Our Montana friends, just south of the border, call it Big Sky Country for a reason. In the summer, the land stretches quietly out in front of you, with gently swaying fields of grasses and brilliant blue sky as far as you can see. The day we drove to Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park, the sun was scorching, and the air had the hot, dry smell of mid-summer on the prairies. Confident we were headed in the right direction, assuming the signs don’t lie, we craned our necks and searched the horizon for some assurance that we were almost there. Without warning (besides the signs), we drove off the plains and into the valley. Tremendous hoodoos grew taller as the road wound down, and soon we were amongst the rocks and trees.
Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park is a remarkable, natural location in Southern Alberta. Along the border between Alberta and Montana, it’s a hidden jewel on the grasslands, lesser-known, although it’s under 4 hours drive from Calgary. There are many extraordinary places to camp in Alberta, and Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park is undoubtedly on that list.
For years, this coulee, filled with hoodoos and with a river running through it, has been a significant location for the First Nations people. Imbued with spiritual consequence, the rocks here are now historically important as they contain one of the largest and most notable examples of petroglyphs in North America. The Battle Scene Petroglyph, as it’s known, is a short hike away from the campsite and tells the story of a late 19th century battle between two First Nations tribes. The area was a crucial location because of its water, shelter, and the spiritual role the hoodoos played. Later, the NWMP placed an outpost nearby, keeping an eye out for potential whiskey smugglers and other historical rowdies as they crossed the border.
Today, Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park is a striking, natural playground. The towering rock formations we know as the hoodoos, worn by water and time, are nothing short of incredible and possibly the best example of hoodoos in Alberta. (Sorry, Drumheller!) The Milk River loops around the campground at the park, and because it’s relatively slow and shallow, it makes a natural lazy river. You could spend all afternoon floating down the river, around the campground, getting out at the little sandy beach, and making the short walk across the campground to start your float all over again. And with the hot, sunny weather in the area, that’s precisely what you’ll want to do.
We took our kids camping for three nights last summer. I remembered visiting as a child and considered Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park to be a kid’s paradise. I was curious to see if my memory was accurate. Were the hoodoos still as tall and as much fun to clamber over and around as I remembered? Tenting, no wifi – what would the kids think?
As we were setting up our campsite, the park host stopped by to welcome us. He invited us to head through “the pass” beside our campsite and go for a hike up the hoodoos (anywhere between the campsite and the visitor centre). We asked about any rules, and he said to wear sunscreen, bring water, be careful, and have fun, but he also cautioned us to not purposefully damage the rocks and to mind the sections that we shouldn’t touch (like the battle scene petroglyph, which is fenced).
The mother in me made sure to note the location of the nearest emergency centre (it’s in Milk River), and the kid in me told them to jump from rock to rock so that I could get some fun pictures.
So they jumped. And they loved it.
There were times if I’m honest that I covered my eyes as they scrambled up a rock and practically slid down the other side. There was nothing they liked better than disappearing around the corner of a hoodoo and climbing up as high as they could unless it was floating with the current down the river. I wouldn’t let them swim without me, and I harped on the dangers of rattlesnakes and scorpions. (We didn’t see or even hear a rattler, but it definitely added an unexpected frisson of excitement for the kids.)
Hiking to the Battle Scene Petroglyph, we read from a self-guided tour pamphlet and experienced the curious, profound silence of the rocks and plains: the silence that isn’t silent. The sun-baked, dry grasses rustled along the path and the cicadas and crickets whirred and whined in the heat. We met only a couple other adventurers on our hike, and the prairie grouse startled us, as we startled them.
The nights brought a refreshing respite from the heat as we snuggled into our tent. Thankfully, in spite of the thunderstorm that raged one night, as only storms on the prairies can, we remained cosy and dry.
From history to natural wonders to just plain fun, Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park makes an excellent destination for a satisfying camping trip. Even I couldn’t resist scrambling up the formations and enjoying the view. The campsite has a lovely building with flush toilets and hot showers, for those who don’t care to rough it too much. And there are even a few “comfort camping” permanent tents, equipped with beds and everything you need to say you went camping, even when you don’t actually want to or don’t have your own equipment.
Either way, be sure to check out this unique, unspoiled wonder in Southern Alberta this summer and enjoy some family fun, naturally!
Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park:
Where: NW 36 TW1 range 13, Milk River, AB