And the wind cries, “who the hell would want to live here?!?!” This is what courses through my mind every time we head to Southern Alberta for camping. If you’re going south of Calgary you just can’t avoid the wind. Places like Lethbridge and Pincher Creek are famous for it and for good reason. Those ever-expanding wind farms are no accident. The wind blows here with the frequency and persistence of a political spin and is only slightly less obnoxious.
Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park is fascinating mix of Drumheller Badlands and Grasslands National Park prairie grasslands. And much like at Grasslands National Park, the interpretative centre here is quick to point out that many original settlers packed up and left. I wonder how long that decision took. These people spent months travelling on boats and trains and horse pulled wagons with nothing but the clothes on their back plus a small suit case to an entirely new continent with promises of cheap, arable land in what was still very much a frontier. They would have finally arrived, exhausted and near surrender, but suddenly thrilled with the reality that their dream was finally coming true. I can picture them standing on their allotted quarter, his arm around her shoulders, the kids chasing butterflies, staring out at their endless future and remarking, “it’s a tad breezy t’day.”
As the days passed into weeks and finally into months, though the sky remained blue and the horizon, limitless, it eventually dawned upon these brave pioneers that the wind NEVER STOPS. And with that realization those dreams of freedom and a better live blew away across the prairies like a faded, brittle lost cat poster torn from a telephone pole.
I think I would have lasted one week, tops. Luckily we were only there for the weekend. I survived, though truth be told I didn’t hold out much hope for a restful sleep with the constantly gusting wind whipping through the tall Cottonwoods amongst the Hoodoos in the Milk River valley. Fittingly, a wicked wind storm passed through the night before we arrived, as it did through much of south and central Alberta, and the campground was littered with torn branches and a few fallen trees. The park was alive with the sound of wood chippers and chainsaws our first day as park staff cleaned up the mess.
Our trip to Writing-on-Stone, an admittedly dull 3 ½ to 4 hour drive from Calgary, teased me with a nibble of déjà vu. Just like our inaugural trip to Cypress Hills, I found myself perplexed by a peculiar dark formation rising from the horizon as we drove. I first noticed it as we made our way through Lethbridge and began the last leg of the trek south. Two dome-like structures in the distance that reminded me of the highway maintenance domes you sometimes see in the countryside. Or if that visual doesn’t work for you, I saw two, massive, brown boobs protruding from the ground.
It was much the same sensation we experienced as we approached the Cypress Hills only on a much smaller, isolated scale. As it became clear we were heading toward these peculiar hills it became equally clear that these were indeed geological in nature, not man-made. A quick investigation, thanks to the miracle of Google and data plans, informed us that that we were witness to the Sweetgrass Hills, a volcanic bulge just across the border in Montana and, more importantly, a vivid backdrop to Writing-on-Stone.
I don’t know why, but these anomalous geological formations fascinate me far more than any mountain range does. They look so utterly out of place, these large, lonely protrusions surrounded by the endless flatness, a testament to the overwhelming power of wind, water, and ice. Yet there they stand like stubborn, elderly men refusing to be put in a home, or the ground. I’m far from a spiritual man, but I can fully understand how and why the Indigenous peoples chose these places as integral to their cultures and spiritual identities. They are awesome.
Oddly enough, Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park is also very reminiscent of Little Bow Provincial Park which we had visited just two weeks prior. Like its cousin to the north, Writing-on-Stone is a smallish provincial park tucked into a glacial valley alongside a now much smaller river. In the Prairies, these are where the oases can be found. In other words, this is where trees can grow. It’s quite bizarre as you enter these parks descending from the near barren croplands needing irrigation to even survive, down into the deep valleys where enormous Cottonwoods and thick, scrubby bush harbor hidden campgrounds. By comparison these floodplains look almost like a jungle after endless miles of nothing higher than the ditch grass.
Writing-on-Stone campground is small by provincial park standards with only sixty-some sites available, 19 of which are unserviced and the remaining 45 only have electrical service. The sites get booked up quickly so you need to be on the ball with reservations, particularly for weekends. It isn’t what I’d call a “nice” campground. Though well treed and basically an oasis on the flood plain of the Milk River, it has a rather haggard look to it. The towering Cottonwoods and Poplars are a welcome provider of shade but as mentioned many times, these aren’t the most attractive trees in the world with plenty of dead, leafless limbs in their crowns. The thick underbrush between rows of sites give the place jungle-like feel but, again, they just look ratty and harbor mosquitos just waiting to attack. Of course, this does make for home to lots of wildlife, birds in particular, so there’s good with the bad.
The sites are wildly variable in size and dimension. Ours was spectacularly long and narrow with a gravel pad and fire pit. Others are equally spectacular in their abrupt shortness with room for no more than a tent and small vehicle. The entire campground is just small with only 64 sites in total plus the four comfort camping tents, two group areas, and the day area. As constructed, the campground has a very haphazard, random feel to it which may appeal to those campers looking for a more natural experience. I have no particular problem with that, I just didn’t find myself attracted to the look of it all. Maybe I’m fussy.
Privacy can be limited at some sites. We lucked out with our neighbouring sites being vacant for parts of the weekend despite having been booked. It made for a quiet night, or did until our final night when the couple that set up their tent next to us that evening managed to wake up my wife and I in the wee hours of the morning with a strange suite of love-making sounds. At first we thought our son was having a nightmare. Then we thought an animal was in distress outside our trailer. Eventually we clued into the fact it was just a very contented lady. The ass-smack climax was a nice touch. So that was a chuckle-worthy experience, one I’m sad to say I managed to miss during enumerable camping outings in my youth!
Tenters are far more prevalent here than at most other parks we’ve visited. I’m not sure if that was simply coincidence or if the location and layout of this campground just make it more conducive to real campers than the usual convoy of massive rolling cottages we typically see. I almost felt conspicuous in our 23’ hard walled trailer here. That was a welcome change from the norm.
Being stuck down in a deep river valley also means that cell service is a no go in the campground. You have to climb all the way to the top to get any signal. Even on top of the Hoodoos you won’t receive service. I found a drive/bike to the sani-dump was the first place I could receive cell service. Fortunately there is free Wi-Fi at the interpretive centre which is a short hike up the valley wall. You can check in on your email from there as you watch the kids monkey around the Hoodoos below.
Typically, I’d complain about the playground here of which there is a total of one. It is located in the day use area and is a small metal number. It’s modern and in good condition but it’s small. By any measure it is truly inadequate by provincial park standards. We have a more elaborate playset in our back yard. When camping with kids, the size and quality of playgrounds is very integral to the enjoyment of our visit. But Writing-on-Stone is not your typical provincial park. Here, Mother Nature installed her own massive playground thousands of years ago. I speak, of course, of the Hoodoos.
Our kids didn’t spend more than 2 minutes on the playground while needing to be torn away from the Hoodoos just to eat. The Hoodoos run all along both sides of the river valley but the area between the campground itself and the interpretive centre up on the plains has become a massive explorative play area for kids and adults alike. With acres of rock formations to climb upon and investigate kids adore this place. We camped with another family and in total we had 6 kids ranging in age from 7 to 13 who played for hours in the Hoodoos. After every meal the first words uttered from our children’s mouths was, “Can we go to the Hoodoos?” First thing in the morning, “Can we go to the Hoodoos?” Perhaps, in this instance, I can be forgiving of the uninspired manmade playground because nobody used it anyway.
Writing-on-Stone is well appointed with information on the history, geology, and ecology of the area. The interpretive centre has an excellent selection of displays explaining everything you might wish to know from the science of geological formations to the spirituality of the First Nations who considered this valley and the nearby Sweet Grass Hills a sacred place. The day use area and Hoodoo Trail also house a number of large, intact signs explaining all sorts of information. Much of it is a repeat of the interpretive centre but that’s okay as it reinforces the knowledge plus it means you don’t necessarily have to visit both places to learn about the area. The young ones might not appreciate this but as an adult it was wonderful.
That trail is another highlight of the park. While the kids were under the supervision of our friend, my wife and I headed out on the Hoodoo trail, a 2 km walk along the river valley with twelve stops of interest. The trail is not flat but overall it wasn’t an especially difficult trail, so most people can do it. We saw all ages on our trek and ultimately if you are just unable to hike the entire length, there is a roadway up on the plains that can take you to parking areas near the major points of interest, namely the actual pictographs.
There are three sites of pictographs along the trail. They are fading and can be tricky to see in some cases but still worth the effort. These are the pictographs left for everyone to see and you’ll note the graffiti and damage around them that has led to the Alberta Parks making large portions of the park off limits. These off-limits areas are where the remaining images can be found and protected from stupid and ignorant people who can’t stops themselves from ruining amazing cultural treasures like this. Guided tours into the restricted areas are run daily by park staff but require pre-registration and cost $19. We did not do this guided trek because the kids just would have griped about being away from the Hoodoos the entire time, but I imagine that more spectacular images can be viewed on these tours. For another visit I suppose.
The washrooms here are clean and well kept. As is becoming commonplace at Alberta Parks, there are several modern concrete pit toilets scattered through the campground along with a modern shower house centrally located by the campground store. This gives you options for relieving yourself and cleaning up. The pit toilets were shockingly unsmelly much to everyone’s delight. I still don’t know if this is a result of some magical new pit toilet construction or if it’s a combination of early in the season (June), not too hot (20 degrees Celsius) and the constant wind. The shower house has several shower stalls, pay for use, a flush toilet and some sinks.
The check-in office and camp store is small but stocked with essentials and some treats. It can get really hot down here in the summer so I was a bit surprised not to see an ice cream counter here like at Little Bow but there were frozen treats available in a freezer plus a selection of slushy machines. You’ll still be able to cool yourself with a cold, sweet treat after a long hike or energetic game of hide and seek on the Hoodoos.
Water fun is a little different here. There is a beach but it is simply a de-vegetated point bar at a turn in the river. It’s easy to access, being right beside the campground, and with the surrounding Hoodoos and rock formations being almost entirely composed of sandstone, the beach is sandy and conducive to sand castle construction. Your little ones can have fun here and you’ll be able to lie out in the hot, beating sun but swimming will be a limited, messy experience. The Milk River is named thusly for good reason. It looks like light chocolate milk. It is very muddy and shallow. In the spring time, when we were here, it is flowing fairly quickly though not dangerously so. In the heart of summer the water level drops to a point where you can walk across to the other side with nothing but rubber boots (or a swimsuit, obviously). So you can play in the water all right, I just don’t see it as a terribly enjoyable place to actually swim. But I suppose in 30 plus degree weather even a muddy trickle of water is a welcome relief from the heat.
Fishing is also limited here. At least from what I’ve read online. There are fish in the river, but it’s just not the best fishing with the sediment and low flow. Likely only something for experienced anglers to tackle. Nor is there much use for motorized water craft. There is no boat launch here and you won’t find water-skiers on the small river. Conversely it is terrific for canoes or rafts if you enjoy a leisurely float down the river taking in the incredible valley scenery as you go. As we walked along the Hoodoo trail we saw a couple groups of canoers doing just that and I’d be eager to do likewise on future visits. Once the spring flood waters recede I’d imagine even the most neophyte canoeists (i.e. us) could safely enjoy a float down the lazy Milk River. Conveniently, there is a canoe launch in the campground for just such activities.
There are two group sites available. One appeared to be quite limited in size and value while the other looked quite elaborate. This second group site had some its own washroom and even had its own access to the Hoodoo Trail. It looked to me like the far superior option with communal campfire and much more space.
The comfort camping spots didn’t strike me as anything special. They are the large, white tents with small decks adorned with BBQs. The sites on which they are located are nothing more than grassy areas. They don’t appeal to me but there were folks using them so some obviously do.
The day use area is nicely treed and has a parking lot. There are picnic tables and a large, enclosed picnic shelter available as well. Inside are tables and a large, iron wood stove for cooking and heat. These are similar to others we’ve seen in Alberta parks around the province and they are really great if the weather turns nasty.
An amphitheatre is also located near the day use area. I have no idea if any productions occur here anymore. Nothing was scheduled during our stay and I saw no advertising to suggest this gets used during the summer months.
It’s hard to confidently rate Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park. I suspect our weekend in early June didn’t expose us to all the park has to offer, good and bad. I’m pretty sure it gets danged hot there in the dead of summer. Hearsay tells me the mosquitoes can get quite bad as well. Neither was an issue during our weekend though there were plenty of little green aphid type bugs around. They didn’t bite but they were annoying enough while eating. A brief storm rolled through on the Saturday night which is likely commonplace throughout the summer. But on the bright side you are far away from major population centres so the night sky can be spectacular.
I enjoyed our weekend at Writing-on-Stone but I wouldn’t say it was a favourite park. The kids loved it, or more precisely, they loved the Hoodoos. If you’re looking for more luxurious camping, this likely isn’t your thing. This is not a resort playground or a place for boating and swimming. As such, I’m hesitant to mark this up into the same heights I’ve given places like Cypress Hills or Waskesiu.
There’s a hint of rustic to it. And while the scenery is amazing and the Hoodoos are great fun and the Native history is fascinating, Writing-on-Stone is a bit off the beaten path. It’s a perfect get away for those living in Lethbridge but it’s a bit far from Calgary for just the weekend. Red Deer or Edmonton would be a draining drive. If it was closer to us I’d be more inclined to come back and do the guided tour sometime.
I’m giving Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park 3.75 Baby Dill Pickles out of 5. I feel a bit guilty about that. I feel like it should be higher and yet, it seems reasonable to mark it down for some things. Some of you will find it worthy of a much higher ranking and you won’t hear me argue your reasoning. For Native history and geology buffs who like a lower key camping experience, Writing-on-Stone is a fine spot. For those looking for a more traditional family fun weekend getaway, there’s likely better options closer to the bigger cities in Alberta.