Writing on Stone Provincial Park
Situated along the banks of the Milk River, Writing on Stone Provincial Park is a western oasis tucked away in the heart of the prairie grasslands of southern Alberta. Unknown to many, the park contains the largest concentration of First Nations petroglyphs on the great plains of North America. The Milk River valley was carved out of the limestone rock bed during the recession of the last ice age and through the process of weathering, formed fascinating rock spires known as hoodoos. These vertical limestone rock faces provided a canvas for First Nations cultures to transcribe major events and stories of the peoples and spirits that passed through the valley. This cultural and historical significance earned the park its nomination as a World Heritage Site and recognition as a National Historic Site by the Government of Canada.
As nomadic cultures, First Nations peoples moved with the seasons to where food was abundant and shelter was viable. This constant movement hindered the amount archeologists could learn about these ancient cultures. The petroglyphs at Writing on Stone provide a window into an ancient culture that once inhabited the great plains and gives a fascinating look into Canada's history, far before the arrival of the Europeans.
The area around Writing on Stone is a very sacred place to Blackfoot people. Our park interpreter explained that in Blackfoot culture, anything that casts a shadow has a spirit. Upon first discovering the towering hoodoos along the banks of the Milk River, their shadows were interpreted as spirits of the dead thus giving the valley high spiritual significance. For hundreds of years Blackfoot people have come here to communicate with the spirit world looking for guidance in the rock art before monumental occasions such as heading into battle. Today, Blackfoot continue to honour the spirit beings with offerings and ceremonies.
Coulees, or deep ravines, leading into the river valley provided cover for First Nation war parties to travel undetected and surprise their enemies. These ravines were later used by Europeans to smuggle whiskey into Canada across the international border which lay just a few kilometres south of Writing on Stone. In 1889, a North West Mounted Police (NWMP) outpost was built at the mouth of the coulee to patrol the bootlegging. The NWMP stationed here grew curious of the rock carvings, and without the same appreciation for this spiritual place that we have today, carved their names in the rock beside the petroglyphs. Though the act was disrespectful, this graffiti helped historians determine the arrival of the NWMP and the individuals stationed there providing further insight into the history of southern Alberta.
Unfortunately, as time went on, ranchers and early homesteaders carved their names in the limestone as well. When the area became a provincial park the growing number of annual visitors sadly resulted in the graffiti mushrooming, and in 1977 the province restricted access to this area in hopes of preventing more disrespectful carvings. Today the park offers a paid interpretive tour of this restricted area in addition to an excellent visitor's centre, campground and leisurely open interpretive trail.
Visiting the Park
About three and a half hours from Calgary, Writing on Stone is located 100 km southeast of Lethbridge and minutes from the United States border. The park hosts a fantastic visitor centre open May 21st - September 30th and a full service campground with over 60 sites that is open year round (reservations recommended during summer months).
The visitor centre operates an interpretive rock art tour that takes you into the restricted archeological preserve to see and learn about a majority of the petroglyphs in the area. The tours run twice daily during the summer months, are two hours long and cost $15 per person. We highly recommend these tours as they were an incredible source of information on the history and significance of the region, Blackfoot culture and interpretation of the petroglyphs.
There are a few walking trails around the park, the main one being the 4.4 km round trip Hoodoo trail which takes you through hoodoos and along sandstone cliffs. The end of the trail forks left to an epic battle scene petroglyph - the largest most detailed petroglyph in the park. Heading right leads up to two beautiful viewpoints overlooking the entire river valley.
The beautiful tree-filled campground sits on the banks of the Milk River and has a store, playground, beach, canoe launch and amphitheatre running programs throughout the summer. The Milk River is quite shallow and makes a perfect place to SUP, kayak, canoe or float on hot summer days. You can check with the staff at the visitor centre for the best places to do each of these activities, as there are sections of the river where rapids and rocks are present. For a great look at the fantastic family-friendly campground and it's facilities, we recommend checking out the Rockies Family Adventure blog. You can make a campground reservation through Alberta Parks here.
For more information on booking the Rock Art Tour (July & August only) check out the Alberta Parks page.
For all other information on the park check out albertaparks.ca/writing-on-stone