Last Updated on November 15, 2023
When travelers plan a visit to New Brunswick, they think of long rocky beaches dotted with lighthouses, fresh-caught lobster, and sunset clam bakes. Those in the know also make time for Stonehammer UNESCO Geopark.
What is a Geopark?
A geopark is an area of significant geological importance that allows exploration, development and preservation of links between an area’s history and its natural, cultural and indigenous heritages. There are only 177 geoparks worldwide, and Stonehammer is the first in North America.
History of the Stonehammer UNESCO Geopark
At Stonehammer UNESCO Geopark, visitors experience a billion years of Earth’s history. It was designated as a geopark in 2010 to provide education about the region’s geological history and to help people understand the challenges communities face, such as energy and mineral resource usage, climate change and water shortages.
The park covers a 2,500-square-kilometer (965-square-mile) area extending north and east of Saint John from the Bay of Fundy coastline and from west of Saint John to the Village of St. Martins and the Fundy Trail.
Stonehammer was created by a collision of continents, volcanoes, earthquakes, glaciers and climate change. Its rocks existed during the formation of Precambrian stromatolite fossils, the evolution of vertebrates, and the emergence of life on land. Visitors learn about geological stories from the late Precambrian time to the most recent Ice Age and everything in between.
Stonehammer UNESCO Geopark incorporates more than 60 important geological and fossil sites, about a dozen are accessible to the public. On my visit to New Brunswick, I enjoyed many of these sites accompanied by Patrick Sorensen, a Stonehammer Geopark guide and interpreter.
If you’re planning a trip to New Brunswick, these are my recommendations to include on your itinerary.
The Reversing Falls
The Reversing Falls are a fascinating group of waterfalls located at the confluence of the Saint John River and the Bay of Fundy. They occur when the waters from the bay and the river collide.
The Saint John River passes through a narrow gorge and turns into a set of rapid falls before emptying into the Bay of Fundy. The high tides in the Bay of Fundy cause the water from the Saint John River to flow against the currents whenever the tides are high. The river pours water into the bay at low tide, creating whirlpools and rapids.
While watching the Reversing Falls, you see where two ancient continents collided 300 million years ago. The present-day continents were once a single large land mass that formed a supercontinent called Pangaea. The land masses separated as tectonic plates shifted over a period of around 120 million years, creating what is now North and South America.
From the Reversing Falls Bridge, we noted rock formations from North America, South America, and northern Africa in the same location—the only place in the world where this is possible. Under the bridge are layers of billion-year-old light gray marbles from South America on one side and 500-million-year-old dark gray shales and sandstones from northern Africa on the other.
It’s best to see the Reversing Falls twice—once when the tide is high and again when it’s low. The Reversing Falls Bridge offers a good view, as does nearby Fallsview Park.
Indigenous people called the Saint John River “Wolastoq,” which means “Beautiful River.” It provided them with all the food, materials and medicines they needed. It also served as a transportation route for hunting, trade and travel for the Maliseet, who were then called the “Wolastoqiyik,” or “people of the beautiful river.”
Wolastoq Park overlooks the Saint John River and provides one of the best views of the Reversing Falls, the harbor, and the Saint John city skyline. Along the walking paths are statues that recount the area’s history and commemorate significant people. One tells the story of Koluskap and the Great Beaver, the Maliseet legend of how the Bay of Fundy was created.
As the legend goes, Koluskap was the traditional ancestor of the Maliseet who lived with and cared for them. At that time, beavers were huge animals that the Maliseet feared. One particularly large beaver decided to build a dam where the mouth of the river formed rapids as it met the ocean bay, the area now known as the Reversing Falls.
The Maliseet were angry because the dam was causing flooding, and their campgrounds would soon be underwater. They went to Koluskap, and when he saw the damage that the dam was causing, he asked the beaver to remove it.
The beaver refused, so Koluskap smashed the dam with his club so the river could empty into the bay again. He wanted to ensure that beavers could never endanger his people’s lives again. He decreed that they would be smaller animals from that point forward.
Historic Saint John
Saint John was Canada’s first incorporated city. Many of the buildings are constructed of local sandstone, granite, and marble and were rebuilt after the Great Fire of 1887. We saw many of these during a walking tour that covered the area around Germaine Street.
The Palantine Building on Prince William Street has beautiful carvings around the windows and doors, including an interesting one of a man spitting coins over the entrance. The building once housed a bank. So, the artist who designed and created the carvings believed the carving only made sense.
Trinity Anglican Church on Charlotte St. was founded by Loyalists who left The Colonies during the American Revolution. Its many memorials and plaques are dedicated to its original members and their descendants. The Royal Coat of Arms in the nave was rescued from the Boston Council Chamber after the American Revolution and again during the Great Fire of 1877.
The City Market on Charlotte St. was established in 1876 and is said to be the oldest common-law market in Canada.
On The Water
One of the best ways to experience Stonehammer is in a canoe or kayak. The Bay of Fundy has the highest tides in the world due to its shape and tidal resonance.
Tidal resonance occurs when the amount of time between high and low tides is the same, or nearly the same, as the amount of time needed for a large wave to travel from the mouth of a bay to the far shore and back. Because of this, there are two high and two low tides each day about six hours apart. You can walk on a beach and the same area will be completely underwater a few hours later.
There are several kayak and canoe tour operators in Saint John and along the coast. I took a kayaking tour with Bay of Fundy Adventures to see the impressive St Martin Sea Caves. On the afternoon of my arrival, I walked on the beach and explored the caves. The following morning, I paddled into the same caves I’d explored on foot.
Other tour options include 90-minute kayaking excursions on the Saint John River that leave from Dominion Park Beach, 3-hour tours with River Bay Adventures that explore the area where the Saint John, Kennebecasis, and Hammond rivers meet the Atlantic Ocean in the Bay of Fundy, and 2.5-hour kayaking, canoe and paddle board tours with Osprey Adventures through the Kennebecasis tidal river system.
If a trip to New Brunswick is in your future, do include Stonehammer UNESCO Geopark to your itinerary and take a walk – or paddle – through history and indigenous culture with 360-degree views of the area’s spectacular scenery.