It may only be 1.7 kms long but hiking the North Head Trail is definitely not a walk through the park. Dated as one of Newfoundland’s oldest footpaths, even the most seasoned hikers can find this trail to be a bit challenging. Rated as a difficult (strenuous) trail from Parks Canada –  if the elevation shift of 500 ft doesn’t tire you out, the 1,000+ stairs will. All that said, we will be the first to tell you that every step of this hike is worth the effort. And if you want a bit of an “easier” route you could always flip this blog upside down and start at the top of Signal Hill working your way to the red chairs and back again.

Beginning at the Battery

There is not a more bright or better way to start a hike then being surrounded by rainbow hued houses. The Battery is a community of tangled hills and colourful homes that line St. John’s Harbour.   A map at the intersection of Signal Hill Road and Battery Road will show you the route to the start of the trail. From here you will continue along Battery Road to Outer Battery Road where murals and Hear Say signs are dotted throughout. Be sure to pause and phone in to a few of the signs, where you can hear history straight from the people who have lived in this artistic fishing community for generations.

A Public Entrance or a Person's Deck?

Newfoundlanders hospitality is world famous. From the cab drivers sharing their favourite hidden gems to the incredibly friendly locals you’ll meet, we’ve had our share of welcoming visitors from land and sea for centuries. This is on par for the entrance to the North Head Trail. Situated on the deck of a homeowner, it is your last colourful home before moving on to rougher terrain.

A Rear View of the City

Along this leg of the walk you will pass a bunker that has been redecorated with street art and graffiti. This is the perfect time to pause and look behind you to the span of St. John’s. You can see from one end of the harbour to the other, including all of the fishing boats trolling by, the historic downtown storefronts and of course The Rooms and St. John’s Basilica situated on top of it all.

Through the Narrows

This section of the trail is one of the tangliest. Just like the “narrow” harbour, this opening path leaves little wiggle room. It’s best to keep close to the side of the rock and hold onto the chainlink railing that you’ll find along the skinniest walkway.  There will be lot’s of opportunities for photos ahead, this is one time where we would only suggest a quick snap at the beginning or end, otherwise keep your camera safely tucked away for the walk itself.

Photo by Melissa K Kelly

The Sound of the Atlantic

Just after your first small flight of stairs you will hit a deep gorge into the rock. Formations like these were caused by the glacier period running through. Take a moment to stop here and listen to the echo of waves crashing below. If you peer deeper into the crevasse you may even spot a few seabirds clinging to the cliff inside.

The First Red Chairs

A few (and by few, we mean quite a bit) more steps later and you will reach the first set of Park’s Canada red chairs. These iconic chairs are placed through your hike at must stop places for a rest and for a perfect photo op. This first set of chairs overlooks St. John’s narrows, which includes Fort Amherst Lighthouse on the opposite side of the harbour. This national historic site once guarded the mouth of St. John’s harbour and is named after Colonel William Amherst who recaptured St. John’s from the French in 1762.

Photo by: Jenny Rybka Dumas

Between a Rock & a Hard Place

This next leg of the hike will take you up a rock-face to the edge of St. John’s. It is here where the ocean currents bring two giants to our shores. Both whales and icebergs can be spotted from this look out – making it an ideal place to sit and rest while breathing in the freshest air. On a clear non-foggy day you can also spot the most Easterly point of North America, Cape Spear. A pair of binoculars can come in handy if you want a more close up view of mother nature’s theatre.

Photo by: Stacy Budgell (stacyjanie)

Up & Around the Bend

You have hit the half way mark, it’s time to check your step reader and celebrate! For now, climb over the ancient rock formations to another place to perch before you begin your ascension up Signal Hill. This third set of red Parks Canada chairs also provide you with ocean views overlooking Cuckold’s Cove.

It's The Climb

On your mark, get set, go! Now the real climb is ahead. The last sets of the stairs, though challenging, were easy compared to this elevation hike. At times it will feel like you are walking sideways up a 90 degree angle, which to be honest you kind of are. You may be tempted to look up to see how far you have to go or count your steps, these are both bad ideas…

All joking aside, this last part of the hike will have you wanting to listen to the Rocky theme song Eye of the Tiger, because it will definitely leave you feeling like a champion. Take it one step at a time, rest at the platforms and breathe in the clear sea air. You’ve made it, and Cabot Tower is your prize.

Photo By: jheathp

Tips for what you need for this hike:

  1. A pair of running shoes or hiking boots that have good traction. This is a fairly dry trail but there may be some puddles depending on when it last rained. It is also rocky so make sure you wear decent shoes for climbing and walking.
  2. A set of binoculars if you would like to whale, iceberg (spring-time) or boat watch along your hike.
  3. Multiple layers, at times the wind will be whipping past you and others you will be in full sun. A baseball cap will also help to give your face some shade.
  4. A large shatterproof water bottle to stay hydrated.
  5. A camera or quality smartphone to snap photos along the way, bonus if the smart phone tracks steps. It will show you how much you have climbed.
  6. As you can see from the photos above, weather can change quickly in St. John’s. Fog is known to roll in and out of the harbour and can leave you feeling like you’re either on top of the clouds or in them.

Published: July 26, 2019