Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park lies in the Milk River valley of the province’s prairie grasslands ecosystem and has characteristic “Badlands” erosion. It is situated in southern Alberta, just north of the Montana border.
This place is sacred to the Blackfoot native population as the Park contains the largest concentration of petroglyphs (rock carvings) and pictographs (rock paintings) on the North American plains. It is believed this site was a place where the ancestors of the Blackfoot people gathered to socialize and tell stories.
I visited this park several years ago. It’s in a fairly remote place, about a half day’s drive from the city of Calgary and an hour and a half from Lethbridge. I visited on a rainy, windy June day that was quite cold. Yet somehow the weather added to my appreciation of the landscape, which was also harsh but beautiful.
I completed two short hikes that day, one to see some of the petroglyphs (Battlescene trail) and the other a longer hike through the Milk River valley, the Hoodoo trail (well named as there are hundreds of hoodoos along the way). The Battlescene trail leads you downhill through hoodoos to a large flat-surface rock on which are carved rather crude scenes of a battle. The entire pictograph is covered with a thickened hardened plastic to prevent vandalism.
The Hoodoos trail was to me more interesting than the Battlescene trail because it takes you through the beautiful scenery of the park. Most of the images in this post were taken on this hike as it winds along the Milk River. Of interest, the Milk River is the only river in Alberta that flows south into the Mississippi basin (the rest flow north to Hudson Bay).
The rock and land formations of Writing-on-Stone are the result of millions of years of erosion, forming the characteristic hoodoos and coulees you find here. The landscape is home to a large variety of creatures, but the environment is fragile. The species who dwell here have adapted to the semi-arid climate wherein water is scarce and rain unpredictable, and in which winters can be long and cold. Water flowing year-round in the river makes this an important refuge for all types of animals. Some species like mule deer, coyote, prairie rattlesnake and bullsnake are found in all here. Efforts to preserve the prairie rattlesnake are especially noticeable, given how rare rattlesnakes are in the province.
Natives have likely inhabited the region for almost ten thousand years. Archaeologic studies have found evidence of teepee rings, cairns, bison jump deposits below cliffs, and buried campsites. The majority of archaeological evidence here dates from the past two millennia. Small Indian groups migrated through the park to hunt bison, gather berries and roots, seek shelter, and have social gatherings among tribes.
European settlers did not enter the scene until about 150 years ago. The remnants of a North-West Mounted Police office is situated within the park, and the surrounding prairies have been used for generations for ranching and grain farming. The local agricultural community lobbied for the formation of Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park, which came to fruition in 1957.
A good place to start your visit is with a stop at the Park’s nice Visitor Center. The park has excellent interpretative exhibits, including geologic history, a history of the Blackfoot people and white settlers who came to the region, and of course the petroglyphs. These are actually quite simple art, but many of the may be quite old — difficult to accurately date — and only a few are easily found. Guided walks are available with park staff, but because of the rain this guided walk was canceled the day I visited.
I really enjoyed my visit to this park — one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever come across on the prairies.
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