Writing-on-Stone is a provincial park in Alberta. It’s home to the largest concentration of aboriginal rock art in North America and to some rather other-worldly looking formations, called hoodoos!
Why You Should Visit Writing-On-Stone
You’ll see one of the coolest landscapes on the planet – Hoodoos! These sandstone formations are what’s left after thousands of years of erosion. They’re constantly changing as rain and wind continue to shape this magical landscape! The only other places I’ve seen hoodoos are in Drumheller, the Dinosaur Capital of the World and in Bryce Canyon in Utah.
Writing-On-Stone is a great place to get insights into the earlier lives of native people. They’ve inhabited the site for at least 3000 years, taking shelter in the valley while hunting and gathering food. The Sweetgrass Hills (shown below) are in Montana. The Blackfoot people often climbed to the top and used it as lookout point to spot bison, critical for the tribe’s survival. Note: you’ll no longer find bison here, you’ll have to head to Elk Island National Park for that. Alternatively, check out Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump for a fascinating look at how native people smartly killed many bison at once.
It’s also one of the best places in all of North America to see rock carvings. There are over 50 petroglyph sites and thousands of works! Many of the more sensitive sites are only available with a guided tour, which I highly recommend. It’s really useful for someone to translate their meaning and show you carvings that you never would have spotted by yourself. The two shown below are only accessible with a tour.
You’ll definitely not want to miss the Battle Scene. It’s one of the most elaborate rock carvings found in North America! Note: don’t go in the middle of the day as we did, as we could hardly see it due to the harsh lighting. This spectacular rock carving is available to the public without a tour.
Writing-On-Stone is one of the largest areas of protected prairies in Alberta and is home to a surprising number of flora and fauna. Keep your eyes opened for over 160 bird species, pronghorn antelope, bobcats, rattle snakes and beaver!
How to Plan Your Visit to Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park
Plan for a minimum of half-day. You could easily extend your visit to 2 or 3 days if you planned on doing some hiking or canoeing or kayaking. If you want to stay overnight, there’s a full-service campground. You’ll also find a small store where you can stock up on the camping essentials and buy firewood. There are no hotels or restaurants on-site. The nearest ones are in Milk River, 44 km away.
This nature and archaeological preserve has activities for both the outdoor and the culture lover. I’m a huge fan of the self-guided Hoodoo Interpretive Trail. This 4.4 km long trail takes you right through the hoodoos with 12 interpretive stops. It explains how the Hoodoos were formed and the how the Blackfoot used the area. You can pick up the free self-guided trail brochure in the Visitor Centre. My husband and I both loved this trail. It’s easy to see why the Blackfoot thought it was such a spiritual place.
I’m also a big fan of the guided tours. We just did one tour, the Writing-On-Stone 101, but there are other tours available as well depending on when you’re visiting. The guided tours are also the only way to see many of the rock art sites. Check out which tours are available on the day that you’re planning on visiting, then plan the rest of your visit around the tour, or tours that you’re doing.
Travel Tip: Our tour was at 2:00 pm and it was really hot. The region is known for its extreme temperatures, so if it’s a really hot day, I would recommend doing either the Rock Art Tour in the morning or evening. You can find a list of the available tours here.
The Milk River flows right through Writing-On-Stone and makes a great place for tubing, canoeing or kayaking. You can either bring your own, of if you need to rent one, you can do so from Milk River Raft Tours in Milk River, located ~44 km away. If you’re coming from Lethbridge, you’ll pass Milk River on your way.They don’t have a website, but you can contact them via email at: [email protected] or phone: (403) 647-3586. Note: kayak and canoe rentals are not available directly at Writing-On-Stone, so you’ll need to plan this in advance. My friend Leigh from Hike Bike Travel did a 3-day canoe trip along the Milk River, which she recommends for intermediate+ paddlers.
As I mentioned earlier, it can get really hot in summer, so the Milk River makes for an excellent place to cool off for a swim. Always check with the Visitor Centre first. During our visit, swimming wasn’t recommended due to a parasite in the water.
Travel Tip: It’s important to ALWAYS check the river status before getting in the water. You can do so at the Visitor Centre or by checking this site from Alberta Environment and Parks.
Besides the Hoodoo Interpretive Trail, you can also do some backcountry hiking through Davis and Humphrey coulees. There is no marked trail, but you can follow game trails. Note: Except for the hike out of the coulee, it’s flat, so your chances of getting lost are very slim and you have the river and the Sweetgrass Hills as reference points.
Hiking tip: If you want to hike in the backcountry area, you must wade across the Milk River. Check with the Visitor Centre beforehand to make sure that it is safe to do so.
Writing-On-Stone is home to more than 160 bird species. You can download your birding checklist here. I think this would be great fun, even if you weren’t an avid birder.
What to Bring to Writing-On-Stone
There is a small store on site, but no restaurant so bring your own food for a picnic. I loved the day-use area in the coulee. It’s in sharp contrast to the Hoodoos with the large trees providing much welcomed shade, showing the mysteries of a changing landscape within metres!
You’ll also want to bring sturdy walking shoes. Hiking boots aren’t necessary as the terrain is mainly flat. I prefer closed shoes instead of sandals in case I get too close to a rattle snake. To be fair, they don’t want to see you either, and are not aggressive, unless they feel threatened. Read this, if you have any concerns about rattle snakes.
How to Get to Writing-On-Stone
It’s ~100km drive south-east from Lethbridge or 44 km from Milk River.
Disclosure: Thank you to Travel Alberta for making my visit possible. As always, all opinions are my own.