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 and finishing in Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park.
Most people start in the town of Milk River but there is an option to start in Gold Springs. A few people put in at the Coffin Bridge for a shorter canoe trip.
From the town of Milk River to Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park it’s 73 km.
Milk River Raft Tours owners Wendy and Ken Brown no longer rent canoes but they do rent large inner tubes with handles. They will also shuttle your vehicle from Milk River to the parking lot by the pullout in Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park for $75 (2023 prices). Call 403-647-3586 to book.
You can also call Karen for a parking and vehicle shuttle service at 403-758-6683. She operates out of Del Bonita.
The Milk River Canoe trip is best done from the May long weekend until late July. By the time July rolls around, the river level starts to drop and there are more rocks to dodge. If you go to early in May, you’ll find the water to be VERY cold.
Allow three days to do the Milk River canoe trip. Plan to camp at Gold Springs and Poverty Rock.
I would recommend making a reservation for the Gold Springs Campground, especially if you’re canoeing over a weekend.
Important and new for 2023: You can still random camp at Poverty Rock but what you now need is a free permit. You can get that by calling someone at Writing-on-Stone at 403-647-2364 ext 301. While that in itself isn’t a hardship, you now also need a free parking permit if you want to leave your vehicle in Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park while you’re paddling. What that means is that you need to pick up the permit in the park beforehand and then drive to Milk River so you can hand it to whoever is doing the shuttle for you. This is obviously a cumbersome detail that hasn’t been totally thought out in my opinion. They are working on an online solution which would make way more sense.
Note that there is poor or bad cell service along the Milk River.
Please don’t trespass onto private property and be sure to practice Leave No Trace principles.
This part of the world can get very hot so be sure you’ve got lots of water.
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Launch from the town of Milk River, Alberta
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 km we paddled.
The campground at Gold Springs
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.
Canoeing 33 km from Gold Springs to Poverty Rock
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 km 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.
Canoeing from Coffin Bridge to Poverty Rock – 13 km
A couple of the rapids in this section of the Milk River 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 Coffin 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. However, you do need a permit so don’t forget to book it well in advance by calling 403-647-2364 ext 301.
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 shuttles vehicles 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.)
Canoeing 20 km from Poverty Rock to Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park
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.
A few things I’d recommend for the Milk River canoe trip
From my experience over decades of paddling the following would be useful.
On a canoe trip you could easily pack a camp chairand make the evening that much more comfortable. I have a lightweight one I even take on backpacking trips.
To make your night more comfortable, consider taking a lightweight camp pillow.
Should any of your gear break, you’ll be happy to have some gear-aid patches with you.
When is the best time to do the Milk River canoe trip?
The Milk River flow is constantly shifting. Water levels tend to be highest 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.
Consider picking up the map – A Paddler’s Guide to the Milk River.