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Mistaken Point

By Marjorie Turner Hollman

What is Mistaken Point?

Mistaken Point in southeastern Newfoundland, Canada, features fossils up to two meters in length, visible on the surface of the cliffs along the shoreline of Mistaken Point. “It contains the world’s oldest-known examples of large, architecturally complex organisms, including soft-bodied, ancestral animals,” according to the UNESCO World Heritage website.

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Text: Mistaken Point, Newfoundland, Canada. Images: above, a babbling brook; below, the cliffs.

Why is Mistaken Point a UNESCO World Heritage site?

The fossils at Mistaken Point are exposed to the elements, vulnerable to vandalism, and of immeasurable scientific value. For these and additional reasons, the area is not only significant but important to preserve. “Mistaken Point fossils constitute an outstanding record of a critical milestone in the history of life on Earth, ‘when life got big’ after almost three billion years of microbe-dominated evolution,” according to UNESCO. 

A rock containing a fossil image of a fern.

What can you expect on a visit to Mistaken Point?

If you plan ahead (reservations are required to take the guided tour), you can expect to see the fossils “in situ,” that is, right where they were formed, exposed on the surface of these shoreline cliffs at Mistaken Point.

If (like me) you are not agile enough to manage a somewhat rugged six-kilometer hike through boggy and rocky paths, you can instead spend as little or as much time as you wish exploring the exhibits at the Interpretive Center at Mistaken Point. The center, with a well-curated museum, has examples of the type of fossils that are visible on the cliffs. Additional interpretive areas explain the complex events that formed these fossils. A nicely produced video documents the discovery of the fossils, the pride local residents take in caring for this treasure, and the unique value of this site “for the study of early evolution of complex life.”

A very big view over a flat field that reaches the horizon.

Is Mistaken Point worth visiting?

If you, like our family, enjoy learning about fossils and seeing them in person, this is a must-see when you are visiting Newfoundland. If fossils hold little interest, other UNESCO World Heritage sites are likely be a better choice. L’Anse aux Meadows Historic Site and Gros Morne National Park are two UNESCO sites that are also in Newfoundland, albeit the other end of the island.

What sorts of travelers would like Mistaken Point?

Visitors who are comfortable spending extended periods of time outdoors will enjoy this destination. Visitors who are willing to cope with variable weather conditions and challenging footing that requires a level of fitness and agility will have a wonderful time. Those with more limited mobility can still enjoy the museum and the surrounding countryside but are not eligible to participate on the tour of the cliffs.

A stream bubbling over rocks

Tips for visiting Mistaken Point

 If you want to visit the fossil cliffs you MUST call ahead for reservations for the in-person tours, which typically last three to four hours.

Wear sturdy hiking shoes. Bring binoculars to take advantage of possible caribou sightings along the drive, since you will be right on the edge of the Avalon Wilderness Reserve. On our way to Mistaken Point we found one specific parking area that suggested caribou might be spotted from that spot, but it was along a desolate stretch of NL-10 with nothing nearby to suggest an exact location.

Plan on spending about an hour if you are only going to visit the museum.

Two additional hiking trails (with no access to the fossil cliffs) are open to the public. A compass is recommended if choosing this option.

Trepassey, about a half-hour drive up the coast, is the nearest place to find accommodations.

A view of the cliffs, which show distinct layers, each set back from the one below it.
Photo courtesy of Iphigénie from Travel Choreography

Where is Mistaken Point?

Mistaken Point is about a two-hour drive by car south from St. John’s, Newfoundland, along NL-10, also called the “Irish Loop”. It is a two-lane road along the shoreline of the Avalon Peninsula. Free parking is available at the interpretive center and at the trailhead for the start of the guided tours. Visitors are expected to drive themselves to the trail head (about a half hour drive from the interpretive center).

There is no public transportation available to reach this destination.

Compare rental car prices here.

Find more directions from Argentia (where one of the ferries comes in) here.

For more information about Mistaken Point, hours and admission fees, see its official website.

Text and photos provided, except where noted, by Marjorie Turner Hollman. She is a writer who loves the outdoors, and is the author of numerous Easy Walks books. She has written for local, regional, and national publications over the past 25 years.

Have you been to Mistaken Point? If so, do you have any additional information or advice about this UNESCO World Heritage site? Please add your comments below!

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