You don’t have to head to the Southern United States or Mexico to see First Nations rock art. There are rock carvings and paintings galore at Alberta’s Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park (or Áísínai'pi, the traditional Blackfoot name meaning “it is pictured”). Southeast of Lethbridge near the provincial border with Montana, Writing-on-Stone contains North America’s largest concentration of petroglyphs and pictographs.
Petroglyphs are carvings into rock using antlers, bones or metals. Pictographs are painted pictures using ochre, a crushed iron ore mixed with water, or ironstone, which created red, orange and yellow colours. The rock art gives modern-day visitors insight into the lives of earlier inhabitants in the area, particularly First Nations people, as many of the petroglyphs and pictographs depict stories from the past, showing hunting, warriors and battles.
While there’s no way to precisely date the rock art, the images help determine the period of time when they were created. For instance, the introduction of the horse around 1730 helps identify art from before and after that time period.
Artifacts from the area suggest people have been living there for at least 3,000 years, though the rock art from that far back has long since disappeared. Writing-on-Stone is home to more than 80 archeological sites, where tipi rings and cairns, small bison jump deposits and buried campsites have been found.
Some of the earliest existing carvings are believed to be from 700 years ago, made by the Shoshoni. There are also many Blackfoot carvings in the rocks, with their art indicating the area was a spiritual place for them.
In 1889, a North West Mounted Police post was established at Writing-on-Stone. Over the years, the Mounties stationed there carved their initials into what is now known as Signature Rock.
Today, some areas of Writing-on-Stone are restricted to protect the artwork. But visitors are able to hike along the Hoodoo Trail, with views of sandstone cliffs, petroglyphs and pictographs, prairie grasslands and the rock formations that give the trail its name.
The Milk River runs through Writing-on-Stone, allowing visitors to swim, canoe or kayak while enjoying views of the Badlands. People can also camp along the river, like many have for thousands of years, sleeping amongst the hoodoos and gazing at the stars.
There’s also a lot of wildlife at Writing-on-Stone, with some species found nowhere else in Alberta. Bird-watchers may spot some of the more than 160 bird species, including the prairie falcon, ring-necked pheasant and great horned owl.
Writing-on-Stone is open from the Victoria Day long weekend until Labour Day.