Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Camping in Writing on Stone Provincial Park

I'd always wanted to visit Writing on Stone Provincial Park in the Southern Alberta Badlands so when I saw a group campground available for the August long weekend, I grabbed it.  We had originally been planning to visit Cypress Hills Provincial Park but group campground bookings start in February and there was stiff competition for the group sites in Cypress.  Sadly, I fear I will face more competition for Writing on Stone after this story too but  I like sharing my favourite places with all of you in hopes that your family will enjoy them as much as we have.

Hiking in Writing on Stone Provincial Park

Writing on Stone Provincial Park is located one and a half hours SE of Lethbridge on the United States border, just north of Montana.  The campground is located in a valley bottom beside the Milk River and is surrounded by an incredible landscape of hoodoos, coulees, and native rock paintings. The park has been nominated by Parks Canada as a World Heritage site and is a sacred place for many aboriginal peoples.

Looking at the native petroglyphs
Rock paintings or petroglyphs


Hiking trails abound throughout the park and visitors are generally allowed to freely climb around the hoodoos and wander at will in the non-restricted areas through the campground .  We appreciated this after camping in Dinosaur Provincial Park where signs instructed us to constantly stay on the trail.  While I understand the reasoning, it's hard to resist the draw to climb the hoodoos, to play in the coulees, and to explore.  Some sacred aboriginal petroglyph markings were fenced off for protection and some areas required an interpretive guide to access but we had plenty of room to run wild in the park.

Hiking the Hoodoo Trail
Boys will be boys

Very cool exploring on the Hoodoo Trail
Tight canyons on the Hoodoo Trail

Free to wander, explore, and discover

Hiking near the Visitor Centre the following day
Hoodoos near the Visitor Centre

Paddling the Milk River

Other than hiking, we also wanted to paddle the Milk River while we were there.  We were fortunate that water levels were high because you can usually walk across the knee-deep river by August.  While this is great for families who want to try tubing the river, we were hoping to paddle with kayaks, canoes, and stand up paddleboards.  We got out for two short trips on the river during our stay and set up car shuttles to meet us at a bridge downstream one day.  The other day we drove to a bridge up stream and paddled back to camp.  There is a great map of the put in and take out spots beside the playground with distances between points and estimated times it will take to float by canoe or by tube.

Paddling down the Milk River
SUPing the Milk River - maybe a first? 
Surely, three girls SUPing the Milk River is a first for this stretch of water
The inflatable kayak and party barge
Beautiful scenery on the Milk River through the native prairie landscape

Great place for a nap!

Paddling past some awesome hoodoos on the Milk River

Other things we liked about the campground


There was a small beach area with sand beside the river and the water was very shallow in August.  I imagine it would be deeper earlier in the summer but it was a nice beach regardless.

There were no bike trails in the campground but we could bike around the campground roads and we generally occupied ourselves hiking around the hoodoos.  The playground was also located right next to our group site so we could send our gaggle of kids off to play there.

The Writing on Stone Beach
It doesn't take much to entertain a toddler
Playing in the shallow river

Group Camping

We were camped in group site A which was a pretty incredible group campground.  We had a private cook shelter with picnic tables and a fridge!  We even had a freezer.  We had a large field for the kids to run around in and for tenters to set up in.  We also had a large gravel parking area for the trailers and vehicles with bathrooms, a water tap, and garbage bin on site.  Communal meals were made easy with a giant fire pit in the field and a dozen picnic tables or so.  We had a big Mexican Fiesta the one night complete with margaritas which are now becoming a staple on every camping trip. Our group site was located right beside the hoodoo hiking trail so when kids are older, I imagine we would just unleash them into the hoodoos to go play.  Just a few more years!

Group Site A at Writing on Stone Provincial Park
Happy Hour calls for Margaritas!
Swinging from one of the big trees in our campground
Group meals were awesome and a highlight of the trip
Great way to bond with friends
Evening hike on the Hoodoo Trail to tire the kids out for bed

We only had to have 5 families to book our group site (up to a maximum of 8) but we could have easily fit a good dozen tents or more.  5 trailers is definitely within the comfort zone though for what can fit on the gravel space along with other vehicles.  Any more would have been a stretch.  And if you had too many other vehicles, you would have had to find off-site parking in the day use area.  We had 9 vehicles total and 5 trailers - which was about the max. we could have fit in the parking area.

Trailer city in Group Site A
It wasn't ideal to set up our trailers in the parking area but it worked well

While Writing on Stone Provincial Park is a bit far from Calgary for a weekend trip, it's certainly worth visiting for a long weekend or extended summer camping trip.  It can get quite hot down there so it's also a great place to go in spring or fall. We will definitely be back and would recommend it to anybody.


  1. The location looks awesome. It has everything for a great family trip.

  2. Gosh, this looks amazing! So many places to explore, so little time! I love the photo of the napper on your SUP.

    1. Yes, my friend's daughter napping on the SUP was awesome. She was riding on the front and just fell over asleep.

  3. Wow! Your photos are amazing! I love all the variety of things you got to do there. We saw petroglyphs while down in Arizona. I'm so fascinated by them.

  4. There are many places I have not taken the family,including this- it looks wesome, on my bucket list of places to take the nieces and nephews!

  5. There are many places in Alberta I have not taken the family including this one. On my list of places to go!

    1. It's worthy of putting on a bucket list for sure!

  6. I love Writing on Stone...such a cool place for a family!

  7. Hoping to score one of the group campgrounds tomorrow morning. Thanks for the fantastic post.

    1. I hope you are able to book one. Right now the reserve website is down. I haven't been able to book anything myself.

    2. That was a ridiculous day, wasn't it? Anyway, when the site finally went back up, I started hitting refresh about 5 minutes before 9 am... and it went from 'too early' to 'taken' in the blink of an eye. :-( As did all my other top few choices... the competition is fierce for these group sites! I ended up with one at a park I had never even heard of - Park Lake PP near Lethbridge - and, although it's a less treed site than I would like, it is positively enormous, has a picnic shelter and some power outlets (a couple of friends have trailers) and seems to have its own little ring road for the kids to ride their bikes on without leaving our sight. It also has a lake and playground, so if we luck out with good weather and low mosquito levels, I think it's going to be great!

    3. Yes, Amanda, it was ridiculous. I was trying for September long weekend and got my second choice in Crimson Lake Provincial Park, but the site kept freezing for me. I seriously need to do a blog post about the challenges of booking campsites! There are too many people near Calgary that like camping and not enough reservable campsites.

    4. Crimson Lake was one of my choices, too; I was booking for the July long weekend. Will look forward to reading of your experience there, as I've never been. I will let you know how we find Park Lake PP. Booking sites can be so challenging, agreed! It's right up there with booking kids' skating lessons through the city, ha ha. And there are lots of parks I'd love to try that don't take reservations, which is a bit frustrating, given that my husband really doesn't have flexibility to take off a couple of days early for the weekend. But maybe the kids and I will start heading out early once they're a touch older (6 and 4, currently), so we can try those first-come-first-served parks.

    5. I was looking at Park Lake last year too. Let me know how it is. I will definitely write about Crimson Lake. I'm booking sites for Dinosaur Prov. Park tomorrow for the weekend after May long. It's always a quiet weekend.

  8. Do you know if there's somewhere in the Park to rent kayaks or SUPs? Thank you.

  9. Sorry but no there's no place to rent boards in the park.

  10. Do you know anything about the single capacities? I'm wondering which ones are the most ideal.

  11. Hello Tanya, loved your blog and hoping to land a place for May long weekend. Just one question on the Alberta booking website it states that there is no power at GROUP sites. Is that right, you wrote they have fridge over there... so they have electricity but no power hookup for RV.

    1. Hi, yes, that is correct. There is no power. None of the AB Provincial Park campgrounds have power for RVS. You'd have to either use a generator or camp off the grid so to speak - what we always do. This one is special in that there is a fridge in the cook house (at least there was when I was last there) but that's it. Maybe there's electrical sockets in there so you could run an extension cord out, but it would have to be a very looooong cord because the cook house is at the far end of the field and you have to park your RV in the parking area out front.
      Hope that helps.