Exploring and Camping in Southern Alberta, Canada


Fence-post, Alberta

While visiting our good friends in Medicine Hat, Alberta, Canada we decided to explore and do some camping in various places in the southern part of Alberta.

The four of us headed out for an adventure.  We packed up their camper and drove through the prairie grasslands of southern Alberta.  Our first stop was Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park/Áísínai’pi National Historic Site.

Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park – “where histories, stories, and dreams become one”:

Writing-on-Stone/Áísínai’pi is located in the Milk River valley and contains the greatest concentration of First Nation petroglyphs (rock carvings) and pictographs (rock paintings) on the North American Great Plains.  Áísínai’pi is a Niitsitapi (Blackfoot) word meaning “it is pictured/it is written”.  There is also a North-West Mounted Police (NWMP) outpost reconstructed on its original site located in the Park.

We stayed at the campground for one night.  The sites are fairly private with lots of trees and space. There are many hoodoos (mushroom shaped sandstone features that are sculpted when the rock is eroded by frost and rain) near the campground and there is a 2 km hike – one way – to native rock drawings dating back over 100 years.

There are longer, guided hikes available to otherwise closed rock art locations which are well-worth doing.  The best one is the NWMP tour which takes you across the river to the reconstructed outpost.

The Milk River runs through the park and you can swim or float down the river from one end of the campground to the beach.  There are two covered picnic shelters with tables and a fireplace for cooking and a playground in the park as well.

There is an Interpretive Centre near the campground with lots of interesting information.  Being so near the Canada/US border you can see the mountains of Montana in the distance.  The views of the mountains and the hoodoos are breathtaking.  If you visit the park be sure to bring your camera and binoculars!

We enjoyed walking through the hoodoo formations, floating down the river and ended the day with a wonderful campfire.  Dave was up early the next morning and walked the 2 km Hoodoo trail, saw native rock drawings, and was surprised by some curious deer as well.  Luckily no rattlesnakes were sighted.

After breakfast and coffee by the river, we packed up and headed out again – next stop, Payne Lake.

Payne Lake Provincial Recreation Area:

This recreational area is 25 km west of Cardston on Hwy. 5 and 18 km east of Waterton Lakes National Park.  This popular fishing spot is a reservoir with two campground areas.   One is heavily treed which gives you more privacy in a natural mixed forest and the other is open grassland with very scenic sites on the lake.

There are 46 sites with plenty of room for tents or RV’s.  There is a day-use area, picnic tables, pit toilets, a boat launch, a boat dock, and firewood for sale.

Water is available from a hand pump but it is recommended that you bring your own drinking water.

You can swim, fish, hike, sail, windsurf, canoe/kayak or go power boating on the lake. We camped by the lake and fished for trout.  It was a very relaxing evening and the sunset was spectacular especially with the mountains in the background.

We did a short hike around the campground and ended the day with a campfire – another very enjoyable day and evening.

 

In the morning we had fresh trout for breakfast and then headed on our way to Waterton Lakes National Park.  The prairie magically turns into rolling foothills and then into mountains – wow!

Waterton Lakes National Park – “where the mountains meet the prairies”:

Waterton Lakes National Park is located in the Rocky Mountains in the southwest corner of Alberta.  It borders British Columbia and Glacier National Park in Montana, USA. It contains 505 sq. km. (195 sq. miles) of rugged mountains and wilderness.  It is designated an International Peace Park due to the open border it shares with Glacier National Park and is also a World Heritage Site.

Waterton Park is open all year but the main tourist season is during July and August.  The town of Waterton, within the park, offers the only commercial facilities.

There are four campgrounds in Waterton Lakes National Park with three being vehicle-accessible. We camped at the Crandall Mountain Campground which offers 129 unserviced sites for RV’s and tents, available on a first-come, first-served basis. The town of Waterton, 20 minutes away has several restaurants, limited groceries, lodging, and gas.

When we were there, camping in a tent was not allowed due to the many bears in the area.  Luckily we were camping in a hard sided travel trailer.  There are five traditional tipis available to rent as well.

Blackiston Brook runs through the campground and we camped very near its shore.  From our campsite, we had fabulous views of the nearby mountains and our favourite activity was bear watching.

Equipped with binoculars, my friend Susan and I watched bears for hours as they foraged on the nearby mountain slopes for berries.  There are black bears and grizzlies in the area.  They were quite far away so we were not fearful but they do come into the campground from time to time.  It is very important to keep a clean campsite and never leave food or garbage around.  They have a very keen sense of smell.

We did see some bears close-up while driving in the truck.  We saw a momma black bear and her two cubs just strolling along the road, just across from the Visitor’s Centre in Waterton.  It is very exciting to see them but also very dangerous at the same time.  Always stay in your vehicle if you spot bears on the side of the road, which can happen at any time in Waterton.

Besides bears, there are also cougars, coyotes, wolves and deer in the park.  Always keep your dog on a leash and never leave them outside at night.

Bear’s Hump Trail:

While visiting the town of Waterton, we decided to take a hike up the “Bear’s Hump” trail.  This trail is fairly steep, and it switchbacks up Mount Crandell to a prominent outcropping resembling a grizzly bear’s hump, getting its name from the Blackfoot tribe.

The trail begins at the Waterton Visitor Resource Centre and is a short but strenuous climb.  When you reach the top you will be rewarded with spectacular views of the town, the Prince Wales Hotel, Waterton Valley, the Waterton Lakes and Mount Cleveland, the tallest summit in Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park.  It is a moderate hike – 2.8 km/1.8 mi and takes about one hour going up 225m/738 ft.

It is a good hike for anyone, a family or even the most novice hiker, and well worth it when you reach the top.

We also visited Cameron Falls, Red Rock Canyon and Blakiston Falls.

Cameron Falls:

One of Waterton’s most popular and photographed landmarks is found right in town.  It is located not far from downtown and you can venture up an easy path to the right of the falls to enjoy a different view.  Cameron Falls is the beginning (or the end) of the Carthew-Alderson hike between Cameron Lake and the town of Waterton.

Red Rock Canyon:

The drive to Red Rock Canyon, 16 km along the Red Rock Parkway west from the intersection on Hwy 5, has spectacular views of mountains, valleys and meadows.  You are certain to see some type of wildlife along the way – maybe a bear, deer, bighorn sheep or even a moose.  The parkway ends at Red Rock Canyon where you will see the layers of red, white and green coloured bedrock.  Here there is a large parking lot with picnic tables, restrooms and is the beginning of the Blakiston Falls trail.

Blakiston Falls:

The hike to Blakiston Falls is an easy walk – it’s a 45 min, 2 km walk along Red Rock Creek starting from the bridge adjacent to the parking area.  There are two overlooks where you can stop and enjoy the breathtaking views of the falls and the mountains.

After spending a very enjoyable three days and two nights camping at Waterton Lakes National Park we headed north to the badlands.

Buffalo Paddock:

Just north of Waterton Lakes National Park, we stopped at Buffalo Paddock.  A small herd of buffalo live here in the wild on this large, grassy area.  It is fenced but there is access to a loop road, which we drove through, viewing these magnificent creatures in their natural habitat.  All visitors must remain in their vehicles while viewing these animals as they are large and powerful and can be potentially dangerous.

Buffalo

Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump:

On our way, we stopped at the World Heritage Site of Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump. You gotta love the name. It is one of the world’s oldest, largest, and best-preserved buffalo jumps.  This archaeological site preserves the remarkable history of the Plains People.

These native people were able to hunt bison by stampeding them over a cliff.  The buffalo carcasses were then processed in a camp set up on the flats beyond the cliffs. This method of hunting buffalo was practiced by native people of the North American plains for nearly 6,000 years.

There is an Interpretive Centre and museum at the site which is built into the ancient sandstone cliff. You can enjoy a short film depicting a buffalo hunt which is well worth watching.  There is also a really great gift shop there!

Drumheller:

Drumheller is a town located within the Red Deer River valley in the badlands of east-central Alberta and is known as the dinosaur capital of the world.

It is home to The Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology which hosts Canada’s largest collection of dinosaur fossils.  We spent hours in this museum, totally fascinated by all the dinosaur collections, skeletons, and exhibits. This museum is a must-see!

After admiring the hoodoos surrounding Drumheller and the giant dinosaur in the middle of town, we walked across the Star Mine Suspension Bridge.  It is an 117-metre long suspension bridge across the Red Deer River.  It was constructed in 1931 and was built for the coal workers of Star Mine.  The Alberta provincial government rebuilt and maintains the bridge to commemorate part of the mining history of the Drumheller Valley.

Star Mine Suspension Bridge

Our exciting adventure in southern Alberta was coming to an end.  After visiting with our host’s son, who works at the Royal Tyrrell Museum, we headed back to Medicine Hat.  The trip was totally enjoyable, fantastically scenic, unforgettable – and educational too!  I can’t wait to visit again.

Happy travels!

For more about Southern Alberta, these travel guides are available for purchase from Amazon: Southern Alberta Travel Guides

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