Exploring Alberta’s Provincial Parks: Writing-On-Stone

About Writing-On-Stone

Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park is a medium provincial park in Southern Alberta about 44km east of Milk River (the town) and it straddles the Milk River itself. Due to its cultural significance, Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park serves as a sacred place for the Blackfoot and other aboriginal tribes. The park contains the greatest concentration of rock art on the North America Great Plains – An area spanning more than 2.8 million kilometers up the center of North America – from Texas and New Mexico up through Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Geographically, the park has cool sandstone that has been eroded into hoodoos and cliffsides.

There is also a North-West Mounted Police (NWMP) outpost that has been reconstructed on its original site (the original burned down at some point after 1918).

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Writing-On-Stone 1910

History of Writing-On-Stone

The Milk River Valley has been inhabited by First Nations tribes for more than 9000 years. Tribes such as the Blackfoot created the unique rock carvings and paintings found throughout the park. The towering cliffs and hoodoos held spiritual significance to the first nations in the park who believed that they were home to powerful spirits. Smaller game found shelter among the coulees in the valley and the abundance of game and berries made the area an excellent location for them to stop on their migrations to replenish food supplies.

After the European settlers arrived in Alberta, an illegal whiskey trade was not far behind. United States merchants would smuggle in toxic whiskey blends sold to the first nations tribes which would kill them – either directly through poisoning – or indirectly through fighting among each other, or wandering into the cold Alberta wilderness and freezing to death. After the Cypress Hills Massacre, the Canadian Government formed the North-West Mounted Police and established forts among the US border to stop the illegal whiskey trade.

The NWMP Detachment at Writing-On-Stone

In 1887, a NWMP camp was established in Writing-On-Stone to try and stop the smuggling in the area. Another goal was to stop the First Nations horse-raiding parties which was a big contributing factor of the Cypress Hills Massacre. The existence of this fort was relatively uneventful with grassfires, and stray cattle being the biggest things that the officers handled here.

In the years leading up to World War I, there was a large influx of settlers in the area who brought with them solutions to the NWMP’s boredom. In 1918, the fort closed and would later become victim of arson.

In 1957, the Government of Alberta established the provincial park to protect the archaeological significance of the area. It became an archeological preserve in 1977. In 1981, a portion of the park became a Provincial Historic Resource to protect the rock art from increasing vandalism and graffiti. In 2005, Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park became a National Historic Site and in 2019, it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

eileenmak, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Activities at Writing-On-Stone

Visitors to Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park can enjoy a range of activities, including hiking, camping, and exploring the unique cultural heritage of the area.

One of the main attractions at Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park is the guided tours of the petroglyphs and pictographs. These tours provide visitors with a rare opportunity to see ancient rock art that dates back over 2,000 years. The park’s interpretive staff are knowledgeable about the history and meaning of the artwork and can provide insights into the culture and traditions of the Indigenous people who created it.

Another popular activity at Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park is hiking. The park has a variety of trails that wind through the park’s unique geological formations, including the Hoodoo Interpretive Trail and the Battle Scene Trail. The Hoodoo Trail is a 2.5km (one-way) hike that takes visitors through a stunning landscape of sandstone hoodoos and offers panoramic views of the surrounding landscape.

Camping is another popular activity at Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park. The park offers both primitive and serviced campsites, as well as group camping areas. The campsites are situated in beautiful natural settings, and visitors can enjoy a range of amenities, including picnic tables, fire pits, and washroom facilities. The park is also home to a range of wildlife, including mule deer, coyotes, and pronghorn antelope, which visitors can often see while camping. Canoeing, kayaking, and swimming are popular activities on the Milk River in the park.

In addition to the park’s natural and cultural attractions, Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park also offers a range of interpretive programs and events throughout the year. These include guided walks, talks, and workshops, as well as cultural celebrations and events that highlight the traditions and practices of the Indigenous people who have lived in the area for thousands of years.

Rattlesnake image from The Benevolent Rattlesnake published in 1894 by Cecil Aldin

Rattlesnakes at Writing-On-Stone

Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park is a provincial park located in a part of Alberta that has rattlesnakes. The snakes like the valley due to its hot temperatures and will often be seen sunning themselves on the rock faces throughout the park. Visitors should take some preventative measures, but the rattlesnakes are not fatal to humans if they are treated properly.

Rattlesnakes are timid and will go to great lengths to avoid contact with humans. They generally only bite if they feel threatened by humans so as long as you leave the snakes along, they will leave you alone as well.

If you do end up getting bitten:

  1. Stay calm – Rattlesnake bites are treatable (staying calm will also slow blood flow which will keep the venom in one area)
  2. Avoid cardio activities – The goal is to prevent your blood from spreading the venom throughout the body. If possible, immobilize the bitten area and keep it below the heart level.
  3. Go immediately to the nearest hospital (Town of Milk River). They have the medical resources and expertise to treat snake bites.
  4. Don’t: Attempt to suck the venom out, apply a tourniquet, or attack the snake further – no sense injuring yourself further.

How do I Prevent Snake Bites?

The easiest treatment to snake bites it to avoid getting bit in the first place. There are some preventative measures that you can implement to avoid getting bit by snakes while explore the park.

  1. Stay on trails – Snakes learn to avoid areas of high traffic and due to their shy nature, they will tend toward piles of rocks and bushes for protection.
  2. Avoid Long Grass – This is another area where snakes will hide from predators and their colouring makes them hard to see – and easy to step on.
  3. Don’t Put Hands Where You Can’t See – This includes in bushes, cracks, holes, and crevices in the rock faces. Snakes will used these areas as shelter. Also, avoid climbing the rocks as snakes like to sun themselves on top and you won’t necessarily see them.
  4. Don’t Bother Snakes When You Do See Them – Snakes just want to be left alone. They bite as a defense mechanism and are not aggressive toward humans unless provoked.
The Cliff Carvings at Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park. (eileenmak, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Camping at Writing-On-Stone

There is one campground and two group use areas in Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park. There is also three cabins that is rented out in the summertime.

CampgroundAmenitiesType of SiteAmount AvailableCost/Night
Writing-on-Stone Campground
(Year Round)
Firepits, firewood (for sale), flush toilets, supply store, hand launch, interpretive viewpoint, outhouses, playground, power hookups, sewage dump, showers, visitor center, water taps, bus toursPower (15/30 amp)47$39.00
Winter Camping
(no water service or showers)
61$23.00 –
Unserviced 14$31.00
Group Camping
Area A Group Use
(May 19 – October 9)
Cook shelter, firepits, firewood (sold), outhouses, water tapsUnserviced5 units$205/5 units + $25/extra unit
Area B Group Use
(May 19 – October 9)
Firepits, firewood (sold), outhouses, water tapsUnserviced10 units$185/5 units + $25/extra unit
Comfort Camping
(May 19 – September 24)
3 Person3 Cabins$125.00
This data is accurate as of 2023

Day Use at Writing-On-Stone

The day use area at Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park is located next to hoodoos. It has a cook shelter, firepits, firewood (sold), pay phones, outhouses, playgrounds, and water taps.


Distances to Alberta Cities

Distance to Calgary: 340km

Distance to Edmonton: 631km

Distance to Red Deer: 481km

Distance to Lethbridge: 128km

Distance to Grande Prairie: 1046km

Coordinates: 49°05’10.6″N 111°37’09.9″W

Alberta Parks Website