Red Rock Coulee

By Ken Bell
March 21, 2012



Concretion at Red Rock Coulee in evening light by Ken Bell ©

Concretion in evening light

Red Rock Coulee is a nature area occupying about 325 hectares of land southwest of Medicine Hat. From Medicine Hat take highway 3 west to highway 887, just before the hamlet of Seven Persons. Go south on highway 887 26 Km then at a large curve in the road watch for the signs indicating the coulee, which is on a side road going straight south from the curve. There is a parking area on top of the hill where you can begin to explore the area. Note that this is a primitive nature area, so other than a few picnic tables there are no other accommodations. Open fires are not permitted.

Road to Red Rock Coulee by Ken Bell ©

Dirt road runs straight off highway 887 into Red Rock Coulee about 500 meters ahead

The view from the parking lot is spectacular. Looking southwest you can see all the way to the Sweetgrass Hills in Montana, over 100 Km away. A well-worn trail takes you down toward the closest set of rocks, but it is preferable to actually walk straight south on top of the plateau to find the best collection of rocks, and to get an overview of the terrain. Be aware that this is rattle snake country, so be careful where you walk and when you are looking around or under rocks. There are also a lot of cacti so also be careful sitting down, especially in the grassy areas. If you happen to visit in June, look for flowering pin cushion or prickly pear cactus along with prairie crocus and scarlet Globemallow.

Sign Red Rock Coulee Natural Area by Ken Bell ©

Sign next to the parking lot of Red Rock Coulee

View of Red Rock Coulee from Parking lot by Ken Bell ©

View of Coulee from the Parking Lot

After looking over the landscape start making your way down the side of the hill for closer examination of these fascinating rocks. Just be careful when walking on the exposed clay as it has a lot of bentonite in it, which is extremely sticky and slippery when wet.

Red Rock Coulee concretions by Ken Bell ©

Concretions are being exposed by erosion of the surrounding soil.

These rocks were created back when the prairies were covered by a large ocean. These sandstone concretions are formed in the same manner as a pearl. A piece of debris in the water attracted the surrounding sand and dissolving shellfish created calcium that acted as a bonding agent. The rocks formed in annular rings similar to a tree. Later, as the ocean and glaciers receded, the softer soil eroded away, exposing these harder rocks.

View of Red Rock Coulee by Ken Bell ©

Rounded hills and broken concretions resemble a martian landscape

The rocks are quite red due to having high iron content. Lichen also adds to the color of these rocks as well.  One thing to note about this lichen is that it only grows about 0.1 mm per year. Lichen can also be extremely old, in many cases several thousands of years old.  So please be conscientious and do not climb on the rocks, killing this lovely and extremely slow growing organism.

Concretions in Red Rock Coulee at sunset by Ken Bell ©

The best times of day to view or photograph this area are early morning and late evening, as is the case with most photography. However, to get the absolute maximum effect when the rocks are reddest, the evening light is best. If you are lucky enough to be there when the light is right, when the sun is approaching the horizon, you will experience an amazing sight.

Field of Concretions by Ken Bell ©

Field of round concretions some standing 6 feet tall or more.

The rocks get so red that if you are in one of the areas that have little vegetation, you would think you were on Mars. It is truly an amazing sight to see because there is enough iron in the surrounding soil so it is reddish, and then the rocks themselves are even stronger colored. The bright orange of the lichen on the rocks also seems to nearly glow. The effect of the setting sunlight on the rocks is quite dramatic.

Ken Bell portrait


Bio: Ken is an amateur photographer living in Calgary. His main profession, as an IT Integration Analyst, allows him to indulge in his favorite hobby. Although Ken has owned cameras since the early 80s, he did not take the hobby seriously until digital SLR cameras started to appear around 2003.

Equipment: Cameras - Nikon D700 and Nikon D300S Lenses - Nikkor 50mm F1.4G, 105mm F2.8 Micro VR, 14-24mm F2.8, 24-70mm f2.8G, 80-200mm F2.8D, 300mm F4D, various Sigma lenses Tripod and head: Manfrotto 055XPROB tripod mounted with a 410 Junior Geared Head

Ken’s web site:
Red Rock Coulee Gallery:

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