Photograph by Michael Melford, National Geographic
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A hiker walks along the boardwalk at Niapiskau Island in Mingan Archipelago National Park.
Photograph by Michael Melford, National Geographic

Mingan Archipelago National Park Reserve

Location: Quebec
Date Established: 1984
Size: 24,711 acres

Famous for the largest concentration of erosion monoliths in Canada, the Mingan Archipelago National Park Reserve encompasses close to a thousand islands and islets sprinkled along 93 miles from east to west. Although the park is restricted to the islands themselves, the sea shapes everything here—rocks, plants, wildlife, climate . . . even the visitor’s experience itself.

Park Facts

Sea Change The Mingan Archipelago tells a fascinating geological story. Difficult to imagine today, the sedimentary rock formations date back almost 500 million years to a time when a warm, shallow tropical sea covered today’s St. Lawrence Lowlands region. Saturated with calcium carbonate and teeming with a diversity of marine organisms, the bottom of this ancient sea received a steady deposit of fine marine sediments and animal shells. Over tens of millions of years, they accumulated to form a blanket nearly two miles thick that gradually turned to rock under its own weight.

An Archipelago Is Born With passing time, continents shifted, the sea receded, and this vast plateau of relatively soft and partly soluble rock found itself under the aggressive attack of erosion. Among other factors, rivers carved up the land, carrying away most of the material, but fortunately left behind several “hard to do” rocky mounds. After several other episodes of sea level fluctuation, these mounds became today’s islands.

Puffin Haven As if to decorate the islands still further, the sea continued to carve their shores, creating a mesmerizing array of monoliths, festooned cliffs, arches, and grottoes. At the same time, a surprising diversity of plant and animal species managed to establish itself on the islands. Due to the particular combination of geology and climate, many rare plants are found nowhere else in the region. In springtime, marine birds—including puffins, razorbills, guillemots, terns, and kittiwakes—congregate on certain islands to form important nesting colonies, taking advantage of both island safety and a bountiful supply of food in surrounding waters. All of these and much more make the archipelago a unique part of Canada’s natural heritage.

How to Get There

Take Hwy. 138, driving about two hours east of Sept-Îles. The Mingan Archipelago stretches along the north shore of the Gulf of St. Lawrence between the towns of Longue-Pointe-de-Mingan and Aguanish. Information and interpretation centers are located in Longue-Pointe-de-Mingan and Havre-St.-Pierre, and information kiosks can be found in Baie-Johan-Beetz and Aguanish.

When to Go

The best time to visit is from June to early September. The park is only accessible by boat, so unless you have your own kayak or boat, you will require the services of registered marine transportation companies, most of which operate only from mid-June to early September. It is recommended that you contact them ahead of time to obtain information and make reservations.

How to Visit

The most popular way to visit the Mingan Archipelago is to take one or several of the boat tours offered by commercial marine transportation companies departing from Longue-Pointe-de-Mingan and Havre-St.-Pierre. Boat capacities vary from 8 to 58 passengers. Tours usually last three to five hours and allow a visit to several different islands, often including one or two guided visits led by Parks Canada interpreters. Enjoy the cool ocean breeze and unbounded horizons. If you are lucky, you may see whales or seals along the way. Admire the spectacle of giant monoliths and festooned cliffs sculpted by the sea. Keep your eyes peeled and search for fossils embedded in the rock and dating back to a time so ancient that fish and other vertebrates had not yet evolved.

Once in the area, chances are you will want to spend a few more days exploring these unique islands at a more leisurely pace. Take a taxi boat and spend a couple of nights camping in the archipelago. Experience genuine island seclusion. Wake up to the rhythm of waves. Inhale the rich smells of the sea. Observe passing seabirds and whales. Relax and soak in the solitude. You will be smitten.

If camping is not your style, the taxi boats also offer numerous possibilities for day or half-day trips. There are relatively easy hiking trails on several different islands, varying in length from 0.2 to about 6.2 miles, either in the interior or along the shoreline. Explore “your” island at your own pace. Relax and picnic along the way. Walk on a pebble or sandy beach. Marvel at the unique and hardy seashore flora. Venture onto the rocky flats at low tide. Discover the diversity of marine organisms that make their home in the tidal pools. Hike into the interior of an island and discover a diverse mosaic of unique ecosystems, each with its specific flora and fauna.

If you feel adventurous, try kayaking in the archipelago. Possibilities for day and multiday trips are endless, and kayak rentals and guided excursions are available. Whichever itinerary you choose, you are bound to have an unforgettable experience of discovery and awe.

Whether you embark on a short three-hour boat tour or a ten-day kayak journey, be sure to begin your stay by stopping at either of the two Parks Canada visitor information and interpretation centers located in Longue-Pointe-de-Mingan or Havre-St.-Pierre. Visit the exhibits on show. Talk to Parks Canada employees to discuss the different excursions that are offered. Obtain all necessary maps, information, and permits. And while you are there, take a tour of the Mingan Islands Cetacean Studies Centre adjacent to the Parks Canada information center in Longue-Pointe-de-Mingan. It provides a fabulous opportunity for visitors to dive deep into the fascinating underwater world of whales.

—Text adapted from the 2011 National Geographic book Guide to the National Parks of Canada