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A Visit To Writing On Stone Provincial Park

A Visit to Writing on Stone Provincial Park

If you want a history lesson that beats anything you’ve ever had in school, visit Writing on Stone Provincial Park in the southeast corner of Alberta (it’s called Áísínai’pi by the Blackfoot, meaning where the writings are). But before you go, sign up online for a two hour rock art tour so you can see a large number of rock art paintings, most of which are 500 to 1000 years old. In fact the park boasts the largest concentration of rock art on the Great Plains of North America.

The view out to Montana's Sweetgrass Hills from inside the Visitor Centre

The view out to Montana’s Sweetgrass Hills from inside the Visitor Centre

The park is also home to fantastic desert scenery with loads of sandstone hoodoos just begging to be climbed and photographed. Hiking, canoeing, camping and birding all take place in the park as well.

Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park, Alberta

Awe-inspiring first view of Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park

Now a UNESCO site

Writing-on-Stone became a park in 1957; then in 1977 access to some of the park was restricted, largely because of all the graffiti happening. It became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the spring of 2019!

Rock Art Tour in Writing on Stone Provincial Park

John and I recently did the rock art tour with Deserae Yellowhorn as our guide. We were joined by about a dozen young teenagers and four other adults. The tour started with a short drive into an otherwise off-limit section of the park. From there we hiked a short distance down the Milk River Valley, stopping to discuss the rock art panels along the way.

Though simplistic, the pictographs (paintings using ochre which was likely sourced via trade) and petroglyphs (rock art formed by carving into the stone) tell a story. And with a guide along to explain the meaning of the symbols, the rock art comes alive. Part of the way they date the art is by what is or isn’t in the scene. For example horses didn’t show up in the area until the early 1700’s.

An interesting story behind this piece of rock art - Wr

An interesting story behind this piece of rock art – and yes that is a Model T

The type of graffiti they're trying to get rid of - and note the bullet hole

The type of graffiti they’re trying to get rid of – and note the bullet hole

The Blackfoot History

Deserae was masterful at bringing the Blackfoot history alive. We learned that the area from Writing on Stone through to the Sweet Grass Hills in Montana is a very sacred area for the Blackfoot people. As such no wars ever took place here, despite the fact that as Deserae pointed out, the Blackfoot people were intimidating and very war-like. Interestingly, the typical male was 7 feet tall and females on average were 6.5  feet tall.

Following our group on the Rock Art Tour in Writing on Stone

Following our group on the Rock Art Tour

Not all the rock art in the park has been created by the Blackfoot people. The Shoshone, Cree and others contributed as they were passing through. On the other side of the river – which is off limits to the general public, we are told there is even more rock art to see.

Right now there is discussion concerning what is graffiti and what is not. It has been decided that everything pre-1957 is historical. “Recent” carvings include the names of some of the earliest settlers as well as the Model T Ford.

Table Rock Writing-on-Stone Prov'l Park) - a spiritual place for the Blackfoot People and the site of many Vison Quests & ritual 4 day fasts

Table Rock – a spiritual place for the Blackfoot People and the site of many Vison Quests & ritual 4 day fasts

The Blackfoot people have a very strong oral culture. Storytelling season is in winter when the days are short and the nights are long. Many stories have a moral theme – geared to teaching children a lesson. It was a real treat to hear so many of them via Deserae.

Eroded sandstone rock - Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park

Eroded sandstone rock

The buildings in the photo below are reconstructions of the ones the Northwest Mounted Police lived in – while trying to disrupt the flow of whiskey from the States to Canada. We heard that they got so bored patrolling out in the middle of nowhere that they eventually helped make the whiskey trade happen.

Reconstructed Northwest Mounted Police post - built and manned to stop the cross-border whiskey trade

Reconstructed Northwest Mounted Police post – built and manned to stop the cross-border whiskey trade

Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park

It’s easy walking to see the rock art

Hike the Hoodoo Trail

If you have time, I highly recommend the easy 3.5 kilometre return hike to the Battle Scene petroglyph through the beautiful hoodoo country. It’s an interpretive trail following the Milk River with a dozen stops along the way described.

A beautiful view of the Milk River from the Hoodoo Trail

A beautiful view of the Milk River from the Hoodoo Trail

Big sky country in Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park

Big sky country in Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park

Lots of benches beckon you to take in the view along the Hoodoo Trail - Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park

Lots of benches beckon you to take in the view along the Hoodoo Trail

Another view of the Milk River - Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park

Another view of the Milk River

Meadowlarks greet you at the entrance to Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park

Meadowlarks can be seen in Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park

It can get hot on the Hoodoo Trail

It can get hot on the Hoodoo Trail

Hoodoo Trail

There were a couple of tight places to squeeze through along the trail

Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park

The park is a photographer’s dream

If you go to Writing on Stone Provincial Park

  • Tours are $15 per adult. There is a $5 reservation fee.
  • There are three types of snakes in the park – garter, bull and rattlesnakes. In the last four years, there has only been one rattlesnake bite – on account of stupidity.
  • It’s tick season between June and July. Then it’s mosquito season.
  • Carry lots of water (1-2 L minimum) as it can get very hot around the hoodoos – 10°C above the surrounding area.

Getting to the park from Milk River

From Lethbridge take Highway 4 southwest to the small community of Milk River. This is the starting point of the fabulous three day canoe trip on the Milk River that takes you right into Writing on Stone. Head east on Highway 501 and then south on 500 to reach the park. Allow 30 minutes to drive the 41 kilometres from Milk River.

Note: There is a small grocery store in Milk River where you can pick up any last minute supplies. Be sure to take lots of cold drinks especially if you plan on camping in Writing on Stone.

More reading about travel in this part of Alberta

Click on the photo to bookmark to your Pinterest boards.

A trip to Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park
Thank you to Travel Alberta for making this trip possible. All opinions are my own as usual.

 

 

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 8 Comments
  1. The landscape here is so spectacular, Leigh, even without the pictographs, this is a lovely park to visit. Love the clouds and the rocks.
    And we have a Milk River too. Wonder how it got its name.

      1. Just to answer your question the Milk River received its name from Meriweather Lewis who described the river as “…The water of this river possesses a peculiar whiteness, being about the color of a cup of tea with the admixture of a tablespoon of milk. From the color of its water we called it the MILK RIVER….” in his journals.
        the Blackfeet also had a name for it which translates to “cloudy river”

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