When we told people were driving back to Ontario via Labrador, everyone told us their horror stories of the terrible roads and the damage it caused their vehicles, but promptly finished their story by telling us how beautiful it was and how glad they were to have done it…ONCE. There are some incredible places to visit (Red Bay and Point Amour) especially right after entering Labrador, but remember these areas are limited by the seasons and many attractions are only open from May until mid-September.
We’re always grateful for any advice fellow travelers pass along and now that we’ve completed it ourselves, we thought we’d take the opportunity to do the same. Now keep in mind, we really pushed to make it through this drive. We covered some insane distances, drove 10-12 hours at a time and did the entire trip in less than 3 days – looking back, it was a little crazy, but we had it in our heads that we were ready to get home.
So if you want an adventure, that’s most definitely off the beaten path, here’s our advice on what to expect when you decide to take on the Trans Labrador-Quebec Highway:
- It is a LONG drive.
- There is no cell-phone reception anywhere along the Trans Labrador Highway. There was limited signal available in Happy Valley-Goose Bay and in Labrador City, but otherwise we got absolutely no signal from either of our devices which were with two different providers. Same goes for WIFI or a mobile internet device. If you do decide to undertake this drive (we’re hoping this blog post doesn’t scare you off), then we recommend borrowing a free satellite phone from Red Bay. Many tourist stops and hotels offer them to travelers in case of any roadside emergency. You can take them with you and return them to designated spots in Labrador City when you’ve returned to civilization again. Along the 389, they have installed emergency phones almost every 20-30 km in case you run into any issue and this section seemed to be more travelled, so you didn’t worry about being as isolated as you did along the Trans Labrador.
- Sections of both the Trans Labrador Highway (Hwy 503) and Highway 389 (where the Trans Labrador continues into Northern Quebec) are some of worse roads we’ve ever encountered. There were two luxuriously newly paved sections and we thought for a second that maybe the stories we had heard were exaggerated, but that hope was short-lived. When we hit the first really long stretch of dirt roads, we came to realization of what we were in for. Imagine the absolute worse wash-board, pot-hole filled roads and then make them stretch for 450 km at a time. We averaged 40 km on most sections and dropped as low as 20 km on others. Our average for both stretches was 47 km per hour and did this for roughly 500km. When we reached Labrador City, we stopped at a visitor center looking for a bumper sticker that would say something like ‘We survived the Trans Labrador Highway’ and the girl laughed and said they didn’t have them here, but we could definitely find them at the end of Highway 389 (heading into Northern Quebec), since the 389 was actually worse. We almost cried… Arriving at Manic-5 in Quebec and saw the beginning of the paved roads that would take us back to Ontario, we couldn’t be more relieved. We did get our sticker and after the van got a much deserved wash and we got rid of the layers of mud, it was proudly added to the collection.
- There are some incredibly long stretches of absolutely NOTHING. There is gorgeous scenery, incredible waterfalls and stunning views, but otherwise, there is absolutely nothing. No towns, no gas stations, no houses…literally nothing. This is important to know when planning your drive. We recommend filling your gas tank whenever possible. Many people also carry a jerry can of gas just in case. There is a sign just outside of the town of Port Hope Simpson, which is where you will find the last (and only) gas station before the drive to Happy Valley-Goose Bay, which states that there is no available for 420 km. So knowing where those vital stops are is incredibly important and be sure not to take any warnings lightly
- There are really only three towns along the Trans Labrador Highway – Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Churchill Falls and Labrador City. Happy Valley-Goose Bay is comprised of two small sister towns that combined, still only form a slightly larger, small town. You could get all the basics here – grocery store, hardware store, coffee shop, etc., and it also had a free municipal RV dump station. Churchill Falls is what you’d call a ‘company town’. Roughly 600 people live here and the majority work for the hydroelectric dam. The town has been built to cater to those residents and again, has the necessities. We found a listing for a place to free camp and it was located at the school/library/movie theatre/restaurant/grocery store/gym – which should hopefully give you an idea of what to expect from the rest of the micro-city. Labrador City has been built up around a mining town and like Churchill Falls, many of its residents are employed at the mine. The biggest of the three towns with the most amenities, Labrador City was the first place we could really restock before heading off to Quebec. It has a good number of restaurants (independent and chain), grocery stores, a Walmart, hardware stores and a couple of veterinary hospitals.
- Expect to sleep on the side of the road for at least one night along the route. There are dozens of roadside pull-offs and rest-stops along the way (almost every 100-120 km) that are quiet and safe. We stayed at one located about 150 km before Happy Valley that was located just across from a road construction crew camp and actually had free, unsecured WIFI. Some have a picnic table, garbage bins and lots of parking, while others are just a widened shoulder area large enough for an 18-wheeler truck.
- The blackflies are outrageous! Newfoundlanders seem to call them ‘No-see-ums’ which makes them sound cute and kind of harmless, but these are some of the thickest (we stopped counting after we killed 100 that got into the van when we stopped to let the dogs out), most aggressive blackflies we’ve encountered and we’ve hiked Algonquin Park backcountry in late May (which if you’ve never done it requires full-time living in a bug net). Maybe it’s because there are so few people in this area, the blackflies sense this may be their only chance for a meal, but they found in droves every time we stopped and they were biting – another reason for us making the big push to get out of Labrador.
- The Trans Labrador-Quebec Highway is still a work in progress. In about 2 years or so, most of this advice will hopefully be unnecessary. To coincide with the opening of a new National Park in the Mealy Mountains, the full paving of the Trans Labrador Highway should be completed by 2019. We’re looking forward to going back to see the completed park which will probably one of the most beautiful in Canada, but we have absolutely no desire to take on that drive again until the road work is done.
- Labrador is amazingly beautiful! There aren’t a lot of accessible places that are practically untouched by civilization. The Trans Labrador-Quebec Highway takes you through landscapes that beside the road are pretty much the same today as they were hundreds of years ago and that is a rare find unless you’re willing to fly into somewhere or go by boat. The dense forests, the flowing rivers and waterfalls and sheer vastness make it such a unique area. Even after the terrible roads and horrible bugs, we’re still incredibly glad got to experience for ourselves.
So hopefully this post has not deterred you from considering this route. Our story wasn’t so bad – we had no damage to our vehicle or it contents and we were lucky not to encounter any roadside issues. Our campervan’s shocks may be a little worse for wear and we may never get the blackfly guts off the windows, but we were fortunate enough to explore yet another amazing, off-the-beaten-path part of Canada and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it…ONCE.