Writing-on-Stone / Áísínai’pi
Writing-on-Stone / Áísínai’pi is a living sacred landscape for Blackfoot people.
The area holds thousands of examples of indigenous rock art, carved into the sandstone. For the Blackfoot society of the past and the present there is also a spiritual connection to its impressive landforms such as hoodoos and canyons. The inscription comprises the sites of Áísínai’pi, Haffner Coulee and Poverty Rock.
Map of Writing-on-Stone / Áísínai’piLoad map
I visited Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park on a roadtrip through southern Alberta in August 2021. In our itinerary, it was sandwiched between Dinosaur Provincial Park and Waterton Lakes National Park. On the way to the site, we took a diversion to Medicine Hat and Red Rock Coulee (interesting ochre rock concretions in the middle of the prairies). Please note that if you follow this route, there will be no gas stations after Medecine Hat. We learned this the hard way and almost ran out of gas. A long diversions to Bow Island and Route 3 was necessary. Rarely have I felt more in the middle of nowhere than in this remote corner of Alberta.
But back to Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park. We had a nice camping spot to spend the night after our long day on the road and before the next day's sightseeing. The park is very well laid out, with access to the Milk River for swimming and with shelters for rain protection and cooking (very handy on a stormy evening!). For our second day in the park, and a real day of sightseeing, we opted for the Rock Art in Áísínai'pi tour. In August 2021, this guided tour of the Archeological Preserve cost $19 per person. We met our guide at the visitor centre (where trilingual Unesco plaques and bilingual inscription certificates are located) at the appointed time and boarded the bus to the reserve. Visitors who preferred to follow the group in their cars (and thus avoid contact in times of pandemic) were also allowed to do so. Our guide was not a member of the First Nations, but she had a strong interest and respect for them.
During the approximately one-hour tour, our guide presented five rock art panels and offered explanations on the meaning and history of each of the petroglyphs and pictographs. The culture and ancestral rites of the Blackfoot were well explained, as was the influence of the European conquest and the recent history of the site up to the beginning of the 20th century. All of these elements are visible in the rock, whether it is through the engraving of a buffalo, beaver, warrior or deity, or through the signatures of RCMP officers posted near the border at the turn of the century. The story of the two Model T Fords is particularly interesting and illustrates the spiritual importance of this site to the Blackfoot.
After the tour, we were dropped off at the Police Coulee Viewpoint and returned along the Matapiiksi (Hoodoo) Interpretive Trail. A pamphlet guides the hiker along this trail and provides a wealth of information. However, the rock art sites in this portion of the park are fewer, less impressive and of a lower quality than those in the Archeological Preserve. The Battle Scene, though large and detailed, is disappointing. Perhaps the light was not favourable (the sky was grey because of the forest fires and the air smelled of smoke), but this petroglyph is very pale and difficult to appreciate. The 1.000 to 2.000 year old dancers at Stop 7 are probably the most interesting of the trail.
However, what is really remarkable along this trail is the landscape. I always find it difficult to grasp the cultural significance of associative cultural landscapes and this one is no exception. However, its natural beauty is unmissable! The Milk River and its tributaries have carved out a series of canyons lined with steep walls and hundreds of phantasmagorically shaped Hoodoos. I spent an amazing morning walking this trail and the scenery outweighed the search for time-worn petroglyphs. As highlighted by previous reviewers, the area below the visitor centre is also an incredible playground for enjoying hoodoos.
All in all, I think this site would have been stronger if it had been listed as a mixed site. The natural element is inseparable from the Blackfoot culture. The story told by the site would have been more complete and it would have earned an extra star in my rating system. This was my first rock art site and I was not flabbergasted by the engravings. Yes, they are generally well preserved, tell a fascinating story and are well presented by the park staff. However, you won't be shouting Wow!
Duly vaccinated and tested, I made my first foray out of the country last Saturday on a day trip to
Writing-on-Stone / Áísínai’pi, the only World Heritage Site in southern Alberta that I had not yet visited. As has been noted, Writing-on-Stone has similarities to Dinosaur Provincial Park, but its inscription is cultural versus natural, and is very much based on the significance of the landscape to the Blackfoot people.
As can be easily inferred from the title of this site, rock art plays a prominent role in why the site was inscribed -- in fact, this park contains the greatest concentation of rock art in the Great Plains of North America. The Blackfoot and their predecessors have left rock carvings that are almost 2000 years old, though most of the older art is fainter. Newer rock art, such as the battle scene found on the Hoodoo Trail, includes evidence of post-European contact, to include horses and guns. Also in evidence in places were grafitti from more recent visitors traveling through the valley, which has led the park to erect fences around some of the rock art, and to restrict a large section of the park to visitors unless on a guided tour.
I visited on a cloudy day, but the light conditions were sufficient enough for me to see people in some of the earlier rock art panels during my self-guided tour on the Hoodoo Trail. I was not as successful identifying bison or bear claws in subsequent panels, but the battle scene at the end of the trail was worth the hike. I also took a guided tour in the early afternoon, which took me to some of the rock carvings in the restricted area of the park. I would highly recommend taking one of the guided tours, if available, since the rock art was much clearer and easier to distinguish with a guide. The guide also discussed the importance of the area to the Blackfoot people, and how the Blackfoot would seek spiritual guidance through interpreting the rock art.
Perhaps the most spectacular section of the park, however, is the area nearest the visitor center, where a collection of eroded rock pillars known as hoodoos can be found. The hoodoos below the visitor center are open for exploration, but the hoodoos along the Hoodoo Trail are considered sacred, and visitors are asked to stay along the trail in this section. The Blackfoot people call the hoodoos "matapiiksi" (the people), and believe that the rock pillars each have a spirit, making them an integral part of the cultural landscape. As I am at most a moderate fan of rock art, this was definitely my favorite section of the park.
Logistics: Writing-on-Stone / Áísínai’pi is located in southeastern Alberta, and is best reached by car; the site is approximately four hours from both Calgary, Canada, and Glacier National Park in Montana, USA.
The location of the site is beautiful but the site itself can be tricky as the light can make the pictographs invisible, but when you do see them you feel vindicated for having checked out the museum and for waiting for the light to change. The boards which have been placed around the site are very helpful but the light on the rocks really does impact on what you can and can't see. The valley scenery is very evocative and, as we were alone on our walk around the site you can imagine the lives of the people living in the valley and the creators of the site.
The campsite, whilst basic, is one of the best particularly because you can swim in the river which seemed to be the reason most other people were visiting the site. If you do make the visit to the site stay in the campsite, enjoy the river ( you just float with the current) and try and see the images in different lights.
A visit to this park fitted in nicely with my Alberta itinerary, between Dinosaur Provincial Park and Head-Smashed-in Buffalo Jump. It is actually a bit of a mix of these two sites too: a stunning badlands landscape combined with Native American history. From the moment I arrived, I liked its vibe, somehow just a notch more exciting than the two other Alberta WHS.
First, there's the hoodoo extravaganza just below the visitor center. You can walk small trails and climb over the hundreds of hoodoos freely. There a so many of them, it looks somewhat like Cappadocia. Great for taking pictures or just a lazy picnic sitting on a flat stone.
And secondly, I really enjoyed my 'Rock Art' tour of the preserved area. My 2 p.m. tour had only 4 other participants. Our guide Abby, who is from one of the local Blackfoot tribes, lead us along a cliff wall where numerous rock drawings and carvings have been preserved. The oldest are reportedly over 5,000 years old, but most are much more recent. Even going up to 1924, when a returning Blackfoot native carved two T-Model Fords into the rock. Other scenes show battles and hunting. The cliff face also is covered with a lot of 'historical graffiti', going back to the late 19th century.
This area was and still is considered a sacred place where the spirits live. Labelled as a cultural landscape and displaying its peculiar type of rock art, I believe this site is a worthy WHS.
Read more from Els Slots here.
This is an easy TL site to reach from Calgary, it is a 4-hours each way driving and it could be managed in a one-day road trip. I don't think there is any public transportation leading to this site, therefore a car rental is the only feasible option. The park is easy to reach even without GPS, there are plenty of road sign, once left the small town of Milk River on the hwy 501 driving east. The park is a "small replica" of the Dinosaur Provincial Park, same badlands aspect; with the landscape made of hoodoos, cliffs and the Milk river flowing in between, it would be a nice site itself, even without the "writing on stone". The visitor center is small but interesting; because of the description of the native people living in the area, it reminded me of the much bigger visitor center in Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump (2 hours north of this site). There are two main trails showing the rock carvings; unfortunately one of the two trails (the longest one) is open only every second weekend, and it's possible to visit only with a pre-booked guided tour (because it goes in the restricted area of the park, for archaeological researches). The trail open to the public heads to the Battle Field scene, which is indeed interesting, but since it is dated in the late 1800's, it could not be compared to the marvelous rock carvings of Alta or Valcamonica. The site is also damaged by "contemporary rock carvings" left by people visiting the site; therefore the battle field scene carving is actually protected behind a gate. The site is home to the Praire Rattlesnake, which made me a little bit scared while walking around, especially after I had a close encounter with one of these snakes (it was funny how both of us, me and the snake, run away in opposite directions, scared of each other!!!) The best accommodation option, for who is willing to spend more than just few hours in the park, is the camping on the beach right down the visitor center. A swim in the Milk river and canoeing would be a nice add-on to the road trip.
Successor to Áísínai’pi (2004)
The site has 3 locations
The site has 9 connections
Religion and Belief
World Heritage Process
24 Community Members have visited.