Why You Should Visit Writing on Stone Provincial Park

by - Thursday, May 25, 2017

Writing on Stone Provincial Park is a magical land of hoodoos, coulees, and rich history. Known to the Blackfoot as Áísínai'pi, "It is pictured, it is written",  it is easy to see why this area is sacred. As the prairies give way to weird and wonderful rock spires, you can't help but be awestruck. Hike the Hoodoo Trail to an intricate battle scene carved in the 1800's, then scan the river valley for deer and pronghorn antelope. Later, float down the Milk River while being serenaded by birds. Whether you go for the scenery, paddling, or rock art, you will be captivated by this picturesque park in the prairies.


Paddling or Rafting the Milk River

The Milk River, which flows past the Writing on Stone campground, offers float and paddle trips for all skill levels:
  • There is a great 2-3 day trip from Milk River to Writing on Stone Provincial Park (73 km). Sections of this trip have rock gardens and rapids, so it is not recommended for beginners. Leigh at Hike Bike Travel has a good writeup of the trip here
Scenery is superb as you paddle past hoodoos and high escarpments.

Rentals

Milk River Raft Tours
  • Canoe rentals, river tours, shuttle service and vehicle storage 
  • Phone Ken & Wendy Brown: (403) 647-3586 
Insider tip: Book a few weeks in advance during peak season.

Shuttle

Karen's Canoe Service
  • Parking and vehicle shuttle service 
  • Phone: (403) 758-6683 
Writing on Stone Provincial Park beach

Hoodoos

While the Milk River brings life to the living, the hoodoos house spirits. It is easy to see why the hoodoos have special significance to First Nations. The knobby landscape is drastically different from the rest of the prairies. When European settlers saw the unique rock formations and learned of their significance, they called them hoodoos (hoodoo = folk magic) and the name stuck.

These days, at any time of day, you can see people scrambling all over the hoodoos. They make a great natural playground! It is possible to explore the hoodoos near the campground, and adjacent to the Visitor Centre Trail, but on the Hoodoo Trail (4.4 km return), please stay on the trail to prevent erosion.

Writing on Stone Provincial Park

Kids and hoodoos

Rock Art & First Nations' History

First Nations have been leaving their mark and seeking advice from the spirits here for thousands of years. Archaeological evidence reveals ancient campsites, hunting and "burial" grounds (bodies weren't buried in the ground, but placed in crevices in the escarpments) as well as an abundance of rock art, the park's namesake. In fact, the Milk River Valley contains the highest concentration of pictographs and petroglyphs in North America's Great Plains! You can see a few examples along the Hoodoo Trail (4.4 km return from the campground), but there is much more rock art in the preserve (accessed by tour only).

Rock Art (person with arms reached up in prayer), Writing on Stone Provincial Park

Rock Art Tours

If you would like to learn more about rock art and First Nations' History, sign up for an Alberta Parks Tour! For only $45, your whole family can take a guided 2-hour tour in the preserve, which is closed to the public. Transportation to/from the preserve (about 5 minutes one way) is included. We found the tour quite interesting, but as there was more talking than walking, I would recommend it for kids 9 & up. *Insider tip: Book a morning tour or evening tour, so you can play at the beach in the afternoon when it's hot. 

Beckie, our interpreter, points out ancient rock art
Shields indicate this rock art is from before 1730.

Birding & Wildlife Viewing

Writing on Stone is a prairie oasis with incredible biodiversity. Bring your binoculars and download a birding app before you go to ID the many species of birds throughout the park. Deer, rabbits, pronghorn antelope, and many kinds of snakes also call the Milk River Valley Home. We saw a couple large garter snakes and were surprised to see one swim across the river! Something to think about when you are wading... 

Baby robins near our campsite

Camping

Writing on Stone Provincial Park Campground will soon become one of your favorite campgrounds! We talked to several families who have been going there for years. The top two things everyone loves are the hoodoos and the beach! We felt the same and also loved the towering cottonwoods that shade the campsites, showers, Visitor Information Centre (lots of hands on exhibits), and cold treats from the Hoodoo Hut (campground store).

 
Part of an exhibit in the Visitor Information Centre
Campsites around the outer loop have more privacy, but the inner loop sites are great if you are camping with friends as they're close together. If you will be travelling with several families/friends, book a group site! Group A has a picnic shelter; Group B does not, but it's closer to the beach.

There are 45 power sites and 19 unserviced sites as well as 3 comfort camping units in this beautiful, high demand campground. Book 90 days in advance to save your spot, or go in the off season! *Group campsites may be booked in February for the whole camping season. Details here.

Writing on Stone Provincial Park's campground is open year round. Power is available year round in power sites, but water is shut off in September.

Writing on Stone Provincial Park Campsite
Writing on Stone Provincial Park Beach
Get slushees and popsicles at the Hoodoo Hut Camp Store
Writing on Stone Campground Map
Comfort Camping Tent at Writing on Stone

When to Go

Spring and fall are the best times to visit Writing on Stone Provincial Park if you plan on spending lots of time around the hoodoos. For paddling, May until August are typically great (check flow levels before you go).

Spring wildflowers at Writing on Stone


Know Before You Go

  • The campground and tours book up quickly during peak season (May long weekend to Labour Day), so book in advance!
  • The nearest town is Milk River (42 km away), but some essentials (ice, firewood, snacks) are available at the campground store. The campground store accepts cash, debit, and credit cards.
  • There is no cell phone service in the campground, but there is cell phone service and free wifi at the Visitor Information Centre.
  • There are rattlesnakes in the park. If you see one (or any other kind of snake), give it space so it has an escape route. They are poisonous, but will leave you alone if you leave them alone. More information on rattlesnake safety is available here.
  • On average, it is 10 degrees warmer in the hoodoos, so plan to visit them in the morning during summer months.
  • Due to livestock upstream, the fecal coliform levels in the Milk River can be high in late summer. Check advisories and swim at your own risk.
  • No lifeguard on duty at the beach. Keep children within arm's reach!
  • Rafting and paddling conditions vary throughout the season. Check water levels before you go and research your route carefully. 

Getting There

Writing on Stone Provincial Park is 340 km southeast of Calgary.

En route, visit the Nanton grain elevators, Claresholm Museum & Visitor Information Centre, Nikka Yuko Japanese Garden in Lethbridge, The NWMP Fort Museum at Fort Macleod (get tickets to the NWMP Musical Ride!), or Devil's Coulee Dinosaur Heritage Museum in Warner. All attractions are on or close to the highway.

Head Smashed in Buffalo Jump World Heritage Site is a worthwhile and fascinating detour (34 km round trip) if you have a couple hours to spare.

Claresholm Museum & Visitor Information Centre

Nanton Grain Elevators


Nikka Yuko Japanese Garden, Lethbridge
NWMP Fort Museum, Fort Macleod

Writing on Stone Provincial Park is an Alberta treasure that has been nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Put it on your bucket list; it's worth the drive!

What do you like best about Writing on Stone Provincial Park?

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2 comments

  1. Love Writing on Stone Prov Park! I paddled the Milk River before I had kids and am anxious to bring my family down there this summer or fall. Thanks for sharing this as I wasn't aware of the $45 family tour available. My kids are a bit younger but would probably love it as they are super intrigued by history.

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    1. That must've been an amazing paddling trip! We were stoked to do a short paddle, but the canoes were all booked up, so it'll have to be next time. The tour was fascinating and the kids got a good laugh from one of the Naapi stories. Just be sure to book a morning tour to avoid being by the hoodoos at the hottest time of day. :)

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