Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park in Alberta

by Dr. Robert Berdan
July 29, 2010


According to the Blackfoot - In the beginning God (Napi the supernatural trickster ) created the world and covered it with water. Napi sent animals below the surface to find mud. First, duck, then otter, then beaver dived down but found nothing. Finally he sent muskrat into the depths. Muskrat stayed under so long Napi feared muskrat had drowned. At last muskrat returned to the surface holding a small ball of mud. Napi took the lump of mud and blew upon it. The mud began to grow until it became the whole earth.

                                                          ( Wissler & Duval's Mythology of the Blackfoot - signage at Writing-on-Stone)

Deer wanders in the grass at sunset above Writing-on-Stone

Hiker looks south at Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park by Robert Berdan ©

Hiker stands on one of many hoodoos and looks south toward the Sweet Grass hills in Montana.

Writing-on-Stone provincial park is located 3 hours drive south of Calgary on the border of Alberta and Montana in a valley surrounding the Milk river. The area's most interesting feature is its' sandstone Hoodoos standing 3-10 meters high. The Sweet Grass hills in Montana dominate the horizon to the south. About 48 million years ago, magma forced its way upward, then cooled into a huge dome of igneous rock that subsequently underwent millions of years of erosion. Hard iron-rich sand stone layers protected the soft underlying rock resulting in Hoodoos. Hoodoo is a word that may have arose from the misspelling of Voodoo, an ancient African religion. Native Indians living in the area believed that all things in the world, animals, plants and even rocks were charged with supernatural powers. They believed the cliffs and hoodoos were the home of powerful spirits, spirits with the power to help people who came here to pray. Early natives sent their young warriors to Writing-on-Stone to fast and pray while waiting for a vision. Some of these warriors are believed to have created the rock art whose meaning remains a mystery. Some of the rock paintings (pictographs) and rock carvings (pteroglyps) may represent records of the spirit dreams of the young warriors during their vision quest.

Grasslands at Writing-on-Stone provincial park by Robert Berdan ©

View from the north rim of the Milk river valley showing numerous sandstone hoodoos

Archeological evidence suggests that natives visited this area as far back as 3,000 years ago. The area is considered sacred by the Blackfoot Nation, however it is known that other native tribes also visited the area. There is no scientific method to date rock art, the age is estimated from the objects depicted and changes in style of the rock art. Rock paintings were created with Ochre (iron rich sandstone crushed and mixed with water) and the rock carvings were scratched into the sandstone cliffs using antlers and bones before the introduction of metal tools. Horses appeared in the paintings after 1730 and much of the rock art was probably ceremonial. Sharmas, or medicine men, would interpret these strange images in order to predict the future. Many of the rock carvings are now protected with fences to prevent vandals from carving their initials or writing over them. To see the rock art you can take a free guided tour with a native guide.

Rock Painting or Pictograph at Writing-on-Stone provincial park by Robert Berdan ©

Rock Paintings (Pictographs) showing Shield-bearing warriors used before horses appeared on the prairies

Petroglyph at Writing-on-Stone Provincial park, AB by Robert Berdan ©

Rock carvings (Petroglyphs) showing V-necked human lower left and several shield warriors.

In the later part of the century, Writing-on-Stone served as an outpost for the North West Mounted Police. It's main goal was to stem the flow of liquor from the US into Canada. Today the park contains a visitor center and a serviced campground that quickly fills to capacity in the summer. There are numerous trails that you can take around the hoodoos that enclose the silt laden Milk river. The river's edge is choked with hardy cottonwood trees. Wildlife in the area is abundant including: mule deer, jack rabbit, porcupines, yellow bellied marmots, Pronghorn antelope, prairie rattlesnake and coyotes. More then 160 species of birds have been reported in the park. Under the rock ledges you will find mud swallow nests.

Mud swallow nests Wirting-on-Stone provincial park, Alberta by Robert Berdan ©

Mud swallow nests are common below the ledes of the cliffs in the river valley

Most of the surrounding prairie is covered in short dry grass with a few scattered wildflowers including shooting stars and prickly pear cactus.

Photographer on Hoodoos at Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park by Robert Berdan ©

Photographer on Hoodoos

The best time to take photographs are at sunrise and sunset as light enters the valley. On clear nights I have also photographed the moon rise. Generally I prefer to use wide angle lens (16-35 mm) to photograph the Hoodoos. I have also tried photographing above the valley at night and I have tried light painting on the rocks, but do watch where you step if you wandering among the hoodoos at night. You can climb on top of many of the hoodoos to get different perspectives of the valley. If you plan to take photographs here you really need to camp or bring a trailer to get the best light, the closest town is Milk river about 40 Km west where you can purchase groceries or stay in a motel. During the day it gets hot in the valley and many of the campers go swimming or tubing in the river which has fine sand beach near the campground. There is a small store in the campground that sells ice cream and a few odds and ends like mosquitoe repellent. Campgrounds are provided on a first serve basis. It is often easier to get a campground location if you come in the middle of the week, Friday nights are the worst time to arrive if you want to find a spot to camp.

Sunrise Writing-on-Stone provincial Park by Robert Berdan ©

Sunrise over the Milk river valley in summer - Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park, AB

Moonrise over the Milk river valley Writing-on-Stone by Robert Berdan ©

Moonrise over the Milk river Valley - Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park in Alberta

Panoramic view ofthe Milk river Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park by Robert Berdan ©

Panoramic View of the Milk river during moonrise with the Sweet Grass Hills visible in the distance

Evening light over Milk river Writing-on-Stone provincial park by Robert Berdan ©

Evening light over Milk River

Writing-on-Stone by Robert Berdan

Sweet Grass hills in the Background

North West Mounted Police outpost Writing-on-Stone by Robert Berdan

North West Mounted Police outpost in the river valley - the outpost tried to stem the flow of liquor into Canada.

Hoodoos taken with a 4 x 5 camera on Velvia

Writing-on-Stone under full moon by Robert Berdan ©

Sweet Grass Hills and Milk river under full moon

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