Quebec's Gaspé Peninsula: A Visit to Land's End
Written and photographed by Pamela Hunt provided by RV Destinations Magazine
Dramatic ocean and mountain landscapes? Check. Abundant wildlife? Check. Culture and history? Check. We found the Gaspé Peninsula, the arm of Quebec that forms the southern border of the mighty St. Lawrence Seaway, to be the perfect road trip destination. Surrounded on three sides by water—the St. Lawrence to the north, the Atlantic Ocean to the east and the Bay of Chaleur to the south—this region was named after the Mi'gmaq word gespe'g, or "end," because, for some, it represented the end of the land. From the undulating drive along Route 132, which curves in and out of numerous bays as it wraps around the peninsula's perimeter, to the Chic-Choc Mountains that make up this area's interior, we discovered exciting destinations, sights and activities.
Driving up from Vermont in early September, my husband, our two dogs and I followed the southern shore of the St. Lawrence up to Gaspésie, as it's known by the French-speaking communities there. Our first stop: the Centre d'Art in Sainte-Flavie, which features work by Marcel Gagnon and several other Quebec artists. The most well-known exhibit, Gagnon's award-winning "Le Grand Rassemblement" ("The Great Gathering"), greeted us just to the side of the parking area. The more than 80 life-size concrete figures that constitute the piece emerge from the St. Lawrence and up onto the pebble beach, slowly hidden and revealed as the daily tides transform their appearance. The museum also hosts a shop and a restaurant where you can enjoy your lunch or dinner with a great view of the river. Be sure to try the shrimp caught in nearby Matane.
Although the seaway and ocean views of the Gaspé Peninsula are unforgettable, the interior of this region also draws many visitors to its pristine fishing streams and hiking trails. In Saint-Léandre, about 12 miles inland from Route 132 in Saint-Ulric, we explored the dog-friendly Sentiers Grotte des fées (Trails at the Fairy Cave), which lead through more than 6,000 acres of forested land. The main attraction is the fairy cave—500 million years of erosion has worn away the rock to reveal the numerous layers of sediment that formed the bottom of the Iapetus Sea, which once covered this area. The mist from a 21-foot waterfall near the cave lent an air of mystery to the forest, and inhabitants of this area once believed the face of a fairy appeared in the water vapors, hence the cave's name.
We continued north on Route 132, watching as the Manicouagan and Duplessis regions of Quebec on the other side of the seaway gradually disappeared as the St. Lawrence grew wider and wider. As we approached Cap-Chat, we saw the numerous wind turbines—more than 70—sprouting from the hillside overlooking the town, taking advantage of the winds off the ocean and river. The villages along the road are small, and many of the few restaurants we saw were closed for the season. Luckily, rest areas appear every 10 miles or so with potable water and tables—and some with restrooms—so we had no shortage of picnic and photo spots.
In Sainte-Anne-des-Monts, we turned inland on Route 299 to check out the dog-friendly trails at Gaspésie National Park. This park, which encompasses nearly 200,000 acres, including Mont Albert and the McGerrigle Mountains, is a Quebec provincial park, and until recent years, was off-limits to dogs. Lucky for us, several of the Quebec provincial parks have begun opening trails to canines (on-leash, of course), so we gathered up our pair for a hike along the La Chute and La Lucarne trails. After meandering along a stream, the trail ascends a small hill where we climbed into a tower from which we could take in the conifer-covered mountains around us. The International Appalachian Trail runs through this park, which has led to its popularity with hikers and backcountry skiers in the winter.
Our next stop: Forillon National Park. Covering the entire northern tip of the peninsula, the park just celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2020. It offers beaches, mountains, hiking, biking, diving and whale watching, among other activities. The trails are all dog-friendly, which made it the perfect destination for us. The first one we explored, the L'Anse-aux-Amérindiens (Native Americans' Bay), crosses through a sparse forest into fields with a wide-open view of the Atlantic Ocean and the town of Gaspé. We could see cormorants drying their wings along the rocky coast, and although we didn't see any bears, they're known to frequent this trail. Near the end, we climbed a steep hill to the solar-powered lighthouse at Cap Gaspé before continuing to the scenic overlook called Land's End.
A completely different type of trail awaited us the next day in the Penouille section of the park. The trail starts as a wooden boardwalk that follows the sandy beach, then transitions to asphalt. From there, you can enter a loop through a taiga—a lichen-carpeted forest usually found much further north. The mosses, ferns and trees covered with epiphytic plants create a much different environment than the rest of the peninsula and gave us a glimpse into northern Canada's scenery.
One of the main draws of a visit to the Gaspé Peninsula is the chance to encounter the world's largest mammals. Blue, fin, humpback and minke whales come to this region in early summer to feed. And many continue up the St. Lawrence Seaway to the Saguenay Fjord region. We were pleased to discover that the whale watches here use smaller, Zodiac-style boats, which offer a much more intimate experience than the larger craft we've seen in other places. Just moments after leaving the wharf, we spotted our first whales—a pod of minkes swimming along the surface. Soon, the captain pointed to a plume of spray—a humpback coming up for air. After a few minutes of floating near the surface, the whale took one last breath and dove down, giving us a perfect view of his flukes as he disappeared below the water. Before heading back to shore, we were treated to a grand finale of sorts—two humpbacks breaching. They jumped out of the water, over and over, as if they knew that was what we wanted to see. Everyone on the boat was still talking about the show as we climbed out of our survival suits back onshore.
After leaving Forillon, we stopped in the town of Gaspé, known as the birthplace of Canada. A re-created collection of buildings along the water, including a residential house, warehouse and general store, illustrates what life was like here in the 1900s. A large granite cross represents the region's French heritage. In 1534, Jacques Cartier claimed this land in the name of the King of France, and French is still the primary language here. The Gaspésie Museum also had several interesting exhibits about this area's history, from the Mi'gmaq nation to the cod fishermen and whalers who made their living in the waters here.
As we approached our next destination, the town of Percé, we understood why it's recommended to drive the Gaspé Peninsula in a clockwise direction. As we crested the last hill before Percé, the view of the town—with its dramatic arched Percé Rock in the bay—creates a postcard-perfect scene. The bustling main street is lined with restaurants and shops, though compared to destinations further south in New England, the crowds and traffic weren't too bad.
Just off the shore of Percé, the Quebec provincial park on Bonaventure Island is home to numerous seals and sea birds, including an enormous colony of northern gannets. We enjoyed a two-hour cruise that traveled around Percé Rock—where we learned that the rock used to have two arches, but lightning destroyed one—then headed to the island. The boat stops for people who wish to hike the island's trails, but we preferred to see the wildlife from the water, so we stayed put. Small homes dot the meadows near the water's edge, and seals basked in the sun on the reddish rocks along the shore. Near the south end of the island, the large white gannets glided effortlessly along the face of the cliff, close enough for us to see their yellow-orange heads and gray-blue beaks. Thousands of them wheeled through the sky, their calls echoing through the wind.
Alas, two weeks in Gaspésie went by quickly but left many memories and plans for a return trip to this magical region.