skip to Main Content
Generic selectors
Exact matches only
Search in title
Search in content
Search in posts
Search in pages
Generic selectors
Exact matches only
Search in title
Search in content
Search in posts
Search in pages
A 3 Day Canoe Trip On The Milk River In Alberta

A 3 Day Canoe Trip on the Milk River in Alberta

The Milk River, named for its milky colour by Lewis and Clark back in 1805, flows north out of Montana into southern Alberta and then back into Montana again. Over its 1,173 kilometre length, there is a fantastic section that can easily be done as a 3 day canoe trip beginning in the town of Milk River, Alberta.

John and I rented a canoe from Ken Brown of Milk River Raft Tours (Ph: 403-642-7619) and my brother joined us with a boat in a bag – AKA a Trak kayak he had on loan for the long weekend. We handed our car keys over to Ken who then shuttled our car for $50 to our take-out point in Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park.

It was a sunny, hot day as we launched from the local campground in Milk River. Our plan was to paddle 20 kilometres to Gold Springs – a private campground that is popular with the RV crowd. Most of the first day’s paddle was spent admiring the birds – including a great-horned owl and five ospreys within 10 minutes of launching. Swallows were everywhere too – and were our constant companions along the length of the river.

We also had to get in the groove of reacting quickly to the water. There are plenty of rapids – mostly Class I and easy enough to paddle – except that the river is shallow and there are a lot of rocks to avoid. I went to bed that night thinking – paddle left HARD, go straight, rock on right. We certainly bumped into a few of them and ran aground a couple of times – but nothing more serious than that over the entire 73 kilometres we paddled.

Cows are a common sight in places along the Milk River

Lots of cows can be seen on the banks of the Milk River

Swallow nests are extremely common along the cliff faces and banks of the Milk River

Swallow nests are extremely common along the cliff faces and banks of the Milk River

When we pulled out at Gold Springs, we felt like we’d gone from relative desolation to full on civilization again. But we were lucky enough to snag a campsite right by the river, between two RV’s. One was empty and the other stayed that way until the storm hit so we did feel like we had some personal space – something we all like on a wilderness trip.

There are very few camping spots as most of the land along the Milk River is private

There are very few camping spots as most of the land along the Milk River is private

Our tent on the Milk River

Our tent is tied off – thankfully because we’re about to be hit by one powerful storm

Great view from above the campground of the oxbow on the Milk River

Great view from above the campground of the oxbow

An aerial view of Gold Springs Park and the Milk River, Alberta

An aerial view of Gold Springs Park – our tents are the two along the river

It's a flat world when you climb above the Milk River

It’s a flat world when you climb above the Milk River

Gold Springs to Poverty Rock – 33 kilometres

We woke on the second day to chilly temperatures and spitting rain. I was happy it wasn’t pouring and windy considering our tent had been rattled and shaken for hours during the night. Thank heavens we didn’t get the hail that Calgary had that day! Our tent would have been toast. At Gold Creek there is a picnic shelter so we could eat breakfast without getting wet – an advantage to semi-civilization.

Once on the water we knew it was going to be nothing but rapids for the entire day. In fact the area between Gold Springs and Poverty Rock is known as the Rock Garden and more than a few canoes have met their demise here. The average gradient according to the map is 2.4 m/km.

We wore rain gear all day long though it actually stopped spitting the minute we got in the boat. Still, it was hypothermia type weather and we wanted to stay warm.

It’s 20 kilometres from Gold Springs to the turquoise-green coloured Coffin Bridge – named for Frank Coffin who came to the area with 200 head of cattle in 1902. On this section there are only a handful of places to pull out; around the bridge itself, it’s quite steep. Some people drive to Coffin Bridge to put in – as we discovered on arrival at Poverty Rock.

Paddling teh Milk River in a Trac kayak

My brother is a happy guy out on the water

One of the decent pull-out spots before Coffin Bridge on the Milk River

One of the decent pull-out spots before Coffin Bridge

From Coffin Bridge to Poverty Rock its 13 kilometres.

A couple of the rapids in this section are Class II or Class III if the conditions are right (or wrong depending on how you like your rapids.) It took us about 90 minutes to get to Poverty Rock from the bridge.

Once there we were met with the sight of about a dozen canoes. As we hadn’t seen a soul on the river we figured we’d have Poverty Rock to ourselves. No such luck – so we just humped our stuff away from the main group – and once again felt a sense of privacy.

The large group at Poverty Rock had put in at Coffin Bridge. They had lots of young kids with them so I can understand their reticence to do a full day of rapids.

At Poverty Rock there is a cooking shelter, an outhouse and several garbage cans. It’s managed by Alberta Parks but there are no fees to camp here.

Poverty Rock itself begs to be climbed. But the whole area around it is also fantastic for hiking. We walked for well over an hour, climbing high above the area to enjoy the views. Do watch out for rattlesnakes around the rocks. Ken, the fellow that rents boats informed us that “the rattlesnakes are blind right now as they shed their skin so they sense you by vibration only.” Don’t put your hands in any holes and watch out for sunning snakes on rocks. (We saw none.)

Beautiful campsite by Poverty Rock - that someone else snagged

Beautiful campsite by Poverty Rock – that someone else snagged

Milk River, Alberta

Beautiful light on the nearby rocks early in the evening

Follow the old road above Poverty Rock for a grand view of the Milk River

Follow the old road above Poverty Rock for a grand view of the Milk River

Poverty Rock seen from above - on a walk you can do following an old road

Poverty Rock seen from above – on a walk you can do following an old road

Milk River ripples

We can see what we’ll be paddling first thing the next day

Looking south along the Milk River with the Sweet Grass Hills of Montana off in the distance

Looking south along the Milk River with the Sweet Grass Hills of Montana off in the distance

Poverty Rock to Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park – 20 kilometres

The section from Poverty Rock to Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park is the easiest and I think the most scenic section on account of the huge number of hoodoos. We did it in 3.5 hours including breaks. One of our stops was across from the nest of a big horned owl. With binoculars you could see inside the nest from across the river – and in it were three owlets.

You can also pull out (and arrange the shuttle) at Weir Bridge, 10 kilometres into the paddle. I’d recommend continuing to Writing-on-Stone for the scenery, though there’s a good place for a break just after the bridge.

It's hoodoo country as you head towards Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park, Alberta

It’s hoodoo country as you head towards Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park

Beautiful paddling through Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park

Beautiful paddling through Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park

Me on the Milk River

I love being out on trips like this

The Milk River is constantly shifting. It tends to be busiest in June and early July. The flow drops off considerably over the summer so the paddling can be very difficult with the large number of rocks. It’s best that you have some experience before attempting it. Also beware of rock fall from the cliffs and slumping – of which there is plenty especially after a heavy rainfall.

No reservations are required though at peak times it might be handy to make one for Gold Springs Park (Ph: 403-647-2277). Also consider picking up the map – A Paddler’s Guide to the Milk River – available at MEC for $7.50.

Have you ever paddled the Milk River? Any interest?

A 3 day canoe trip on the Milk River in Alberta

 

Thank you to Travel Alberta for sponsoring the trip. If you’re an intermediate paddler or better you’ll love the experience.

 

Leigh McAdam is a Calgary based writer, author, photographer and social media enthusiast with over 57,000 followers. Her blog: HikeBikeTravel is frequently cited as one of the top travel and outdoor adventure blogs in Canada.

Author of Discover Canada: 100 Inspiring Outdoor Adventures
Co-author of 125 Nature Hot Spots in Alberta

This Post Has 24 Comments
  1. Looks beautiful – and the possibility of paddling across borders… love it. Also like the descriptive names: Poverty Point, Writing on Walls…

    1. @Sophie One day I would love to paddle through what had been called the biggest canyon on the North American plains – if you continue down the Milk River. You do have to get permission from landowners to camp – and that’s the problem.

  2. Thanks so much. Very informative. I really want to do this river but am scared of the “rock garden” part. I’ve done Weir Bridge to Writing on Stone already and have done WOS to the next bridge as well, both as day trips. I use a stand up paddleboard so have to be especially careful with rocks. Hit some big ones last weekend on a different river and cracked my poor board.

    1. @Tanya You get very adept very quickly at reading the river. There were definitely some big waves at times but it was the big rocks that had me on high alert. Day two was beautiful but it’s definitely not for everybody. I don’t know how a paddleboard would do in the rapids but you must have good balance if you use it all the time.

  3. I often think of the Prairies as being flat and brown, but you’ve really shown me that’s not the case. I can’t believe how incredibly pretty the Milk River region is. I’ve lived in Alberta most of my life, but have never explored the southern bit very much. I’m keen to replicate your experience.

  4. What a great kayaking trip! And at least you had lovely sunny weather the first day :-). We lived for many years in Calgary before moving to Vancouver, and now, looking at your photos, we’re sorry we didn’t explore this part of Alberta while there. Cool-looking hoodoos!

  5. Thanks for bringing some beautiful memories back to me. I grew up in Coutts and have been “Tubing and rafting to from Milk River and Gold Springs to Writing-On Stone since I was knee high to the grass. I think a couple of pictures pulled at my heartstrings. Beautiful photos. I know you enjoyed that trip.
    Thanks again for shaking up my memories.

      1. My dad’s farm was about 10 miles from Writing-On-Stone so I grew up climbing the rocks and swimming in the Milk River.Though I grew up in Milk River, I spent many a summer’s day at Writing – On-Stone and it is great to see the area. It brings back so many memories.

        1. @Jean I can sure understand the happy memories. It;s a part of the world so few people see but would they ever be surprised in a good way if they made the visit. If Writing-on-Stone gets UNESCO status one day I suspect the area will see more traffic.

  6. I would love to paddle the whole milk river. I would not want to skim over any section. I love it that camping is free at Poverty Rock. Anyone who camps there is rich. I love the scenery in the last section. Looks like a beautiful river.

    1. @Ted It would be an amazing river to paddle down all the way to Montana as that’s the biggest canyon country in North American plains. Maybe one day. It’s scenic, fabulous and I highly recommend going – by mid-July before water levels drop.

  7. I lived on the bank of Milk River for 13 years. We went down the river on inner tubes, kayak and Canoe. It was great fun. That was the days when we didn’t pay anyone to drive our car to the end destination. We were locals. The river is great fun in the summer time. Great pictures.

  8. Sounds like a great trip! We camped at Writing On Stone a few years ago, but for only one night – no paddling, unfortunately. We enjoyed hiking among the hoodoos – fantastic formations. We’re going back this year on our cross-Canada trip and will visit there again for a little paddling. Thanks for the article!

    1. @Dave and Robin This is a superlative trip and although only a short section is in Writing-on-Stone you get a lot of hoodoo country. I personally think its an amazing part of Alberta to discover.

    1. @H Christie It depends on your experience and water levels. I’d recommend contacting the fellow who does the shuttle and canoe rental as he would know better.

  9. Love this river. Have traveled it many times into Writing on Stone. Two summers ago, we decided to go all the way. Starting at Coffin Bridge and continuing into the US. If you love to get away from it all……this is the way to do it. Some of the most remote, and beautiful country I have ever experienced. In the 5 days it took to get to the end, we saw a total of….1 person and only at the end of our first day. The river slows significantly and becomes very shallow towards the end. Be sure to get your ducks in a row before you cross the border.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Pin It on Pinterest

Close search

Cart