Davis Coulee is an adventure at Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park near Milk River, Alberta.
This amazing adventure is not for everyone and will benefit from past experience to reduce potentially formidable risk. Check in at the Visitor Centre to benefit from important instructions and risk-reducing hiking information from Park Rangers prior to leaving and again after mission completion to avoid unnecessary search and rescue activity.
A crossing of the Milk River is required. At the end of this post you will find some suggestions to reduce river crossing risk. A lower risk crossing location is accessed from the campground by hiking from the parking area near Comfort Camping at the Camp Store and past the amphitheater to the gate at the 'D' which provides access to trail along the riverbank. Closing the gate at this river access and boat launch location prevents beavers from getting into the campground and chewing on the trees.
On the river side of the closed gate, turn right and double back along the riverbank to a river side tree at fence near the amphitheater. The game trail leads down to the flow-controlled Milk River at a wide and more shallow part of the river. This crossing location is used by animals. They know better than we do.
Transition from warm air makes the water feel cold. The family jewels are poised for potentially rapid retreat.
Today, the water at this game trail crossing is near mid-thigh deep, for an average adult, with the deepest part achieved rapidly on the campground side. The second half of the crossing is more shallow on shifting gravel. Slow and steady stays the course. The crossing direction veers left and slightly downstream towards a sandy beach on the far side. A hiking pole may be an asset. Wear sandals for the crossing and switch to dry and sturdy hiking boots on the far side. Terrain in the Backcountry Hiking Zone is rugged and paths are predominantly decent quality game trail.
There is no signage but a topographical map available at the Visitor Center is a helpful reference. Some game trail through dense brush is virtually impenetrable. This is rattlesnake country. You may see evidence of their burrows. Rock piles and dense vegetation or thickets are also worthy of extra attention. Know what to do in the unlikely event there is an encounter.
From the beach on the far south side of the river, a wander left along the beach provides access to navigable trail at the base of the spectacular bluffs and the natural transition west (right) along the bottom of the artistically-weathered cliffs. Trail into the first coulee, the Humphrey Coulee, can be delayed as an addition at end of the day for those who wish to enjoy a more full and rewarding hiking experience in the Davis Coulee.
Trail continues west past the entrance to the Humphrey Coulee and proceeds to the larger and more complex Davis Coulee. Continuing past the Davis Coulee will begin a hike via grassland to a barbed-wire fence separating the Backcountry Hiking Area from the restricted Archaeological Preserve which includes the historically infamous Police Coulee and the location hosting a replica of the North West Mounted Police Post active between 1874 (1890 formally) and 1897. There is deep and fascinating history here. A personal attempt to hike north along the fence line results in a failed attempt to get close enough to photograph the replica police post structures fairly close to the Milk River. The grassland is rife with rattlesnake dwellings and a dense forested band convinces me to pursue a formal escorted tour in the future. Retreat to the entrance of the Davis Coulee is via the same route taken in via the fence line.
The entrance to the Davis Coulee is wide and obvious. Majestic sandstone towers form spectacular soaring walls as good game trail proceeds through grassland into the narrowing canyon, embellished with a plethora of ground level brush and cactus.
A rugged and clearly defined side trail branches left and climbs to grassland at the top of the coulee for expansive views of surrounding features from the top. This side trail is a short diversion from the main objective and definitely worth the time.
After absorbing the spectacular views from the top of the coulee, descent to a left turn proceeds further into the depths of the narrowing Davis Coulee.
As the width of the coulee decreases into a tight canyon, passage around a dense forest thicket is achieved by hugging the left canyon wall. Game trail entering the dense thicket is virtually impenetrable. The route adjacent to the rock wall on the left squeezes around the thicket of dense brush and immediately reveals a tight canyon. Wide people carrying a large pack may be unable to navigate past this point. My situation is marginal but determination is strong.
On this day, time must be taken to collect and lay stepping stones on the wet and mucky surface patch necessary to cross before scrambling up to the dry base between narrow and dry rock walls. Portions are close to being an easy squeeze.
Past the narrow section of coulee rock walls, the canyon begins to widen past fascinating erosion features formed over thousands of years. Small holes in rock faces serve as dwellings for birds who bustle about their daily routines seemingly impervious to human presence. Ground level, wall-side caves have clearly served as dens for predators and skeletal evidence of their prey provides evidence of past occupation.
Narrowing canyon walls exit into broadening valley with fascinating rock features and coulee branches which conceal herds of scattering deer and evidence of past construction possibly used for fossil excavation or mining activity.
The Davis Coulee gradually gains altitude while exposed rock features diminish until fields of endless prairie grassland provide little motivation to proceed further. The turnaround to a similar or identical retreat provides an entirely different perspective of the incredible features observed during access.
The short, narrow canyon is equally as much fun in retreat as it was on access. The mud patch requires a bit of planning before the jump down followed by rapid and carefully placed steps. The route past the dense brush thicket is more obvious than it was during canyon access. All that remains is the short hike out from the coulee.
On the return route, the trail into Humphrey Coulee is taken to reveal a short canyon adventure which soon ascends to grassland and trail above several minor coulees offering grand and breathtaking, panoramic views of surrounding scenery above the campground on the far side if the river. This additional short hike is worth the time. Gather your own spectacular and unique photographs.
There is an extensive matrix of trail within the Backcountry Hiking Zone to explore features of inaccessible coulees above the Milk River. Vistas are simply spectacular and enhanced substantially by the cool breeze tempering warm conditions beneath endless clear, blue skies. The relaxing excursion is like a zen vacation.
Spectacular views include the Visitor Center perched on flatland surrounded by walls of hoodoos stretching east and west along the shores of the picturesque Milk River. Retreat via the same route used for access returns to beach adjacent to the Milk River game crossing.
All that remains is a change in footwear for the return river crossing. Water level is perhaps an inch or two deeper at maximum but the slight flow increase differential is noticeable on tired legs. Measured steps are anchored individually to avoid getting knocked over.
The Davis Coulee and Humphrey Coulee are exceptional and memorable experiences.
Suggestions to consider for crossing a river.
The water at the game crossing is deepest on the side closest to the amphitheater. On this day, the river depth peaks to mid-thigh quickly following entry. Water level is controlled by irrigation dams along the river course so variance, under normal conditions, should remain relatively insignificant but it is important to check in with the Park Rangers at the Visitor Center.
There is a case to reduce risk although crossing the river is unlikely to cause a problem for most adults.
The small, light, digital camera is stowed inside a sealed, freezer zip loc bag within a small camera bag. Shortened straps can keep the camera relatively stable on front. It is important to be able to get the camera off quickly. An alternative could be placing the camera, protected by a zip loc bag inside the backpack. Wallet and ID can be stowed within an air reduced zip loc bag and secured inside a zippered or button-closed pocket.
The emergency kit and the first aid kit are always in freezer zip lock bags within the backpack, and for a river crossing, all backpack contents are secured inside waterproof sacks.
The waist strap for the backpack is undone. The upstream shoulder strap is not engaged. Only the downstream shoulder strap is engaged over the shoulder. The sternum strap can be secure or open depending on nature and circumstance.
One hiking pole can be used on the downstream side to assist with vertical stability.
If a tumble occurs, there are a number of options available to regain vertical status. It is unlikely it will be necessary to get rid of the pack but doing so will be easy. It is a better option than drowning because the weight of clothing and supplies could cause a hiker to be dragged under. Food for thought. Be safe and reduce risk.
Photographs at the Davis and Humphrey Coulees, on the far side of the Milk River, are captured at Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park near Milk River in southern Alberta, Canada on Monday, September 18, 2017.