North Head Trail Loop

September 15, 2018. A scenic seaside descent on Newfoundland’s most popular hiking trail.

  • Region: Signal Hill National Historic Site. Traditional territory of the Beothuk people.
  • Distance: 4km loop
  • Total Ascent: 164m
  • Elevation of Objective: N/A
  • Hiking Time: 1h 8m

My exploration of the trails on Signal Hill felt like time well spent when I first arrived in St. John’s. However, during that outing my wanderings took me toward Quidi Vidi and away from St. John’s most famous and heavily used trail: North Head Trail. I didn’t want to miss my chance to hike it, so I skipped the late afternoon sessions at my conference and walked back towards Signal Hill.

One thing I’d been trying to figure out was why the trail descriptions I’d read about the North Head Trail always described it as a descent. I’d seen lots of people climbing up along it when I was on Signal Hill a few days before, and my first instinct had been to do the same. However, there are 2 good reasons to descend the North Head Trail. The first is practical: the lower end of the trial connects to a somewhat obscure back lane down at street level. Finding it would require some wandering around, whereas finding your way out from there is easy. The second reason is that the views are somewhat better facing in the descending direction rather than the ascending. Might as well keep the better views in front of you as you walk.

My route was a loop starting and ending at the intersection of Battery Road and Signal Hill Road. I walked directly up Signal Hill Road to the parking lot at the top of Signal Hill. There, I found the trail markers I’d seen previously, pointing the way to Ladies’ Lookout and North Head. From there, I just followed the very obvious trail and descend North Head.

There had apparently been a recent closure of the trail for the purpose of upgrading some stairways and railings. Everything was very sturdy and easy to follow. Stairs led east and descended down from the trailhead. The route was visible ahead, winding north-to-south along the North Head of  St. John’s Harbour, then swinging back to the west and out of sight as it traversed under the cliffs of Signal Hill.

The wind was whipping through the narrows very briskly that afternoon, but the gloom that had been enveloping St. John’s during the earlier part of my stay had finally vanished. I did take a moment to feel the full force of the wind down on the North Head. It felt a lot like standing on a mountain peak in Waterton or the Castle.

The trail featured views of the vast North Atlantic, fun bits of rock to climb over and around, even a narrow portion with a chain to grab on to, reminiscent of Waterton’s Crypt Lake hike. As the trail swung back towards the harbour there were interesting views across the narrows. The historic Fort Amherst Lighthouse was clearly visible, along with many picturesque buildings on Cahill Point. In the far distance I could see Cape Spear, faintly making out its famous lighthouse. There was some intriguing rock scenery up on the cliffs and down by the water. It’s easy to see why this is such a popular trail. I’m glad I didn’t miss it during my trip.

Click on the pictures in the gallery below to access full-sized images.

route overview 2.jpeg
Route overview, looking west into St. John’s Harbour.
Setting out towards the intersection of Battery Road and Signal Hill Road. The weather had improved a lot after a few days of gloom.
The start and end point of the loop.
Rather than explore some of the little trails climbing Signal Hill as I had a few days earlier, on this occasion I just walked up the road.
Good. I’m on the right hill.
A handy trail map and information. For reasons I can’t fathom, I didn’t frame this to include the text at the bottom.
The trail head. The North Atlantic.
Descending the steps, the trail can be seen stretching out in front of you crossing over North Head then hooking back towards the harbour. In the far distance, just to the right of centre is Cape Spear, the eastern-most point of North America.
The trail descends into Ross’ Valley.
Two historic lighthouses are eventually in view. The Fort Amherst Lighthouse is across the narrows on the right. The Cape Spear Lighthouse is in the distant background on the left. I’d been meaning to go out to Cape Spear, but the timing didn’t work out.
Looking directly across Ross’ Valley towards the Narrows.
The North Atlantic. For this prairie boy, views of the open ocean never seem to lose their impact. Note the wavy nature of the horizon – the wind up here was intense, and holding the phone steady for the panorama was tough.
A lone figure meditates atop the cliffs, upper right.
Parks Canada has their nice red chairs set up to take in the view.
Up on the North Head proper, looking back towards the harbour. The wind was intense here. Chain Rock is visible in the water, near the northern (right-hand) shore. The Queen’s Battery Baracks can be seen at the top of the cliffs on the right.
Heading back into the harbour. Signal Hill Tower is at the top right, the Queen’s Battery Baracks is on the cliff-top centre-left.
An example of some of the great rocky scenery along the trail.
Looking back out through the narrows.
This was fascinating – a deep fissure in the cliff face. Looking down towards its base it doesn’t evidently connect with the water, but emerging from within were sounds of waves crashing and water swirling.
The narrowest part of the trail, above a steep drop. There’s a chain secured to the rocks to prevent falls.
More great views of water and rocks.
Chain Rock. Over the centuries various booms, ropes, nets and chains were secured there and strung across the harbour to prevent unwanted ships and submarines. A gun battery used to be perched where I was standing.
Back down near water level the trail ends, letting you out into an obscure back lane. It’s easy enough to find your way back out.

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