Looking for a unique weekend adventure in southern Alberta? This 3-day Milk River canoe trip could be just the thing for you. We thoroughly enjoyed paddling the Milk through the Canadian badlands, struck by the impressive geological formations and diverse wildlife all around. This river is full of life!
The Milk River canoe trip is fast becoming a go-to not just for Albertans, but for folks from other provinces as well. Eager adventurers travel from BC and Saskatchewan to enjoy these waters. Now that I’ve finished the trip, it’s no wonder that this unique place is gaining such popularity!
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About the Milk River
Location: Milk River, Alberta
Distance: 73 km point to point
Time: 3 days
Season: June to August
Features: This paddle route includes both frontcountry and backcountry campgrounds, and class II to III rapids that require intermediate skills. I’d call this one of the best outdoor adventures in Southern Alberta!
The entire Milk River spans over 1,173 km from Montana to Alberta. Lewis Meriwether (of the famous Lewis and Clark expedition) described the Milk this way in his journal: “The water of this river possesses a peculiar whiteness, being about the colour of a cup of tea with the admixture of a tablespoonfull of milk. From the colour of its water we called it Milk River.”
However, long before Lewis and Clark, Indigenous communities lived and thrived on the land surrounding “Kináksisahtai” or “Little River”—the Blackfoot name for the Milk River. First Nations have inhabited these lands for thousands of years, and you can find cultural signs like rock carvings and paintings that still exist today. Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump Interpretive Centre preserves 6,000 years of culture not too far from Milk River. If you have time, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is well worth the visit.
Milk River Canoe Trip: Know Before You Go
First things first, you don’t have to own a canoe to paddle here. In the town of Milk River, you’ll find boat rentals and shuttle services from Ken and Wendy Brown at Milk River Raft Tours (403-642-7619). Canoe rentals are $50 per day. We brought our own boat, but the shuttle service was very convenient at $75 per vehicle.
We launched from Milk River town on Saturday and finished Monday afternoon. Milk River Raft Tours had sold out of canoes on Friday, so it seems most choose to paddle from Friday to Sunday. If you’re looking for a more peaceful river (and Poverty Rock all to yourself!), consider launching on Saturday.
This trip is not for novice canoers. You should have some river paddling skills beforehand, such as steering strokes (in bow and stern) and river safety/rescue. This is considered an intermediate canoe trip, and boats have been wrapped around rocks for under-experienced adventurers. Keep reading to find out why.
Canoeing the Milk is best in June or early July. I’m told the river tends to become too low by August. Be sure to check the flow rate before you head out. If the flow rate drops below 12 m³/s, that’s too low. On the other hand, if it’s greater than 22 m³/s, that’s considered too fast. The ideal flow rate for the Milk is said to be between 14 and 16 m³/s. We found 17 m³/s was just right for the 75-kilometre paddle.
Read more: 7 Top Things To Do in Drumheller, Alberta
Day 1: Milk River to Gold Springs (18 km)
After dropping a set of keys off with Ken and Wendy, we made our way to the Under 8 Flags Campground to start our journey. There’s a decent spot to launch your canoe next to the bridge. Right away, the milky colour of this river stood out. We’d soon realize that this opaque colour hides rocks masterfully (even those an inch or two from the surface!).
Gold Springs Campground is situated along the Milk River and offers several campsites on the river’s edge. Our 18-km journey took about 2.5 hours to reach our R4 campsite. The campground doesn’t have toilets with indoor plumbing but instead provides outhouses. Typically, coin-operated showers are available but are currently closed due to the pandemic. The campsite cost $25 and a bundle of wood cost $10. There are other supplies and treats available at the campground office (don’t forget cash or card). And yes, there’s cell service if needed.
After a night at Gold Springs, it’s important to refill drinking water. This is your last chance before Writing-on-Stone. There are drinking water taps throughout the campground. When I asked Ken about filtering the river, he said, “I wouldn’t do it.” We still brought our water purification pump as a backup.
Day 2: Gold Springs to Poverty Rock (35 km)
I have to admit: Poverty Rock surprised me. When I thought about a backcountry campground only accessible by boat, I didn’t imagine such a well-maintained slice of heaven. First, the signage along the river will make sure you don’t miss the campground. Next, there are multiple first come, first serve sites to choose from, with picnic tables and two communal fire pits. There’s a shelter complete with a stove for rainy days. There’s also an enclosed outhouse. But the most impressive of all is the towering sandstone structure dubbed Poverty Rock. Oh, and did I mention there’s no charge for this campsite? That’s right… it’s free!
Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park maintains Poverty Rock, though it isn’t officially part of the park. Even so, Writing-on-Stone tracks campground usage, so you give them a call to register beforehand (you’ll find no cell service here). We arrived Sunday afternoon and had the entire place to ourselves. Even when it’s busy, you’ll likely still find a sense of privacy. We did find a few ticks, so don’t forget the bug spray.
There are many sets of rapids between Gold Springs and Poverty Rock. In fact, it’s known as the Rock Garden. This stretch is not recommended for tubing. The 35-km section took us about 7 hours with a lunch break and some rest stops. It was a fun (but tiring) day!
Day 3: Poverty Rock to Writing-on-Stone (20 km)
We lucked out with great weather the entire weekend. Though our final 20-km push from Poverty Rock to Writing-on-Stone was on a 35+ degree day. Thankfully there was a nice breeze on the water, but shade was nearly impossible to find. I’d recommend bringing a head covering/hat and LOTS of sunscreen!
This last leg of the trip took us just under 3 hours. It was the easiest section and very scenic with hoodoos galore. The Canadian Badlands scenery is truly impressive! If you don’t want to continue to Writing-on-Stone, you could arrange a shuttle to the Weir Bridge. It’s worth continuing on to the park, though.
You’ll find flush toilets and drinking water at Writing-on-Stone. We finished around noon in the scorching heat, so we didn’t linger too long. If you shuttle with Milk River Raft Tours, they’ll park your vehicle in the overflow parking (about 10-minute walk from the boat launch). Parking permit is required and the Brown’s can arrange that.
Writing-on-Stone looked like a beautiful place to explore, so maybe we’ll return one day. The little detour drive to the lookoff is worth it, with Sweet Grass Hills of Montana in the distance.
Wildlife Along the River
The Milk River is home to some of the most interesting wildlife in the Canadian Prairies. The semi-arid Badlands make the perfect habitat for the prairie rattlesnakes. We came across this one floating face down in the river and decided to carefully bring him ashore. In most circumstances, I wouldn’t recommend moving a rattlesnake, as they are venomous and provincially protected. Unfortunately, this one was near the end of life. There are many rattlers in the area, but they’re often a bit inconspicuous. Catching a glimpse is a treat!
Over the course of three days, we also saw mule deer, pronghorn, great horned owls, coyote, swallows, hawk, bald eagles, marmot, and more. If you enjoy wildlife photography, don’t forget your camera.
Planning Your Milk River Canoe Trip
There are several options for a Milk River canoe trip. While we chose to do the 3-day trip, it’s possible to enjoy a shorter paddle on the river. For example, you could shave off 18 km by starting at Gold Springs Park Campground instead of Milk River town. Or you could arrange a pick-up at one of the bridges, instead of going all the way to Writing-on-Stone. However, if you want my opinion, I wouldn’t miss the chance to stay at Poverty Rock!
Milk River to Gold Springs Campground: 18 km / 2-3 hrs
Gold Springs Campground to Coffin Bridge: 19 km / 2-3 hrs
Coffin Bridge to Poverty Rock Campground: 14 km / 2-3 hrs
Poverty Rock Campground to Weir Bridge: 10 km / 1-2 hrs
Weir Bridge to Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park: 10 km / 1-2 hrs
What To Bring
One of the great things about canoe tripping (compared to backpacking) is that you don’t have to carry all of your gear. In other words, you can generally bring a bit more. However, we tried to pack fairly light for this trip. Here’s what we brought along:
CAMPING GEAR LIST:
CANOEING GEAR LIST:
Additionally, I like to bring:
- Extra paddle
- Throw bag
- Signalling device (whistle)
- Pilot knife (attached to PFD)
- Waterproof flashlight
Transport Canada mandates specific safety equipment depending on the size of your craft. Make sure you know what you need in your boat before you head out!
I also highly suggest picking up a copy of Clayton Roth’s “A Paddler’s Guide to the Milk River” for a useful map and lots of interesting information. This map is widely touted as the best resource out there for the Milk. Contact Paddle Alberta for more information.
Here’s helpful contact information at a glance:
Milk River Raft Tours: 403-642-7619 (Book canoes, shuttle service)
Gold Springs Park Campground: 403-647-2277 (Book riverside campsite)
Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park: 403-647-2364 (Register for Poverty Rock)
Map of the Milk River
Milk River Canoe Trip Video
Have you paddled the Milk River? How was your experience? Did I miss anything in this canoe guide? Let me know in the comments below.
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