Writing-on-Stone/Áísínai’pi is on traditional Blackfoot territory in the Milk River Valley. The region contains engravings and paintings on the sandstone walls that date back to ca. 4,500 BP – 3,500 years BP and continue beyond contact with Europeans. The area is sacred to the Blackfoot people, so remember to visit the park with respect.
The drive from Calgary to Writing-on-Stone is about 3 and a half hours. We drove through Lethbridge and continued on through the town of Milk River. After stopping quickly in Milk River for some ice cream sandwiches, we finished the drive into the park. Similar to entering Dinosaur Provincial Park, you descend into the canyon along to river to arrive at the campsite.
The campsites at Writing-on-Stone are relatively close to one another, but as we were there in June 2020 during the middle of the week, we did not find the campsite felt crowded. We set up our tent and decided to explore the area.
We walked eastward, in the direction of the Matapiiksi (Hoodoo) Trail. We followed the trail through the hoodoos, which ran alongside the Milk River. Shortly after embarking on the trail, we noticed a rattlesnake, slipping through the grass to our left. We stopped to watch the snake, giving it lots of space. Then we continued along the trail. We passed some other hikers returning from the opposite direction and we both shared information about a snake we had seen on our respective trails. We didn’t end up seeing a second snake, but we kept a sharp watch for them. Similar in climate to Dinosaur Provincial Park, Writing-on-Stone has prairie rattlesnakes and bull snakes, as well as an assortment of other reptiles, amphibians, and mammals that are less common in other areas of the province.
We hiked over the hoodoos, getting many photos in and amongst the unique formations as we slowly made our way to the sandstone cliffs that give the park its name.
It was hot, despite being early evening in June. Make sure to dress with heat and sun protection in mind, bring lots of water.
We followed the path through the brush, closer to the river. This area was quite overgrown and we were worried about snakes in the long grass and brushes that covered the path. However, mosquitos should have been a more pressing concern. In the cool shade the bugs came out in swarms. When we emerged on the other side of the path, we decided to take a different trail back to the campsite.
But before we turned back, it was time to arrive at our destination. We walked along the bottom of the sandstone cliffs and marvelled at the petroglyphs and pictographs left on the walls. According to the archaeological studies on the area, some are up to 4500 years old, while others depict scenes of contact with Europeans. We studied the walls and referred to the guide and the signs nearby to help us decipher what we were unsure of. The presence of history is tangible here.
We decided to turn back as our stomachs began to growl. We didn’t want to hike back through the brush, so we followed a trail to the Police Coulee viewpoint, and took the road back from there. At the top of the coulee, we could see across the prairies towards the Sweetgrass Hills rising in Montana. Being so close to the border without seeing any noticeable division in the landscape really enforces the history of this land. Before colonizers split this land between Canada and the United States, the Blackfoot people migrated throughout the area. The borders we see are not drawn on the land, and the Sweetgrass Hills seem too close to be a part of another country. They are a beautiful landmark, especially in the setting sun. We returned to our campsite to cook over the fire and enjoy the stars and they blinked on.
Before leaving the next day, we decided to explore the hoodoos north of the campsite, towards the visitors’ centre. We followed the paths that snaked through these unique formations, and eventually climbed to the top of the hill to reach the small building. The visitors’ centre was closed due to COVID, but they did have one window with a park attendant available to answer questions. We wandered around the building, reading about the history and geography of the land on the signs posted around the perimeter of the centre.
As our check out time approached, we returned to our campsite and packed up. While one night here was certainly enough time to see the main trails in the area, there are also opportunities for floating down the Milk River or booking an interpretive tour of the hoodoos and petroglyphs, so two nights here would not be too many. Writing-on-Stone did not disappoint, and I hope to return soon.