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Trans-Labrador Highway

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The Trans-Labrador Highway passes through a handful of otherwise-isolated towns and villages in central and southern Labrador, covering just over 1200km (700 miles) of sub-Arctic wilderness.

Understand[edit]

The Trans-Labrador (Newfoundland highways 500 and 510) are a group of isolated roads which serve a few small towns between the Québec border (near Labrador City) and the Atlantic coast (from Goose Bay south to Red Bay and Forteau). From Blanc Sablon (near Forteau), a ferry reaches the island of Newfoundland.

Before the completion of the highway, Labrador outports were supplied by coastal ferry from Lewisporte, Newfoundland. A few points further north are still accessible only by sea, with the bulk of their supplies transferred from the Trans-Labrador Highway to ferries at Goose Bay and Lewisporte.

The last Trans-Labrador section (Cartwright Junction to Goose Bay) opened as a packed gravel road in 2009, allowing the road to be drivable end-to-end for the first time. Route 500 between Labrador City and Goose Bay was entirely paved by June 2015, but a long stretch from Goose Bay to Red Bay and Cartwright remains unpaved and narrow. The road improves along Labrador's south coast. Similarly, Quebec Route 389 from Hydro-Québec's Manic 5 hydroelectric station to the start of the Trans-Labrador Highway at Fermont/Labrador City is little more than a primitive gravel logging/mining road with no towns. The only services between Manic 5 and Fermont are at Relais-Gabriel, which has fuel, a restaurant, motel and outfitter's camp. The next fuel is 250km away.

Labrador is very sparsely populated and lies primarily above 52° north. While not a next-to-impossible destination, the Trans-Labrador Highway is not easy to travel and not on the beaten path.

Prepare[edit]

In summer, blackflies are endemic from mid-July to mid-September, particularly when winds are calm. Bring insect repellent. In winter, the sub-Arctic cold may be bitter, with temperatures as low as -30°C not uncommon.

Assume that, outside the few towns or villages along the route, you will have access to nothing - no fuel, no services, no communications - nothing. Labrador is sparsely populated and the distances between settlements are vast. Have a mechanic inspect your vehicle and complete any repairs before departure, as spare parts for a repair are likely stocked in Labrador City, Goose Bay and Blanc Sablon only. Always leave each town with a full tank of fuel (or even a spare can) and enough supplies to deal with a very long wait if stranded at roadside. Bring a full-size spare tyre and tools, as it's a long way to the next service station and this rough gravel highway is notorious for damaging tyres rather routinely. In most locations, you're on your own.

One section between Port Hope Simpson and Happy Valley-Goose Bay is posted "Driver alert, Next services 410km, Check fuel" - a wide interval matched almost nowhere except in James Bay or the Alaska bush. Even within Cartwright village (which has fuel), the next roadside assistance or repair facilities are 200km distant (in Port Hope Simpson) and 400km away (in Goose Bay); likewise, a breakdown in Churchill Falls (which has fuel and lodging but no repair facilities) may mean a 220km trip to Labrador City or 310km to Goose Bay. Break down on the highway and there's nothing for vast distances; meanwhile, even a premium automobile association membership (like "CAA Plus") covers at most a hundred miles (160km) of towing and the standard cover is substantially less.

Do not assume that car rental agencies will allow you to take their vehicles onto non-paved roads; with rare exception (such as one independent in Forteau), most will not. If you do have the opportunity to choose which vehicle to take onto the gravel road, a 4WD vehicle (4x4 SUV or 4x4 truck) with relatively high clearance may be advantageous for adverse weather and poor road conditions.

Get in[edit]

Gravel highway in Labrador

Options are limited; you can get in by:

  • road from Baie-Comeau by taking Québec Route 389 north to Labrador City
  • ferry from Newfoundland to Blanc-Sablon, just across the Québec border from Forteau but without a road further into Québec
  • coastal ferry from Sept-Îles to Blanc-Sablon (which stops in a string of otherwise-unreachable coastal villages and takes roughly half a week end-to-end).
  • coastal ferry from elsewhere on the Labrador coastline.

The description below assumes you enter by road from Québec and leave by ferry to Newfoundland's Great Northern Peninsula, although the trip may be made in either direction.

The Trans-Labrador Highway 500 begins near Fermont, Quebec, as a continuation of Quebec Route 389. The 566km (340 mile) journey from Baie-Comeau to the Labrador border takes about eight hours, much of it on poor-quality gravel.

  • Churchill Falls and Goose Bay are accessible by air. Labrador City's airport is in the adjacent community of Wabush.
  • Coastal ferries run from Goose Bay to supply a few remote communities with no road access. These ships used to supply Goose Bay and Cartwright from Lewisporte before the 2009 completion of the last gravel section of the Trans-Labrador.
  • Coastal aircraft run between St. Anthony (on Newfoundland's Great Northern Peninsula), Cartwright and Goose Bay, stopping in various small coastal villages along the way. (A separate coastal flight continues onward from Goose Bay to the five Nunatsiavut villages.)
  • Coastal aircraft also run between Sept-Îles and Blanc-Sablon, from which an overland crossing could be made to Forteau.
  • One tiny waypoint Emeril, Labrador is accessible by rail from Sept-Îles; this line does not interconnect with the rest of the North American system. Emeril has basically nothing (no services, no public transport, no actual settlement and no phone signal), making onward travel to Labrador City potentially awkward.

Most of Labrador is in the Atlantic Time zone (AST/ADT), except for the one small section along the Strait of Belle Isle. From Port Hope Simpson to Forteau, the Newfoundland time zone (a half-hour ahead of Atlantic Time) is used. In Blanc Sablon, Atlantic Standard Time is applied year-round.

Drive[edit]

A Basque chalupa recovered from the waters of Red Bay, Labrador

From Baie Comeau (Quebec), the highway crosses into Labrador (QC 389 becomes NL 500) just west of 1 Labrador City. There is an enclosed mall and an airport in Labrador City-Wabush.

The 250km from Labrador City east to 2 Churchill Falls should take about three and a half hours, with no settlements in between. Churchill Falls is famous (or infamous) primarily as a hydroelectric generating station. The village itself has about 600 people, with the Churchill Dam as primary employer. There is a hotel, restaurant, supermarket and fuel but no automotive repairs. There is a tiny airport.

From Churchill Falls, it's another 260km to Muskrat Falls; there's little there other than a 15m waterfall and a hydroelectric station under construction, but 30km beyond Muskrat Falls is the end of Highway 500 in 3 Happy Valley-Goose Bay. Goose Bay is a town of 7500 people built around a former air force base; Goose Bay and Gander were once popular as refuelling stops for aircraft destined to Europe but few now stop here.

Just before Goose Bay, the Trans-Labrador highway turns south onto Highway 510 toward Cartwright Junction (the Highway 510/516 crossroads, no services). 4 Cartwright is 90km off the Trans-Labrador mainline and has limited amenities (the hotel burned down in 2013 and has not yet been rebuilt); ferries run from Goose Bay and Cartwright to otherwise-inaccessible coastal outports.

Follow Highway 510 south through Cartwright Junction and along the Labrador Coastal Drive through 5 Port Hope Simpson and Mary's Harbour to Red Bay.

  • Battle Harbour National Historic District, a restored fisheries ghost town (established 1750s, abandoned 1960s) is reachable by a one-hour sea crossing from Mary's Harbour (50km southeast of Port Hope Simpson). As the boat only runs once daily, there is no means to visit Battle Harbour as a same-day side trip.
  • 6 Red Bay is a tiny (227 people) fishing village and UNESCO-listed archaeological site (former Basque whaling station) on the Strait of Belle Isle.

It's 540km on primitive gravel road from Goose Bay to Red Bay.

Head west through 7 Forteau and exit Labrador to Blanc-Sablon (technically in Québec but only easily reachable from Newfoundland and Labrador, 80km west of Red Bay). Food and lodging are available in Forteau-Blanc Sablon. Take the ferry across the Strait of Belle Isle to the island of Newfoundland. The ferry crossing takes 90 minutes to St. Barbe (except in winter, when it takes a far longer path to Corner Brook.)

Total driving time across Labrador, from Labrador City to Forteau, is about sixteen hours of mostly remote wilderness.

See[edit]

  • The Aurora Borealis or northern lights are visible in Labrador about 240 nights a year.
  • Iceberg and whale spotting along the Atlantic coast and the Strait of Belle Isle: as icebergs breaking free from glaciers further north in spring are carried by ocean currents, don't be surprised to see ice blocking the harbour in early summer. Bird watchers also keep an eye out for shore birds.
  • Point Amour Lighthouse Provincial Historic Site, a 109-foot lighthouse built in 1854-58 to aid navigation through the Strait of Belle Isle. Costumed interpreters and exhibits cover four centuries of maritime history. An adjacent Labrador Straits Natural Heritage Centre offers walking tours and exhibits on plants native to the area; a trail from the lighthouse leads to remnants of the 1922 HMS Raleigh shipwreck.
  • Maritime Archaic Burial Mound National Historic Site, L'Anse-Amour, archaeological site with the oldest known funeral monument in North America.

Do[edit]

  • The bakeapple (or cloudberry), popular in jellies, syrups and pies, is usually ripe for the picking in early August.
  • Snowmobile and hiking trails are plentiful.
  • Pinware River Provincial Park, near L'Anse-au-Clair, trout and salmon fishing along the Forteau and Pinware Rivers.

Stay safe[edit]

As this is primarily wilderness, animal collisions are a hazard; watch for large animals such as moose. Winter driving may be treacherous as much of the Labrador Coastal Drive is oceanfront and very much exposed to the elements; a Labrador winter is not to be trifled with due to sub-Arctic conditions and limited ability to obtain assistance.

A severe winter storm can close long sections of road for a week or more; call +1 709 896-7888 (Goose Bay) for current provincial road conditions for Labrador.

Outside the few towns (Labrador City, Churchill Falls, Happy Valley-Goose Bay and maybe Forteau) there are basically no services and no mobile telephone signal whatsoever on this road. Bell/Telus has limited 3G/UMTS coverage of a few villages which dies as soon as one leaves the towns; there is no Rogers signal. GSM will not work at all, not even for 9-1-1 distress calls.

The Newfoundland government has made eighty Iridium 9555 satellite telephones available for short-term (24 hour) loan; these are limited in capability but allow travellers to contact the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary if stranded with no other means to summon roadside assistance. They may be borrowed/dropped off at the Wabush Hotel in Wabush, Midway Travel Inn in Churchill Falls, Hotel North Two and Royal Inn and Suites in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Alexis Hotel in Port Hope Simpson, Town Office in Charlottetown, Riverlodge Hotel in Mary's Harbour or the Northern Light Inn in L'Anse au Clair.

If you do manage to summon roadside assistance, expect it to be very expensive due to the distances involved. The closest repair facility may be hundreds of kilometres away.

Go next[edit]

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