Alberta may be landlocked, but there are plenty of waterways to explore. I was thrilled to finally plan a canoe trip on the infamous Milk River. Lewis Meriwether (of the Lewis and Clark expedition) named this river after its opaque and milky appearance. Once you see the water, it’s easy to understand where the name came from. The Milk runs from Montana through the southern Alberta Badlands and is around 1,173 km long.
Paddling 73 km from the town of Milk River to Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park is an excellent 3-day canoe trip. I’d highly recommend this route for intermediate river paddlers, as class II and III rapid sections require some canoe skills. Due to the number of boulders, you’ll want to make sure the water levels are high enough before heading out. There’s even a stretch called The Rock Garden.
Blackfoot Indigenous communities thrived on the land surrounding “Kináksisahtai” or “Little River” for thousands of years. That’s the Blackfoot name for the Milk River. Today, you can still find cultural signs like rock carvings and paintings near the river.
Trip Completed: June 2021
Starting Point: Town of Milk River—Under 8 Flags Campground
Ending Point: Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park
Total Distance: 73 km
Duration: 3 days
If you’re driving from Calgary, head south through Lethbridge and then take Highway 4 toward the town of Milk River. It’s about a 3-hour drive. The Milk River town is only half an hour from the Alberta-Montana border.
Wendy and Ken Brown will provide their address if you plan to rent canoes or use their shuttle service. Otherwise, head straight to the boat launch at the Upper 8 Flags Campground next to the bridge. You’re permitted to park at the campground.
Traditional Territory: The Milk River flows through the traditional territory of the Blackfoot/Niitsitpiis peoples.
Maps & Resources
Guidebook: Mark’s Guide for Alberta Paddlers (2nd Edition)
Map: “A Paddler’s Guide to the Milk River” by Clayton Roth is the best map of this canoe route. However, it can be difficult to find.
Campsite Reservations: There are four campgrounds along this route: Upper 8 Flags, Gold Springs, Poverty Rock Backcountry, and Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park. If you want a longer stay, bookend the canoe trip with Upper 8 Flags and Writing-on-Stone on either end of your journey. We just stayed at Gold Springs and Poverty Rock.
Gold Springs is a privately owned campground and requires advanced booking (especially during peak season). Poverty Rock Backcountry does not require a reservation and there is no fee for use. However, Writing-on-Stone staff appreciate advanced registration for Poverty Rock as they manage the campground.
Reserve Upper 8 Flags: 403-647-4488
Reserve Gold Springs: 403-647-2277
Register Poverty Rock: 403-647-2364
Reserve Writing-on-Stone: 403-647-2364
Outfitter & Shuttles
Milk River Raft Tours (Ken and Wendy Brown) offers a very useful canoe rental and shuttle service from the town of Milk River. They require advanced booking and can fill up during the peak season.
Call to book your shuttle/reserve your canoe: 403-642-7619
Day 1: Milk River Town to Gold Springs Campground (18 km)
After driving from Calgary to Milk River, Jen and I were ready for our three-day paddling adventure on the Milk River. Ken and Wendy Brown provided an easy and no-contact shuttle service, as we only brought one vehicle. We dropped our spare car key in their mailbox, and then proceeded to the boat launch at Upper 8 Flags Campground just a few minutes away. Once on the water, it wasn’t hard to tell where the river got its name. It looks like milky tea!
This section of the river is quite calm without many rapids. It’s a good run for novice paddlers to learn to canoe on moving water. If you’re new to canoeing, make sure you bring the necessary safety equipment along: personal flotation device (PFD), paddle and extra paddle, signalling device (whistle), painter (tie rope), rescue throw bag, and first aid kit. Due to the nature of the water, I’d highly recommend gaining river paddling experience before attempting some sections of the Milk River (especially class II and III rapids).
The 18-km trip to Gold Springs Campground took about 2.5 hours. There are not many places to stop along the riverside, as it’s mostly privately owned cattle pasture. But the high banks filled with swallow nests and the occasional hawk or eagle create another world. This is also prairie rattlesnake territory; watch your step and listen for their rattles. We saw one floating head down in the water after a bird must have dropped it. The snake was at least three feet long!
Gold Springs is a private campground, and you’ll need a reservation (especially on busy weekends). We booked a site right beside the river, so we didn’t have to carry the canoe and gear too far. It was very peaceful camping by the river’s edge. There’s a little shop if you need anything (we forgot cutlery and bought some there….). And you’ll find flush toilets and drinking water in the campground as well. Showers are typically available but were closed due to the pandemic when we stayed.
We decided to bring 20 litres of drinking water in our canoe. If you’re carting water along, refill at Gold Springs before you leave. There’s no drinking water available at the next campground. Of course, we brought our water filtration pump along just in case.
Day 2: Gold Springs to Poverty Rock Campground (35 km)
The next day, we ate breakfast by the river and hit the water bright and early. Day two is the longest and most lively section of the river (i.e. LOTS of rapids!). Prepare yourself for a stretch called The Rock Garden. You’ll probably go to bed that night dreaming, “Rock! Left! Now right!” That’s part of the Milk River’s excitement, and it makes for a fun yet exhausting day. Overall, the trip took about 7 hours to reach our home for the night. Not a cloud in the sky on this blue-bird day.
I’m glad we decided to paddle in June. Early summer is considered the best time to paddle the Milk, with a good chance that the water levels will be high enough. Nevertheless, I’ve heard others have enjoyed paddling in July and August. Be sure to check the water levels before heading out.
Poverty Rock Backcountry Campground isn’t officially part of Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park, but the park maintains the campsites. Unlike Gold Springs, there is no fee for overnight camping and reservations are not required. Campsites are all first come, first serve. However, Writing-on-Stone appreciates prior registration, so they have a sense of usage. If you’re looking for a quieter camping experience, I’d suggest starting the paddle on Saturday. During peak season, many groups launch in Milk River on Friday and land at Poverty Rock on Saturday. We arrived at Poverty Rock on Sunday and had the entire place to ourselves. It was backcountry bliss!
Poverty Rock Campground gets its name from the unmissable sandstone structure towering next to the river. You can climb to the top for an impressive view, but be careful not to cause any damage. The campground has an outhouse toilet, rain shelter, stove, picnic tables, and garbage and recycling bins. Unlike many backcountry campgrounds, garbage doesn’t have to be packed out. There are several different sites to choose from, but none are right next to the water’s edge. Prepare to carry your gear. Since the campground is only accessible by the river, it can be a quiet slice of heaven. Camping in Canadian Badlands felt like being in the Montana wilderness (or what I imagined it to be like, at least).
Day 3: Poverty Rock to Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park (20 km)
Our final day was much like the first two—sunny and hot! Though we lucked out with great weather for the weekend… it may have been too great. Paddling on a 35-degree day has its challenges. So, we launched our canoe early to be off the water before the scorching afternoon. Thankfully, we caught a consistent breeze on the river, but there isn’t much shade with very few trees. Come prepared with sun protection, including sunscreen, long-sleeve shirt, hat, and sunglasses. We drank plenty of water that day (but probably should’ve consumed more).
Paddling 20 km to Writing-on-Stone took about 3 hours. This is the easiest section of the river, with very few rapids or technical challenges. Since we weren’t dodging boulders, we could fully appreciate the grand hoodoo structures towering above the water’s edge. In case you’re unfamiliar, hoodoos are sandstone pillars with a hardshell cap. They can be over 20-feet tall and are found in the Canadian Badlands. These structures add to the spectacular scenery as you paddle closer to Writing-on-Stone.
It’s possible to shorten the day by taking out at Weir Bridge. Though I’d recommend paddling to distance to Writing-on-Stone. At the park, you’ll find flush toilets and drinking water. If you’re up for it, the Hoodoo Trail makes a scenic little hike.
Once we arrived in Writing-on-Stone, I walked about 10 minutes up to the overflow parking to get our vehicle. It was very handy to have the car waiting for us. Thanks to Milk River Raft Tours.
What Went Well
There’s a lot to love about this Milk River canoe trip. A friend of mine has paddled this exact route in the past, so I had some insider knowledge. Ken and Wendy Brown are also local knowledge-keepers when it comes to the Milk River. Wendy provided step-by-step insight when it comes to paddling the route. I wholeheartedly recommend their shuttle and canoe rental service.
I felt very prepared and, overall, it went very well. We chose the right time to visit, with perfect water levels and fun rapid runs. Both Gold Springs Campground and Poverty Rock were uncrowded and peaceful overnight stops. Starting on Saturday (as opposed to Friday) helped to minimize the crowds. That worked out very well to have Poverty Rock to ourselves.
Jen and I are both strong paddlers with river canoeing experience. Some of the rapids were closer to class III and could be intimidating for novice canoers. We didn’t flip our boat and knew when to pause to pump out the water. We had an enjoyable time on the river!
We brought basic food items and freeze-dried meals for our suppers. This meant that we relied on the Jetboil for meals that only require boiling water. That works fairly well for us (especially for backcountry camping).
What Could Have Gone Better
The heatwave brought an extra layer of challenge for this paddle trip. We just had to be more conscious of sun exposure and hydration. Overall, we managed well and brought the right gear (sunscreen, long-sleeve shirts, etc.). Paddling early in the morning to avoid the hottest part of the day was also important. Even though it was very hot, I’d still prefer intense heat to cold rain.
Oh, and I forgot the cutlery… oops!
Thomas Coldwell is a Canadian outdoor enthusiast and creator of Out and Across. Originally from Nova Scotia, Thomas is now based in St. George, New Brunswick. He has lived in four provinces and has travelled to 13 different countries. Thomas can often be found hiking, paddling, biking, and camping.
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