The easternmost part of North America is found on the beautiful coast of Newfoundland. Just a short drive from St. John’s, Cape Spear National Historic Site features the province’s oldest lighthouse, World War Two bunkers, and the most easterly part of Canada. Go to Cape Spear for a captivatingly rugged Atlantic experience, a must for any trip to Newfoundland.
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Cape of Hope
The name Cape Spear comes from the Portuguese who named the spot the Cabo da Esperança, or cape of hope. The French translated it directly to “Cap d’éspoire,” which was anglicized to Cape Spear. Cape of Hope is a fitting name for the light that guided many a weary boatman to the eastern shores of Canada. That is if the captain was lucky enough to see the light through the thick fog and frequent storms surrounding the coast, causing waves to roar and rocks to appear out of nowhere.
The lighthouse has had many different lights over the years. The first light installed in the building had already been used in Scotland since 1815. The glass dioptric system was established in 1915 and is still in use today in the new lighthouse.
The original white square building was built in 1836. With a striking red and white dome, it sits majestically overlooking the sea. The second oldest and oldest surviving lighthouse in Newfoundland, Cape Spear lighthouse, is two stories high and redesigned to look like it would when it was first built. The interior has been restored to its original design so that you can get a feel for what life was like for mid-nineteenth-century lighthouse keepers and their families. The lighthouse was used until 1955.
Wander down the path a bit further, and you’ll find the newer lighthouse. A tall white automated tower that is also very charming.
World War II
Cape Spear was located near convoy routes during the Second World War. Wanting to be prepared, the Army built the bunkers and underground passageways and stationed a battery and garrison. It was strategically placed to protect convoys from German submarines. You can now visit the concrete bunkers and underground passages with empty gun barrels pointing to the sea as if the war were still happening today.
Don’t forget to stand at the most easterly point in North America. Just past the bunkers is a sign you can’t miss. Gazing out at the sea below, you’ll find it easy to picture the relief of the ship crew seeing the shore.
If you want to have a moment you can cherish forever, head to Cape Spear in the wee early morning hours to watch the first sunrise in North America. As light floods the coastal skyline, you’ll forget how early you had to wake up to experience it. You’ll also appreciate the lack of tourists when you’re taking photos in the morning golden hour.
We should note that there has been some dispute over whether Cape Spear should be called the easternmost part of North America. Because Greenland is technically part of the continent, Cape Spear is the easternmost part of continental North America is, perhaps, more accurate. However, Parks Canada is still keeping the sign up.
Since the site borders the coast, you can spot an abundance of marine wildlife from the safety of the shore. Looking down at the water below, it’s not uncommon to see a whale tale or blowhole come to the surface: Cape Spear is a prime seabird, iceberg, whale, and dolphin watching spot. In fact, the province has the largest humpback whale population in the world.
From May to September, 22 species of whales, including sperm whales, humpback whales, and blue whales, make the coasts of Newfoundland and Labrador their home. Be careful about getting too close to the water, though. The unpredictable waves have swept the curious traveller away, leading Parks Canada to fence off parts of the site.
Wildflowers and tall grass line the dirt paths at Cape Spear, making your visit all the more whimsical. You can spend half a day walking around the site.
If you’re looking for a little more, hikers will love to explore at least a portion of the East Coast Trail, beginning at Cape Spear. This stunning 540 kilometer trail system hugs the coastline for a wilderness experience you don’t want to miss. For a short portion, start at Cape Spear and climb up for 3 kilometers to Black Head for panoramic views of the historic site, the sea, and the cliffs of Southside Hills and Cabot Tower. You’ll also get to explore the decoy fort on the top of Black Head. You can continue on another 15 kilometers to Maddox Cove, passing through bogs, shorelines, rivers, and a Nature Conservancy area.
During the summer, the park offers guided tours to all the main points of interest. The guide will bring you through the lighthouse, delve into the bunker’s history, and finish up the tour at the most easterly point in North America.
You also have the option in July and August to plunge yourself into the life of Victorian-era families. You can try your hand at authentic Victorian chores. Make candles, splice rope, do laundry by hand, or complete your daily log-books. Your friendly guide, fitted with period costumes no less, will provide local stories and history while you work.
When you’re done exploring the site, head back to St. John’s for some lively Newfoundland fun, food, and drinks (have you been screeched in yet?). Don’t forget to visit Quidi Vidi brewery during your Newfoundland stay and check out another historical site, Signal Hill.