Located at the far northeastern extremity of the Gaspé Peninsula, Forillon National Park is a roughly triangular expanse of 242 square kilometres (94 square miles) sandwiched between Gaspé Bay and the St. Lawrence Estuary. The park is contained entirely within the municipality of Gaspé, and the main entrance is only 15 minutes by car from the town centre.
For several millennia before the arrival of Europeans, what is now Forillon National Park was known to the local Mi'kmaq people (and, earlier, the rival Mohawks as well) as a fertile hunting and fishing ground. As well, La Penouille — a long, rocky sand spit extending off the south shore of the park into Gaspé Bay — was a source of stone used to produce arrowheads and other tools, with archaeological excavations unearthing chipped rock, fire pits, and pottery dating back as far as 600 BC.
Although the cod that once teemed in the adjacent Gulf of St. Lawrence attracted a motley mixture of Basque, Spanish, Portuguese, and French fishermen to the region beginning shortly after Columbus' voyage, the first European to extensively explore the region around Forillon was Jacques Cartier, who, in 1534, sailed past Cap Gaspé and briefly anchored in Gaspé Bay to wait out a passing storm, before coming ashore in what's now the city of Gaspé to claim the entire region for the French crown: the birth of the colony of New France.
Despite European colonial ambitions and the enduring popularity of the surrounding waters with fishermen, it wasn't until two hundred years after Cartier's voyage — by which time Great Britain had conquered all of France's colonial holdings in what is now Canada — that the first permanent European settlements on the Gaspé Peninsula itself were established. The largest village located within what is now Forillon was Grande-Grave, which thrived in the 19th Century as a fish processing centre and site of the main offices of William Hyman and Sons, the chief rival to the Charles Robin Company which controlled a great majority of the Gulf of St. Lawrence cod fishery at the time. Grande-Grave was named for its large pebble beach (grave in archaic French) which locals found to be an ideal site to dry and salt their catch in preparation for export to Europe. The Gaspesian economy thrived into the beginning of the 20th Century, but declining catches coupled with the impacts of the Great Depression and World War II brought the fishing industry into a sharp decline that it was never really able to extract itself from.
The Canadian government's establishment of Forillon National Park in 1970 was extremely controversial: the private firm contracted to evict the 100 or so families who were living within the boundaries of the proposed park was said to have used bullying tactics to scare them into selling their land to the government at less than market value. This unfortunate episode is not covered in any of the exhibits in the park, but backcountry hikers might stumble upon the foundations of some of the demolished houses in the underbrush. The former residents of Forillon finally received an official apology from the government in 2011. That same year, Parks Canada introduced a program through which all entrance fees to Forillon were waived for those whose land was expropriated for the creation of the park, as well as their children and grandchildren (and spouses thereof), and which allows free access to cemeteries, former homesites, and other places of personal importance. Special commemorative events and reunions for former residents are also held occasionally.
Forillon may be small in size, but there's a mid-boggling diversity of landscapes packed into it. Like the Gaspé Peninsula as a whole, the majority of the park's infrastructure (and visitors) hug the shoreline. Near the water you'll find the park's best-known feature: Cap Gaspé, the rocky headland at the tip of the peninsula that gives the region its name (from gespeg, a Mi'kmaq term meaning "land's end"). But that's just the beginning of the story: on Forillon's shores there are also fossil-rich seaside cliffs, dazzling rock formations (it's thought that the word forillon refers to a sea stack that has since crumbled into the ocean), quiet pebble beaches where century-old fishing shacks still stand, salt marshes, and sand dunes. The park's boundaries also extend offshore for a short distance, protecting the rich eelgrass beds (most abundant in the shallows off La Penouille) and the abundant marine and bird life that live, feed and breed among them.
Away from the water lies a different world entirely: the intrepid backcountry campers and hikers that penetrate the interior hinterlands (often via the International Appalachian Trail, the mainland portion of which ends at Cap Gaspé) can lope over craggy mountains blanketed in thick forests, and fish in cool mountain lakes and fast-flowing, crystal-clear streams.
Flora and fauna
To match its wide range of landscapes, the park boasts an equally wide range of animal and plant life that are found in the various habitats. There are no fewer than ten distinct ecosystems here, coexisting in close proximity in quite a small space of land.
The diversity of Forillon's fauna is perhaps best displayed by its bird life, with over 225 species making their home here for all or part of the year. Seabirds are especially numerous: the waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence are a copiously abundant food source for razorbill, black guillemot, double-crested cormorant, and, especially in the vicinity of Cap Bon-Ami, black-legged kittiwake. Other birds stay close to shore: on the wave-lapped pebble beaches you're liable to find specimens of sandpiper, common tern, osprey, and the great blue herons that flock to the salt marshes at La Penouille to feed. The shoreline is also home to four species of seal and porpoise, and whales — fin, humpback, minke, pilot, and even the elusive blue whale — are a common sight in nearby waters.
In Forillon's forested interior you'll find still more birds: an assortment of species common to eastern Canada such as thrushes, warblers, woodpeckers, and sparrows abound, and there are also rough-legged hawks, American kestrels, and other birds of prey. The forests are also home to beaver, red fox, coyote, red squirrel, ermine, porcupine, eastern chipmunk, moose, and black bear (see the Stay safe section for more on the latter two).
Speaking of the forest: thick stands of birch, maple and balsam fir cover 95% of the surface area of the park, making up by one measure the bulk of its plant life. But Forillon's flora is, once again, diverse — much more so than at first blush. Higher up in the mountains as well as on the faces of the seaside cliffs, exposed to the full force of the winds that whip over the Gulf of St. Lawrence, you'll find plant life that's more typical of the Arctic tundra: Forillon's populations of purple mountain saxifrage, white dryad, and tufted saxifrage are relics from thousands of years ago, when the glaciers of the last Ice Age had only just begun to recede and the climate of the region was far colder than today.
Closer to shore, the brackish waters around La Penouille and in other marshlands along the coast play host to salt meadow grass, Carolina sea lavender, and other plants that provide an important food source for shore birds, shallow-water fish, and insects. The eelgrass beds that lie just offshore are a similarly important component of Forillon's marine ecosystem.
Given its northerly latitude, Forillon's climate is surprisingly mild: the moderating influence of the Gulf of St. Lawrence tempers extremes of both summer heat and winter cold, and also assures ample precipitation all year round.
If you're arriving from further-south Quebec, you'll notice it's quite a bit chillier than whence you came, with daytime highs seldom climbing much higher than 25°C (77°F) even in the height of summer, and overnight lows around 10°C (50°F). An interesting summertime phenomenon well-known to local sailors are the easterly thermal breezes that occur on Forillon's south shore in the morning and afternoon, caused by the confluence of the warm waters of Gaspé Bay with the cooler air of the open sea. These breezes generally reach their maximum strength — about 25-30 km/h (15-20 mph) — between noon and 2PM, and die down by 6PM.
Conversely, if you're planning to be one of the few wintertime visitors to this part of the world, you'll be happy to know that temperatures in Forillon are generally comparable to Montreal and actually a bit warmer than Quebec City: a typical January day sees a high of -7°C (20°F) and a low around -18°C (0°F). However, as in the rest of Gaspé, winters are extremely snowy, with almost 4 metres (over 12 feet) of the white stuff falling on the park in the average year, generally between November and April. All park services shut down between mid-October and the beginning of June (see the Fees/Permits section below) and mobile phone service is spotty, so if you get stuck in a blizzard you'll likely have to fend for yourself.
Maps, brochures, and other park information are available in season at Forillon's two visitor centres:
- L'Anse-au-Griffon Visitor Centre (Centre d'accueil et de renseignements L'Anse-au-Griffon).
- La Penouille Visitor Centre (Centre d'accueil et de renseignements La Penouille).
As elsewhere in the Gaspé Peninsula, the main road to and from Forillon is Provincial Route 132, a lasso-shaped route that circumnavigates the entire peninsula. If, like most visitors, you're arriving from the direction of Montreal or Quebec City, take Autoroute 20 (A-20) eastbound to the end of the road at L'Isle-Verte, where you'll pick up Route 132 heading toward the Gaspé. Forillon is 915 kilometres (570 miles) from Montreal and 700 kilometres (430 miles) from Quebec City — a 9½-hour and 7-hour drive respectively, assuming ideal traffic conditions — and stunning scenery abounds, especially the closer you get to the park.
If you're arriving from the Maritimes or certain parts of eastern New England, the route through New Brunswick may be a more direct alternative. Take New Brunswick Provincial Route 17 to Campbellton, then cross the bridge into Quebec where you'll pick up Route 132 headed east through the Chaleur Bay region and Gaspé. Forillon is a little over four hours past the bridge, a distance of about 325 kilometres (200 miles).
Forillon's main entrance is located in the southern sector of the park at La Penouille, about 19 kilometres (12 miles) from downtown Gaspé via Route 132 ouest (west). From there, it's another 14 kilometres (9 miles) via Route 132 and Boulevard de Grande-Grave to the tollbooth at Petit-Gaspé, where you pay the park entrance fee. There's also a secondary entrance and tollbooth in the northern sector at Cap-des-Rosiers, which may be more useful to those travelling along the south shore of the St. Lawrence Estuary without stopping in Gaspé first.
In most cases, taking a flight to Forillon means landing at Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport (Aéroport international Pierre-Elliott-Trudeau) (IATA: YUL) in Montreal or Jean Lesage International Airport (Aéroport international Jean-Lesage) (IATA: YQB) in Quebec City, then continuing by car via A-20 and Route 132.
Another option is to hop a connecting flight on Air Canada Express from either of those two airports to Michel Pouliot Airport (Aéroport Michel-Pouliot) (IATA: YGP) in Gaspé; round-trip ticket prices start at about $800 from Montreal-Trudeau and about $750 from Quebec City. (If you happen to be coming from the Îles de la Madeleine, there are direct flights from there as well.) There is a National car rental office on the airport property itself as well as Budget, Sauvageau, and Thrifty facilities elsewhere in Gaspé, from which you can rent a car for the 20-minute drive from the airport to Forillon's main entrance at La Penouille.
The tentacles of the Route Verte, Quebec's interconnected, provincewide network of dedicated bike paths and lanes that's the largest on the American continent, extend to Forillon as well. Route Verte 1 enters the park from the north as a dedicated bike lane on the paved shoulder of Route 132. At L'Anse-au-Griffon the route veers sharply to the southwest and cuts perpendicularly across the interior of the park: along the shoulder of Chemin du Portage for the first 1.2 kilometres (three-quarters of a mile), then as an offroad path roughly parallel to the L'Anse-au-Griffon River. Cyclists should beware of steep inclines along the interior portion of the trail, especially heading southward from the crest of the mountains toward Gaspé Bay. Route Verte 1 emerges on the other side of Forillon just east of La Penouille, then turning westward and heading out of the park toward Gaspé, again as a lane on the shoulder of Route 132.
Long-distance hikers can access Forillon National Park via the International Appalachian Trail (IAT; in French Sentier international des Appalaches or SIA), a northeastern extension of the U.S. Appalachian Trail that continues past Mount Katahdin in Maine through Canada, Greenland, various countries of Western Europe, and Morocco. The Katahdin-to-Forillon sector of the IAT was the first to open to hikers, in 1995.
From the west, the IAT enters Forillon at Rivière-Morris, proceeding for about 60 kilometres (35 miles) through the rugged, mountainous terrain of the park's interior before emerging on the shore of Gaspé Bay at L'Anse-Blanchette. From there, the IAT runs concurrent with the Les Graves trail for another 8 kilometres (5 miles) through somewhat easier terrain. The North American mainland portion of the IAT ends at Cap Gaspé, and the trail picks up again on the other side of the Gulf of St. Lawrence at Port aux Basques, Newfoundland (there are currently no scheduled connections by boat).
For those visiting Forillon by boat, there's limited docking space at Grande-Grave Wharf (Quai de Grande-Grave). Rates depend on the size of your boat: 90¢ per foot per day.
For the 2015 season, entry fees to Forillon were:
- $7.80 high season/$5.65 shoulder season for adults
- $6.80 high season/$4.90 shoulder season for seniors (age 65+)
- $3.90 high season/$2.90 shoulder season for youth (age 6-16)
- $19.60 high season/$13.70 shoulder season for families (defined as up to seven people arriving together in the same vehicle)
- $2.90 per person high season/$1.90 per person shoulder season for school groups (students of elementary and secondary schools)
- $6.80 per person, in both high and shoulder seasons, for all other organized groups.
As for annual passes, first and foremost it bears emphasizing that in Quebec the term "national park" is used to describe both parks run by Quebec's provincial park service, Sépaq, as well as those run by the Canadian national government through Parks Canada. (For the latter category, road signs and travel brochures in Quebec will generally use the term "National Park of Canada" so as to avoid confusion.) Forillon is run by Parks Canada, which means that while your Parks Canada Discovery Pass is good for admission to the park, the Annual Parks Quebec Network Card won't do you any good. Aside from that, annual passes to Forillon are available at a price of $39.20 for adults, $34.30 for seniors age 65+, $19.60 for children age 6-16, and $98.10 for families, with substantial "early bird" discounts available if you buy your pass before the end of June.
Forillon National Park is open every year from May 30 to October 12. If you're planning to visit during shoulder season (defined as the periods before June 25 and after Labour Day), keep in mind that the park operates with reduced services during those times — visitor centres, gift shop, snack bars, and many of the historic sites and campgrounds are closed — with entry fees discounted by around 25% to compensate. From October to May, Forillon is nominally closed; though it's possible (and free) to enter, all services are shut down and the park is completely unstaffed, so you're on your own.
Being a relatively small park, getting from place to place within Forillon is a fairly straightforward proposition.
With the exception of long-distance hikers and cyclists (q.v. the On foot and By bike sections above, respectively), the vast majority of visitors to Forillon arrive at and travel through the park by car. Route 132 is the main artery though the park for cars: it enters the park at its northwest corner and runs parallel to the St. Lawrence Estuary as far as Cap-des-Rosiers, then cuts across the interior of the park in a hilly zigzag along the Montée Laurencelle before finally reaching the shore of Gaspé Bay at D'Aiguillon, whereupon it makes a sharp turn back toward Gaspé. If you're driving Route 132 in this direction, signs will say est (east), though only on the part along the St. Lawrence Estuary will you actually be heading eastward.
As well, Provincial Route 197 runs from Rivière-au-Renard south to Saint-Majorique, marking the western boundary of the national park, and Boulevard de Grande-Grave branches off Route 132 at D'Aiguillon, passing through Grande-Grave and ending in a cul-de-sac at L'Anse-aux-Amérindiens, at the head of the Les Graves trail to Cap Gaspé.
The main parking areas at Forillon are found next to the visitor centre at La Penouille and at Grande-Grave Wharf, with smaller ones located at Fort Peninsula, L'Anse-aux-Amérindiens, and at L'Anse-au-Griffon near the north park entrance.
- Blanchette House (Maison Blanchette).
- Cap-Gaspé Lighthouse (Phare de Cap-Gaspé).
- Dolbel-Roberts House (Maison Dolbel-Roberts).
- Fort Peninsula (Fort Péninsule).
- Hyman & Sons General Store (Magasin Hyman & Sons).