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Trails of the Rock: The Trails of Signal Hill
Signal Hill is St. John's best known and most popular landmark. Its unparalleled view of the City and its sweeping vistas of the Atlantic Ocean make it a major attraction for both visitors and locals alike.
Due to its strategic location overlooking the Narrows Signal Hill has been the site of the city's harbour defences from the 17th century until World War Two. It is also the site where, in 1901, Guglielmo Marconi received the world's first transatlantic wireless signal. Other attractions to visit while hiking the Signal Hill trails include; Cabot Tower, The Signal Hill Visitor Interpretation centre, and the Johnson Geo Centre.
Begun in 1898 and completed in 1900 Cabot Tower, which stands at the top of Signal Hill and overlooks the city, was built to mark Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee, and to commemorate the 400th anniversary of John's Cabot's discovery of Newfoundland. Today it is open to the public and houses a mini communications museum and a gift shop. It also provides a spectacular view of the city from its rooftop lookout.
The Interpretation Centre is a great way to begin the day's hiking. Visiting the museum there will give one a feel for the substantial history of Signal Hill, and enhancing the entire experience. While there you can grab a sweet treat for the trail or a light lunch at the Newfoundland Chocolate Company Café.
The Johnson Geo centre is a geological interpretation centre built right into the rock of Signal Hill. Walking through the below ground exhibition space the visitor can view the exposed face of rock millions of years old. Other exhibits include the Solar System Exhibit, Amazing Earth Theatre, Main Exhibits (our planet, our province, our people, our future & Space), the Titanic story, Oil & Gas Gallery, Steele 2D & 3D Theatre, and the Geo-Vista Park.
Signal Hill Trail Map
Lookout Trail is the shortest of the Signal Hill Trails, at just 300m, and circles the summit of signal hill. It is rated easy, and is fully accessible. The trail is a loop that enters from and exits to the parking lot. Starting at the city side of the parking lot the walker steps onto the boardwalk which runs along the length of the parking lot on that side. The boardwalk ends on a gravel portion of trail that leads around to the back of Cabot Tower. This portion of trail provides a beautiful panoramic view of the city.
Where the trail loops around the rear of Cabot Tower one will find a number of lookout points, some equipped with viewing scopes, which give spectacular views of the city, the harbour, the narrows, Fort Amherst, and the Atlantic Ocean. The entrance to Cabot Tower is also around back, and it is certainly worthwhile, if there during its hours of operation, to take the time to tour this interesting and historic building. From the trail loop at the rear of the Tower the hiker can either continue around the building and take the trail back down to the parking lot, or get on the Queen's Battery Barracks trail.
The Queen's Battery Barracks Trail
From the top of Signal Hill the Queen's Battery Barracks Trail takes the hiker down the hill to the Queen's Battery Barracks, and on to the visitor centre. The trail, and the lookout from the barracks, provide a spectacular view of the harbour, the narrows, and Fort Amherst.
This trail is 500 m long and is rated intermediate. Though it is well maintained with an excellent walking surface, and no difficult terrain to navigate over the trail does have a rather steep grade. There are, however, stairs to make the walk more manageable in some of the challenging areas.
Though the fortification of Signal Hill began during the Napoleonic Wars the Queen's Battery Barracks, used for housing troops, was not built until the 1830s. In 1983 a project was undertaken for the restoration of the barracks. It is a very interesting stop along the trail that gives a glimpse into the life of the 19th century soldier stationed on signal Hill. The Barracks was also featured on an episode of the television show Creepy Canada because of its purportedly being haunted.
From the Queen's Battery Barracks the trail continues down hill for about another 150M to the visitor centre, and the Tattoo Performance Field. The Signal Hill Tattoo, founded in 1967, performs each summer during July and August. This award winning re-enactment of nineteenth century British military life and combat is well worth making the effort to attend.
Gibbet Hill Lookout
From the Tattoo performance Field the hiker can access the Gibbet Hill Lookout. This trail, which makes a 1km round trip to the top of Gibbet Hill is also rated intermediate. It is very steep and has a lot of stairs. The view of St. John's Harbour and the Waterford Valley from the top, however, make it well worth the trek.
Gibbet Hill gets its name from the practice of gibbetting, which is the displaying of an executed criminal's body by hanging it in chains from a gallows like structure for weeks while the corpse rots. This was done as a warning to others to obey the laws of the land, and was carried out in Newfoundland well into the nineteenth century. This spot was chosen because it was visible from all over the city and from ships entering the harbour. Though the view from Gibbet Hill Lookout is absolutely breathtaking, especially on clear and sunny summer days, being at the top on a cool and windy day when the city and harbour are shrouded in fog, with the knowledge of the hill's history on one's mind, can be a little eerie.
Burma Road Trail
After Gibbet Hill Lookout, if you still have the time and energy, you can cross the street to the Burma Road Trail. The trail begins by George's Pond, across the road from the interpretation centre. Rated easy, this is a 1.2km trail that takes the hiker to Cuckold's Cove Lookout. From here the hiker can continue on to Quidi Vidi Village, or come back the trail a couple of hundred metres and take the Ladies Lookout Trail back to the top of Signal Hill.
Ladies Lookout Trail
Entering from the Burma Road Trail Ladies Lookout is a 650m, mostly uphill, trail that takes the hiker back to the top of Signal Hill, which was originally known as Ladies Lookout. This trail is rated intermediate for its steep incline and many stairs but the spectacular views make the climb well worth the effort.
North Head Trail
The North Head Trail is the most popular, and most strenuous, of the Signal Hill Trails. Rated difficult this trail descends nearly 500 feet from the parking lot at the top of Signal Hill 1.7km down the steep side and around the cliff face where it will eventually connect to Lower Battery Road. The trail is made up of gravel foot paths, bedrock, wooden stairs and board walk that, in places, takes the hiker right to the cliffs edge. One spot in particular, just before reaching the lower battery, the trail becomes extremely narrow, and is so tight against the rock face that a chain has been installed in the side of the cliff to be used as a handrail to safely navigate this section. This is also the windiest trail, and can be quite hazardous on windy days where gusts in access of 100km per hour can whip around the side of the hill.
This trail affords the hiker spectacular views of Fort Amherst, the Narrows, the Atlantic Ocean, the South Side, the Waterfront, Downtown St. John's, and the Battery. This trail is a must do for any hiker visiting Signal Hill. Just be sure to wear a good pair of hiking boots, and bring a camera.
Battery to Signal Hill Walk
From the North Head Trail exit on Lower Battery Road the hiker can choose to turn around and take the trail back to the top of the hill or go out through the Battery, then take the Battery to Signal Hill Walk to Signal Hill Road. This route is about half road, half trail, and almost totally uphill. The road portion takes the hiker past traditional fish stages and twine stores, and houses built right on the cliff side overlooking the Harbour, to the Battery to Signal Hill Walk, part of the Grand Concourse Trail System. This trail starts with stairs at the top of Hipditch Hill, which leads to a foot path that follows a steep incline up the hill to Deadman's pond, around the pond, then exits across the road from the Johnson Geo Centre. One can also take a slight detour off Battery Road and check out Fort Waldegrave before carrying on to the walking trail.
The Trails of Signal Hill
Signal Hill offers trails for every level of walker or hiker, with some of the most spectacular and breathtaking scenery available anywhere in the world. The serious hiker could complete the entire trail loop in a single day, even stopping for lunch. However, given the history of the place, and the attractions that it has to offer, one should plan for at least two days to take it all in with out feeling rushed.