12-Mile Coulee Self-guided walk
Welcome to 12 Mile Coulee!
In the spirit of reconciliation, we acknowledge that we live, work and play on the traditional territories of the Blackfoot Confederacy (Siksika, Kainai, Piikani), the Tsuut’ina, the Îyâxe Nakoda Nations, the Métis Nation (Region 3), and all people who make their homes in the Treaty 7 region of Southern Alberta.
This self guided walk will give you an introduction to 12 Mile Coulee Park as we travel a one kilometre stretch of paved pathway along the western ridge of the coulee, taking a side trip into the coulee to explore our past. There are several stops along the way with information about natural and historical features. There are several stops along the way with information about natural and historical features, along with a “fact or fiction” game question at each stop. You’ll find the answers to the game at the end of the walk.
Start at the SE corner of Tuscany Boulevard and Tuscany Hills Road.
Stop 1: Start
12 Mile Coulee Park is one of Calgary’s natural environment parks. We begin this walk on the Rotary/Mattamy Greenway, a pathway system that encircles the city linking parks, natural areas, greenspaces and river valleys. As you head south along the path, the coulee (small valley) slopes down toward the Bow River. Here you’ll find a mix of native grasslands, balsam and aspen woodland, and shrub communities all playing an important role in this park.
Remember to be a responsible park visitor:
- Stay on the designated trails and pathways to protect vegetation and wildlife.
- Place litter in garbage cans.
- Leave behind what you find for wildlife and other visitors to enjoy.
- Let the birds and other animals find their own food.
Enjoy your walk!
Fact or Fiction?
12 Mile Coulee Park got its name because the coulee is 12 miles long.
Walk on the paved pathway and stop at the far end of the short wooden post & wire fence.
Stop 2: Trembling aspen
The two most common forests found in this park are trembling aspen and balsam poplar. Here you see a stand of trembling aspen ahead on your left. As you walk, notice the long slender white trunks of the young trees and how the heart-shaped leaves flutter in the slightest breeze. This “trembling” action is how the tree earned its name.
Look up to see the aspen stretch to reach the sun. A forest canopy is made up of tall trees that need the most light. Below the canopy is an understory of smaller trees and shrubs that can survive in its shade. In the understory here you’ll find wild rose, silverberry and Saskatoon.
If you gently rub the trunk of a trembling aspen, you’ll likely discover a white powder remains on your palm. This powder protects the thin bark of young aspen from the hot sun. You can rub the powder on your skin for a natural sunscreen, just as Indigenous people have been doing for many years.
Fact or fiction?
The oldest tree on earth is an 8,000 year-old trembling aspen.
Continue on pathway, and stop at the viewpoint and bench at the T-intersection.
Stop 3: Silver silverberry
Take a moment here on this viewing platform to enjoy nature with all your senses. Stop, look, listen and breathe deep. Surrounding you is silverberry, a native shrub commonly called wolf willow. If you are here in the spring, you likely smelled its fragrant yellow flowers even before you saw them. In the summer and fall, the silvery sheen of the leaves catches the eye. And in the winter after all the leaves have fallen to the ground, this shrub’s silver-white berries remain to stand out against the white snow and bare branches.
Blackfoot First Nations created beautiful necklaces by stringing together the hard, striped seeds found inside the silver berries. Strong baskets were made from the bark, and may have been used to collect these berries. The berry powder was also used by First Nations people to thicken soups and stews.
Fact or fiction?
Silverberry is a type of willow.
Follow path about 50m to a tall evergreen tree on your left.
Stop 4: Spruce and songbirds
Trembling aspen, balsam poplar and white spruce are commonly found in moist, shader areas of the park. Aspen and poplar are deciduous trees that lose their leaves each fall. Spruce trees are coniferous, which means they produce cones and evergreen needles that remain on their branches year-round. These trees provide nesting sites, shelter and food for birds and other wildlife.
Can you see all the cones hanging from the high branches of the tall spruce tree on your left? Here, birds like red-breasted nuthatches and black-capped chickadees will find lots of cone seeds to eat. If you see a tiny bird climbing down a tree head first, you’ve spotted a nuthatch!
Black-capped chickadees can be found flittering around just about anywhere there are trees and shrubs. If you hear a cheery “chicka-dee-dee-dee-dee”, look for this friendly songbird calling out its own name.
Most birds migrate south when the weather gets too cold, but both of these little songbirds stay in Calgary all winter.
Fact or fiction?
Black-capped chickadees hide their food and can remember their hiding spots a month later.
Follow path until you reach the end of the metal fence on your left.
Stop 5: The distant past
Excavation site (in coulee just below us here) conducted by the University of Calgary in 1995.
Transport yourself back in time… imagine what life was like thousands of years ago in this sheltered valley. On your right, midway up the hillside, is an open flat area... imagine a tipi set up on this terrace, the family selecting this spot for a spring camp taking advantage of the warming sun and dry land above the running water and springs below. From the ridge here, they could see animals and people moving through the valley. Perhaps they would see the light of another group’s campfire on the Paskapoo slopes to the south.
Archaeologists study things that people from long ago left behind. It’s a bit like being a detective, trying to put together a puzzle with lots of pieces missing. The 12 Mile Coulee area has over 15 known archeological sites that tell us people have been hunting and camping here for over 8,000 years. There are many tipi ring sites, as well as a kill site and a larger base camp that give us clues to what life may have been like in the distant past.
Fact or fiction?
Archeologists also study dinosaurs.
Keep left to stay on the main path. Stop just past wooden stairs leading down into coulee, at viewpoint with the Sunning Buffalo statue.
Stop 6: Sunning buffalo
Sunning buffalo statue
Replica examples of artifacts: (left to right) Scraper tool for processing animal hides,
two projectile points and spokeshave used to smooth arrow shafts
Bison (often called buffalo) are the largest mammal in Canada, and can weigh up to 1,000 kilos. Millions of bison once roamed the plains, and Indigenous people often used coulees for trapping and hunting them. After a kill, all parts of the animal were used for survival and daily living: meat provided essential food, bones were fashioned into tools, and hides were made into clothing and tipis.
The discovery of animal bones, along with evidence of tools, ancient camps and camp fires tells us that the people who camped in this area hunted antelope and other animals, but that bison was their main source of food. Hunting styles and weapons evolved over time, and the various tools found at these archeological sites help identify the different time periods when people were here in 12 Mile Coulee.
Fact or fiction?
Bison can jump over a fence one and a half metres high.
Descend the wooden steps into the coulee. Just past the bottom step (picnic table on your right), take the path to the left. Walk about 15-20 steps and look down to your right where you will see a circle of stones.
Stop 7: Tipi ring
Preserved tipi ring
Tipi ring – excavation site
Projectile points (Stone tools used for hunting) found at this site
The stones in front of you tell a story of the people who camped here over 2000 years ago. The heavy rocks at the outer edge of this preserved archeological site held down a tipi to keep it warm and dry. When the camp was moved, they were rolled off, leaving this circle of stones called a tipi ring. The pattern of stones and other items found here suggest that the entrance to the tipi was on the south side, with separate sleeping areas to the right and left. Inside the entrance was the hearth, or campfire, location. And beyond that a family alter, considered a place of honour and ceremony.
See if you can use the photo from the original excavation to find the entrance, hearth and alter stones. Close your eyes and imagine life in this tipi 2,000 years ago: can you picture someone preparing a meal over the hearth, another sharpening stone tools in the light of the fire, perhaps a child preparing for sleep on a cold winter night?
The findings here suggest this was a winter camp. Near the base of the coulee, this spot offers shelter from wind and cold. And a south-facing doorway would provide extra protection from harsh conditions and allow the low winter sun to warm the tipi.
Fact or fiction?
Stone tipi rings are a rare find in Alberta.
Climb back up the stairs to Sunning Buffalo viewpoint. Continue to follow path to the row of large boulders on your right.
Stop 8: Balsam and buffaloberry
Balsam poplar leaves
Across from the row of boulders is a stand of balsam poplar. These trees are common in the park, with a balsam poplar forest running along the creek at the bottom of the coulee. Notice the leaves on this tree are larger and longer than the trembling aspen’s smaller heart-shaped leaves.
Growing under the poplar here are wild rose, Saskatoon and buffaloberry shrubs. In late summer, you can’t miss seeing clusters of bright red berries on the buffaloberry. Its leaves are quite unique also - gently turn one over to see its rusty brown spots and feel its soft fuzzy hairs. Many First Nations peoples made “ice cream” by whipping up these berries with water, creating a frothy cream treat.
Fact or fiction?
A bear can eat 200,000 buffaloberries in a single day.
Follow the pathway along a stretch of silverberry to the wooden fence on your left with a view of the coulee.
Stop 9: Flying friends
Ahead of you is a cool canopy of trembling aspen. As you walk through, notice all the standing dead trees, called snags. Snags are a valuable part of any forest because they provide homes, nesting spots, food and hiding places for birds and other small animals.
Tall snags also provide good lookout towers for birds of prey like the red-tailed hawk. These raptors hunt mostly from tall perches, preying on small mammals such as mice and squirrels. They are excellent hunters and can spot a mouse from 30 metres (10 stories) in the air.
Look for red-tailed hawks, Swainson’s hawks and northern harriers circling above the coulee as you walk along the pathway.
Other birds to watch and listen for in the park are nuthatches, chickadees, woodpeckers, warblers and vireos in the trees, and native sparrows in the grasslands.
Fact or fiction?
Red-tailed hawks can live for 20 years.
Follow the pathway through the canopy of aspen, and stop at the bench on your right.
Stop 10: Majestic Moose
Moose cow and calf
Enjoy a rest at the bench as we come to the end of our guided walk. Did you spot any wildlife on your walk today? The grassland, trees and shrubs in the park are home to a variety of wildlife, such as birds, deer, coyote, porcupines, pocket gophers and squirrels. We often don’t see them, but they leave clues behind for us to find: animal tracks in the soft soil and snow, feathers dropped from above, nests and holes in trees, and animal scat (poop) on the ground. Check around this bench for mounds of dirt, it's a sign that a pocket gopher tunnelled under. What other animal evidence have you uncovered today?
Visitors to this park occasionally spot moose wandering through. These majestic giants can weigh up to 450kg. Despite their size, moose can move very quietly. The word “moose” is an Algonquin First Nations’ term meaning twig-eater. Because they are so tall and have difficulty bending down to eat grasses, moose feed on the leaves, bark and twigs of trees and shrubs. With aspen as one of their favorite foods, it’s no wonder they like visiting this park!
Fact or fiction?
At just a few days old, a moose calf can outrun a human.
This ends our self-guided walk. There’s more paved pathway along the ridge and many trails down in the coulee to explore. Take a hike along the creek bed, bike on the trails, bring a picnic… there’s so much to enjoy in this natural environment park!
Check your answers here…
1. Fiction: The coulee and nearby road were originally named this because it was approximately 12 miles from the north end of the coulee to the post office in Fort Calgary, and the area served as a mail drop on the old stagecoach run to Cochrane. The coulee is actually about 10km in length from its north end to the Bow River.
2. Fact: The oldest tree on earth is a trembling aspen named Pando. Above ground Pando looks like a gigantic grove of 47,000 individual trees, but it’s truly only one tree because every new sucker came from the same underground root system that’s been alive for 80,000 years.
3. Fiction: Although it’s commonly called wolf willow, silverberry not a willow at all. Instead, it’s more closely related to Canada buffaloberry.
4. Fact: Chickadees often hide berries and seeds under leaves or in the crevices of bark. Each item is placed in a different spot and the chickadee can remember thousands of these hiding places a month later.
5. Fiction: Archaeologists do not study dinosaurs; they study human past by looking at the things that people left behind. Dinosaurs were extinct long before humans began to roam the earth, and the scientists who study their remains are called paleontologists.
6. Fact: Bison may be massive but they can run up to 50 km/h, jump over fences almost 2m high and quickly turn to avoid predators. They are also strong swimmers.
7. Fiction: There are over 4,000 locations of tipi rings recorded in Alberta’s provincial inventory of archaeological sites. Several of these sites are in and around 12 Mile Coulee Park.
8. Fact: Buffaloberry is a very important food for bears as they fatten up before their winter hibernation. A large grizzly bear can devour more than 200,000 berries in a single day.
9: Fact: The average life span of a red-tailed hawk in the wild is 20 years. The oldest known wild red-tailed hawk was over 30 years old.
10. Fact: Amazingly, a new-born moose calf can outrun a human when it’s just a few days old. It can swim then also.