Following a fantastic day touring Lethbridge and the surrounding area, we decided to take our tour further south to explore two of Alberta’s most unique geological landscapes. Travelling along main highways and lonely back roads, our circle route would provide us with scenic backdrops of southern Alberta and the Sweet Grass Hill of northern Montana.
Heading south along Highway 4, our first highlight of the day would be the town of Stirling, Alberta, located just off the main highway. In 1989 the entire village of Stirling was declared a “National Historic Site – the best surviving example of a Mormon Agricultural Village.” Since it is one of only three Canadian communities with this honour, it is definitely worth a peek. In 1899 thirty Mormon settlers arrived at this site and prepared the area for future settlers; houses were built, wells were dug, and they also assisted with the construction of the irrigation canal supported by the Alberta Irrigation Company. Within months new immigrants would make their way to Stirling to help assist with the irrigation construction, but once the canal was completed hardship soon followed. With prosperity in mind, Theodore Bradley requested that 12 miles of railroad be laid between Stirling and Cardston and soon the village was booming again. Thanks to their ingenuity, they provided significant proof that this farming land was more than just a cattle range. Brochures are few and far between, but they do provide you with a walking tour of the town’s early history.
After exploring this village, our travels continued south along Highway 4 until we reached Milk River, Alberta, the last major town before you cross into the United States. I suggest that you stop here for gas and something to eat, because during shoulder season, services are limited once you head east into the Alberta prairie. Once in the town, signs easily mark the way to 501, a secondary road which head east towards Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park. Since it is the shoulder season, seeing vehicles on this road is not a common site, except for the odd pickup truck driving from farm to farm, which are scattered throughout the entire drive. Secondary Road 501 runs parallel along the Montana border and the Sweet Grass Hills of Montana are easily visible. Periodically, the road dips into a valley then quickly rise out for a view of the beautiful flat prairie landscape. After driving approximately 40 minutes, signs direct you to the entrance of Writing-on-Stone. As you pass the information centre (not open during this time), the landscape suddenly changes and you find yourself driving through a moon-like landscape adjacent to the Milk River.
For the Blackfoot people, this area has always had a spiritual significance; they have hunted and traveled throughout this area for thousands of years. Numerous First Nations petroglyphs and pictographs are still visible within this sacred, yet protected area. It was first created as a Provincial Park in 1957; however, in 1977 it was designated an archaeological preserve to protect the largest concentration of rock art on the North American Plains. This area is rich with plant and wildlife, including prairie rattlesnakes, as a precautionary step, it is recommended to keep your dogs on a leash while walking through the varied cliffs and numerous hoodoos. Numerous hiking trails are available and the park is open year-round; however, guided tours of the petroglyphs are only offered during the summer months
If we step back millions of years ago, a massive inland sea once covered this area. Approximately, twelve thousand years ago when the last ice age began to recede, huge volumes of melting water flowed through this area carving away at the rock exposing the underlying sandstone and creating these impressive hoodoos. In the pictures you will see holes in the hoodoos, this is caused when hard deposits such as ironstone becomes dislodged and falls out of the softer sandstone. The hoodoos are surrounded by clay, when wet, the area becomes extremely slippery, be careful of your step.
Unfortunately, to continue our travels we had to say good-bye to this fascinating area; however, there are a variety of camping sites that line the Milk River, I promised myself that I would be back.
We returned to Secondary Road 501 and continued our journey east until we turned north along Secondary Road 879 in the direction of Foremost, Alberta; from there we would once more head east on Highway 61 towards Orion, Alberta. Aside from passing 3 vehicles, this was a very lonely stretch of highway. I should mention that we did not travel by GPS; instead, we traveled with our faithful companion the Back Road Atlas of Alberta, a fantastic guide providing all possible roads, either paved or gravel, in addition to providing us with unusual little tourist spots like the Etzikom Windmill Museum, located in Etzikom, Alberta. This relic of a museum is literally in the middle of nowhere. The museum itself was closed – closed for the season, or closed for good remains unknown; however, the area where the windmills stood was open. Not surprisingly, we were the only people there, but my son found it amusing and I went along for the walk. I’m sure during its heyday, it was a very informative museum, but walking around it was easy to see how the area had fallen into hard times with numerous signs missing amongst the neglected, but plentiful windmills. After reading the few remaining signs, we continued our journey towards Red Rock Coulee.
We soon found ourselves turning north onto Secondary Road 887. It wasn’t very long until a road sign appeared indicating that the Red Rock Coulee Natural Area was near, our final destination of the trip; this area is approximately 60 kilometers south of Medicine Hat, Alberta. As you approach the coulee, you suddenly start to see large, actually, massive red round boulders scattered throughout. It’s like a giant was walking past the area and accidentally dropped his bag of marbles onto our landscape, I must say, it was truly fascinating. From my understanding, “These are sandstone concretions and at up to 2.5 m in diameter, they are among the largest in the world. The boulders were formed in prehistoric seas as layers of sand, calcite and iron oxide collected around a nucleus formed by shells, leaves or bones. The concretions grew larger as the circulating waters deposited more layers. The reddish colour comes from iron oxide. Look carefully at the concretions – you may be able to see their “growth rings” (layers of sediment deposition) and fossilized shells, leaves or bones. “Wikipedia. Thankfully, the weather was great and this allowed us to hike down to see them up close.
By the time we finished strolling around these giant boulders, it was late afternoon. We decided to end our journey here and start our trek back to Calgary. Instead of traveling the Trans-Canada, we decided to drive west on Highway 3 to say good-bye to Lethbridge one more time. Looking back, it’s hard to believe that we were only a few hours from Calgary; considering how much we were able to see during the shoulder season, I can’t imagine how much fun it would be during the summer season.