most point of North America, Cape Spear, Newfoundland
Eastern most point of North America at Cape Spear, Newfoundland

There are some trails along the cliffs and you can even walk to the trailhead (mile Marker 0) of the Trans Canada Trail, also known as The Great Trail. The trail travels nearly 15,000 miles from this point, all the way to the Pacific and Arctic oceans, making it the longest recreational multi-use trail network in the world. A few people have made the journey, including Dianne Whelan who made a documentary about her experience, “500 Days in the Wild“. Fun fact, Dianne actually stayed at my house in New Mexico when I rented it out through AirBnb. At the time, she had recently completed a “40 Days at Basecamp” documentary about the Base Camp at Mount Everest. I only spoke with Dianne for a short time during her stay, but she seems like a really cool person with many amazing experiences.

Mile Zero of the 15,000 mile Trans Canada Trail, aka The Great Trail
Mile Zero of the 15,000-mile Trans Canada Trail, aka The Great Trail

Hiking from the Trans Canada Trail back to the Cape Spear Lighthouse
Hiking from the Trans Canada Trail back to the Cape Spear Lighthouse

Next week, I’ll continue with Part 2 of this post, focusing on the “Screech-In”, food, and nightlife of St. John’s, Newfoundland.

Thanks for reading!

Mark

Mark Aspelin is a travel writer and author of two books who has enjoyed a wide variety of adventures in his travels to over 100 countries and all 50 U.S. States.  Mark lives in the mountains outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico, which serves as a great home base for his blog, New Mexico & Beyond (www.nmbeyond.com).

Mark Aspelin from New Mexico & Beyond