Before I decided to visit Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park, I had never even heard of it. The night before I went, I found myself sitting in my Medicine Hat apartment, twiddling my thumbs, knowing I needed to stretch my legs and go on an adventure the next day. So, not knowing exactly where I wanted to go, I googled “Best day trips in Southern Alberta” and watched my options load before me. My search brought up many worthwhile contenders, but for so many reasons, Writing-On-Stone took the cake.
Located near the town of Milk River, Alberta, near the Montana border, Writing-On-Stone is both a nature preserve and sacred area featuring many historical rock carvings and paintings. In Writing-On-Stone, the hoodoo’s go on for miles, the hikes are awe-inducing, the sound of the Milk River flowing is ever present, and the feeling of magic is in abundance.
It took me almost a year of living in Medicine Hat before I visited the park, but now that I have, it’s one of my favorite sites in the Canadian prairies. Here’s what I found on my visit!
What to Expect at Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park in Alberta
85 Million years ago, on the location of where the park is today, there was a coastal shelf of a very big inland sea. Over time, sand deposits from this sea compacted, forming sandstone. Eventually, the sea disappeared and much later, at the end of the last Ice Age, the sandstone eroded due to water, ice, and wind, leaving us the hoodoos and other intriguing rock formations we see today.
I. Love. Hoodoos. I don’t know what it is, but walking all around giant towering sandstone rock formations is always such an ethereal experience for me. The hoodoos at Writing-On-Stone go on for miles, and the paths that take you around them are perfectly laid out for an immersive hoodoo experience.
Petroglyphs and Pictographs
The region of Writing-On-Stone has been occupied by Aboriginal communities going back as far as 10,000 years. In particular, the area is sacred to the Blackfoot (Aisinai’pi) people, who created many of the petroglyphs (rock carvings), and pictographs (rock paintings) featured at the site. The scenes created by these carvings and paintings tell stories of what life was like for those who lived here, and of spirits they encountered.
The photos below show a protected area where you’ll find the “battle scene” rock carvings.
Camping is bliss at Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park, as the many spots are nestled underneath gorgeous cottonwood trees and are just steps from the hoodoos and the river. There are both full-service camping spots as well as more basic ones but, whatever you choose, try to book in advance – especially if you plan on visiting in the summer months.
If you don’t book in advance or show up later than you expected, never fear, you’ll be able to find hosts that can sort you out (summertime only).
Aside from simply stumbling around through the hoodoo’s (which is an enjoyable activity in itself), there are some great legitimate hiking trails in Writing-On-Stone. Personally, I hiked the 2.2 km (one way) Hoodoo trail and the 0.5km (one way) Battle Scene trail — both of which I had completely to myself — although there are plenty of options for longer hikes in the area.
You can either choose to do these hikes with a guide, or you can trek them solo. Either way, you’ll get an awesome overview of the area due to rest stops with markers along the way. Just remember to pick up a pamphlet for reference before you head out!
I found Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park to be the perfect place to just sit and reflect. With thousands of years of sacred history and spiritual significance under its belt, the energy at Writing-On-Stone is unmissable, and will often have the hairs on your arms sticking straight up.
In addition to taking photos and hiking, I made extra time to just sit on benches, look off into the distance, and write in my journal. If you’re in need of a bit of a mental break or just want to enjoy a change of pace, I highly recommend doing the same.
Things to Know About Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park
When to Visit Writing-On-Stone
I visited Writing-On-Stone provincial park on a Saturday in late March, and I found it to be a great time. The weather was still a bit brisk and there was still snow on the ground in some, more shaded, areas, but I found that perfect for hiking. Plus, early spring meant I mostly had the area to myself, less a couple of families. Given the nature of things, I’d expect fall to be much the same.
That said, the park does tend to get busy in summer, due to the beautiful weather of Southern Alberta and the facilities being open. If you plan on coming during that season, prepare to share the space with plenty of others and, as mentioned above, definitely book well in advance if you plan on camping.
How to Get to Writing-On-Stone
Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park is right near the Montana/Alberta border and is about 44km from the Alberta town of Milk River. I drove into the park from Medicine Hat, which is only about an hour and a half away, and there were signs for Writing-On-Stone almost as soon as I first got on the highway. Additionally, Writing-On-Stone is about a three and a half hour drive from Calgary, so while it can be done in a day trip I’d recommend staying overnight at either a campsite or in a nearby town.
Facilities at Writing-On-Stone
Writing-On-Stone is home to a visitor center, and although I wasn’t able to check it out during my stay, it features information about the area, bathrooms, WiFi, bus tours, and a little gift shop. However, due to the frigid environment the area experiences in winter, the Visitor Centre is only open seasonally, and you can expect to see it mid-May through late September.
While there are food options at the park come summertime, no matter what time of year you visit, I’d recommend packing enough food and water to last you through the day. Not only is this cheaper, but it’ll also save you from heading back to the main area every time you get hungry.
Wildlife at Writing-On-Stone
During my early-spring visit, I didn’t see much wildlife whatsoever besides birds. However, if you visit in the summer pay special attention to the fact that Writing-On-Stone is rattlesnake territory. Due to the hilly, hoodoo-esque landscape, rattlers may be hard to spot, so keep your ears perked and remember to step on top of rocks or fallen trees, not over them, as snakes like to hang out against them. And, as always, rattlesnakes are probably more scared of you than you are of them (unless you’re terrified of the beasts like me.)
While hiking in the area I also noticed signs for bears and cougars, which I would doubly keep in mind if you visit in the off-season or hike farther away from the main recreational area.
As stated above, the historical significance of Writing-On-Stone dates back to 7000 BC, and maintaining the park for others to see and enjoy is super important. Not to mention, the eroded hoodoo’s are much older than that and are a site to see in and of themselves. The entire area is fragile, so stick to marked trails and areas.
Be respectful when visiting the area, follow leave-no-trace principles, and definitely notify someone if you see any vandalism occurring.
Have you ever visited Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park in Alberta? Let me know in the comments!