andrew burke





Road Trip 2012: Writing On Stone

Posted on: 2012-06-11

In May 2012, my mother-in-law gave us her old car - but we live in Halifax and the car was in Edmonton. So we flew there and drove it all the way back to Halifax. We had great weather and I had a new camera. This is part 4 of a series of blog posts about the trip.

(All of the photos are hosted on Flickr - click on any to see bigger versions and browse the full set.)

After a morning in Lethbridge, we started out on our trip back to Halifax. We headed south-east and soon found ourselves in the middle of the kinds of huge prairie landscapes I have never seen outside of a cinema.


Without trees or buildings or topography of any kind, the vastness of the Land (it certainly deserves a capital "L") is almost overwhelming in this part of the country. It has a scale like the ocean, but it's everywhere, rather than just at the coast.

We skirted the Montana border, with the Sweetgrass Hills looming on our right and making everything seem even bigger. The landscapes of western North America are some of the few places I've ever felt the true scary sense of the sublime.

We passed through the deep prairie farmland where my father-in-law had grown up. I've always known him as a research scientist - but it turns out he was also a genuine cowboy.

After several hours of vast horizons, strong winds, and beating sunshine, we finally arrived at our destination for the night: Writing On Stone. Shannon has talked about this place many times, and when I finally saw it spread out in front of me, I could understand why.


The park is in a river valley - and after a day of vast prairie I was as struck at first by the sight of trees as I was by the very distinctive rocks.

It being very early in the season, we had the park almost entirely to ourselves. We set up our tent and headed out on a hiking trail.

I got used to the trees, but the rocks were still spectacular. Instead of just cliffs along the edges, this part of the river has miles and miles of hoodoos: quirkily semi-eroded rock formations that look like magical houses. The hiking trails pass through miles and miles of these hoodoos, and I felt like I was walking through a fairytale or movie or video game.

(I had neglected to bring a hat - so I had to tie a scarf around my head, making me look like a Scandinavian pirate.)

(Evening was coming to the cloudless sky, making the already fantastical scenery even more so.)


I wasn't at all surprised to hear that this has long been considered a mystical place and home to spirits. In fact, a plaque at the visitor centre pointed out that the name "Hoodoo" is related to "Voodoo", with its magical connotations.


I was a bit disappointed to discover that the actual "writing on stone" that's publicly accessible is only from the mid-19th century. I guess I had Cave of Forgotten Dreams in my mind too much, and had expected something more pre-historic. It turns out there are plenty of older pictograms further along the valley, but they're in protected areas that you can only visit with a guide.

We returned to our tent and made dinner - our first camping meal cooked with our new handy little alcohol burners. Then we walked along a nearby beach and watched the sunset over the hoodoos.

River Cliffs


The next morning, we packed up and drove up to an outlook spot. On the steps, we passed a tiny snake that on closer inspection turned out to be a very young rattlesnake:

IMG_6468 - Version 2

It coiled up and darted at our boots (we kept our distance). On the way back down to the highway, we almost ran over one of its bigger cousins, slowly crossing the road. We gave this one plenty of space. It ignored us and slipped into the grass.


We still had several days of prairie driving to go - but we already felt like we might have seen the best.

Here's a slideshow of some of my pictures from Writing on Stone and some of the prairie nearby:

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